Hugo Rifkind in The Times published a fantastic article on the failure of satire to truly make a difference. Somewhat ironically, it really made me think.
Its central argument – that modern satire only really speaks to the audience it makes comfortable rather than challenging the establishment, is spot on. Satire hasn’t had any real “effect” on political culture for decades. Just as Ben Elton didn’t bring down “Mrs Thatch”, nor did Rory Bremner stop the Iraq war, both performed generally for audiences who enjoyed cheering them on rather than those who were intended to be on the sharp end of their wit.
As the way we engage with media has changed, this has only got worse. We pick and choose our entertainment and information sources. We work long and hard hours and it’s a rare person who chooses to feel uncomfortable in their downtime. Content providers – as these artists are – know this and give their loyal audiences what they want. This is as true of satirists I adore, such as Stewart Lee or Charlie Brooker, as it is of those I can’t bear, such as Dapper Laughs.
The left-wing sense of what “satire” is has been set in stone since the boom in the Sixties, led by That Was the Week That Was. But the circumstances in which they burst through were completely different. What worked for them was that sense of genuine shock. This was the time when deference was only starting to fray at the edges. It took this pricking of the pomposity of the establishment to push us into the post-deferential age.
Now we are there however, it is no longer enough simply to take pot shots at those in power simply for being in power. It’s not shocking. It’s a facsimile of something that once had the power to shock delivered in a comfortable format and repackaged in as unthreatening way as possible. It was the sense of “you can’t say that” shock that held the power to upend the establishment – not the jokes themselves.
Laughing at the establishment not only doesn’t have the shock value it once had, it can actively empower those currently leading the world in an “anti-establishment” populism. It was through shock tactics of a different kind that populists are now surging throughout the world in the name of “the unheard people”. For example, it would now feel more daring to actively defend the role politicians play in our society than to attack it.
In the last few years, politicians have actively and repeatedly given up their power in favour of plebiscites. Referendum after referendum has been held on both simple and incredibly complex questions alike because politicians no longer really feel in charge. Even when they do retain their decision making in Parliament, the ridiculous contortions the Labour Party has put itself through over Brexit show how little its MPs are willing to use the power they have to do the jobs they were elected to do.
Power lies with the people more than ever before. This should be a good thing and it can be. But no power base should go unchallenged. How does satire find a way to challenge and discomfort “the people”? How do you bring that message to an audience who will naturally choose not to listen and whose choices are broad enough not to have to?
It may not be through satire, but it will be through shock that change happens. We have to seek to understand now what that will be. What still has the power to shock and what new shocks are there to be had in a world as jaded as ours? How do you resell the complexity of difficult decisions in a populist age without resorting to outdated elitism?
The most successful recent successful political satire, The Thick of It, gloriously mimicked the desperation of traditional politics to listen more to the people and the true sense of powerlessness felt even at the very top. What is terrifying about the leaders now surging – the Trumps and the Farages – is not their insecurities but their confidence that they speak for “the people”.
I think Hugo Rifkind was absolutely right about the inverse role modern satire plays in challenging conventions but I don’t want to give up on its power as a tool in challenging our complacency and their certainty. Now is the time to find out how to break that down. To do so we must sharpen our tools – not blunt them on our own comfort zones.