Over the course of the past two months in light of Charlie Hebdo, satire has made people all over the world pause. Some paused in mourning and shock, while others paused in conviction about free speech and commitment towards artistic license. Others paused in disbelief. The international community was shaken, and so were the foundations of satire — a medium historically used in the name of liberty that is now regarded with very different eyes.
This piece does not purport to support satire, nor does it speak out against it. Instead, it explores the history of the art form and its endurance as a method of communication — a method, it must be said, that depends almost entirely on contextual interpretation.
Megan Boler, professor in the department of Theory and Policy Studies at OISE, explains that satire works on two levels: “the joke and the ‘unspoken’.” The unspoken is the “particular moment or cultural myth,” that changes with time and context, and that determines who or what is acceptable to mock.
“The potential is always there for satire to be misread,” explains York University associate professor Julia Creet. “It’s one of the few places where intention still matters for writers, readers, and drawers.”
The Syrup Trap is one of Canada’s most popular humour sites. In an interview with Westender, editor-in-chief Nick Zarzycki explains that they write satire, instead of direct political criticism, because they “don’t like taking [themselves] too seriously…. the goal [here] is to write silly jokes that [will] make people laugh.”
Considering how many people love watching funny videos on YouTube, often spending hours trawling through junk to find something truly funny, it is easy to see just how much humour captures our attention.
The organizers of the Ig Nobel prize — which, unlike the prestigious Nobel Prize, is given to scientists that publish who most ridiculous studies — describe the tactic as “first make people laugh, and then make them think.”
This strategy is surprisingly effective.
A well-known publication of satire is The Onion. Though their articles seem like mere comedy, the questions raised are anything but. One article — “Modern-Day Lancelot Offers to Pay for Abortion” — seems like a torrid joke, but, once unpacked, raises important questions about male privilege.
The Varsity also publishes satire. On the last issue of every school year, the paper publishes stories under the name The Farcity. One article from last year — “Apocalyptic zombie-like outbreak wreaks havoc” — humorously proposes a scenario in which the school is overrun with student zombies. Although UTSG falls, UTSC is safe from the invasion because convenient transit to the campus is nonexistent. The article proceeds to mention several silly details like how the staff responsible for the apocalyptic situations under the “Triple Redundant Policy for Coping with Utterly Implausible Circumstances” barricaded themselves in the provost’s office.
Although the article is clearly fiction, it indirectly highlights issues that plague the school, such as the inaccessibility of the Scarborough campus and the lack of transparent university management.
Satire is so effective in highlighting issues that matter to society that it has been used for millennia.
One of the earliest examples of satire is a depiction of cats guarding geese that dates from 1120 BC. This inane image — a cat would more likely eat the geese than guard them — likely satirizes contemporary Egyptian guards. Perhaps it was common knowledge that corruption plagued the profession. Like the cats in the picture, the guards poached the very items they were to protect. Though the piece contains serious criticism of Egyptian society, the message — that Egyptian guards were corrupt — is left unsaid.
Satire is powerful because the message is shaped by the individual: satire avoids telling the audience what is wrong and instead shows them. Although there is a risk of misinterpretation, artists take the risk because, when done well, satire can be more powerful than any other medium.
The topic, problem, and the society can change with location or time; humour, however, is timeless, and so satire will continue.