Does satire lead to social change?

chaplin dictator

I love good satire. I am a massive fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and early seasons of This Hour Has 22 Minutes. I’ve always thought that satire was a wonderful way to point out the foibles of some aspect of society and thereby elicit change in that behaviour or belief.

The Merriam-Webster Concise Encyclopedia defines satire as:

“Artistic form in which human or individual vices, folly, abuses, or shortcomings are held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, or other methods, sometimes with an intent to bring about improvement.”

But a recent video posted by a friend on Facebook has caused me to question the idea that satire can lead to real change. The video was a short piece performed by recently deceased Mike Nichols and Elaine May that mockingly celebrated the mediocrity of television.

The piece was performed in 1959…55 years ago…and yet I wonder if the piece isn’t more salient now in the multichannel, multivehicle universe.

Listen to the audience. They’re eating it up. They know it’s true and yet so few of them likely did anything to reduce the mediocrity of television.

Has The Colbert Report done anything to cut into the viewing audience of Bill O’Reilly? Or The Daily Show seriously impacted the rhetoric spewing out of Fox News?

After the first couple seasons of ambushing politicians on Parliament Hill with their satirical antics and challenges, 22 Minutes suffered through a period where politicians practically ambushed the performers. To be seen to be able to take a joke was good for political business, thus neutering the whole point of the satire.

In contrast, there was a recent piece on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight about the Miss America scholarship program that showed the pageant was exaggerating in its claim to be the largest provider of scholarships to women. When it turned out that despite the bogus claim, Miss America still did provide scholarships to more women than several other pro-women organizations, those organizations stepped up their game. But such tit-for-tat examples are rare.

So, the question becomes, is satire anything more than entertainment for a group of common-thinking people who feel otherwise powerless? Has it ever been anything more than that?

I’m going to spend some time looking for examples where satire can be linked to social change, and I welcome input from anyone. So, please throw in your thoughts and come on back to see where I’ve landed.

And, even if I decide it really is simply a form of entertainment, I will likely continue to enjoy it as I would any other art form for which I have a fondness.

But I’ll be interested to see what I come up with.

war room

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