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Freedom of satire

Published on 08 January 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

There is a freedom beyond the freedom of speech, and that is the freedom of satire. Freedom of speech is already curtailed in countries which otherwise uphold it as a basic right through the criminalization of hate-speech, holocaust denial and incitement to commit acts of terrorism. Legislation aside, taboos, social conventions and personal consideration further dissuade us from saying whatever we please in practice. Indeed, much of the socialization of children involves inhibiting their impulse to make potentially offensive remarks.

We do not, therefore, enjoy full freedom of speech, but we do – and should – enjoy the unbridled freedom of satire. The whole point of satire is to challenge dominant representations – a serious target – by humorous means. In reminding us that there can always be alternative perspectives, satire usurps the tyranny of the final word, and in doing so humorously, it defies the blinkered mindset of dogmatism. Satire invites us to lighten up and revel in the contradictions which make up the human condition.

Satirical humour is achieved through reversal, distortion, juxtapositions, parody, irony and any number of other means, the purpose of which is to surprise and, through surprise, both delight us and create awareness. Heightened awareness, in turn, is not only the means but also the reward of a considered life, and as Socrates suggesteded, a life left to chance or subject to the behest of others – the unconsidered life – is less likely to be worth living. Perhaps most importantly of all, satirical humour does not advocate any position or pursue any agenda, other than that of challenging the dominant narrative of particular groups at particular times, reminding us that there is always scope for another take and that there will always be another day.

In the light of the terrorist attack on the French satirical paper, Charlie Hebdo, on 7 January 2015, I would urge that we do not respond by advocating the freedom of speech, but that we insist on protecting the freedom of satire. There are two reasons for this, both of which have to do with the fact, already noted above, that satire already enjoys a freedom beyond that of speech – it is not a subset but an intersecting set.

The first has to do with legislation: since hate-speech has been criminalized, and given that certain cartoons may be interpretable as a form of hate-speech, we are potentially open to the charge of double-standards by those who see satirical cartoons not only as a form of blasphemy, but an incitement to hatred. The right of satire to address any issue without constraints must therefore be protected as a special privilege, one predicated on the understanding that the primary aim of satire is to expose, not advocate or incite.

The second has to do with conventions and exceptions: the satirist, like the court jester of old or the Joker in a pack of cards, is not an official player – he is not part of the social, political or professional hierarchy, but a free-floater who has equal access to King and cook, and who is exempt from existing conventions and constraints. The satirist speaks for herself, irreverently, provocatively and often outrageously, and since she is not a spokesperson for anybody, other parties cannot be held accountable for the liberties she assumes.

Thus the equation made following the Danish-cartoon controversy between satirists and official parties such as diplomats, political players or commercial brands is utterly misguided. By guaranteeing the freedom of the satirist as an independent voice with special privileges, official parties can absolve themselves of any charge that they condone what the satirists are saying while nevertheless condoning the right of satirists to say what they please.

The solidarity expressed in the world-wide “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) response is to be admired and encouraged. But it must also be well considered: only the satirist in me is at one with Charlie Hebdo. The law-abiding citizen and the civic-minded individual, as well as the official spokesman, does not have the liberty of the satirist. And that is precisely why the freedom of satire must be protected and promoted over and above the freedom of speech.

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