During the 2016 presidential elections, online media regularly praised American satirists like John Oliver and Samantha Bee for “murderslaying” or “annihilating” Donald Trump. Yet, all the satire in the world was not enough to really “Make Donald ‘Drumpf’ Again” – and keep him out of the White House. It is therefore all the more puzzling that hyperbolic appraisals of satire’s destructive force were still common after Trump took office.
The heroic conception of satire as a painful therapy for moral wickedness is rooted in magical thinking. Legend has it that the satirical verses of Archilochus, a poet from Archaic Greece, drove his fiancée and her father into suicide after they broke off an engagement. This notion of the satirist as deadly magician is still preserved in metaphorical claims that satire “annihilates” and, yes, even “murderslays” its political targets. However, given that satire has been around since Archilochus cursed his would-be in-laws, and the current state of our world, the evidence is stacked against the political impact of the genre.
Satirists are often the first to acknowledge the political limits of the genre. As Jon Stewart told David Frost, “if [satire’s] purpose was social change, we’re not picking a very effective avenue.” Satires are artefacts which are really designed for something else than changing the world. Nonetheless insisting the contrary is therefore equivalent to stating that hammers are the most efficient tools to fix televisions. That’s not what they are designed for, and by overlooking their real purpose, we risk wasting our time, or worse, cause irreversible damage.
Satires are artefacts designed to critique and entertain. Critique constitutes moral opposition against social wrongness, while entertainment involves pleasurable aesthetic diversion. Satire’s central purposes typically interact fruitfully. Take John Oliver’s motto: to “Make Donald ‘Drumpf’ Again,” which alludes both to Trump’s infamous campaign slogan and the less well-known German roots of his family name (which used to be “Drumpf” before his grandfather immigrated to the U.S. from Germany). Oliver’s satirical joke is both funny and insightful because it succinctly captures the phoniness of the Trump brand alongside his hypocrisy about immigration policies.
Nevertheless, satire’s purposes to critique and entertain ultimately also pull in different directions. As Oliver explains, what “we’re most proud of is not those long stories [about socio-political issues] but the spectacle.” Although satirists are in the moral business of critique, they also spend considerable resources on entertainment for the sake of it – as when Oliver lit up a spectacular fireworks display to outdo the shabby production values in a video of a corrupt FIFA executive. Devoting precious resources to entertaining spectacle confirms Stewart’s point that satire is not designed as the most efficient avenue for social change. Hence, when comedian Dick Gregory became increasingly committed to civil rights politics, he abandoned satire for more direct political activism, like hunger strikes.
Satire’s moral purpose to critique and its aesthetic purpose to entertain are in tension with each other. Critique demands political labour in opposition to social injustice, while entertainment is what we do “for fun”. Therefore, appreciating satire is much like eating delicious ice cream at a protest march against climate change; it feels like an inappropriate indulgence when we should really be angry (and our proclivity to indulge ourselves may well seem part of the problem). As a result, our engagement with satire is often deeply ambiguous.
This ambiguity is captured by Margaret Atwood in her puzzlement about how fans engage with The Handmaid’s Tale. In Atwood’s satire of patriarchal misogyny, a class of fertile women – the handmaids – serve as concubines and surrogate mothers to a ruling class of puritan hardliners. Once a month, every handmaid is forced to endure an aberrant mating ritual with her commander, alongside his infertile wife, until she bears him a child – an act of simultaneous polygamy justified on the grounds of Biblical principles. Much to Atwood’s bewilderment, she notes that “[r]evellers dress up as Handmaids on Hallowe’en and also for protest marches – these two uses of its costumes mirroring its doubleness. Is it entertainment or dire political prophecy? Can it be both?”
Some have said no. Aesthetes have followed Wyndham Lewis in identifying all satire as “non-moral”. Moralists have gone even further and consider satire an immoral breeding ground for cynicism. According to Tom Lehrer – himself once a satirist – satire leaves audiences “[s]atisfied rather than angry, which is what they should be”. Moralists like Lehrer worry that satire ultimately upholds the status quo by purging the negative emotions required to sustain political action – and therefore serves as a safety valve that stimulates political apathy.
Satire’s reception is clearly ambiguous. The genre is at once hailed for slaying political opponents, enjoyed for its amoral aestheticism, and mistrusted as a frivolous pastime which cultivates cynicism. However, none of these perspectives accurately frame the nature of satire. At most, they signal that the genre’s central purpose to critique and entertain is ambiguous. Yet, they fail to clarify this ambiguity’s true significance, which is akin to a fundamental tension in our lives between the care for others and care of self.
Satirical cartoonist Dan Perkins, aka Tom Tomorrow, explains that satire is “a two-pronged assault. There are lots of things in this world you need to be outraged about, but outrage unchecked by laughter will eat you up inside. You need to laugh. That’s where we come in.” The moral care for others demands that we are angry about social injustice, so we are motivated to take political action. Yet, prudent care for our wellbeing equally demands that we take regular breaks from critique. We cannot be angry at the world all the time, otherwise we risk succumbing to the psychological suffering of political burnout, climate grief or Brexit anxiety.
The upshot is that critique is indispensable but also has its limits. We do not have unlimited resources to sustain political action, which is itself often limited in achieving actual social change. The limits of critique may seem like reason to devote ourselves unabatedly to improving things where we can. However, for most people, unabated devotion to critique sets expectations which are simply unattainable and – if nonetheless pursued – cause the psychological suffering of incessant guilt and neurotic perfectionism. We are not morally perfect nor politically omnipotent. Therefore, we must accept the difficult truth that there is suffering which we cannot abate, and to which we may even be complicit.
This existential conflict between care for others and care of self was a central theme for Nietzsche. In his introduction to The Gay Science, Bernard Williams explains that the hyper-sensitive Nietzsche refused to forget how the world’s glories and achievements were also intertwined with its horrors. Due to globalised information technology, we are now all very much in Nietzsche’s situation. In a 24-hour news cycle, nobody can honestly ignore the horrors of the world or plead ignorance about the consequences of their actions. Yet, Williams also explains that anyone who always held these horrors in their mind would be crushed by their weight.
Therefore, according to Williams, Nietzsche’s challenge is how we can make truth bearable. His own solution, in The Will to Power, is that “[w]e have art in order not to die of the truth.” Aesthetic experience provides solace for suffering that we cannot abate and to which we may even be complicit. Satirists have understood this message well. As satirical cartoonist Jen Sorensen puts it, “[m]any cartoons [of mine] are not overtly political. One can only write so many strips about torture before one needs to lighten up with a riff on Gucci flipflops.”
Other philosophers have similarly shared Nietzsche’s intuition about the solace of aesthetic experience (which does not just characterise art but also activities like appreciating nature, food, or sports). In A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume explains how his struggle with insoluble conundrums introduces a “philosophical melancholy and delirium” that “reason is incapable of dispelling”. Fortunately, Hume knows just the trick. He dines or plays a game of backgammon – and, “after three or four hours’ amusement”, he hardly remembers what his despair was all about.
Hume’s aesthetic engrossment in “amusement” (or entertainment) is reminiscent of what the positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would later call “flow”. When we experience flow, we lose all sense of time as we enjoy an activity for its own sake, because its challenge perfectly matches our skills. Entertainment media typically aim to stimulate flow. Prestige dramas like Game of Thrones introduce complex plotlines that keep us hooked (without confusing us), while casual games like Candy Crush increase in difficulty to match our improved skills as we progress through the levels.
Hume is wise to resort to entertainment instead of more demanding and challenging aesthetic activities to dispel his existential despair. After all that philosophical contemplation, his cognitive resources are clearly already depleted. Therefore, if Hume had access to all the art in the world, it would be best to stay clear from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (with its 388 endnotes that sometimes include further footnotes). Similarly, in his despair, he does not need further emotional disturbance. So, Hamlet is off the table as well – as is Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, a fascinating but disturbing documentary about the Indonesian genocide.
Instead, to soothe his existential despair, Hume is better off playing a few levels of Candy Crush and “Swipe the stress away”. Entertainment introduces pleasurable challenges that produce flow, which not only offers pleasurable diversion, but combats philosophical melancholy by instilling life with meaning in the moment. This is why satirists devote so many resources to entertainment, because it provides solace from the limits of critique and helps us deal with the difficult truth that there is suffering which we cannot abate and to which we may even be complicit.
Nevertheless, some philosophers worry that aesthetic engrossment in entertainment causes moral apathy. In his Pensées, Blaise Pascal describes how a man, “so distressed at the death of his wife and his only son” momentarily became “free from all painful and disquieting thoughts” simply because “a ball has been served him, and he must return it to his companion”. For Pascal, such diversion (divertissement) does not offer valuable coping but distracts from spiritual growth as we continuously lose ourselves in pleasurable diversion.
Pascal does have a point. Candy Crush addiction is real. Some people are reported to play for up to 18 hours a day, which is obviously antithetical to philosophical reflection and political action – and also unhealthy. However, if we cannot divert ourselves from the world’s horrors, we may end up like Pascal himself, who was unable to cope with the premonition of a post-metaphysical world at the dawn of modernity and sought refuge in Jansenist Catholicism at Port-Royal Abbey.
We need to strike a balance, which is why satire’s central combination of critique and entertainment is so significant. Satire is more complex than Candy Crush. It does not just provide pleasurable aesthetic engrossment, but it also critiques social wrongness. Yet, critique has its limits. We do not have the resources for unabated critique and all the political action in the world is sometimes insufficient to curb social injustice and terminate suffering. The difficult truth is that insoluble suffering exists, which makes the world seem absurd and devoid of meaning. Here, entertainment offers solace by cultivating pleasurable aesthetic engrossment that is intrinsically meaningful.
This complex interaction between critique and entertainment is what Dan Perkins has called satire’s “two-pronged assault”. Perkins has also explained that “[y]ou have to want to save the world in order to get up every day and do this work [satire], but in order to maintain your sanity, you simultaneously have to understand that you’re just not going to.” The attempt to cure a world that is sick beyond full recovery is indeed an absurd Sisyphus labour. Satirists cope with this insoluble absurdity by combining critique and entertainment in a complex negotiation between the Scylla of moral apathy and the Charybdis of mental ill health.
The need to cope with the limits of critique explains why Jon Stewart dismissed satire as the most efficient means for social change. Satirists do not spend all their resources on critique, but also develop aesthetic strategies to cope with its limits. Hence, satires are really designed to negotiate the existential conflict between care for others and care of self. They are artefacts through which satirists and audiences strike a balance between raging at the world and sustaining good mental health. In this respect, Stewart has explained that satire affords “a view of the world that is informed by absurdity or humor” and therefore “still allows you to feel like you are connected to it.”
According to Stewart, “the real outcome of satire is typically catharsis” and he has likened its emotional impact to “a release valve”. However, this metaphor inaccurately captures how satire contributes to coping and supports a mistaken scepticism about its political impact. According to the safety valve metaphor, satire purges negative emotions (like anger or frustration) that would otherwise contribute to political action. Yet, aesthetic engrossment in entertainment does not involve the purgation of negative emotions. Instead, being entertained is a pleasurable emotional state, associated with pleasurable feelings of fun and enjoyment.
The psychologist Susan Folkman has outlined that positive emotions contribute to coping in a complex way. The need for coping arises in contexts where we appraise certain demands as too taxing for our resources – like eradicating all the suffering in the world. If we cannot resolve this conflict, we become stuck in a vicious cycle of chronic stress and associated mental ill health. Positive emotions contribute to the coping process by distancing us from our worries and introducing meaningful moments in life – even in the direst circumstances. Moreover, positive emotions also act as breathers which contribute to further coping by restoring and replenishing resources for addressing the underlying issue.
Therefore, the argument that satires are artefacts that help us cope with a sick world – without curing it – does not entail that the genre stimulates moral apathy or acquiescence in the status quo. The positive emotions associated with entertainment not only offer solace from the absurdity of insoluble suffering. They also provide respite that allows us to recharge the resources that we need to sustain political action and alleviate suffering where we can. This complex coping process underpins much of our engagement with satire.
Consider the Trump Baby blimp, a 20ft orange balloon with a bouffant coiffure that represents the American President as an angry, diaper-wearing baby, who clutches his mobile phone as if it was a rattle. Protesters first flew the blimp over Parliament Square in London when Trump visited the U.K. in 2018. It did not prevent him from revisiting the following year, when the blimp flew again, alongside a smaller version, which was stabbed with scissors by a pro-Trump activist. The satirical blimp clearly got under the skin of some Trump supporters – and rumour has it he was not too happy about it himself – but it clearly did not metaphorically “destroy” or “cure” Trumpian politics.
Still, Trump Baby has served as a satirical totem for protesters all over the world – from Argentina to the US. Moreover, the protest group behind Trump Baby only committed to flying their blimp during the President’s 2019 U.K. visit after raising £30.000 for grass roots organisations that actively counteract his policies. So, satire is not without political impact, but that impact is mostly indirect (by sustaining more direct political action) and should not be overestimated (Trump is still President). Moreover, in a world where even impeachment has not removed him from office, satire like Baby Trump helps us to cope by at least providing something we can laugh at.