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The Limits of Satire (2015) (nybooks.com)
37 points by Tomte on July 30, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 46 comments



This article is in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and it really irks me.

> And again, is a culture that takes mortal offense when an image it holds sacred is mocked a second-rate culture that needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, my twenty-first-century that is? Do I have the moral authority to decide this?

If fundamentalist Christians were responsible for these atrocities, I am certain the author would have no problem answering "Yes" to both of these questions.

> However grotesque and provocative its comedy, its aim is to produce an enlightened perspective on events, not to start riots.

If people hate a cartoon enough to riot, then condemn the hateful people, not the cartoon.

> Is it likely this approach will help to isolate violent extremists from mainstream Muslim sentiment?

Yes! We satirize fundamentalist Christians all the time, and it actually does help isolate them from mainstream Christians. Why should Islam be any different?

The most annoying thing about this piece wasn't any particular quote. It was the author's frequent fallback to describing the cartoons, as if their offensiveness was in any way responsible for the massacre. It doesn't matter whether the satire was racist or bigoted. In the words of Sam Harris: "People have been murdered over cartoons. End of moral analysis."


It quite disgusting that some people think Islam is above criticism, satire, and derision. People who over mockery are not worthy of respect and ought to be mocked and shunned. We have the moral authority to mock Mohammed, Jesus, and any other figure people have killed for. No one should be willing to kill over satire.


The point is more that the message of the satire is lost in the means of the satire. The satirists shows Mohammed weeping over deaths committed in his name without realizing that depicting him such is a blasphemous thing in the eyes of the very Muslims he wants to convince.

If the point is just mockery and blasphemy, it should not be considered satire as it is useless. Mockery and blasphemy are tools to be used sparingly for satire's real purpose, which is to illuminate problems of the human condition and point out flaws or ways humans should change.

What's worse now is originally satire was designed as an attack on prevailing and oppressive systems of the majority, but in this case is attacking a minority, and often one with little power in the actual society they exist in. The rich are very effective at taking the weapons aimed at them and making them ways to attack others.


> The satirists shows Mohammed weeping over deaths committed in his name without realizing that depicting him such is a blasphemous thing in the eyes of the very Muslims he wants to convince.

I'm sorry, but you missed the point. The surviving Charlie Hebdo staff knew that any depiction of Muhammad (even a favorable one) would provoke jihadists and Islamists. The cartoon was a message to those extremists: "We won't be cowed by your violence." If Charlie Hebdo had stopped cartooning the prophet after the attack, it would have sent a different message: Violent tactics work.

> The rich are very effective at taking the weapons aimed at them and making them ways to attack others.

I am compelled to call out this cheap rhetorical trick. The people who made these cartoons had actual weapons aimed at them. They were actually attacked, and most of them actually died.


Is the point saying "we wont be cowed" or is it to actually make muslims think about violence? Because "we won't be cowed" really does nothing to change anything, and might make things worse if they say this in a way that offends people that might otherwise be neutral or receptive to the message.

The second part was no rhetorical trick. Satire has shifted from skewering the people in power to reinforcing them, and going after unpopular minorities. In the west, there's virtually no effective response for said minority if they go after the correct ones. If anything a Streisand effect can happen where even legitimately challenging the offense makes you look even worse and brings more popularity to the offending side.

The Hebdo case was a statistical outlier if anything. In general, the west's idea that we no longer kill each other over blasphemy and speech has created a culture where the ones satired grin and bear it mostly, because we do not kill. Hebdo was a grim reminder that extremists do not play by that implicit code. The thing we should be thankful for in the west is that so few people break it.


Sure, don't consider mockery and blasphemy satire. But consider that me thinking the Prophet Mohammed was a child raping asshole does not merit my death. That people get so offended by mocking something means it needs to be mocked more often.


And yet, weirdly, Charlie Hebdo fired an artist for anti-Semitism (http://csglobe.com/charlie-hebdo-fired-anti-semitic-cartooni...).

And again, weirdly, are the cartoons in question attempting to satirize fundamentalist Muslims and isolate them from mainstream Islam, or are they just attacking Muslims? Along with the author of this (rather poorly written) article, I'll ask: Is it really satire, or is it just another version of the big-nosed Jewish banker from the '30s?

Further, I don't know about where you're from, but in the west here, we used to have the semi-legal principle of "fighting words". If I said that you were a dirty rat bastard and your mother wrote simulated annealing code, you would (everything else being equal) be justified in socking me, even though I neither physically attacked you nor threatened you.


>Further, I don't know about where you're from, but in the west here, we used to have the semi-legal principle of "fighting words".

Really? What law is that?



> "People have been murdered over cartoons. End of moral analysis"

I don't understand the significance of this. People have been killed for all sorts of silly reasons, religious differences provide lots of examples but there's plenty more outside that, wearing the wrong color or the wrong team's shirt in the wrong part of town, dating someone from a different social group, trying to vote, I could go on for a while.

So what's his point?


Harris's point is that moral accountability lies solely with the murderers, not the cartoonists. The same goes for your examples. You don't blame the person trying to vote. Yes, there are practical expectations (this is why I use a pseudonym when criticizing certain ideas), but saying, "What did you expect?" is an indictment of the group doing the harm, not the provocateur.


So his point is that murder is bad? That seems a bit self-evident to me. Am I missing something? Why is he focussing on the cartoons?


Maybe it's the fact that the quote is contextual, and you're not privy to the discussion around it. Basically there are people that say "Well they shouldn't have provoked it by drawing Muhammad, the cartoonists had it coming"

Yes I've actually seen people write that too.

Sam Harris is saying, that actually the cartoonists are blameless and there is no moral justification any one, muslim or not can use to blame the cartoonists for their own deaths.


How clear-cut and simple everything is in your world! Good thing the real world is just like that - morally unambiguous and without complication or subtle nuance!


Is this your reply to all straightforward moral arguments, or just the ones you disagree with? It's not my fault that answers can sometimes be simple.

If you trawl through my comment history, you'll see I've discussed ethics on topics such as torture[1], corporal punishment[2], whether possession of certain information should be illegal[3], the Dallas PD's use of a robot to kill the shooter[4], smart guns[5], and even whether we should make natural predators extinct[6].

Sometimes, my answers to these moral questions are simple. Sometimes, they're not. In this case, it's the former.

1. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10963920 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10531577 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8725500

2. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9280711

3. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11441708

4. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12059148

5. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10494398

6. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10476699


"People have been murdered over cartoons. End of moral analysis."


>Now that the whole world is my neighbor, my immediate Internet neighbor, do I make any concessions at all, or do I uphold the ancient tradition of satire at all costs? And again, is a culture that takes mortal offense when an image it holds sacred is mocked a second-rate culture that needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, my twenty-first-century that is?

The answer to this question is quite simple: France is a nation-state, if you wish to be part of the French nation you need to fulfill its two most fundamental clauses:

- the desire to adopt a common history, in its glory and its shame

- the desire to live and thrive together: "to have achieved great things and achieve more, together"

France is an assimilationist country and the French state takes its sovereignty from the Nation i.e the People. If you wish to come here, if you wish to be part of it, then you need to uphold its principles and traditions.

And of course, it should be needless to say that no one is forced to come here and that on the contrary, they are urged to leave as soon as possible if they find out that they have a burning desire to murder journalists- cartoonists when those draw their prophet the wrong way. That is non-negotiable.

I find it remarkable that the "multicultural crowd" fails to adjust their views so they can be sound with their moral principles when switching their country-wide frame of reference to a global one. If you sincerely believe that cultural minorities have a right to govern themselves and that moral monism is "oppressive" then how come haven't you figured that the French are an underwhelming minority at the world-scale and that their conception of the good life (eudaimon) - not only differs than yours - but includes protecting their public space from religious interference.

So to reply to your question and playing to your rules, dear author:

>And again, is a culture that takes mortal offense when an image it holds sacred is mocked a second-rate culture that needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, my twenty-first-century that is?

Mutatis mutandis, this apply exactly to your disdain for the French tradition of satire that you hold in perspective with your globalised view of the world.


"And of course, it should be needless to say that no one is forced to come here and that on the contrary, they are urged to leave as soon as possible if they find out that they have a burning desire to murder journalists- cartoonists when those draw their prophet the wrong way. That is non-negotiable."

And this is where I disagree. One of the biggest issue of France is that in reality, there's always a difference between "visible minority" and the rest of the people (economic, social and politic), even when you cleary agree with the valors and culture. Then, there's the issue of the killers themselves : they are byproducts of France, born and raised in Paris, not first time immigrants! Even if they were trained outside from France. While I am _not_ excusing what they did or saying they're victims, I honestly think they're something broken in french society.

I honestly think the Muhammad satire was just an excuse to spread terror.


One advantage the far east has over Europe and north America (south America has no such problems either) is that they don't vacillate when it comes to their culture and whether its morality is weak. For them, you either buy in, or you're out. There is little in the form oh, but what about those whose morals conflict with ours. No, adapt. That's not to say it's not problematic in other ways --like Russia, there is the shadow of the strongman or strongwoman in their psyche and the state has greater control over the individual and there is more paternalism but also there is less social division and had wringing over whether their culture is good or bad. They just are. There is less of good vs bad.


I think perhaps you should be happy that Europe and North America do not have that particular advantage.

When Europe was operating without a bit of hand-wringing, it seems to have overrun much of the rest of the world, taken charge, planted colonies, and run said rest of the world for its own benefit. Likewise, we here in NA have a certain history of transplanting people who have something we want into camps in the stinking desert. Or into the ground, whichever is more convenient for all involved.


Like many things, there are tradeoffs and unknowns. Would the world have been better off without colonialism at all? Or would colonialism by Russians or Ottomans or Chinese or Egyptians? And had it not happened, where would we be technologically? Would we be more advanced? Would we be behind? Would we still be suffering from infectious diseases? Where would the world pop be today? Where would strife be today? Or totally at peace? Impossible to say. Only that it would not be the same and most of us on the planet would be other people, or no one at all.


How is than an advantage? Is the common person in the Far East or Russia doing well?


The question is also, would they be better off with a different philosophy than the one they have today? While everyone who is "Han" isn't necessarily Han, it does help in terms of social cohesion that people believe they are.


Ehhh... What? Most western democracies I've heard of have absolute freedom of thought, so there's no requirement to "desire" anything in particular (what so ever!)...

Most also have reasonably broad freedom of expression, so for instance advocating the passage of laws making it illegal to depict Mohammad is fine, in France as in most other western democracies, I'm quite sure. Even advocating that the death penalty be reinstated and used as punishment for this "crime" would be acceptable.

But taking the law into ones own hands, "executing" people for purported "crimes", is of course both illegal and morally indefensible...


There is no limit to satire , there is only limit in the head of uneducated people. The debate need to be shut before it's even opened. You should not have to censure yourself (when doing satire) because you are scared of offending people. Otherwise , any group can claim to be offended by anything , and you give them power on you. What if vegetarian decide it's offensive to eat meat ? What if I decide that eggplant are offensive ? What if I decide it's offensive to be offended ? There is no end to this. Let's limit freedom of speech at the hate speech mark and allow the rest , legally and in practice.


"Let's limit freedom of speech at the hate speech mark"

Ok, but where's this limit? Who's to say what "hate speech" is? This line is subject to all of the arguments that you just posed.


I wish we could be honest with each other and admit that these limits are fucking arbitrary and only extend as far as ones means to enforce such. Everything else is just pandering to more human status games with some games being more optimal for certain societal outcomes over others.


They are arbitrary, and reflect the biases of those in power. This is because effective satire demand widespread dissemination, and those in charge of the means of dissemination are the very rich. Also, increasingly those who are in charge of our creative culture are rich and monocultural, and satire is used as a tool to suppress.


This will probably turn out to be wrong, but I will take a stab at it:

Calls to violence or discrimination.


Ok, so what's discrimination?


I agree.


This whole concept of "hate speech" is preposterous to begin with. I prefer the conception of free speech practiced here in the United States. I hate those Westboro Baptist Church people who stand near soldiers' funerals with "God Hates Fags" signs but I'd die for their right to do it.


Will you also die for my right to stand at your bedroom window and sing my chants of hatred to you all night long?


Trespassing on my property for the purpose of harassing me is not equivalent to protesting in public.


If you happen to be from United States, you should probably know there is no hate speech exception to the first amendment. Hate Speech is protected speech. Hate Speech with Satire is protected. Other than inciting violence such as "Let's burn this down!" (Happened in the case of Ferguson, MO) you can say what you please. Somehow in the case of Ferguson, there were no charges to my knowledge.


> The debate need to be shut before it's even opened.

> You should not have to censure [sic] yourself

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poe%27s_law


"That salad is totally grossing me out". https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0O_VYcsIk8


So the author says France must choose between globalism and mass migration on one hand, and freedom on the other. This is easy! France is for the French, and the French are a free people.

Also, let's be clear eyed about what the author is actually suggesting. Banning any type of satire necessarily means that police come to bust down your door and throw you in jail at some point when you refuse to comply. That's the violence lurking beneath the veneer of "tolerance".


Funny how the original satire was about how to solve the problem of starvation and the problem of population explosion in Ireland at the same time by eating Irish babies. Yet somehow people are think there should be limits on satire. The fundamental accusation is that Catholics have more children more quickly than they can feed (implying that they are too stupid and sex crazed to realize the consequences of their actions). Eating babies is a sideshow to the real, deep, and uncomfortable question that SHOULD make people angry because it is calling them out for inconsistent, immoral, unethical, or strait up bad behavior.


I don't think Juvenal wrote about population explosion in Ireland.


Swift didn't invent satire; he just perfected it.


The target of "A Modest Proposal" is the English government of Ireland and by extension, the English government. (That's why Swift winds it up with,

"Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our Absentees at five Shillings a pound: Of using neither Cloaths, nor household Furniture, except what is of our own Growth and Manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the Materials and Instruments that promote Foreign Luxury: Of curing the Expenciveness of Pride, Vanity, Idleness, and Gaming in our Women: Of introducing a Vein of Parcimony, Prudence and Temperance: Of learning to Love our Country, wherein we differ even from LAPLANDERS, and the Inhabitants of TOPINAMBOO: Of quitting our Animosities, and Factions, nor Act any longer like the Jews, who were Murdering one another at the very moment their City was taken: Of being a little Cautious not to Sell our Country and Consciences for nothing: Of teaching Landlords to have at least one degree of Mercy towards their Tenants. Lastly of putting a Spirit of Honesty, Industry and Skill into our Shop-keepers, who, if a Resolution could now be taken to Buy only our Native Goods, would immediately unite to Cheat and Exact upon us in the Price, the Measure, and the Goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair Proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.

"Therefore I repeat, let no Man talk to me of these and the like Expedients, till he hath at least a Glimpse of Hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into Practice....

"...I desire those Politicians, who dislike my Overture, and may perhaps be so bold to attempt an Answer, that they will first ask the Parents of these Mortals, whether they would not at this Day think it a great Happiness to have been sold for Food at a year Old, in the manner I prescribe, and thereby have avoided such a perpetual Scene of Misfortunes, as they have since gone through, by the oppression of Landlords, the Impossibility of paying Rent without Money or Trade, the want of common Sustenance, with neither House nor Cloaths to cover them from Inclemencies of Weather, and the most inevitable Prospect of intailing the like, or greater Miseries upon their Breed for ever."

[Emphasis is mine. If anyone hasn't read it, a fine copy with notes is at https://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/modest.html]

On the other hand,

"Yet somehow people are think there should be limits on satire."

...what specific problems and solutions are discussed in:

https://electronicintifada.net/sites/default/files/styles/or...

["The Koran is shit. It can't stop bullets." (A reasonably entertaining response to which seems to have gotten a French teenager arrested for supporting terrorism: https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/france-beg...).]

Or, perhaps,

http://csglobe.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Charlie-Hebdo-...

["A star is born" and "And my ass? You love my ass?" (Pardon my French.)]


There is limit of satire and it is similar to limit of pornography. It's pretty common sense one. If it disgusts you - Don't look at it.

You shouldn't have fetish satire shoved in your face over Sunday dinner but same would probably go for yeast infection remedy advert.


The article has an interesting point about satire, although it loses the plot towards the end.

Allegedly, Voltaire said to Rousseau, "I disagree with everything you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it."

You cannot disagree with many of the Hebdo comics, or defend them; there is nothing there to disagree with or defend. The comics are just mocking attacks from one group on another.


This article seems to legitimize satire by pretending "Its raison d’ȇtre over the long term is to bring about change"

Can we just step back and say that funny things are good as an end unto themselves?


"Satire" isn't "funny things"; satire indeed is social criticism posing as art. Satire may often employ humour, but neither is necessary for the other.

Unfortunately, in recent times, large sections of the English-speaking world (or maybe just English-speaking Internet; I'm not sure) have taken the word "satire" to mean "something that shouldn't be taken seriously". I think it can be partly blamed on the fact that English speakers are introduced to "satire" via Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal; which indeed extensively employs exaggeration, irony and black humour and isn't meant to be taken literally. But this is not a defining characteristic of satire. There are plenty of works that can just as rightly be called satire, and contain hardly any of these. Animal Farm is a satire of communism. Brave New World is a satire of consumerism. Black Mirror is a satire of technological progress (or rather, humanity's irresponsible use thereof). In neither of these works humour is a major element; you may find a few gags here and there, but the message of each work would have stayed intact if those had been cut out.

I think this semantic shift creates a situation where the average person's natural response to something being called "satire" is to stop taking it seriously, or thinking about it at all. Which is another way satire can fail. It's been worrying me a lot lately.

PS. Relevant — DFW on irony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKdZU9Db6fk&t=2m33s




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