Only joking? Satire and politics today
This debate is part of Battle of Ideas Stockholm.
Satire has traditionally aimed to hold the powerful, vain and pretentious to account through sharp observations and often-brutal ridicule. In turn, tyrants throughout history have sought to suppress satirical writings and persecute satirists, recognising the power of humour. As Hannah Arendt once observed, the most effective means to undermine authority is laughter.
Satire has its problems, too. For example, many high-profile satirists admit that they lean more to the left and struggle to ridicule their ‘own side’ when they are in power. The rise of Donald Trump has been boon for many comedians who felt stifled in criticising Barack Obama. But to be effective, should satirists be prepared to lambast all politicians, without fear or favour?
A more recent problem is that satire is increasingly misinterpreted as ‘fake news’, and the role of the satirist has been called into question. The proliferation of social media has allowed many more voices to join public debate. With so many self-satirising positions now infiltrating the mainstream, satirists are often finding their work taken at face value. Explicitly comedic websites such as The Onion have even been included in official lists of ‘fake news’, on the grounds that they can be misconstrued as authentic. Mainstream news outlets have been fooled by satirical stories. For example, a claim made by a satirical site that 250,000 Syrian refugees were to be housed on a Navajo reservation was repeated by Fox News and even Donald Trump.
Some argue that the emergence of populist alternatives to establishment politics has polarised debate, giving voice to the most extreme forms of nationalism on the one hand, and victim-centred identity politics on the other. If satirists are constantly worried about causing offence, or being misinterpreted as supporting extremist views, does that limit who and what they can ridicule?
The changing limits of what is acceptable are illustrated by the way Swedish comedian and rapper Anton ‘Mr Cool’ Magnusson’s song ‘Knulla barn’, first released in 2015, was the subject of a backlash this year in the wake of #MeToo. Writer Jens Ganman’s animated short ‘Så att det blir rätt’ was banned from YouTube after accusations that the satirical clip promoted hate speech. Meanwhile, Jimmie Åkesson, leader of the nationalist Sweden Democrats party and the target of much satire, let it be known that he wanted to close down the Swedish Radio youth channel P3 for promoting ‘leftist liberal garbage’.
With recent events seemingly more incredible than fiction, how can satire achieve its traditional objective of holding a mirror up to the world and seeking to improve it through ridicule? How can satire exist in a stifling climate of political correctness, in which comedians avoid asking the difficult questions for fear of public censure? Will the ‘fake news’ era irreparably damage the satirist’s ability to effect any kind of societal change?