Satire is a serious business

Satire is a serious business

The art of satire – defined in English dictionaries as “the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.”— has always been about pushing the limits. When does a deliberately fabricated news article hit too close to home? When does a cartoon cross the line from funny into gratuitously mean or provocative?

These questions were thrown into the spotlight, perhaps more than ever before, after the Charlie Hebdo shootings on January 7, when 12 people, including seven cartoonists, were killed in apparent retaliation for the satirical publication’s having published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

The media conference held last Saturday at the Morrin Centre in Quebec City, “Conversations About Today’s Language and Media Landscape in Canada,” brought together three Canadian satirists— Xavier Peich of Montreal-based website Le Navet, Alex Vietinghoff of Fredericton’s The Manatee and editorial cartoonist Yannick Lemay (Ygreck) of the Journal de Montréal— for a bilingual panel discussion on the uses of satire.

“Satire is a way to help deal with what’s going on in the world and go all the way with your ideas,” said Peich, who runs Le Navet as his satirical alter ego Théophile Paul-Henri de Bourguignon.

“We need satire,” said Lemay, a self-taught caricaturist who left school as a teenager and worked as a barman and a court illustrator before discovering political cartooning. “We need it to counterbalance everything that’s tragic and serious, and to make people think. The more widespread satire is, the more efficient it is and the more it changes things. I know they pass around a revue de presse at the National Assembly every day. Often my caricatures are on it, and sometimes politicians see it and say, “Yeah, OK, there I looked like an idiot, I need to change this.”

“There is an interesting parallel between caricature and satire because both of them exaggerate facts,” Peich observed. “Caricature exaggerates features, so we easily recognize the person [held up for criticism]. Satire exaggerates ideas.”

Although satire is intended to draw laughs, the attacks earlier this year in France show just how unfunny the results can be for those who can’t, or who refuse to, see the joke. And there are many of those. “The Internet brings out something a bit too violent in society,” Lemay says. “The most violent [personal] attacks come from fanatics and religious groups, of all religions. Everything that touches religion is very delicate because I address many, many people. When I do anything on religion I get a lot of feedback, particularly from Christians. The Charlie Hebdo attacks made us all think about that. Fortunately, that’s not my domain.”

The satirists said they did avoid certain subjects.

“People can’t help their physical appearance,” said Peich, whose site motto is ‘satirique mais poli’. “I don’t do jokes about le gros Barrette because I don’t find them funny.”

“If something is very recent… and it’s just a bit of ‘bad-luck’ that happened to someone, that’s something that we don’t touch,” said Vietinghoff. He said he had stopped using names of real people, unless they were well-known politicians or businesspeople, because online readers often believed the stories were real and harass the people involved.

“No personal attacks on individuals or groups,” says Lemay. “However, there are no absolutely taboo subjects, and there absolutely must not be. We took a long time to build democracy and we won’t go back, that’s for sure. Charlie Hebdo made us all think about that. People [afterward] were asking me, ‘Would you be game to draw Muhammad?’ Yes I did draw Muhammad, and I presented it to [Charlie Hebdo contributor] Zineb el Rhazoui. It was great. But I won’t force myself to do it.”

“There’s a difference between publishing something that will get someone to think critically, and something that will just incite an extreme reaction,” said Vietinghoff. “If you’re just trying to get extreme reactions…that’s not going to make the world a better place. People will be too wrapped up in their ideologies to think about both sides of the issue.”

“All the hatred is a strange addictive form of motivation,” he added. “When we see something get that kind of reaction we know it’s something people do need to think about.”

And it’s usually good for a laugh.

Categories: Arts & Culture, Opinion

About Author

Ruby Pratka

Ruby Pratka grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, studied in Ottawa and took the roundabout way to Quebec City via Russia, Slovenia, France, Switzerland, Belgium and East Africa. In addition to writing for LifeinQuebec.com and Life in Québec Magazine, she also contributes to other media outlets in English and French. She enjoys keeping a close eye on international affairs, listening to good music and singing in large groups.

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