Satire: A Tool Of Social Change Down The Ages, Across The Globe

Posted on September 10, 2012 in Specials

By Karmanye Thadani:

Fine arts have had a profound role in shaping and influencing societal attitudes. However, no other genre of fine arts has a greater mass appeal than one which would be amusing. In the context of bringing about social change, there can be no better amusing genre than satire, which is amusing and yet brings out harsh realities, though often in exaggerated forms.

Satire can be defined as “a literary term used to ridicule or make fun of human vice or weakness, often with the intent of correcting, or changing, the subject of the ridicule”. Satire, owing to its implicit character, has often, though not always (certainly not in Mamata’s West Bengal where a cartoonist was imprisoned for a satirical attack on the great Didi — I’m so glad to be in Delhi while writing this; else, I might have landed in a jail in Kolkata – wait a second, this statement of mine too amounts to satire!), evaded censorship in different eras of history and under various regimes across the globe.

The usage of this literary/artistic tool obviously predates this word in the English language. All the major civilizations in the world, be it Indian, Chinese, Persian, Greco-Roman or Arab, are known to have had their respective satirical works. It is also noteworthy that these satirical works usually challenged priestly authority, religious dictates or even governments.

Perhaps the best example of satirical works in ancient India would be the Mattavilasa Prahasana, an early 7th century Sanskrit play set in Kanchipuram (in present-day Tamil Nadu) exposing how the rot had set in in reformist cults like Buddhism and Jainism and also heterodox Hindu orders.

One can see the same frustration with religious institutions being expressed in the satirical works in another continent in a much later period of history, in mediaeval Europe, best exemplified by the British writer Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in which he attacks the monks and nuns of the Catholic Church for being power-hungry and materialistic.

The modern era too has a lot of scope for satire, in the West as much as in the East. Canadian writer John Doyle has referred to the following contemporary developments in the American context making satire as a relevant tool. (The language has been taken from LeBoeuf’s research paper; she has summarized these points given by Doyle)- “Globalization and advances in media technology have brought international issues such as climate change and social injustice to the attention of citizens of countries such as the United States; the “War on Terror” in the Middle East has cost thousands of lives, both military and civilian, and cost billions of dollars, and as of yet it still shows no sign of coming to an end; the Patriot Act gives government agencies and officials the power to violate the constitutionally guaranteed rights of American citizens, and anyone suspected of terrorism can be arrested without further cause; international prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay are denied the right to know what they are charged with, the right to a trial by jury, and basic human rights; protesters who have not violated any laws risk being arrested, gassed, or even shot; and any American citizen who voices overt disagreement with government policies risks being branded a terrorist sympathizer.

Indeed, the animated TV show South Park referred to the “war on terror” in one of its episodes rather subtly by pointing to how Americans have reduced themselves to being a “nation of unethical dick-shooters” — a brilliant example of satire, though personally, I overall find that show to be rather lame and childish.

While talking of war, satire on this point goes as far back as to ancient Greece, such as the play The Acharnians by Aristophanes, dealing with how a sane Athenian asking his fellow citizens to make peace with the Spartans is dubbed a traitor, but eventually, the Athenians realize their folly on being devastated by the war.

In fact, liberal Muslims have used satire as a weapon to attack both Islamism (not to be confused with Islam, just as Hindutva is not to be confused with Hinduism) and Islamophobia. As regards to the former cartoons made by the prominent liberal Pakistani Muslim intellectual, Nadeem Paracha, poking fun at moronic conspiracy theorists such as Zaid Hamid and in his eyes, politicians such as Imran Khan putting up a rather unconvincing pretence of being liberal in their politics (see here) makes the most remarkable example of satire.

In fact, modern Western history has seen satire achieve desired results, which is quite remarkable. The American comic strip Doonesbury satirized a Florida county that had a law requiring minorities to have a pass-card in the area; the law was soon repealed with a legislation nicknamed the Doonesbury Act. In the 2000 Canadian federal election campaign, a Canadian Alliance proposal for a mechanism to require a referendum in response to a petition of sufficient size was satirized by the television show This Hour Has 22 Minutes so effectively that it was discredited and soon dropped.

Modern India too has had brilliant satirical projections in comedy films, TV serials and newspaper cartoons, and here, the climate making it relevant is that of corruption, inefficiency, criminalization of politics, apathy for the poor on the part of the rich and frequently made irresponsible remarks by prominent personalities. A recent example in the light of Narendra Modi’s ridiculous statement attributing malnutrition in his state to figure-consciousness of girls was satirized in the newspaper The Hindu in a cartoon showing some passersby referring to starved girls as being contestants for a beauty pageant!

Contemporary Hindi literature is full of satire, a good example being Ashok Chakradhar’s poem Jangal Gatha showcasing how a tiger spares a goat and her calf, greeting them warmly and requesting the goat to vote for him in the coming jungle elections! Prose is no less brilliant and I recall reading a piece titled Sahab Mahsattvakanshi which states the difference between compulsory retirement and dismissal to be that in the case of the former, senior governemnt officials are caught taking heavy bribes but their crimes are not exposed and they enjoy several benefits thereafter, but the latter is for peons and the likes caught taking small bribes but not enjoying any benefits subsequently!

All said and done, satire is the most powerful tool to mobilize public opinion for social change, even if its effects are not always directly visible.

[box bg=”#fdf78c” color=”#000″]About the author:  The author is a freelance writer based in New Delhi and has co-authored two short books, namely ‘Onslaughts on Free Speech in India by Means of Unwarranted Film Bans’ and ‘Women and Sport in India and the World: A Socio-Legal Perspective’. He is currently working as a research associate in the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), a reputed Delhi-based public policy think-tank. To read his other posts, click here.[/box]