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February 15, 2017
by Ruth Gordon, MA, MSW, LCSW

Satire- useful, harmless, or just plain mean?

February 15, 2017 12:00 by Ruth Gordon, MA, MSW, LCSW  [About the Author]

In a world of insult comics, radio shock jocks, tv parodies, etc. it is easy to become confused about what, exactly, is the role of satire, especially in politics. The roots of satire are long and thick. Taking aim at those who believed they were above reproach was in trend long before the modern age of electronic devices.

Satire is traced back to Aristophanes (445 B.C. to 385 B.C.). It has been said that satire is designed to make people laugh and then to make them think. The purpose is to humble individuals, societies, and institutions that appear to consider themselves to be better than the rest.

One does not have to dig far to expose hypocrisy. To be fair, it would be just about impossible for a person or organization to avoid discrepancies in what they say and what they do.

At the Ig Nobel Prizes there are awards for trivial achievement. A good representation of satire is observed when winners are announced.

Examples of this would be:

Economics– Presented to Joel Slemrod, of the University of Michigan Business School, and Wojciech Kopczuk, of the University of British Columbia, they concluded that people would manage to reschedule their deaths if that would lower their inheritance tax. Awarded in 2001

Chemistry– Presented to Edward Cussler, University of Minnesota and Brian Gettelfinger, the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, their watchfulness determining the answer to the crucial scientific question: can people swim faster in syrup or water Awarded in 2005

Medicine- Simon Rietveld of the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Ilja van Beest of Tilburg University, The Netherlands, for ascertaining that riding a roller coaster will effectively treat symptoms of asthma 2010.

Literature- Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira, and Nick J. Enfield, for discovering that the word "huh" (or something like it) is found in every human language — they found no explanation for this phenomenon. 

Books such as Mark Twain’s, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, considered to be a masterpiece, were designed to reveal the hypocritical nature of man. Twain illuminated the true nature of relationships between the church and slaves after the Civil War.

Satire in the Modern Age

Some of the great satirists of the 20 to 21st centuries have been: Dorothy Parker, Charlie Chaplin, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Stephen Colbert.

The movie, Dr. Strangelove, the TV show, South Park, and, of course, Saturday Night Live, which, has embraced an unsparing approach as they impale chosen targets, are all examples of satire that has frequently hit its mark.

ln general, it is agreed that the appropriate subjects for satire are powerful, influential, bombastic and pretentious individuals, groups and institutions who set themselves up as champions, authorities, and purveyors of all that is true. While these groups may be offended by satire, when they are lampooned, no permanent harm occurs.

There is a considerable amount of agreement on which subjects are not appropriate targets for satire. In general, it is unfair (not funny) to poke at those who, for whatever reason, are regarded as less fortunate, who have been exploited and mistreated.

It is acceptable for groups to banter within their ethnic and religious clique. Should the line be crossed, however, the satirist must understand what is not acceptable and, thus, will result in accusations of “ism” or “shaming” such as racism, ageism, fat shaming.

The difference between a comedian and a satirist is that the comedian speaks with one voice while the satirist speaks with two. The satirist is aware of the satire, after all, he wrote it. He must also play the stooge who takes himself very seriously. If the audience is not conscious of the dual nature of the piece, it cannot hit it’s mark.

Another way to look at the use of satire is that it, supposedly, clarifies the difference between delusion and sanity. It is hypothesized that we accept incongruity on a regular basis. We tend to ignore the absurdities that surround us. Satire encourages us to stop and look at the notions we buy into that make no sense, while we, pretend that they do.

Satire helps us to think

The tale of the Emperor’s new clothes is an example. The emperor proudly traipsed through the town in his newly-made finery. There were cheers and sighs of admiration. The emperor swaggered through the town with pride until a little boy pointed out that, in fact, the emperor was naked. The emperor was a wonderful metaphor for a target for satire.

A modern day example of a suitable subject for satiric ridicule would be the entire Kardashian family. Between their jewels, homes, cars and other signs of ostentation, it is, for some desirable, to take them down a peg or two through the use of satire. While the family may be embarrassed, this type of mockery would not do them substantial harm.

An open expression of anger is considered to be taboo for the objects of satire. Those who fare well can laugh back. Better yet would be if that individual has a good comeback that demonstrates his/her ability to take a joke. This ability is displayed at celebrity “roasts” and the White House Correspondents Dinner.

When satire does its job, it provides merriment with a purpose. There must be a ring of truth, as it is impossible to caricature what isn’t there. It points out what doesn't make sense. It endeavors to humble the mighty. At it’s best, it encourages us to realize that things aren’t always how they seem.


Aria, C. (2014, April 8). If You Say Something Racist It Doesn't Matter if its "Satire" or Serious: You're a Racist. Retrieved February 12, 2017, from thoughtcatalog,com

Grabmeier, J. (2017, January 23). Not Just Funny: Satirical News Has Serious Political EffectsJ. Retrieved February 12, 2017, from

How Past Presidents Approached Time Honored Tradition of Political Satire. (n.d.). Retrieved February 12, 2017, from

Joshi, A. (2015, February 22). What Are The Key Differences Between Satire and Sarcasm. Retrieved February 12, 2017, from

Mc kennan, S. A. (2016, September 20). Jon Stewart Resigned,Trump is a Joke, and Larry Wilmore Got Canceled: Understanding the Power of Political Satire This Election. Retrieved February 12, 2017, from

Meijer, M., Ed. (n.d.). The Power of Satire. Retrieved February 12, 2017, from

Political Satire As Old As Politics. (n.d.). Retrieved February 12, 2017, from

Swayne, M. (2015, January 28). Why We Need Satire When Times are Tough. Retrieved February 12, 2017, from

When Bad Satire is Served up as a Thin Veil for Hate. (14, February 11). Retrieved February 12, 2017, from


About the Author

Ruth Gordon Ruth Gordon, MA/MSW/LCSW

I bring with me +30 years of experience as a clinician. My Masters degrees are from: Assumption College, Worcester, MA, Master of Arts in Psychology & Counseling/ and Boston University School of Social Work, Boston, MA, an MSW in Clinical Social Work. This is the 11th year I have written a monthly newsletter that is sent to approximately 500 individuals. The archive can be found on my website,

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