Satire: The best way to expose corruption or injustice?

Face painted over pothole in street (Twitter)
Guilty by association? A Russian politician's face is painted over an unfixed pothole. (Twitter)

The citizens in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg were fed up. Deep potholes remained in the streets, despite months of repeated promises by local officials for repairs. One night, street artists painted comical images of the officials’ faces over three potholes, leaving the gaping holes as mouths, along with painted quotes of their unmet promises.

The project, called “Make the politicians work,” was successful. The next day crews were fixing the potholes. Satiric public shaming succeeded where petitions, news editorials and other public advocacy had failed.

Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film “The Great Dictator” lampoons Adolf Hitler’s desire for power and Nazi racist ideology. (© AP Images)

What makes satire so effective? Television hosts such as Iraq’s Ahmad al-Basheer and Jon Stewart, until recently the host of The Daily Show in the United States, have gained massive audiences using humor to raise awareness of corruption, hypocrisy and injustice in government, the media, businesses and social/religious groups.

The political theorist Hannah Arendt explained, “The greatest enemy of authority, and the surest way to undermine it, is laughter.” When comedian Charlie Chaplin planned the film The Great Dictator, which poked fun at Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, he said, “I was determined to go ahead, for Hitler must be laughed at.”

To be effective, satire must be credible while making the target appear ridiculous.

Some examples:

  • In a speech during Libya’s unrest in 2012, former leader Muammar Qaddafi called his opposition “cockroaches” and threatened to “cleanse” his country “inch by inch, home by home, house by house, alley by alley.” Parts of the speech were remixed as the dance tune “Zenga Zenga,” highlighting Qaddafi’s strange gesticulations.
  • The run-up to Kenya’s 2013 general and presidential elections saw an explosion of political satire in cartoons, television and street art mocking politicians and their supporters.
  • Although the United States Constitution allows hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan to demonstrate and voice their views, a sousaphone player in South Carolina recently exercised his freedom of speech to make them look ridiculous.

What is satire in your culture? If you see corruption, injustice, racism or other unrighteousness, can you also see a way to mock it in a way that makes others take notice?