Ed West

Have our thin-skinned times killed off satire for good?

Have our thin-skinned times killed off satire for good?
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Is satire dying? Zoe Williams asks in the Guardian whether the shrinking of permissible speech is killing comedy. To make her point, she wonders if the mid-1990s satire The Day Today would be tolerated in 2016 and whether 'its surrealism belongs to another age'.

The spoof news show, which in some ways seems slightly prophetic 20 years later, was sometimes edgy, and often surreal, and Williams recalls one scene in which a presenter announces in a dead pan manner that the Bank of England had issued 'an emergency currency based on the Queen’s eggs, several thousand of which were removed from her ovaries in 1953 and held in reserve'. But, as she says:

'If you told Morris’s joke today, there would be a pearl-clutching, royalist faction (let’s term it, for brevity, the Daily Mail) outraged that jokes were being made (with taxpayers’ money/where children might see – delete according to the channel) about the Queen’s gynaecological apparatus. Followed swiftly by: 'And aren’t you lefties supposed to be feminists? How would you feel if someone made a joke about your eggs?' From the other side, a feminist outcry, how can the Queen’s eggs function as a joke in this context without the presupposition that shame is indivisible from the condition of being female?'

I don't think being attacked by the Mail would especially bother most comedians (I don't know about BBC commissioning editors - she may have a point that they are more sensitive now). But the real danger for comedians is, as comedy writer Ian Martin puts it, the 'Bumptious, puffed-up little dickheads demanding so-and-so is 'sacked by the BBC'.' (Martin, as Williams recalls, was 'originally hired as a 'swearing consultant' by Iannucci for The Thick of It, and went on to become one of the main writers.' Wouldn't that be great to have on your passport?)

I imagine that comedy has been impoverished for a similar reason that many industries go downhill - uncertainty about those in power. For any economy to grow there first needs to be certainty, and the confidence that a trader can buy and sell without having his goods or assets seized without recourse to law. Likewise with political freedom. You can't be free unless you know with great certainty what is legal and what isn't. Otherwise, when what is permitted is arbitrary, then something that is commonplace today will merit a prison sentence tomorrow and death the day after.

And it's the same with artistic freedom. What so many comedians and other artists find so unsettling about the New Wave of Social Justice Warriors is that their condemnations and anathemas are so arbitrary; no one knows whether a routine or joke will pass without comment or bring upon them thousands of hateful tweets, comment piece-attacks and demands for their resignation. This is the very epitome of tyranny.

Public morality has gone through a revolution in the past 50 years or so - a revolution that continues, and, in fact, is arguably accelerating. There is no subject matter that has not been affected by these changes; what was safe to mock then is now verboten or vice versa. Who knows what will be permitted in five years? Saul Bellow famously observed that when public morality becomes a ghost town anyone can ride in and declare himself sheriff, and there are plenty of people keen to take up that job, both religious and secular.

Moral anarchy leads to moral tyranny as surely as political anarchy leads to dictatorship. When there is no authority various individuals and factions will try to move into the vacuum to claim society's sacred spaces. Just as in revolutions, they vie for power by outdoing each other with their ferocity, and so you get the safe space movements, where people make demands that are deliberately unreasonable and focussed on facetious or nonexistent injustices. The more absurd, the better. Everyone knows their complaints are ridiculous, but no one has the authority to say so, and no institution or private company wants to suffer the effects of a boycott.

Rule-breaking artists of the past - take, for example, edgy theatre in the 1950s - were able to transgress moral boundaries only because they knew what those boundaries were. A comedy writer can know pretty easily what will offend the Daily Mail and what won't, just as you know what might upset the Catholic Church. It hasn't changed in centuries.

There are plenty of subjects that merit satire today - the diversity industry, with its shakedowns and professional BS artists is a rich seem, as is the transgender movement . But these areas really are too edgy for satirists, most of whom - like the vast majority of influential people in the arts - hold quite uncontroversial (left-liberal) political views and also fear the next wave of revolutionaries more than they do the ancien regime. That's why they make jokes about the ancien regime. In fact there is plenty of edgy comedy these days - but it tends to be told in private.