Satire — The Direction of the Punch
Similarly as for the arts, we — in the western world — consider the freedom of expression, and independence of press very important pillars of a functioning democracy. And satire, in particular the ridiculing the leaders, is the spear front of that: Whether you are allowed and able to do satire is a very good indicator for free speech. However, this argument that “satire is allowed to do anything” is also used in order to silence any criticism on a particular piece and satire itself. That’s obviously a problem.
Because satire can go wrong. Under the disguise of “everything goes” this tool for the fight against oppression is itself abused to oppress. I see that a lot within German satire and comedy. In fact, comparing German contemporary satire and my dislike of it to the comedy and satire I do like, mostly US-centered, is what brought me to this idea in the first place.
Let me explain this with a little analogy. I think we can all agree that satire is often under the belt, the low blow, punchlines you wouldn’t do without it explicitly marking them as satire. We can consider satire the “sucker punch” of punches you might throw.
Now, within a bar fight it might not be considered good manners, but if you landed a sucker punch people will understand – IF your opponent is clearly much stronger than you are. If, instead, you are the bigger and more powerful, landing a sucker punch is frowned upon. Actually, within that dynamic, with you being the powerful, most will agree that any punch is a bad one. Aside of course, in the eyes of those, who’d like to see the other person punched in the face, in the first place.
Traditionally, the target of punches of satire are the powerful, the leaders and the elite or society at large. This is where ridicule, one key trope of satire, is most effective and most widely deployed. And as such, it is meant as and falls under hood of the honorable concept of “speaking truth to power”. Even though they are “low blows”, the punch is going upwards the power hierarchy.
I am not sure we can call this a recent trend, but there most certainly is a big part in contemporary comedy, in Germany in particular, that is using these forms of ridicule and mocking of people as key parts of their characters and language, yet, the target aren’t the powerful or the elite. While Germany has a long standing tradition of creating mocks of the “Otto Normalverbraucher”, the common “Otto”, as a stand-in for the Germany population at large, since the early 90th we’ve seen more and more characters that portrait, persiflage and out-right mock certain social groups within the German population. And this is where we crossed the line.
Because, and this is a key here, these people we’re mocked by “rich”, educated comedians. Even though they aren’t the elite of the country, nor the powerful or leaders, they most certainly hold a lot more power than those they are making fun of. When Bastian Pastewka, for example, disguises himself as Pakistani merchant and asks in broken German “Wolle Rose kaufen?” (“Want buy rose?”), he isn’t only literally black-facing, this rich white dude is going for the laughs of the everyday man by mocking a socially oppressed minority. He is punching downwards the power hierarchy.
Somehow this became common place in the 90th and early 2000th in Germany, peaking with Stefan Raab’s four-times-per-week late-night-show and various spin-off-songs, which famously featured mockery and ridicule of sort-of-uncommon German accents or ways of speaking (most notably used to describe the uneducated — we don’t call them that anymore — “lower class” and outcasts because of ethnic background). But it hasn’t ended with the show either.
While, for a short time, some non-white comedians took the stage, most notably Kaya Yanar, who at the beginning did follow the recipe of a Dave Chapelle and punched vertically, by persiflage of their own ethnic group, it quickly deteriorated, when they, too, learned that they get more laughs on the expense of the “poor” and social outcasts. Aside from a range of racist accents, most notably the accents of eastern Germans and the way of speaking in the lower class is used very often to do so. Unfortunately we also see this behavior in the rise of most recent women in the field in Germany.
While they have every right to make fun of men — women are generally disadvantaged and therefore every woman’s joke on the expense of men in general is a punch upwards the power hierarchy and therefore justified — when they, too, mock men based of their accent or way of speaking for e.g. through the ridicule of a turkish-german accent, this it shifts..
See, when you punch someone in a bar fight, not only the general direction decides whether what you did was okay, but also who might be your collateral damage — the way you throw the punch. When you are willing to hit a smaller by-stander, the sucker punch against that more power full opponent might be justified but it isn’t okay that you hit that by-stander, too. They didn’t do anything to deserve that and you better apologize.
The same is true if that woman ridicules that man for their accent. While it is totally justified to throw the punch against men, when they take the racist form to do so, the power dynamic changes and it becomes about a white person mocking a person of color. Or when the well educated, ethnic German satirist recites a poem to ridicule a foreign leader (“punching upwards”) by using racists slurs (“punching downwards”). Unfortunately, that is very common place among contemporary satire and comedy in Germany.
Quick side note: When you add a racists slur or sexist punch line to it, the entire joke becomes racist/sexist. You see, when you add such a joke, it is only those racists and sexists, who think that’s funny. You added it for their laughs only. But in the process of doing so, everyone, who thinks racism and sexism aren’t okay, will not only think this wasn’t funny, but also won’t laugh at the jokes that follow and belong to it. And even if they did laugh before, when they first heard it, the next time around, they will not consider anything of that funny anymore. Sexism and racism are just like that banana in a milk shake: it doesn’t matter what else you put in it or even how much of the banana you used, the entire thing just takes like banana once you added it. That’s just how it is, and if you can’t understand that, maybe you shouldn’t be writing jokes.
Conclusion: I do believe, satire must be allowed to do everything — it is a fundamental part of free speech. But we must be careful what we call satire. Not every racist slur and sexist remark must be accepted as part of it. We must look at the power dynamic, I actually argue most people do that intuitively, and asses whether this really is satire in the tradition of pushing upwards the power hierarchy, which must be protected from persecution, or if this just a low blow, a cheap way to get laugh on the expense on oppressed minorities. This really mustn’t be protected. To distinguish this one must also consider, who else is getting hurt within the process and not just accept everything under the cover of “everything goes in satire”. It really doesn’t.
I recommend watching “Dear white people”. The movie as well as the series portray, in a side story, the ridiculousness that is “racist white people satire magazines” quite nicely.