A Weapon of Mass Detraction

satire n
The use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticise people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topic issues. (Oxford English Dictionary)

In 1984, the film This is Spinal Tap was released. Presented as a documentary, it followed pedestrian rock group Spinal Tap as it struggled to regain its fan base while on tour and release its new album with minimal support from their record company. It was in fact a “mockumentary”; it was presented as reality but was simply a satirical take on rock n’ roll and all of its casualties.

For those unaware that it wasn’t real (understandable given how well the actors did their jobs), the film was a confusing, neutral kind of experience.

For the rest who realised that it was a brilliant spoof, the film was fantastically clever and funny, with many of its lines entering the pop culture lexicon (think “but this one goes to eleven” a la Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnell, who explains that his amp goes to eleven rather than ten). Better still, the humour was effective; the garish and indulgent side to the rock n’ roll world was isolated and illuminated for all to see in an entertaining rather than purely judgmental way.

This kind of mockumentary is a popular method of satirical commentary nowadays. For example, The Office, a popular British television series following the lives of workers in a paper merchant’s office in the gloomy area of Slough, takes this mockumentary approach. Office workers viewing it cringe in recognition, whether it’s at David Brent’s (Ricky Gervais) smarmy “I’m-one-of-you”-style of leadership, the forced chatter in the lunchroom, the tedium of the work involved, or that annoying neighbour you can’t get away from.

Satire is essentially a form of social commentary, designed to precipitate change or awareness. Often the humour will be very apparent, while some of the most effective satire is subtle, targeting an individual or an institution’s hubris.

When Lynne Truss, a grammar stickler and fierce advocate of ‘proper English’, wanted to share her message about language preservation, and her knowledge of the English language, she used humour to do so. And very effectively, given that the result was a bestseller. In her immensely popular book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Truss pokes fun at her own obsessiveness and pedantry.

“Why did the Apostrophe Protection Society not have a militant wing?” she bemoans upon seeing posters for the film Two Weeks Notice sans required apostrophe.

While the examples above illustrate satire’s effectiveness in pop and social cultures, some of the most influential and daring satire stems from issues of politics and religion.

Jon Stewart and Andy Borowitz are two very popular satirical commentators in the US. Stewart’s book of parody, based on his program The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, entitled America, was a hit, while Borowitz enjoys success as a writer for The New Yorker magazine, and through his website The Borowitz Report, in which he targets the government and even celebrities with mock news reports. An example of a headline warns: “Bush: Keep Guantanamo Open, Close U.N.; Calls Conditions at World Body ‘Intolerable’”.

Both Borowitz and Stewart are immensely popular comedians who have, and consequently demonstrate, little regard for the Bush administration, and while it probably doesn’t seem difficult to find fault, they very cleverly dissect current issues and make them the subject of parody in order to expose the deficits, increase awareness of them and encourage people to take notice.

While there is always a need for serious critical commentary, sometimes the humorous observations are most effective in assessing problems and, most importantly, in reaching the masses. Perhaps it is laziness, or simply a poor form of intellectual thought, but realistically, a weekly newspaper column in a highbrow publication will not reach an audience as adequately as a short and sharp satirical comic strip or cartoon may.

The best forms of satire evoke a strong response from the audience, and deal with particular issues (politics, entertainment and celebrities, famous figures, and current affairs to name a few). It needs to be succinct, and even subtle, in its attack. It must reveal the truth about a situation that has been portrayed as something that it absolutely isn’t. And there is a very real need for appropriate satire, particularly given the proliferated political stupidity and religious anarchy plaguing society today.

The main obstacle to effective satire tends to be misunderstanding from the audience who doesn’t realise that it’s parody. Not everyone gets it right. Or worse, if not done correctly, it can crumble into a seriously unfunny heap of cheap shots or sick, immature jokes.

It is in fact crucial to disassociate satire from its less sophisticated cousins in the humour tree. Sarcasm (“the bastard stepchild of irony”), lewd jokes, cheap one-liners et al are not satirical; they pander to a lower expectation and are largely absent of true wit.

So far all of the examples provided are not specific to Muslims. How can satire work for Muslims as a tool of expression and communication? We need to be able to engage in humorous and constructive dialogue, or at the very least, change our methods of response to include satire. This promotes a less defensive and more open-minded form of self-assessment and a multi-layered understanding of events and people.

When an organisation purporting to represent all Muslims, for example, commits a monumental stuff-up, rather than outrage, perhaps a subtle, critical cartoon, or gently mocking article can produce the desired response.

Yet, we not only find it difficult to satirise; we seem to have difficulty grasping it as a legitimate form of humour in general.

A few years ago, a magazine published an advertisement for a popular and very colourful brand of sneakers. The ad featured several women dressed as Muslims, robed in black, only their eyes peering out and their shoes on display. Different colours and styles of the same trendy brand offered a stark contrast to the robes of black.

There was something playful and provocative about the picture. It was certainly not meant as an affront to Muslims or their clothing, but the alarm bells went off and the response from the Muslim community in general was one of outrage. They were offended; they felt that Islam was being mocked (it wasn’t). Perhaps years of being derided for their differences, too many labels and too much fear about ignorance created this defensive response.

In any case, it was one situation where Muslims were united in their discontent and vocal enough that the ads were abandoned.

That situation is not unique or as serious as others in which Muslims have responded to insult, many reactionary and only further emblazoning a fire that, left to some careful treatment, would have eventually died down (and with fewer casualties).

But these reactions are not limited to outside elements. Muslims generally are not apathetic to what affects them, within or outside the community. Yet why does humour tend to be used only in extreme circumstances of criticism (for example, one “sect” against another, non-religious Muslims against religious Muslims, etc)? This destructive inability to engage in more worthwhile discourse is damaging on many levels.

The worldwide web is littered with grassroots satire; some just self-satisfied personal rants, while others are pitch perfect deconstructions. Yet there seems to be a massive gap amongst Muslims when it comes to self-criticism in general and particularly this kind of humour.

Maniac Muslim is one website designed to satirise elements of a Muslim’s lifestyle. A glance at the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) suggests that the website founder, Hamzah Moin, has many readers who just don’t get it.

FAQ one reads:

“Why are you making fun of Islam?”

The response:

“This question comes up to the most. I’m not making fun of our beloved religion. I believe the religion to be perfect. I believe the Prophet (SAW) was a perfect man and perfect model. I would never make fun of the amazing companions the Prophet (SAW) had.

So what exactly am I making fun of on the site? I only make fun of things that Muslims do that are not part of this religion or I make articles to raise issues on certain aspects of our community. This site addresses problems within our community, not within Islam (through a comical viewpoint).”

Another FAQ on the Maniac Muslim website fires:

“So shouldn’t we solve these problems rather than laugh about them?”

The response explains:

“Yes we should… however if people don’t know the problems exists in the first place then how would they go about solving them?”

This is a crucial point. The quality of conversation is alarmingly low, deficient of intellectual thought, and lacking the humour that is so useful in targeting our weaknesses in order to address them.

So do we take ourselves too seriously? Or is it that we don’t see a place for satire in our lives? No matter the reasoning behind this dearth of humour, increased global communication and media interaction demands a higher quality of response and self-assessment.

Maybe it’s time to stop taking everything so seriously and remember our funny bones. Seriously.