UM-Flint Experts Discuss Satire and Its Implications

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Dauda Abubakar, UM-Flint assistant professor of political science and Africana studies
Dauda Abubakar, UM-Flint assistant professor of political science and Africana studies

What is satire and its purpose? When is it valuable and critical for society, and when is it damaging and divisive? Does it matter who and what is the subject of the satire?

Conversations and debate, spun from questions like these, have been prevalent in the media and public sphere lately, after the murders in Paris at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Four UM-Flint faculty members tackled the social, ethical, political, and international implications of satire in a recent conversation.

Marcus Paroske is an associate professor of communication and chair of the department of communication and visual arts. Dauda Abubakar is assistant professor of Africana studies and an assistant professor of political science. Kimberly Saks McManaway is a political science lecturer. Stevens Wandmacher is philosophy lecturer and chair of the philosophy department.

Paroske: Satire is a form of expression that utilizes humor and ridicule in order to point out the flaws of the subject you are critiquing. That humor can be subtle or it can be really severe, but you are always highlighting out characteristics that you don't like. And you usually are doing it in order to ask for those characteristics to change. That makes, I think, satire kind of a double-edged sword. On one level, satire is always creating differences between audiences. So you have the people who are in on the joke that recognize that this character trait or this public policy or this approach to the world is flawed, and then you have the people that don't, who are the butt of the joke, that are subject of the ridicule. So it makes it inherently divisive, and that is one of the reasons why it is so controversial and catalyzes so much unrest in the world.

But, on the other hand, it is really effective. It utilizes humor, which engages audiences. It also allows you to put critiques in a way that is accessible and makes sense to people. So it is effective and divisive, which is why I think you see it utilized so often—and yet so controversial at the same time.

Abubakar: Satire is a form of critique. What it usually does is it tries to demonstrate how society—even though it might be comprised of people that have different perspectives—but to try and critique practices and explorations of power within society in such a way that people can understand it. But satire also has its drawbacks, in the sense that sometimes it could raise certain divisions that could turn violent, as we have seen in the case of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. That even though it attempts to critique what is going on in society, but as a form of free speech, it could also lead to division and conflicts in society.

Saks McManaway: I absolutely agree with the double-edged sword of satire. The problem is if you are not in on the joke, you are likely to think negatively about the satire so that makes satire really hard to do well. I think we are most familiar with, in modern time, and today's world, the satire of Stephen Colbert. And most of the time Stephen Colbert was very good at what he did, but there were times when even he faltered. If you listen to interviews with him that are not his alter ego Stephen Colbert but actual Stephen Colbert, he will admit to those.

But it makes it really hard to do because if you are not in on the joke, it is going to create divisions that are actually going to deepen the problem you are trying to expose, which makes it very difficult to rein in. So, for example, the Bush White House made Stephen Colbert the emcee of the White House correspondence dinner—where he essentially roasted the Bush White House—because they thought he was a conservative guy that was funny. Well, it was funny, but maybe not for them. That is obviously a much different example than the Charlie Hebdo situation, but it is another example of where satire can kind of present problems. It may have been funny for some of us, but it was problematic for the people that invited him to speak. Satire is very useful. I actually use it quite a bit when I am teaching, as examples to demonstrate. I will use Stephen Colbert's super PAC experiment to demonstrate the power of money in the media. Because it teaches it much better than I can explain it.

Wandmacher: These are interesting. I actually have a question to throw back at you all. Is the purpose of satire only to highlight this issue and thus create a division, or is part of the underlying point of it to try and get the people who are the butt of the joke, in your words Marcus, to see the ridiculousness of the position they are holding and perhaps change. Because it seems very different if you are trying to get people to change in one way, that gives satire a role that if 'No, we are just pointing out the ridiculousness and some people are going to feel bad' and the aim isn't to get at least some of them to say 'Yeah, that is odd or funny or ridiculous.' So I'm kind of curious what you think. Is the point at some level to be a teaching point, 'look how ridiculous this is,' or is it merely to point out a joke and those that are in on it get to laugh and those that are out are just going to be the butt (of the joke).

Paroske: In the end, satire is about executing change. It is not ridicule for the sake of ridicule. Otherwise, you wouldn't be pointing out flaws. You would instead be pointing out shared common characteristics, that's the other side of that coin. Now how does change work? It can work by galvanizing the people who agree that is a flaw, in order to change laws or to ostracize people. Like if you used satire against racists, you may not be trying to change the racists' minds. What you are trying to do is raise awareness in everyone else that it exists and then you shun that.

You could also be using it to try and change people's minds because no one wants to be the butt of the joke. No one wants to be laughed at. You may not even know you have that particular characteristic. Take, for example, a satire like The Office. Which isn't as heavy and political as we are talking about. But that's just about workplace mannerisms. The guy who is really into rules and the person who is lazy. You could watch that satire and recognize those characteristics in yourself and then change your behavior because you realize how ridiculous it is. So I think in the end you are always trying to change things. But the mechanism of change depends on the thing you are satirizing and the audience that you are putting the message before.

Abubakar: The other aspect of satire is that it is a critique. In other words, what a satirist tries to do is to bring to the generality of society, aspects of social and political relations within the society in such a way that they would understand very clearly, and sometimes even ridicule that type of relationship, between those that are in the positions of dominance and power and those that perhaps might be very weak. Or that it would try to bring to light to the generality of society certain aspects of practices that are done within certain values that others hold in society in such a way that people can understand and see how ridiculous that type of perspective would be.

Primarily, I see satire as a form of critique. To critique what is going on in society. To try and bring about change in how people relate to one another, how people hold certain values and practices, that may not necessarily be correct, and that others would see it and say 'Well, there is need for change in this.'

Saks McManaway: The value is the critique but it depends on how good the satire is. The two aspects of satire, to me, that makes it valuable are knowing who your audience is and playing to the audience appropriately, but also the delivery. Marcus mentioned it's not just pointing out weird things. That would be Jerry Seinfeld's entire comedy career, right? You know, 'What's the deal with airline peanuts?'

It is pointing out things by highlighting, and not just highlighting, but exacerbating the problem almost in a visual way. And that way, I think it is more effective than, 'What is the deal with x?' because you are actually performing x in order to show the problems with it. Which works very well when it is done right. It is a form of critique. It is not always done right, which is where we get these problems.

Abubakar: I also want us to have a conversation about how satire is a form of free speech within a democracy. (The Charlie Hebdo work) is a satire, a form of critique of certain practices of a particular religion, a form of free expression but as we saw, led to a violent response. How do we address this tension, the tension between the fact that satire is free speech but at the same time that it sometimes leads to conflict. How would a democracy address this type of tension?

Paroske: I think it is really for those of us that were raised in an American political culture to make a distinction between someone's right to say something offensive and then endorsing that thing that was said. It is kind of easy, for someone like me at least, to have it roll off the tongue, 'I disagree with you but I defend your right to say it'. When you are talking about the internationalization of satire, it is important for Americans to recognize that's a minority view in the world. It is much more common to conflate allowing people to say things with endorsing what is said.

When you combine that with the particular kind of iconography, which for example was being used in Charlie Hebdo, a religious form of expression that butts up against a different world view about the relationship between images of a prophet and defaming the prophet. The rubber really hits the road on that. Are we endorsing the view by allowing it to be expressed. One of the things that has been so fascinating with the Charlie Hebdo thing is the way the phrase 'Je Suis Charlie', the twitter handle and the posters, which I think in the Western context means, 'I am Charlie', insofar as I support their right to say those things' but got interpreted in many parts of the Muslim world as 'I stand with the critique of Mohammed.' And the response there was 'Je Suis Muslim.'

It is hard when these messages cross international and cultural borders. To make that distinction you are talking about between the right to free speech and the desire, you may go for as to say, the right of people not to have their god or their views offended. We don't have a good mechanism for this yet for dealing with this across international borders. Individual nations have their own approach to free speech. But with social media, with people now having access to messages instantaneously they didn't have before, we more and more might have to realize these messages are getting exported to places with different orientations to free speech. And that raises a whole set of questions that we are dealing with right now.

Wandmacher: One of the reasons I wanted to ask about the purpose is I think satire, when it goes badly, can very quickly just be insult. If you are not aiming to try and change, now you are just insulting people and this leads to some of the ethical implications, the questions about violence. When people are feeling insulted they are not learning from this. The question then becomes, irrespective of the political rights to free speech, what sort of ethical system would allow you to respond with violence when you are insulted, even a grave insult? What would justify, within your system, bringing about violence to wash away an insult?

I think it would be very difficult, set aside Western ethics for the moment, even in a religious context, to try and square, if I am insulted gravely enough, I may murder people, including people that were not involved in the actual insult. I'm thinking of the policeman on the street, in the Paris case. How does that square with the rest of that worldview and I think people would have a very difficult time trying to make their view consistent, which I think implies you would never have grounds to respond to insult with violence. So, what do you think?

Abubakar: Going back to the Charlie Hebdo case, which I believe is the example you are speaking about. There is an important aspect of that particular event that needs to be highlighted. In the sense that what the two brothers were doing that went into this editorial meeting, killed about 12 people or so, what they were doing, is not endorsed by all Muslims. What they were expressing was political Islam. In other words, a form of manipulation of the Islamic religion itself to attain political goals. That is what is at play. And so, they did it because they knew it would attract a lot of international attention and that is what terrorism does. To try and create fear. To try and create confusion in society. To try and make the people not do what they would otherwise do.

So what they were doing is responding in a form of violent, terrorist activity in the name of Islam. And I think this is attention that Islam would have to deal with, within its faith, within its community, on its own terms. Because if it should continue like that, then we might not see the end of this type of violence that is all over. Whether it is in Nigeria, or it is in the Middle East, or it is in the streets of Paris, or London or New York, then you continue to see this. So there is a need for understanding, within the West, within Western democracies, that it is a politicized Islam. A particular type of idea that does not necessarily reflect the whole religion, but unfortunately creates a lot of insecurity, a lot of tension within Western democracies. I think this is part of the challenge. How does free speech, expressed as satire, not lead to violence?

I think it is a policy issue that policy makers may need to address. I think this is where institutions of higher learning have a role to play. In terms of being able to bring these type of discussions and conversations to campuses, to our classes, for the next generation to understand what exactly is going on. So that diversity of society, which is a cornerstone of democracy, will be defended, will be protected. Even though there are other segments that might disagree and might try to turn that type of conversation into violence.

Wandmacher: I understand what you are saying, but I was looking at just the raw ethical end. If they have a maxim within their politicized Islam—and I don't mean to imply that the entire religion might believe this, I recognize there are many Islams—in one sense…if you have as a maxim that if I am insulted gravely enough, I may resort to violence, including violence against people that were not involved in the insult, and I am saying, I can't imagine what sort of internally consistent moral system could support that sort of judgment. People can act on that sort of judgment, as we have seen they have.

I am just saying I don't think there is any way you can justify it morally in an internally consistent way, even from the most extreme position. You are going to quickly devolve into 'are they willing to be victims of violence should they insult somebody gravely?' And what is going to count as an insult? These people, they hold up this position, they are going to defend and they are going to take these violent actions. My only point is I don't think it can be justified ethically. If I grant them that principle, I can't imagine how to make that consistent with any other set of principles. These actions are going to be immoral, irrespective of what side of the fence you are on or whose ox is getting gored.

Saks McManaway: I think part of that is there might not be an internal consistency and that's part of the issue. I think we also have issues with internal consistency within this country. We talk about free speech and much of the response to Charlie Hebdo in this country has been free speech. But we often don't know what free speech means. And the legalities of free speech and even the social concepts of free speech. This has happened a multiple of times in the past couple years. When shows have been taken off the air. When Duck Dynasty was stopped being aired because of much of the views of one of the people on the show. And much of the response was well, 'that person has the right to free speech.' And that's true, you have the legal right to free speech, but that does not mean someone has to endorse your views by paying you.

I realize Charlie Hebdo is a separate situation. But my point is our own views of free speech are internally inconsistent in this country themselves. We often conflate free speech with a social right, as opposed to the legal right that it actually is. And the legal right that it actually is, is just freedom from government sanctions based on content. There are exceptions to that.

I think the problem with this particular type of satire is if you have looked at any of it, is that it doesn't have a purpose of changing. A lot of it just has the purpose of insulting. And to someone who is not of that faith looking at it, for me, it was insulting. I am just looking at it thinking, what is the possible point of this?

To me, the point of satire is to kind of punch up at the system, as opposed to punching down at the people already oppressed by society. So the drawings and depictions that Charlie Hebdo put out there, for the most part—and I realize they are all done by different artists—are not doing what satire should be doing in the first place. It is not thinking of its audience and thinking of its purpose. There are the problems you talk about but our response to them just has the same issues as well. 'Je Suis Charlie.' I saw people saying that who had no idea what they were saying. So kind of taking up a moniker or slogan like that to talk about free speech, when you don't even understand it yourself, is troubling to me.

Abubakar: Apart from the Charlie Hebdo satire and free speech, if we want to also reflect about the aspect of free speech within American democracy, especially with the Citizens United ruling a couple years ago about the fact that money is also speech. So how does someone who may not have money then speak? I wonder if Marcus, if you could speak to that.

Paroske: That is one of the things in which satire can gain a lot of traction. In order to tell a joke, it is not necessarily something you need a lot of money to do. You may need money to disseminate it, but satire is the dominant idiom now of all sorts of grassroots social movements, like puppet theatre in the streets, and you can do it informally, in small groups. There are different kinds of expression that are available to you, depending on your access to the mediums that disseminate this information.

But humor travels pretty far. If you can be genuinely funny then I think it does sort of democratize the kind of messages you can put out. There is a lot of satire against the rich. There is not a lot of satire against the poor. And that is kind of some of that punching up and punching down thing. Now is, for example, Charlie Hebdo punching up or punching down? This is how complicated these things get. I don't think you can just rip the images out of their context and say, that is funny and that is not funny.

You remember, Charlie Hebdo, a couple years ago, their offices were firebombed. No one was killed there and I think at that point publishing those cartoons became not just a critique of the role of religion in society, but it became an act of defiance against the threat to stop publishing them. It became sort of a badge of honor and there is where I think Je Suis Charlie, that distinction I drew earlier, really comes into play. Because I don't think the cartoons are particularly funny, and I wouldn't choose to satirize in that kind of racialist bent, but at the moment it becomes politicized, whether or not you are going to be allowed to print those cartoons, then as a free speech advocate, you have to print the cartoons. So understanding the message becomes different at that moment.

All that nuanced, Western liberal debate isn't playing in Niger and when those images get imported into other cultures, their context shifts and then it becomes a real challenge for the international community to really make sense of what this text is, what is this message? Is it about the religion? Is it about the right to free speech? Is it about something else?

Abubakar: (Several years ago), Professor (Samuel) Huntington of Harvard University wrote very interesting material about the clash of civilizations. That was how he titled the work. And if one looks at the Charlie Hebdo incident, one might be tempted to say, well what we are seeing is a form of clash of civilizations. But it is not necessarily that it is the West against the East or Western religion, Christianity against Islam.

What is at play is the politicization of religion. And once religion is politicized, that is where it becomes a problem. That if individuals will see it as a private form of faith that they hold. And not necessarily to bring it to the political sphere or to use it for political purposes. That is where Western democracies, particularly in Europe, would be able to build diverse, multicultural societies where even if there is satire and critique of a religion, it is not seen as a political statement that would eventually lead to violence. I think this is very essential, particularly in European democracies. Unless they are able to bring this on board, in terms of seeing the differences between Arabs that are living there, Jews that are living there, and other groups that are living in European countries, that religion need not necessarily be politicized. And that would lead to strengthening European democracies.

Wandmacher: Are we undergoing the same sort of religious politicization in this country, but with Christianity, when you look at the rise in our country of the Religious Right and their attempts to incorporate in our laws their beliefs about things like abortion and gay rights and those sort of things, are we fighting a parallel battle to what the people in the Islamic world are fighting with their politicized Islam?

Paroske: Maybe not the distinction between the United States and the Islamic world, but the United States and Europe. The United States is far more comfortable with a vigorous religious life in its political sphere than a country like France. Secularization runs really deep out there. And it is really common for us to expect our Presidents to hold national prayer breakfasts and speeches with a phrase like 'God bless America.' We expect our political agents to talk openly about their religion.

Now maybe the difference between an American context and some of the context in the Islamic world is to the extent you actually pattern public policy based on the dictates of any one religion. I don't get the sense that, in terms of America's civic religion, we think, ah, Baptist, that's the one we are going to select out and we are going to follow those explicit rules. There is a layer removed from it. But in order to understand the relationship between religion and political culture, ours is somewhere in the middle between really deeply theological world views and the really strong secularism in some European countries.

Saks McManaway: I think the secularism in France really plays into this. The banning of head scarves in schools and public places. You can't take the context away from Charlie Hebdo and understand it. You have to understand the context of the society that we are talking about. So that's why it is so difficult for people in America to put it into context if they have never been to France and stayed there for periods of time or studied it because the culture is much different. The secularism runs very deep there. And to a point of political violence of its own. The right is rising there and seizing this moment, the Charlie Hebdo (moment), to push their own racialize agenda in a very different way.

So there are multitudes of layers. But I think there can be some parallels drawn because there is still the use of violence to coerce policy change. You think of the bombing of abortion clinics to coerce certain policies about abortion or at least discourage people from performing abortions. So I think you can draw some parallels. But I think the context is also key to this, and I think there is a problem understanding the layers, as Marcus put it, because you do take a layer out and it changes the entire view of the kaleidoscope you are looking through. I question whether we are looking at this correctly because even now, the most educated of us are looking at covers of Charlie Hebdo without the context most of the time. Looking at what is inside of it and the history of it? Most people don't realize that they were bombed a few years ago and that there were covers that were a direct response to that incident. So it becomes difficult for free speech absolutists to look at the context involved and that's when I think we encounter problems in this country as well.

Abubakar: The other dimension though is the challenge of satire as a form of critique in a democracy, whether it is in Europe or the United States. One other distinction that needs to be made is that within the United States the political culture has opened up the public space in such a way that there is robust conversation that could go on at every level and still people are allowed to express those views as a form of free speech.

Secondly, that within the United States, there has been efforts by municipal, state government, at the federal level, policies that would increase the integration of various religious faiths and peoples that immigrate into this country, come into this country as migrants. And that is the edge the United States has over European countries, like France. In France, you find that most of these immigrants end up not only being economically excluded and politically marginalized, but they feel that they are not part of France. Even though they are told that they are French. But if you look at their lives, if you look at the chances and opportunities they may might have, they feel like they don't have those opportunities. And those are some of the forces within society that leads to the type of violence that we saw in the streets of Paris against Charlie Hebdo. In the United States, there has been an effort to open up that American dream to people that migrate into this country. That is why what we need to have in this country is to continue to build on that and encourage the European allies to follow in that step.

Wandmacher: I guess I would agree in general when you look at America but you don't think there is a small group, that is very politically active, that is trying to reduce some of that, we want to close borders, we want to deport people, we want to restrict abortion rights and whatnot, that would parallel the small aspects of the Islamic world? Because you could live in lots of places in the Islamic world and they could be very diverse communities, living in Kuala Lumpur and whatnot, where you can fundamentally live your life, just like an immigrant can live your life here, but there are these pockets of these hard-edged people that seem to want to force it.

And I think there are people like that in America. I do think we are having a parallel thing that you can see the Muslim world is grappling with, with their hard-edged political Islam. I think we have political Christians that are doing a similar thing, maybe different particular ends but I think they are doing it here as well. Maybe not as spectacularly violent, at times though, although telling victims the violence you are experiencing is less than the violence they experience probably doesn't wash very well.

…I think there are checks in probably most places of the Muslim world. This might be a problem, especially in America, where people hear Muslim and think one unified, all-agreed-upon thing and rather than, this is a rather small subset. Most Americans, I don't think, realize that even if there are a million politicalized radical Muslims, that's less than one percent of the Muslim population. One million people is less than one percent.

Abubakar: It is a very small minority, but unfortunately a small minority that has become so vocal and through the war on terror, it has given it some form of legitimacy within the political process. And now it has become a big problem for everybody, whether it is in France or the in the United States or in African countries like Nigeria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, wherever it is. So that, I think, is part of the challenge that policy makers need to have a handle on within their respective political systems. But also working collaboratively. Introduce policies, especially in France, that would make some of these younger people feel that they have an opportunity, as French citizens. Remember the two brothers were born actually in France…

As part of the French empire, as it expanded, in the era of colonialism, people from different parts of the world were seen as French people. And after independence, they now come to France and begin to live there. But they are asking questions, 'Am I really a French citizen? Am I getting the rights that others are getting?

Saks McManaway: And they are being told they are not. And if they and go back, they are told they are not from whatever country they are going back to.

Abubakar: Exactly. So you find this tension that is going on unfortunately in France and many European countries. Unless they have a handle on it, it will become a major problem.

Final thoughts of faculty members on satire:

Paroske: For me, the main question is: what do we do going forward? Satire works to a certain extent but you can never form a full politics based on satire because it is always divisive. If at some point we are going to bridge these gaps, we need to find a form of expression where we don't point out flaws but we point out commonalities. And from there, we find ways to bridge those gaps. The problem is that satire cuts through different cultures because humor exports pretty well. The trick now is to find an alternative form of expression, along with the satire, where we can come together. That really is the only way out of this.

Abubakar: The bottom line for me is if one looks at the Charlie Hebdo incident and the violence it generated, not only in Paris itself, but also in countries in Africa like Niger, that there is a need for European countries, France in particular, to begin to design policies that would address social and economic conditions of some of these youth that are unemployed and end up being brainwashed into an ideological belief that responding to satire through violence would lead to attaining their goals. There is a need for designing policies that would give them opportunities economically, that they would be engaged in the political process as citizens of that country so there would be of a public sphere, of a democracy that takes into consideration the interests of a diverse group in Europe.

Saks McManaway: For me, the bottom line comes to two points. One, you can protect free speech, you can do it very strongly and you can still be upset with what was said. Now that doesn't translate well to other countries, which is where we need to do some explaining, and I think some policy work as well. Because we don't always understand the context in which some of these things are said. And that creates international problems. But within our own country, we also have some education to do among ourselves about what free speech actually means as a legal and political term. And what that entitles us to, in order to understand the differences between us and other countries.

Wandmacher: One of the things I think about a lot, both in terrorism in general and in this case in particular, is we need to resist the urge to search around and use concepts that might justify a violent response, can they be justified because they were so gravely insulted. And view this in one sense as crime and not elevate their actions to something that might have a point or purpose at all. Everyone hates being insulted, but I don't think allowing the possibility that a violent response is justifiable serves anybody's interests at all.

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