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No laughing matter

Like the selectivity infested news media, the online cottage industry of political satire has chosen to see only what it wants to see

IN THE seventeenth century, English thinker Thomas Hobbes, analysing human nature for his work on political philosophy, observed something about the instincts that drive people to make fun of others, in covert and overt forms. In a way, over 350 years ago, Hobbes had something to say about the psyche that drives mockery, sarcasm, and even satire.

From his insights, one can derive that all these are egoistic exercises – a way of telling ourselves we are far from the stupidity that the person being laughed at is showing, and then feeling good about our “intelligence”. Moreover, mocking someone indirectly through sarcasm and satire might amount to congratulating ourselves for being clever enough to laugh at someone in creative, though thinly veiled, ways.

Hobbes made these observations at a time when satire had already existed for centuries as a literary genre. In fact, its use in some forms of philosophical writings was also known. Thinkers like Leo Strauss have argued, for instance, that even Plato’s Republic could be read as employing elements of satire in discussing the limits of political feasibility. To buttress his point, he cites ancient Roman philosopher Cicero’ s views about the Greek classic.

We now live in an age when the overdose of memes, online satire shows and stand-up comedy double up as political commentary. So, the danger of exaggeration and convenient caricaturing hindering the understanding of the less informed, if not ill-informed, cannot be ruled out. While their role as a form of harmless amusement is obvious, the biases and skewed sense of proportion accompanying political memes and satire can insidiously distort the political and media education of the gullible news consumer.

The popularity of the current deluge of online memes and satire shows is rooted in caricaturing – something that defines political cartoons too. Caricaturing extracts the cost of amusement by being an over-the-top representation of its subject of mockery, alarmist, smart alec-type portrayal, or even misrepresentation.

In the past, even celebrated writers haven’t escaped these limitations. Take George Orwell’s Animal Farm. While it’s a strong satirical take on the totalitarian regime in a communist country, it falls prey to the caricaturing of characters suitable for its narrative and doesn’t aid the understanding of how the communist system works. So, even as it captures certain facets of the regime, the novel ends up filling the popular imagination of a communist regime with half-baked, even stretched notions.

Similarly, Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, a satirical take on capitalism, takes the easy route of situational caricaturing while depicting the workings of a capitalist system. In the process, readers carry with them stretched representations and slices of misrepresentation.

In recent years, as India’s meme and satire scene, particularly its online variant, has expanded, it has become fraught with such dangers. Starting off as an imitation of TV satire shows in the US, they have generally struggled to find an authentic voice beyond metropolitan witticism and the romantic appeal of dissenting irreverence – all combining to produce a ridicule-spewing assembly line.

Their approach isn’t much different from what political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta once identified as the common low-hanging-fruit method used by many opinion makers in India to push their views: “As critics, we often define our identities by picking out the worst arguments and the worst characters to go after. This is not because of the magnitude of the objective threats they pose. It is because our intellectual victories are easy.”

The cherrypicking of the lampooning material from a wide range of assailable political statements and news stories across a country as large as India is the first sign of how partisanship has infiltrated the country’s political satire and comic circuit. Like the selectivity infested news media, the proliferating online cottage industry of political satire has chosen to see only what it wants to see. As a result, it has its own camps and echo chambers to cater to. Obviously, each camp is listening to only what it can ridicule with impish glee, and is conveniently deaf to what embarrasses it.

In any camp, the common presence is that of the smug smirk – the one Hobbes detected centuries ago. It’s generally fuelled by egotist cocoons and certified by the laughter of echo chamber followers or promoters.

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