The Satire Project: Why political humour is good for democracy

| October 24, 2012
The Satire Project: Why political humour is good for democracy

Political humour has always been an important part of the democratic process. For centuries, political cartoons have channeled dissent, lampooned politicians, and even educated readers. Satire can broach uncomfortable topics, shake up rigid beliefs, and make us more receptive to alternatives.

As Ian Ellis writes, "Political humour, in the hands of our finest satirists, involves delving and questioning, thereby unveiling truths and alternative perspectives the political establishment would prefer kept hidden and unspoken."

In recent years, the U.S. has seen a major resurgence in political humour with The Daily ShowThe Colbert Report, and to a lesser extent Saturday Night Live serving up savage satire to a huge fan base. These political humour shows are producing more than just chuckles. Academics in the US have found that watching these shows actually improves political engagement among audience members. Viewers are more likely to closely follow the events lampooned by the programs, to attend campaign events, and join political organizations. In some cases, the likelihood of voting even increases among the audience.

And while it is impossible to make a causal connection, it is worth noting that during the time that The Daily Show has been on the air, voter turnout in presidential elections has increased by 10 per cent.

Considering that the target audience for these shows is the 18–35 set -- those most turned off by politics right now -- there's an argument to be made about the role satire plays in reinvigorating democracy.

This is the generation that sees through the soundbites constantly regurgitated by contemporary politicians. Pundits and academics decry them for their apathy; however, it's not apathy that we see in this -- our -- generation. Rather, it's frustration with the status quo, frustration with politicians for playing retail politics and automatically excluding us from their mathematical considerations of where the votes lie.  

As Vancouver comic and founder of Truthfool Communications Sean Devlin puts it, "Our generation is presented as being so apathetic, but it's not that we don't care … It's that these problems are so overwhelming that tuning them out is an act of self-defence."

And it's this frustration that drives us to humour. In many ways it's a coping mechanism that lifts our spirits while simultaneously keeping us informed. According to Toronto comedian and Satire Project contributor Danish Anwar

"Satire fits the needs of a hypersarcastic and increasingly jaded youth culture that understands how much trouble our society is in, but rolls its eyes at protests and parades. We are far more likely to absorb a message wrapped in humour as opposed to anger. In other words, we prefer our unwashed hippies to be writers, not protesters."

Currently, traditional Canadian media choices are limited to watching either American shows or The Rick Mercer Report and This Hour Has 22 Minutes, each of which only runs 20 episodes a year. This can actually pose serious problems for their relevance to the political situation. For instance, neither series aired new episodes during the last federal election. And while these shows are pretty hilarious, they aren't necessarily written with young people in mind.

That's probably why Internet-based satire is surging right now -- it's not beholden to broadcast schedules, scripts aren't vetted by lawyers, and it's written by the same people it's meant to entertain. It's agile and can respond to an issue almost immediately. To this end, the current U.S. presidential election is being called the first meme election, with "voter generated content" seeming to dominate the popular discussion.

There's also a new push to make November National Satire Month from the Cronk of Higher Education complete with educational resources. In Canada, Deep Rogue Ram recently launched and became famous for their "weather girl goes rogue" video, and Truthfool Communications have been producing hilarious videos and running innovative campaigns for a few years now, including ShitHarperDid.ca.

And this doesn't even cover the memes being generated by so many creative (and often frustrated) Facebook and Twitter users that have become common currency on today's Internet.

All of this bodes very well for Internet-based satire, which is where The Satire Project comes in. We are new, we are upstart, and we are no one's friend. We are aiming to reproduce what Jon Stewart has been able to do in the U.S. -- in a phrase, make politics cool -- by pulling no punches and poking everyone in the eye. We'll be a hub for satire, bringing together the best that's out there and producing original memes, blogs, videos, and comics. Check out our campaign blog for a taste of what we'll do once we’re up and running.

We have teamed up with rabble.ca to make this happen. Rabble is the perfect partner for the project. Their news and commentary don't have the same agenda as everyone else -- including many other online-only purveyors. Rabble isn't afraid of ruffling feathers. In fact, rabble.ca and its readers understand that there are feathers out there that need to be ruffled, that irreverence is often a virtue.

We too see irreverence as integral to contemporary citizenship. Why be duty-bound to an establishment that in so many instances is actually working against you?

So if you want to see more of the same great content we have been producing over at www.thesatireproject.ca -- and right on rabble.ca no less -- then please donate a few dollars to our campaign. It's fast, it's easy, and you get awesome swag. Who doesn't want a Stephen Harper stress ball? At the very least, it will be fantastic for your mental health, and we think you'll find yourself reaching for it pretty often.

And hey, you might actually be helping to improve political engagement. At the very least, you'll be helping to produce some frigging hilarious satire.

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