Satire doesn’t need a political litmus test

Demanding that jokes pass political muster obscures important context and risks backfiring tactically

April 12, 2015 2:00AM ET

Last September, a coalition of leftist Columbia University student groups had a party to welcome incoming freshmen. The party was held in Potluck House, a special-interest housing community dedicated to food and conviviality, and the decorations were appropriately sans culottes.

One student attending the party, however, thought the mockup of a bloody guillotine went a bit too far, and submitted a complaint to the Office of Residential Life. The party’s violent imagery and anti-liberal language, the student said, “threatened [their] identity by creating an unsafe space for capitalists.” Potluck House was officially sanctioned.

This is ridiculous. There are few “safer spaces” for capitalism than an Ivy League university located in a global financial hub. But those wondering how such a charge could be taken seriously need only look at a conversation that has been tying up the Internet since the beginning of the year: What is satire?

The first catalyst for this conversation was the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The next month, Jon Stewart announced that 2015 will be his last year at the helm of “The Daily Show.” These events set off a flurry of think pieces, hot takes and tweets — some insightful and nuanced, others less so. Is satire the mere act of making fun? Should it provide catharsis, or a Zen acceptance of the world’s absurdity? Should it studiously avoid being condescending? What kind of social critique should it offer?

On much of the left, the consensus has been clear: “Punch up, don’t punch down.” According to this “punch theory,” true satire takes on the powerful. Mocking the downtrodden, on the other hand, isn’t true satire; it’s hate speech. “An armed attack on a newspaper is shocking,” went one popular response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, but “cartoonists (especially political cartoonists) generally reinforce the status quo, and they tend to be white men.” The ombudsman of NPR went further, claiming the cartoons were “hate speech unprotected by the Constitution.”

Looking at satire this way has the potential to do real damage. For one, it obscures the culturally specific contexts that make satire effective in the first place. The very question, “What is satire?” is contingent upon personal, very heavily disputed judgments about identity. Was Charlie Hebdo satirizing an oppressed group (French Muslims) or a powerful institution (organized religion)? Does Jon Stewart punch down at the poor rubes of America’s heartland or punch up at the elite politicians who hoodwink them? We all have strongly held notions about identity and power, affected by factors including race, class, gender, religion and sexual orientation. It’s the height of naïveté to assume others, even our political allies, share all of our intuitions about where a certain group lies on the punching scale.

In cases like Charlie Hebdo, punch theory helped spread confusion over France’s uniquely extreme style of satire, leading some to mistake the magazine for a fascist rag. But the words of a French leftist, Olivier Tonneau, are instructive: the cartoons were “well within the French tradition of satire — and after all was only intended for a French audience. … I hope this helps you understand that if you belong to the radical left, you have lost precious friends and allies.” Tonneau’s point about the need to read those cartoons in their local context should have been obvious. Instead, it was lost as leftists in the Anglosphere imposed their own sensibilities upon a different tradition.

The second problem with punch theory is that it also leads to the silencing of satirists themselves. The most famous example is Bassem Youssef, the Egyptian satirist who has fiercely mocked every Egyptian government since the 2011 revolution. Youssef was arrested in 2013 on the charge of “insulting Islam,” part of Mohammed Morsi’s broader crackdown on political dissent. During his tenure, Morsi was careful to stress tentative support for free speech. But as he famously said during a speech to the United Nations, sacrilege was different, “an organized campaign against Islamic sanctities.” The reasoning is remarkably familiar: In order for satire to deserve protection, it must punch in the right direction, which Youssef failed to do. 

The notion that true satire never punches down provides reactionaries with a blank check to crack down on political speech.

Youssef’s struggles are not unique. The Arabic-speaking world has a rich tradition of satire that has frequently gotten its practitioners in trouble. Often, the excuses governments use to crack down on satirists resemble Morsi’s, using blasphemy laws as pretexts. Officials have pushed these measures as a response to what they see as Western hegemony and provocation, from Islamophobic films to irreverent cartoons. None of them dispute that freedom of speech is important in theory. They just don’t want it used in the wrong way.

Finally, punch theory does real damage to the left itself. So far, the debate over satire has taken place on the left, partly because of the movement’s internal diversity and academic affinities. A number of writers, most notably Michelle Goldberg, have pointed to another factor: The left’s obsession with cultural signaling reflects the absence of a proactive political agenda, and “is only possible at certain moments: when liberalism seems to have failed but the right is not yet in charge.”

But one day conservatism will be culturally ascendant again, and the left will find itself attacked by the very tools it once employed. Take the Columbia student who complained about the guillotine. He took the “safe space” language generally associated with the left and turned it in the opposite direction. A recent New York Times article portrayed “safe spaces” as proof college students are coddled, but academia is a small and unique subculture. What’s more concerning than the behavior of young students is the way certain behaviors will be happily co-opted and amplified by the right.

This has happened already. Before Pat Buchanan was a fearsome Republican adviser and presidential candidate, he and his brothers were roving Catholic vigilantes, setting fire to stores that sold pornography and other “obscene” material. Buchanan didn’t think he was thwarting freedom of speech. He was preventing a decadent, secular elite from “punching down” and imposing its beliefs on traditional Americans. Saul Alinsky’s “Rules For Radicals,” an organizing manual for leftists, is now beloved by the Tea Party for its tips on how to demagogue and shout down opposition.

It doesn’t matter whether Buchanan and the Tea Party truly believe they are oppressed, or are just playing politics. The notion that true satire never punches down provides reactionaries with a blank check to crack down on political speech they don’t like. My biases here are simple enough: I am on the left myself. When the right is again setting the terms of the debate, does anyone really think we will be able to successfully counterattack by quoting graduate-level critical theory to our enemies, explaining earnestly that we know who’s really oppressed?

There is a better way: Let satire be what it is. No litmus tests, no debates about which way something is “punching,” no limiting the label “satire” to those who check off a series of boxes to prove they will not offend. Many examples of satire, as with many examples of other genres, will remain hurtful and offensive to large groups of people. There is no reason not to subject such works to critique. But the No True Scotsman game of claiming satire must adhere to certain “rules” not only misfires tactically but also erases the diverse ways humor is practiced around the globe.


Jordan Fraade is pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. His writing on urban policy issues has been featured by Next City, Gothamist, The Baffler and CityLab.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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