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Satire and Social Change, Essay Example

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Juvenal’s »Against the City of Rome« if often classified as a satire; at the same time, the text is also critical of the social conditions of the Roman city, thus revealing a potentially close link between satire and social commentary and ultimately critique. This would indicate that satire is not merely a form of humor, but also aims to reveal some of the presuppositions, false logical conclusions and prejudices of a given society or social discourse.

Contemporary examples of satire seem to show this same type of social criticism. For example, the exaggerated patriotism of a television program such as The Colbert Report can be said to aim to demonstrate the underlying banality of empty forms of jingoism. Such a television program twists the slogans and presuppositions of “patriotic” normally Republican discourse in an attempt to show its logical inconsistency.

With this type of performance of satire, it is clear that social change can be affected. We can bring attention through satire to various prejudices or even issues that have remained unconscious to the public. This does not mean that all satire is necessarily effective – either the satire itself is poorly composed or the prejudices are too deeply ingrained in the target of the satire to affect such change. This, however, does not discount the potential of satire.

Hence, shows such as Southpark and The Simpsons often employ satirical elements to present some unjustified obsessions in society, such as the obsession with celebrity often criticized in a show like Southpark, which uses celebrities frequently. A film such as Team America by the creators of Southpark in turn questions American military intervention in the world, while also exaggerating typical American slogans such as “democracy and freedom” so as to ask the viewer to think: what do these terms really mean? Are the American rhetorical references to democracy and freedom truly consistent with American domestic and foreign policy? And if they are not consistent what does this say about American politics? What does this say about the true ethical foundations of American society?

Certainly, there are problems when we omit the social critical aspect of satire, and concentrate only on the entertainment aspect. Of course, satire uses entertainment to bring a certain social and critical message to the public in a form that is easily consumable. Satires are not “academic” forms of criticism, used for an academic audience. They are meant to reach a fairly broad audience, and in this sense, what makes a satire effective is the extent to which it can communicate its message to its audience. Satire has to know its audience, what entertains them, so as to know how to make the audience think critically.

Without this social-critical aspect satire only becomes entertainment: and it becomes a poor form of satire. Certainly, from another perspective, satire can also be used to merely re-enforce some of common populist prejudices: for example, when a show such as Southpark shows someone like Saddam Hussein to be a fool. This arguably serves as merely repeating American political rhetoric on a more vulgar level. This is not to say that Saddam Hussein was a “good” political leader, but rather that satire has to have a certain element of intelligence included within it to be effective: otherwise it only repeats the simplifications that already exist in our social discourse.

Hence, satire certainly can possess a social and critical function. However, as with anything else, this depends on how well it is produced. If one produces a bad refrigerator, the food will spoil. If one produces a bad satire, the social aspect is lost.

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