Satire and Mockery in a Free Society

Malice never was his aim,
He lash’d the vice but spar’d the name.
No individual could resent,
Where thousands equally were meant.
His satyr points at no defect,
But what all mortals may correct;
For he abhorr’d that senseless tribe,
Who call it humor when they jibe.

–Jonathan Swift, “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift”


The English language has never produced a satirist equal to Jonathan Swift. It hasn’t even come close. Taken together, Swift’s major satires—Gulliver’s Travels, The Battle of the Books, and The Tale of a Tub—constitute an encyclopedia of satiric techniques still common today, in everything from South Park to Saturday Night Live to The Colbert Report. Nobody has ever poked fun more eloquently than Swift.

And yet, when Swift sat down to write his own eulogy, he chose to emphasize that his satire was designed to correct behavior and not simply to create humor at the expense of others. Satirists, he believed, engage others ethically in an attempt to improve their behavior. Mockers are a “senseless tribe, who call it humor when they jibe.”

Swift was working with the classical definition that he inherited from Horace and Juvenal: satire is “a mixture of humor and criticism designed to correct vice and improve humanity.” And this is hard to do. It takes courage, intelligence, and deep insight into human nature. To be a satirist, one must be for things and must use humor skillfully to direct human behavior towards that which you are for. Mockery, on the other hand, is easy. All you have to do is be against stuff and make fun of it.

This is all relevant, of course, to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week. It is not at all relevant to whether or not the attack was justified or whether or not we should protect their kind of speech. A free society must vigorously protect both satire and mockery—and all other forms of criticism—or it will cease to be free. Those responsible for the attack committed an act of unspeakable evil, period, and we must all stand behind Charlie Hebdo and support their right to expression.

It does not follow, however, that we must praise their form of criticism or think well of it. And it certainly does not follow that we should openly advocate more of it. In a free society, we must support all sorts of things that we don’t see as particularly good ideas.

By most accounts, Charlie Hebdo is much more about mockery than about satire. As Reimy Maisel writes in an excellent Politico article, it is “famous for, among other things, publishing a series of Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, the Virgin Mary with a pig’s nose and a dog having sex with French President Francois Hollande.” On the spectrum that runs from satire to mockery, these depictions are about as far away from actual satire as you can get.

The problem with mockery is that it is not rhetorically effective. It doesn’t actually persuade anybody of anything.
Michael Austin
Let me be very clear, yet again, that I am not making a moral or a political argument. I do not think that mockery is always immoral (or that satire is always moral), nor do I believe (as one must say every paragraph or so in a discussion like this) that mockery and satire should be treated any differently as categories of expression under the law. Both must be protected.

My argument is strictly rhetorical. The problem with mockery is that it is not rhetorically effective. It doesn’t actually persuade anybody of anything. Nobody has ever been mocked out of a belief or humiliated into accepting another. When we mock others, we communicate the view that we do not respect them or take them seriously. This invariably deepens their commitment to the positions that they hold and decreases—usually to zero—our ability to exercise any influence with them. Mockery makes us feel good and look smart to to our friends. This is its function; it has virtually no value as a form of persuasion.

But, as I have written before, persuasion is the only way to win the “war on terror.” This does not mean trying to persuade terrorists to stop being terrorists. I get that this is impossible. Nor does it mean persuading the rest of European and American society that they should hate, fear, and ridicule Islam more than they already do. Plenty of that kind of persuasion is going on already. But it does mean persuading the more than one billion Muslims in the world who are not terrorists that the program of Enlightenment is better than the program of radical Islamicism. There are many ways to do this, I believe, and satire and humor can play a role.

Mockery, on the other hand, cannot. It is simply not a good strategy for this kind of contest. That does not mean we should not tolerate newspapers like Charlie Hebdo, who exist primarily to mock. We should defend them, support their right to exist, and punish those who use violence against them. All of this I am committed to. But that does not mean that I have to call them good.