Toward a sociology of satire

We've been reading a lot of serious stuff about humor since the assassinations of the "Charlie Hebdo" team and the related assault on the supermarket in Paris. It's really hard to joke about so much blood. But sometimes humor is the best, or even the only, way to deal emotionally with such trauma, without totally breaking down. And that's really what satire is about, coping with horror by laughing at it. That's what the latest cover of "Charlie" has tried to do. But millions of people don't get the joke, and can't be expected to, because the kinds of horror they're facing is something entirely different from "Charlie"'s audience.

Satire is an interplay of three terms: author, target, and audience, and they have to work in concert. The author is looking for a laugh at the expense of people or practices that make him and his intended audience uncomfortable. The laughter is supposed to be cathartic, a release (however brief) from that discomfort or fear.

For it to work, the audience has to recognize the target and share the author's discomfort.

And there's the problem. Or several problems. To wit,
  • To be effective, it has to be deliberately offensive to its targets without alienating its intended audience. But with the Internet and television, its targets are a big part of its audience.   
  • In France, readers of Charlie Hebdo were and are uncomfortable with Sarkozy's frenetic impulses, Hollande's wavering, Valls' authoritarianism, the Catholic church hierarchy's moral pronouncements, Zionist nationalists and radical Islamists — among the more frequent targets. But even within France, from Paris center to the banlieues, in Marseille from the port district to the fancy shopping area next door, very different factors make people uncomfortable and fearful.
  • Getting the laugh depends on irony, deliberate exaggeration which demands shared understanding of symbols and caricatures. All of us non French have probably been misreading a lot of the jokes in Charlie Hebdo, according to this persuasive discussion by Tekno. And the readings in Chechenia or Pakistan are also wildly opposite the satirists' presumed intention.
  •  Satire also requires a shared culture of discourse, i.e., what is permitted and what is not permitted to say. What a satirist can get away with in France can get you lashed to death in Saudi Arabia, jailed in Egypt, run off the airwaves in Venezuela. 
  • And you can't really get away with all that much in France, either — as Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, a very funny man but with very different targets, long ago discovered. 
And those are some of the problems with "Charlie Hebdo" and all satire today. But we have to keep laughing, every chance to get, whenever we start quaking with fear. Even, or especially, when we're afraid somebody who is offended is going to try to kill us.