Following the recent anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the debate surrounding ‘free speech’ has re-surged with as much vehemence as ever. Whether due to the mounting threat of terrorism, the powerhouse of social media or heightened multiculturalism, free speech has garnered the title of being one of, if not the most important, human value promoted by many liberal democracies.
Yet, although perceived as a landmark of contemporary liberty, it is a right which brings as much controversy as it does freedom. The legitimacy of racism, sexism and homophobia under the guise of ‘free speech’ has encouraged critics to establish the difference between a human right and ‘hate speech’ – a difference which has been further advocated by religious institutions condemning criticisms of their beliefs. However, when culture clashes and political correctness further blurs the distinction between these two ideas, its effectiveness is brought into question. With this lack of distinction, satire – be that literature, art or film – seems to caricature the bitter cynicism. However, it is these creative mechanisms which allow for individual control, not as a manifestation of acrimonious resentment, but as a sharp critique of moral and societal ruin.
the guise of ‘free speech’ has encouraged critics to establish the difference between a human right and ‘hate speech’
Defined as ‘the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices’, the development of satire is closely interlinked with press limitations. Whereas earlier satirists, such as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope relied on farcical literary devices to subtly highlight the vices of society in its entirety, social media has now permitted a platform in which any teenager with a phone can brazenly expose their political, religious or cultural adversaries. For Swift, the role of a satirist was clear: ‘to mend the world as far as they are able.’ In many senses, this idea is bound with that most troublesome of Christian beliefs, emphasising man’s fallen, inferior status which can only be eliminated when critically highlighted. Indeed, this was particularly true of seventeenth-century satirists whose writing targeted the ignorance and decadence of contemporary society, viewing themselves as a superior ilk, whose role was – in Pope’s own words – ‘to deter, if not to reform.’
Such reformation does not merely target the individual; later satire, in particular, has concentrated more specifically on aspects such as culture and politics rather than the idea of human nature itself. Programmes such as The Daily Show and Have I Got News for You, publications such as Private Eye and even social media pages such as Britain Furst highlight the prejudices and failings underpinning many political systems. With the fruition of more extreme Fascist and Communist ideologies within the twentieth century and the declining status of Christianity in many Western cultures, ideas about humanity and morality have become more interlinked with political structures than religious values. Alongside more traditional, humorous elements, satire now embodies a far grittier role, with literature such as Nineteen Eighty Four and Brave New World depicting a darker vision of contemporary cultural developments. Indeed, the success of such works is only an example of the power of social pressure. Far from the bloodshed of armed conflict or the havoc of revolution, the more creative mechanisms epitomised by satire help to initiate social change using the tranquil veil of a printing press, TV camera or computer screen.
Indeed, the social power of satire offers it a far greater potency than would be belied by categorising it as a mere genre. As a form of criticism, it tackles both society and humanity in its bare essence, addressing a rawness which cannot be accessed through more explicit methods. Indeed, somewhat ironically, satire’s contemporary criticisms create a resonance which does not root so much in modern culture as in human nature. Through satire, freedom of speech is not merely a modern human right but a social power. It is not a violent force, not an exertion of physical brutality, merely an individual attempt for human reform.