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Satire and Free Speech: a revisiting
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-03-03 13:02:15
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To return briefly to the issue of Satire and Free Speech already extensively explored in the last Ovi Symposium as “the limits of free speech” I’d like to recommend to the interested Ovi readership an insightful and lucid essay on this subject by Professor Justin E.H. Smith, an American who teaches history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris Diterot. The essay is aptly titled “Why Satire Matters” and it appeared very recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education (2/27/2015).


What is insightful about this particular essay on such a hot topic is that it elucidates the ongoing confusion between satirical language, which is always imaginative, creative, humorous and free, and what he calls “declarative speech which refuses to recognize that speech can also be a product of the free play of the imagination.”  Which is to say, satirical speech always reflects the flawed human condition, as such it is the reaction of the creative mind to such a flawed condition explaining why it is an equal opportunity offender  universally necessary within the realm of the intelligible and language. Smith reminds us that the threat of political correctness is that if fails to make this crucial distinction.”


Smith gives a pertinent example from Mark Twain’s Roughing It, which is a fictionalized account of a real journey west. In it Twain chronicles the genocide which is unfolding all around him. As Smith puts it: “He is blithe about it, mostly. The American Indians are a nuisance to him, as the wagon in which he is crossing could be attacked at any moment; and a boon to him, as this threat, and the real attacks happening all around, provide fodder for his tales…Mark Twain is complicit in the genocide, but he is no Andrew Jackson or Hernan Cortes. His role in the world is different. He is the genocide’s resident humorist, as Charles Darwin is the Beagle’s resident naturalist. When Twain tells the stories of the men with the arrowheads beneath their skin, his aim is not to stoke more hatred of American Indians, not to defend or to damn the Euro-American appropriation of their land, but to make us laugh. Why, though, is this funny? Because it reminds us that we are all hanging by a thread, that life is precarious.”


The conclusion of this rather lengthy but brilliant essay is intriguing and insightful at the same time: “the basic division in society is between those who suppose the function of language is to get thing definitively right, and who strive to use this right language, codified and regulated, for the perfection of society, and those who appreciate that language is infinitely generative, creative, and free, and that it must not be subjected to regulation…the humorous use of language, which is language at its most free, is worthy of particular care and protection. If it is lost, all is lost.”


What Smith is declaring in effect is that only humor can ultimately offers a modicum of redemption when confronted with a flawed human condition and the unfolding sad events of human history when the temptation to despair is great. The other thing, dangerous in some way, is the positing of an ideal non existent perfect society as Utopia, Plato’s Republic being the prime example. And so we are back to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and logical positivism and the uses and abuses of language. Also back to the C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures. Plenty of food for thought!  Motivated readers who find the time to read this essay will not be disappointed. They should also stay tuned for forthcoming Symposium issues on cultural anthropology, Utopia, and death.    

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