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Satire: a double-edged sword

 INSP 12 September 2019

Political satire has become a staple of prime-time television in the UK and USA, lampooning governments and policies with such skill that often the most eloquent way by which to express grievances in our societies turns out to be through laugher. Inês Gonçalves consults with a range of experts on the topic to assess the influence of satire on our lives. (3195 Words) - By Inês Gonçalves


SNS_Satire a double-edged sword

A combination photo shows Republican vice presidential nominee Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and actress Tina Fey.Credit: REUTERS/Reuters Staff

SNS_Satire a double-edged sword 2

Comedian Jon Stewart tapes Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" at the University of Denver.Credit: REUTERS/Eric Thayer

Hitler is not the funniest character in history, but when Charlie Chaplin twirled across the room, in a rather clumsy ballet, playing the famous dictator, the world laughed. "Emperor of the world, my world!" he says while holding a balloon representing the planet. He tosses the globe into the air and dances around it with a greedy look. His hypnotic state is interrupted by the sudden burst of the balloon. Hitler had blown up the world.

The Great Dictator was the first major film to bitterly satirise Nazism and Adolf Hitler. It was released in 1940, while the war was still on.

That has always been the essence of satire: to bitterly mock authority. Not only when it's safe and accepted, but also when it's dangerous.

Satire, the use of ridicule, irony or sarcasm to expose vice or to lampoon an individual, has always been intimately related to politics as a form to criticise the powerful. Aristophanes wrote comedies in which the elite demonstrated its superiority over the masses through the use of mockery. But by the 17th and 18th centuries satire became a literary activity with revolutionary purposes: to challenge the control of the elite. The 20th century brought new technologies that enabled broadcast media to reach millions, bringing politics to the masses - and satire followed. And finally, with the Internet, satire became a global phenomenon, not only received but also performed - we can all have our small Private Eye online.

"Satire's main purpose is to launch an attack using the weapon of wit" said Robert Speel, political science professor at Penn State University, USA. So, does that mean that a society where satire is widely used is a wittier one? Is humour a sign of a healthy and more sophisticated society? If humour provides a window into a nation's soul, what can we learn from it?

Out of 13 interviewees, from satirists to politicians, journalists and political scientists from five different countries: US, UK, Portugal, Venezuela and Russia, nine said they believed political satire had a real impact and could contribute to political engagement. Two denied its influence and the other two were not really sure.

The major difficulty with the influence of satire is that all that is available to assess it is people's opinions. When we try to establish a connection between political satire and political engagement, the only obvious observable fact is voting behaviour - and there is no apparent change resulting from exposure to satire.

"How do you evaluate humour? It can't be done"

However, in a free and democratic society, no one knows exactly why people vote the way they do. There are several factors that come together in a complex and very personal recipe.

"This is not a quantitative question and it's not a quantitative situation. How do you evaluate humour, generally? How do you assess comedy? How do you assess the impact of humour on the general public or even on specific communities? It can't be done," said Joe Boskin, professor emeritus at Boston University, US, author of several articles related with political humour.

"People like [Steven] Colbert, Bill Maher and Jon Stewart have a tremendous impact in actually making people aware of issues and history and make them more politically conscious," he added.

Ian Hislop, British satirist, actor, writer, broadcaster, editor of the magazine Private Eye and a team captain on the BBC current affairs quiz Have I Got News for You believes the main achievement of satire is its contribution to political discussion. "If you are looking for concrete results, satire doesn't tend to produce them. You swell a consensus, you make a point, you crystallise opinion. That's what you can do. What I hope to do is add to the debate," he said to BBC Four on the documentary Frost on Satire.

It is generally accepted that satire does have an impact on individuals. Everything else is highly debatable: what kind of impact? Positive or negative? Enough for changing a vote or just about sharpening critical thinking? Overall: is it beneficial for democracy?

"Satire is a double-edged sword. On one hand it may well draw people into at least thinking about politics who otherwise would not do so. On the other hand, by poking fun of politicians, it helps to undermine respect for them and contributes to the idea that the whole thing is a game without any genuine sense of mission or real consequences," explained Tim Bale, professor of politics at Sussex University.

Robert Speel, shares the idea: "It helps a lot of people be better politically informed than they otherwise would be, particularly younger voters in modern times. Satire also contributes, however, to a more cynical view of politics and government, which can be both good and bad.

"It is difficult to quantify but satire does play a role in public perception of the character of political leaders. Generally, satire shows focus on negative perceptions, so appearing on a satirical show can humanize a politician and perhaps make him more likable among those disposed to vote for other candidates, but I doubt it sways votes," he adds.

So the risk of cynicism against politicians and politics as a whole can be increased. According to Professor Speel, awareness can turn people off even more. "Satire can increase cynicism and scepticism about politics - this can be good because it makes people more aware of flaws in the political system, but it can also be bad because a number of voters may give up on the political system and become apathetic, which is the exact wrong reaction to what people should do when they perceive problems."

So what was initially presented as an opportunity to raise political engagement can turn out to have the opposite effect.

This is, of course, a quite negative scenario. Exposure of wrongdoings and incompetence can also lead to public demands for change. However, Roland White, columnist in the Sunday Times, believes political satire shows are only watched by those who already agree with what they present, so no real change happens. "I always thought that humour is just life looked at from a different angle. Satire usually reinforces a feeling that the reader might already have had about politics. If Gordon Brown had not been very awkward in public, a satirist could not have planted that thought in the publics mind.

"So, does satire make people more involved with politics?" he asks, "It can do. Perhaps, Maybe."

Satire, the diarist explains, is part of the process but what really makes people pay attention is the relevance of the topics on the table. "Election turnouts are higher when there are issues at stake that will really affect the voters: 'Will I lose my job? Will I have to pay a lot more tax?'"

For Paul Armstrong, professor at Leeds University and author of the paper "Satire as critical pedagogy", the two are not exclusive. "In the UK, at the most recent election, the exposure of Members of Parliament over claiming their expenses led to a great deal of anger among the electorate and it was predicted that there would be more apathy; yet the election proved to have the highest turnout in many years because the awareness had been raised and people felt they needed to make their voice heard. This provided much material for satirical cartoons, TV and radio programmes."

Professor Armstrong believes satire can be used as a tool for critical pedagogy and political education. "For me, satire is an educative process and what you might see as cynicism, I as a teacher see as pedagogical device to get people talking and debating about politics and political values."

No pain, no gain

Although opinions diverge on the level of influence of satire, there are quite a few cases in which politicians were harmed or benefited by being targets of satirical shows.

The participation of all political candidates in a satirical programme, during the last Portuguese elections, proves that politicians see it as a good way to reach people. Ricardo Araújo Pereira and his group of comedians, Gato Fedorento (Smelly Cat), hosted a daily satirical show that started two weeks before the general elections. In prime time and with elevated audiences, the programme managed to interview 30 high profile political figures.

"All people sitting in front of me during the programme were more nervous than me. They all had more experience with interviews and live shows and still they were all more nervous. I could see the face muscles twitching," explained Ricardo.

Although the satirist doesn't believe he has significant influence on people's political views, he admits that politicians do think that. "They probably thought it was more important to do well in that programme than in a regular interview. I think it's because in a regular interview they can control all the aspects and in our show there were other things to take into consideration: sense of humour for example, an at-ease appearance, which is very hard to pretend."

Luciano Alvarez, political editor of Público, a broadsheet Portuguese newspaper believes in the impact of satire on the public's opinion, but not in politics. "I believe that investigative journalism, that scrutinises power, can make politicians do better politics. Satire can generate makeovers. Let's say, it can change politicians but not politics."

Both Professor Boskin and Professor Speel think that, from an historical perspective, satire had an influence on the way politics is done in the US. "In the 1960s it had a tremendous impact, it was huge. During the counter culture, satire actually brought a new consciousness among the new generation," said Professor Boskin. Vietnam, Woodstock, a new political activism, the fight for women's rights - the cut with the conservatism of the 1950s was coated with a layer of sharp humour. That legacy lives on until today. "Satire has played a role in damaging the popularity of recent American Presidents," said Professor Speel.

Bill Clinton's affair was a treat for satirists that immediately branded him as a womaniser. George W. Bush was a perfect blessing to satire: endless jokes and impersonations portrayed him as dumb, petulant and monkey-like. Never before was a President so mocked. However, Will Ferrell, the actor that played Bush's most famous impersonation, said he was accused of helping the President. "I was either accused or applauded for actually helping him win the first election. People said they found my portrayal to be, in a weird way, kind of likable."

After Bush came Sarah Palin and her famous line, "I can see Russia from my house." Tina Fey's impersonation was mostly a repetition of what senator Palin had actually said during interviews. The image of a not-so-bright soccer-mom stuck, but again, it is not clear if it helped her become more likable.

Lorne Michaels, creator and executive producer of Saturday Night Live, said, "They made the decision to not let her [Sarah Palin] out there much with the press. So Tina [Fey] pretty much defined her because we were doing it more frequently than she was speaking. Our version became more vivid and real."

Meanwhile, in the UK, other examples of politicians branded by satire emerged. In the 1970s Spitting Image brought the British politicians to life with a grotesque realism. From all the characters they portrayed, Margaret Thatcher was probably the most iconic. The Iron Lady was dressed as a man and in all reaffirmed the image of a strong, ruthless leader. But one famous sketch summed up perfectly the way people believed she treated her cabinet. Mrs Thatcher takes the team out for dinner and when the waiter comes to ask what she wants to eat she answers "I would like a stake." "How would you like it?" "Raw, please." "And the vegetables?" "They'll have the same as me." Lord Heseltine, former cabinet Minister, commented on that during a Best of Spitting Image TV show. "Good joke. Unless you are one of the vegetables, which at that stage I think I was." Nobody knew how Margaret Thatcher treated her cabinet, but this image never really went away.

"Satire can only be effective when a politician is already in a weakened position"

But did Spitting Image really damage Mrs Thatcher? Rob Grant, who wrote for Spitting Image from 1984 to 1986, said to the same programme he would like to believe it did, but actually he thinks "it enhanced her profile, made her look strong and more Iron Ladyish." Another writer, Nick Newman agreed. "We didn't exactly succeed, but that might have been asking quite a lot of puppets, to bring down a government. It's meant to be the voters, right?"

John O'Farrell, another Spitting Image writer said, "Satire can only be effective when a politician is already in a weakened position." Such as, for example, David Steel, who was absolutely tormented on television.

David Steel, former leader of the Liberal Party and David Owen, former Labour foreign secretary, co-led the Social Democrat Party (SDP) - Liberal Party Alliance in the 1980s. The leadership of the coalition was being criticised, a bit like the current one: how can two people lead one party? There was a perception that David Owen was the real leader and Spitting Image took that to the extreme, portraying Steel as Owen's adoring and submissive puppet.

Being permanently represented on television as a squeaky voiced midget, literally in the pocket of his SDP counterpart, allegedly harmed Mr Steel's, now Lord Steel, image and he ended up blaming the programme for the failure of the Alliance.

David Owen said, "It's to David Steel's credit that it didn't appear to be a major issue, but underneath it must have been, it would be less than human nature not to be upset about it. It was not a true picture of our relation but there was enough truth there to be wildly exaggerated. It was a curse, really. It was not helpful but you have to admit it was quite funny."

The unbalanced situation led to Steel trying to assert himself after the 1987 elections to force the SDP to merge with the Liberal Party. They ended up fighting each other and splitting the Alliance vote in the Richmond by-election in 1989. A by-election (an election held to fill a political office that has become vacant between regularly scheduled elections) was held in the Richmond (North Yorkshire, England) constituency. It followed the resignation of the sitting Conservative Member of Parliament, Leon Brittan, to allow him to take up the position of Vice-President of the European Commission.

The winner of the elections and great beneficiary of the Davids' dispute was William Hague who went on to become leader of the Conservative Party, giving him a whole new status and political visibility. Following the 2010 general election, William Hague became First Secretary of State and Foreign Secretary.

Gordon Brown was the most recent victim of satire. The former Prime Minister's frequent gaffes and lack of a camera-friendly look made him, as Roland White said, "God's gift to satire." He explained further, "Gordon Brown, in my view, was especially vulnerable because he seemed to lack self-knowledge (and certainly had poor presentation skills). So he arrived in 10 Downing Street self-hailed as a political visionary who would conduct new, honest, clean politics. It swiftly became very clear that he had no fresh ideas, and depended on an even more savage spin operation than his predecessor."

So, it appears that the strongest characters, no matter how cruel or ruthless, benefit from satire, and the weakest, even if kind, lose points in the public eye.

Some might say that the golden age of satire was in 1980s, when Spitting Image was at its peak, but today Britain is as sarcastic about its politicians as it was before. The current affairs quiz/satirical programme Have I Got News For You, continues to be a success after 20 years. Ian Hislop, a permanent member of the show, said, "The odd thing that Have I Got News For You does is that it has real politicians coming on to a show whose format they cannot master and then they get exposed by it."

One of them is Lembit Öpik, who has been on the show six times. The former Liberal Democrat MP had an unusual background: apart from believing the Earth was in serious risk of being hit by Near Earth Objects such as meteors, he married the Romanian performer Gabriela Irimia, a member of the pop duo Cheeky Girls. The Welsh MP was frequently mocked about it, including during his last appearance on Have I Got News For You, one day after he lost his seat in parliament. After the elections, Lembit Öpik talked live to BBC News and was asked if he was being "punished by the Cheeky Girls and all the rest of it." His answer quite bluntly reflected how much the subject had been bothering him, "How superficial and patronising an assumption! The Tory beat me fair and square. You can do that analysis if you want. I'm quite disappointed that I lost."

The irony of political satire is that some of the writers of these shows end up being invited to write speeches for politicians. John O'Farrell characterises it thus, "Such is the fate of the political satirist in Britain. In Iraq or Indonesia we would be dragged off a darkened cell to be tortured. Here we are invited to media parties and eventually to the centre of government to hobnob with the establishment we originally set out to undermine."

Overall, politicians seem to think that there is more gain than pain and that's why they accept to be guest in satirical shows. Roland White summarises it, "Politicians go on for publicity reasons, because they wish to show they can cope with criticism."

Generally, political satirists are accused of two big faults: trivialising politics and generating cynicism or, on the other hand, humanising politicians and making them look nice.

Professor Tim Bale admits the first can occur. "Overall, I think the effect has been to expose hypocrisy at the cost of tarring even honourable politicians with the same brush. This has fed into a wider alienation with politics and politicians fuelled not just by the bad behaviour of the latter but by wider social trends, notably the waning of class cleavages and party identification and an end of deference as people have become more educated and (slightly more) socially mobile."

To the accusation of promoting cynicism, Professor Boskin reacts differently. "I would hope so!" Professor Speel doesn't believe that claims of trivialisation are fair. "Trivialising, no. Most political candidates already trivialize politics by making vague promises or making promises everyone knows they can't keep."

As to the responsibility for showing the human side of politicians, Ricardo Araújo Pereira, the Portuguese satirist responds, "Someone asked us if we didn't think we were humanising them and therefore helping them. It's interesting, we had the idea they already were humans before."

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