“GOP Warns Refugees Likely To Be Driven To Terrorism By Way America Would Treat Them” reads The Onion in the wake of several Republican governors’ vows to close their states to refugees after the Paris attacks. The joke, at the expense of the GOP, is that the United States would treat Syrian refugees with such contempt and mistrust that they would become terrorists; a hyperbolization of a real xenophobic fear rooted in anti-Muslim sentiment. Mocking an influential organization like the GOP is an example of punching up. As far back as Western historians have records of comedy, punching up — making fun of those who are more powerful — has been a component of satire.
Punching up is dependent on status, something ancient fools and jesters did not have a lot of. Medieval European fools were often physically crippled or weak household workers. Fifth-century Egyptian royals actually imported Pygmies to dance and entertain them. In imperial Rome, deformed slaves fetched a high price because of the prestige associated with owning a fool. This history of cultural chauvinism and imperialism is important to understanding the modern place of the fool, who is by definition of a lower social position than his targets.
What about the so-called originator of Western satire; what about Aristophanes? While he may not have been low in status, Aristophanes was sure to make self-deprecating jokes, lowering himself to place from which he could punch up. In The Acharnians he is jokingly called Athens's greatest weapon in the war against Sparta. He was also known to make fun of his baldness and even compares himself to a young, unwed mother in The Clouds. Aristophanes had concrete ideas about societal ills and imperfections, but he didn’t preach them from a place of high status. He depicts himself as speaking truth to power — “when Cleon was all-powerful, I went for him” — not from a position of authority, but rather one of intellectual insight.
Similarly, Shakespeare’s fools combine elements of Aristophanes’s satirical insight with the traditional role of the medieval jester. Shakespearean fools are simultaneously relatable and transcendent, of low status within the play but elevated to a position of intellectual superiority. For example, King Lear’s fool foreshadows his master’s undoing just before Goneril sends them to Regan:
Lear: Dost thou call me fool, boy?
Fool: All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with.
Kent: This is not altogether fool, my lord.
In a play in which others are exiled for talking back to the king, the fool speaks with impunity. Yet, unlike a Greek chorus, the fool does not exist outside the action of the play. Like Lear’s faithful advisor Kent, the fool follows Lear out of comfort and into the storm and, as in the case of Lear’s daughter Cordelia, the price of loyalty is his life. The fool is desperate to save Lear, but speaking truth to power can only get you so far when power is quickly losing his mind.
Many modern satirists function similarly to Shakespearean fools, depicting themselves as low in status while articulating what they, and much of their audience, believe to be objective truths. As Stephen Colbert says, “status is always ripe for satire.” To a large extent that was a central theme of his show, a program in which Colbert portrayed an accentuated version of Fox News’ Bill O'Reilly. Colbert’s mentor, Jon Stewart, also liked to poke fun at the media giant. Once, in apologizing for his own factual inaccuracy, Stewart said that to fail to acknowledge his error would, “undermine the very integrity and credibility that I work so hard to pretend to care about,” and then went on to list dozens of Fox News fact check failures. Stewart thus captured a critical irony: a news outlet makes numerous errors and wins “Lie of the Year” on Politifact, while a Comedy Central show apologizes for a factual error. A comedy show can make fun of a news source for factual inaccuracies because it is inherently ridiculous that a comedy show is more accurate than a traditional news network that claims to have earned America’s trust and respect.
Punching up defines fools as less powerful but more astute in relation to their subject, who is more powerful but ridiculous. This turns the tables, giving satirists and those who agree with them a chance to experience catharsis after feeling frustrated. Not unlike the dramatic irony of Lear’s fool, it makes viewers and readers feel less alone and more confident in judging something as problematic.
But, we don’t live in a Shakespearean play. We are not the audience watching a babbling monarch destroy his kingdom. While distinct power structures do exist, they are almost always more complicated than that, even though a well framed joke can make them feel simple. The understanding that punching up creates, that the satirist is low in status but high in intelligence, also extends to viewers. It implies that by agreeing with a satirist, you are putting yourself on the right side of history. Aristophanes begins The Clouds with a promise that people who like his work will be judged favorably by history. This creates an ingroup dynamic, the feeling that the audience and satirist are unified in mutual understanding. It can also lead to a feeling of self-righteousness or even complacency.
Well crafted jokes, while they capture some truth, do not always describe a complex issue in its entirety. Most real problems have nuance, and as John Oliver references in his most recent criminal justice piece, satirists can’t always cover the whole issue. They can only take an absurd or ridiculous aspect and articulate it. Yet, if the audience feels complacent in their ingroup, they might not seek out the full story. This is true for most if not all media sources with a point of view; satirists are not the only ones who claim to be on the right side of history.
Take conservative talk radio, which Oliver Morrison compared to liberal satire in an Atlantic article last February. Morrison states that, though talk radio relies more on “straightforward indignation and hyperbole” than satire or parody, both draw “people who know the latest news stories and what their fellow ideologues are saying about them.” In these cases, frustrated people turn to a media source for cathartic relief. The host assumes a relationship of mutual respect with the audience and proceeds to mock or insult political enemies. Having one’s own views reinforced can begin a self-sustaining process which leads to further polarization and viewing the other side as inherently ridiculous.
However, one difference is that while talk radio hosts often belittle satirists — Bill O’Reilly famously told Jon Stewart “you’ve got stoned slackers watching your dopey show every night” — satirists belittle themselves and then take down their political enemies. Rather than a voice of reason or reliability, the satirist is the voice of those who mistrust the current power system. This is why, while many satirists are admitted liberals, the main thrust of satire is not tied to a particular party or ideology in the same way conservative talk radio is.
Satirists give valuable social commentary and play an important role in our political dialogue. They are America’s fools, punching up to and calling out the powerful, giving viewers an opportunity to learn, question, and laugh. It’s easy and fun to wax poetic on the power and potency of social commentary but it’s also important to remember the dangers of a complacent ingroup dynamic. We are not in a Shakespearean play in which one side is tragically wrong and only the fool can see the truth. Satire can be pure catharsis; it can also be nuanced and educational. But it is not the end of our education. Satirical audiences must fight complacency and continue to seek facts, nuance and dialogue beyond their fools. Otherwise, how will we get the jokes?
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