Five Rules on Satire

23/02/2015 13:05 GMT | Updated 21/04/2015 10:59 BST

In the beginning was the word. Next came the gunshots.

Another week, another cartoonist targeted by violent extremists. But those killed and wounded may not have been the only casualties. The Charlie Hebdo murders and now the shootings in Denmark have caused liberal minded people to wonder how far they should support the right to say or draw something that others might find offensive.

A few months ago, the world was discussing The Interview, a Hollywood comedy highly critical of Kim Jong-un. While there was near unanimity that The Interview ought to be shown in cinemas, there has been a lot more hand-wringing over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Is there a difference? Kim Jong-un is revered almost as a god in North Korea and it's arguable that the depiction of him in the Interview was far more derogatory than that of Mohammed in the pages of Charlie Hebdo. What makes one type of parody more acceptable than another?

Here are five rules which could help answer these questions. In order to promote and protect the values of free speech we must be clear on how to avoid over-zealous self-censorship. These rules aren't instructions on how to be funny. They certainly won't stop anyone taking offence. They aren't intended to be a statement of the law as it stands in any country. These rules are, however, a statement of what I hope is a reasonably clear moral position which preserves the right to criticise and caricature in such a way that the ideals of a liberal society are still upheld.


1. Only criticise something that people can choose

This is the core rule. A liberal society accepts that deep down we share a common indivisible humanity. We are divided by distinctions that we choose, not those which we are born into or have thrust upon us. Satire which denies this is unjust. Characteristics which we don't choose include race, disability, sex or gender and sexual orientation.

This rule - the choice test - is a way to reconcile our common humanity with the natural urge to lampoon what some consider outlandish, irrational or ridiculous beliefs and actions. Satire is an important tool of reform for society, to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable". It tests the ideas we accept as a given. Satire has an important democratic purpose: it encourages us to doubt those in power and thereby to hold them to account.

2. Religion is a choice. Parody of religious beliefs is therefore legitimate.

There are two reasons why religion should be seen as a choice.

First, if religion were not voluntary, then there could be no notion of a meaningful individual connection to its principles. Second, it is absurd to think that a religion can be unilaterally imposed at birth. Let's say tomorrow I invent a religion and decide that all people born in Basildon are now members of my new religion, which I'll call the "The Selected". Does this mean that they are all now The Selected? Of course not. But it's just as irrational than to say that all children born to a father of one religion will automatically share his faith.

Many conflate Muslims - adherents to a religion - with Arabs, a race of which a large number of members are Muslims, or indeed with Pakistanis or Bangladeshis, from whose populations many Muslims in the UK come. To criticise Islam is to criticise an idea, whereas to criticise Arabs is to criticise a people.

It can be more difficult to determine whether Judaism is a race or a religion. In many situations it's both, but when we are discussing satire, we need to dissociate the two. Satire which attacks the religion itself, by which I mean its tenets, its revered figures, its rituals and its practices, is legitimate. Anti-Judaism satire passes the choice test, whereas anti-Semitism does not. Satire which attacks the people who habitually adhere to such practices, rather than those practices in the abstract, is unjust. This is what the cartoonist Joe Sacco confused in his response to the Hebdo killings, where he mistakenly conflated the Hebdo Mohammed drawings with the depiction of, in his own words, a "black man falling out of a tree with a banana in his hand" and "a Jew counting his money in the entrails of the working class".

3. Context makes a difference.

There is no such thing as an objective meaning to a word or phrase. Words are just vehicles for ideas and language is a tool to convey ideas from one person to another.

So how does the context rule apply to comedy? A satirist should ask what a reasonable member of their intended audience would understand a satirical expression to mean. Illegitimate chauvinism can't be cleansed by the speaker declaring "that is not what I meant at all". It is for this reason that greater leeway might be given to a satirist who lampoons their own religion or race. For example, a joke about Jews told by Jackie Mason might take on a completely different meaning if it was re-told by the French "comedian" and political activist Dieudonné M'bala M'bala.

Membership of a particular group does not justify any statement or expression: after a certain point, a satirist who shares the characteristic they mock can't prevent their words or pictures from being a source of unjust discrimination. Chris Rock's seminal "black people" sketch is an excellent example of the genre of self-satire. In fact Rock's real message is to mock the racists and their generalisations. Indeed, far from being racist many of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons themselves attack racists. Some of the routines Omid Djalili and Russell Peters fall into the same camp - gentle mocking of their ethnicities is unobjectionable not because of the content, but because of its context.

4. Historical and public individuals are fair game

Where an individual has chosen to put themselves in the public eye then they have given their tacit consent to an exception from the choice test. David Cameron and Kim Kardashian have this in common. Satirists should avoid poking fun at individuals who have through no effort of their own become publicly known. A publication mocking Christopher Jeffries, a man who was unjustly associated by the British press with a murder in Bristol, would contravene this principle. Where they have sought fame, living and dead, real and figurative individuals can be legitimately mocked. Alongside normal politicians, contemporary religious, figures might fall within this group, like the Pope, Ayatollah Khamenei or the Chief Rabbi, as would Jesus, Mohammed, Moses or Mormon founder Joseph Smith.

Criticism of individual public figures for the beliefs which they have chosen and indeed chosen to propagate is legitimate because it is a criticism not of their genetic characteristics but of their persona, deeds and ideas. Where the object of satire is the idea or deed of such public figure, sometimes their appearance will act as a vessel to convey this message - the grotesque puppets on Spitting Image would be an example of this. Because of the tacit consent of public individuals, satire which directly mocks a public figure's voice, mannerisms or aspects of their physical appearance is justified, but only where it is the public figure alone who is the subject - it is not within the public individual's authority to waive the protection of the choice principle as regards anyone else. This brings us to the final rule.

5. Beware the Trojan Horse

The most important constraint on the preceding rules is that a satirist shouldn't by the back-door mock an un-chosen characteristic. It might be legitimate to criticise Netanyahu's politics, but not by portraying him as eating a baby. Such imagery is redolent of anti-Semitic blood libels, where for centuries Jews have been accused of killing and eating children. In the same way, a cartoon lampooning Obama as a person or for his policies is fine, but not where it does so in a way which accentuates negative stereotypes about his race.

A way to identify whether satire contains a Trojan Horse is to ask whether that which is being satirised has a rational connection to an idea or belief actually espoused by that particular group. Criticism of certain religions' dietary laws, or of other religions' attitudes to conception should be allowed where those religions actually do uphold such dietary or marital rules. Where the criticism is of a belief or practice which is merely ascribed to that group by bigots, then the satire of such inventions fails the Trojan Horse rule. Exaggeration is part of legitimate satire but the fabrication of negative characteristics is not.


One thing that really frightens a totalitarian regime is being laughed at. The Nazis knew this when they killed the anarchic essayist Erich Mühsam and so too do the Islamist extremists who targeted Rushdie, Wolinski and now Vilks. It would be a tragedy if freedom of expression was stifled by well-meaning but unjustified liberal qualms. The walls that constrain free speech are also the barriers that protect it.