As it modernizes, Saudi Arabia under Mohammad bin Salman takes the lead in suppressing satire.
Some human activities are less compatible than others with the policies of visionary leaders. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) has recently made clear his intention of reshaping Saudi Arabia’s economy and culture. He seeks to wean the kingdom of its dependence on oil, and to usher a nation that is too often assumed to be out of touch and behind the times into the high-tech, high-profile modern world. The latest of his groundbreaking, modernizing “reforms” is to rid his country of one of what he deems the most extreme forms of terrorism: satire.
To show they are serious, the Saudis “will punish online satire that ‘disrupts public order’ with up to five years in prison” and a significant fine. And to make sure that such crimes will be discovered and dealt with, “authorities issued a public call for citizens to report on the social media activities of their fellow citizens, under a broad definition of ‘terrorist’ crimes,” which we now understand includes satire.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A form of expression or literary art in which the author seeks to draw attention to recognized problems in society through exaggeration or the invention of a story with parallel logic, and ideally proves the truth of the observation when the target of the satire reacts.
Some readers may mistakenly think that The Daily Devil’s Dictionary is a platform for satire. Our purpose is identical with that of any lexicographer or dictionary builder: to remove as far as possible the ambiguity from our understanding of particular words and collocations. We go one step beyond traditional dictionaries by seeking to be “pedagogical” — i.e., to provide information about current and historical context that, by taking into account cultural associations, helps to pinpoint the specific and often complex or ambiguous meaning of the words used by public figures.
In defense of the possibly well-intentioned crown prince, MBS, what many people propose as satire, especially on social media, tends to be simple mockery and insult rather than the “literary art” mentioned in our definition. This is unfortunate since true satire is the opposite of terrorism: It seeks to avoid violence by raising the level of reflection and intelligence concerning complex issues.
John Allemang, writing in The Globe and Mail, offered some perspective on satire in the context of the tragic controversy surrounding the French journal Charlie Hebdo, victim of a murderous terrorist attack in 2015. He reminds us that, “Satire at the top of the hierarchy strives to be art with all the associated complexity and intellectual ambition.” He contrasts this with Charlie Hebdo’s “satire of the nose-thumbing variety, a kind of sensationalist journalism intended to stir up a hornet’s nest.”
In other words, we, in the sophisticated West, seem to have lost the sense of what satire is, how it works and the positive role it can play in a democratic society. By confusing accusatory gross caricature, such as the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, with the art of a Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain and calling both types of public expression satire, we end up justifying the authoritarian impulses of Mohammad bin Salman and other despots, as well as paving the way for the death of irony.
The confusion is so bad that the influential writer David Foster Wallace attacked irony by grouping it with cynicism and irreverence as features of the “postmodernist” trend in US culture. “Irony has no redemptive qualities in and of itself,” he wrote, as if the point of irony is redemption. One might conclude that the problem at the heart of US culture is that it can’t believe in itself unless it is seeking redemption, which is unlikely to occur in such a competitive, individualistic society.
Like MBS, Wallace wished to banish irony. But the day irony disappears, we’ll all be in trouble… except that when that happens we can expect that artificial intelligence and the robots will already have taken over, which many “serious” people (i.e. devoid of irony) are already predicting.
They even have a name for it: the singularity.
Although historians from Rome know little about the actual cause of the satirist Juvenal’s exile from Rome, many presume he was banished by an emperor as punishment for his satire, which has been characterized as full of “bitterness and venom.” Another famous Roman poet, Ovid, was banished by Augustus, but not necessarily for satire, just for exercising too much liberty as a writer and public personality. In 18th-century France, Voltaire was exiled on multiple occasions, the first time for lampooning the Duc d’Orléans.
Writers may find exile inconvenient and uncomfortable, but the five years in prison that MBS is promising for ordinary citizens, who may have been denounced by their peers, sounds a bit harsher. And a bit closer to practices in Russia under the tsars and then Joseph Stalin. But those despots went after accomplished writers who knew the risks they were taking. Mohammad bin Salman’s intimidation extends to the entire population, or at least anyone using social media.
Perhaps a new age of despotism has already begun, when dictators and creative writers deem irony and satire as evil.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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