OPINION – The derogatory anti-Islam video that we’re told is the catalyst for angry demonstrations throughout the world is raising some interesting questions regarding free speech and social commentary.
More specifically, it has raised issues about the difference between satire and vitriol.
Throughout history, there have been satirists who have felt the need to occasionally stick their finger into the eye of all things official. They don’t even have to be entirely wrong or right in order to make a valid point. The key difference between satirical commentary and mere spittle flinging is that one provokes thought while the other provokes fear or hatred.
Famous satirists throughout history include Aesop whose fables taught timeless truths. Aristophanes’ play “The Clouds” was intended to humble the sophists of his day. Author Mark Twain could always be counted on to make most folks laugh and others turn varying shades of red.
Though once defined as a strictly literary form, today good satire can be enjoyed through the performing arts as well. Satire allows us to give thoughtful examination to the issues and institutions that dominate our culture without resorting to a more preachy approach.
Of course this is not without risk since those in power tend to view ridicule as the only thing less tolerable than outright defiance.
A classic example of a satirist whose writings held the feet of the powerful to the fire was Voltaire who famously remarked, “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”
More than once, Voltaire’s pen landed him in jail, or in exile. Yet despite strict censorship laws and being on the receiving end of unjust and stiff penalties, he wrote with passion and wit about issues such as civil liberties, the right to a fair trial, freedom of religion, and philosophy.
For every ruler or dignitary who cursed him as a subversive, there were many who cheered his ability to cleverly say what others dared not. Though unfairly labeled at times as a mere troublemaker, Voltaire was rightly counted as one of the key thinkers of the European Enlightenment and considered a colleague of respectable figures like Montesquieu, Rousseau and Locke.
In our day, Stephen Colbert is a good example of a satirist. Under the guise of an opinionated, self-righteous TV personality, he effectively skewers and lampoons the oh-so-important among us without regard to their party or political affiliations. His razor-sharp sarcasm at the White House Correspondents Dinner a few years ago outraged members of the Beltway elite.
Of course, it also simultaneously delighted millions of viewers in “flyover country” who don’t often get to see Washington D.C. movers and shakers squirm in discomfort.
Another good example of modern satire can be found in the television show South Park. Beneath the shock value of South Park’s foul language and potty humor are observations about societal attitudes that deserve to be questioned. Their targets have included everything from race-baiters to snobby drivers of hybrid vehicles, to motorcycle riders who rival teenage girls by dressing up and loudly calling attention to themselves.
South Park is to our day what Rabelais was during the Renaissance with his exaggerated, raunchy tales of Gargantua and Pantagruel. Beneath the bawdy irreverence, there is always a thought-provoking commentary on certain societal attitudes that deserve to be questioned.
When we are swelling with self-importance and a false sense of infallibility, it is the satirist who happily bursts our bubble and brings us back down to earth with well-aimed social criticism or allegory.
Good satire shouldn’t be mistaken for an excuse to become mean-spirited or vindictive tantrum-throwers. It serves the useful purpose of helping us gain much-needed perspective at times when we may be so hyper-focused on an issue that we lose sight of the bigger picture.
The ability to laugh at ourselves on occasion can actually help us choose our battles more wisely. There are times when we require improvement. Not every difference of ideas is a life or death battle.
It’s not just angry Muslim protestors who could benefit from understanding this concept.
Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and co-host of the Perspectives morning show on Fox News 1450 AM 93.1 FM. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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