Social Education 57(3), 1993, pp. 141
1993 National Council for the Social Studies

Using Satire to Study Current Events

Joseph M. Kirman
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
The satirist is the modern version of the court jester who made the monarch laugh. With humor, the jester had license to bring to the monarch's attention his foibles and shortcomings. In a social democracy, the people are like a monarch, and satire can bring to them, in a light-hearted manner, those items that may need their attention, concern, and action. Satire is also a tool for giving people power. As noted by Mark Twain (Polking et al. 1983, 334), "Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand." Satire offers students a tool that can help to make them effective critics of politics and society.
Recognizing and analyzing satire in the media provides a thought-provoking and enjoyable way to study current events. It addresses serious matters requiring a remedy and relies on humor to convey its message. To use this intriguing approach, the class will need a working definition of satire that includes elements that can be applied to what they believe satire is. Personal definitions can be compared with dictionary definitions and with those found in the professional literature. Although Kleg and Mahlios (1990, 389) argue against the exclusive use of dictionaries to establish meanings, they can be used with definitions in the professional literature to determine popular versus specialized meanings (Kirman 1992, 49).

One approach to teaching about satire is to use Martorella's (1976) concept in which the students examine the concept of satire in seven steps: name, rule of definition, criteria, attributes, noncriterial attributes, examples, and nonexamples. Nonexamples include polemics and other commentaries that lack humor. The class then tries to develop an "operational definition on the basis of the best evidence available" (101-103).

Satire is commentary that uses ridicule, criticism, and scorn in a context of humor. Examples of satire are found in the works of Stephen Leacock, Robert Benchley, S. J. Perelman, James Thurber, Woody Allen, Charlie Chaplin, Gary Trudeau, Art Buchwald, Breathed Berkeley, Weird Al Yankovic, and Public Television's Mark Russell. Satire can range from "bitter scorn to gentle irony to side splitting laughter" (Irmscher 1972, 260). The gentle type of satire traces back to Horace, whereas the more vicious or biting satire can be followed back to Juvenal (Hook 1962, 391). Its etymology derives from sature, Greek for mixture or medley, and the Latin word for satiation, which is similar to the Greek (Clements 1990, 159).

Several definitions help to explain satire. The Writer's Encyclopedia (Polking, Bloss, and Cannon 1983, 334) states that satire is "a literary technique that mocks a powerful or influential personality, institution, moral code, or social trend, often using exaggeration and irony to point out the flaws and shortcomings of its target." Clements (1990, 159) defined satire as "prose or verse that employs wit in the form of irony, innuendo, or outright derision to expose human wickedness and folly." Note that this definition, however, lacks reference to art, cartoons, or music. Hook (1962, 391) defines satire simply as "a pointed stick which jabs at vulnerable spots in contemporary society."

Analyzing Satire
Students can cooperatively analyze and discuss satire with the following guide questions:

1. Who or what is the subject of the satire?

2. What satirical technique is being used?

3. Is the satire justified?

4. What are the author's motives?

5. Who is the satirist's audience?

6. How effective is the satire?

7. Can the subjects respond without worsening the situation?

8. Can you think of additional ways to satirize the topic? Should you?

One way of individually analyzing written satire is to provide the students with a copy of the satire on which they make marginal notes. Students can also analyze examples of satire from Mad magazine (Perrin 1989) and The New Yorker, as well as samples of those authors mentioned earlier in this article. Bob and Ray scripts can be used as classroom examples of radio media satire (Crick 1989) and Weird Al Yankovic's rock satire might serve as video examples. Newspaper editorial cartoons are excellent sources of current events satire. Once the students begin to create satire, they can analyze and discuss each other's examples.

Creating Satire
Creating satire requires care and insight since the satirist must be well versed about the subject and not accept anything at face value (Hook 1962, 391). In fact, satire without criticism becomes "empty farce," and without humor, "invective" (Irmscher 1972, 260). Humor is a key element in satire; the satirist entertains the audience rather than preaching (Polking, Bloss, and Cannon 1983, 334), although ridicule is the work's primary intent (Hook 1962, 391).

Techniques for students include "derision, invective, vituperation, jeremiad, raillery, ridicule, mockery, reduction ad absurdium, sarcasm, irony, caricature, parody, burlesque, comedy of manners, mock-epic, commedia dell' arte, clownishness, farce" (Irmscher 1972, 260), as well as "irony, exaggeration,...understatement, pun, double entendre, malapropism, manufactured words, spoonerisms, pairing of unlike elements, and fancy and imagination" (Polking, Bloss, and Cannon 1983, 155). Hook (1962, 391) claims that no formula for satire writing exists, because after all the background research and meditation on the topic has been undertaken "then must come...the imaginative, attention-rousing presentation."

Ideas for Satire
Students might write satire using the following ideas:

1. compare and contrast words and actions-they might compare campaign promises to what was actually done (Hook 1962, 391)

2. compare and contrast what is and what ought to be-they might examine social programs for needs that are not being met

3. reverse the circumstances-for example, placing supplicants in the role of authority (and vice versa)

4. invent a "what-if" situation-perhaps a situation in which everything goes wrong

5. use fantasy-they might invent a mythical being such as a visitor from outer space or a time traveller from the past or future who comments on the situation from a different perspective

Suggestions for Writing
Topic selection. Students may find it difficult to select a topic. In general, anything the student does not like, is angry about, or believes is wrong or needs changing makes for a good topic. The students can examine the media for possible topics by looking for inconsistency, hypocrisy, breach of trust, failure to act, inappropriate priorities, cover-ups, double speak, inappropriate words or actions, disagreeable personal habits, or mannerisms

Topic research. Once students select a topic, they must investigate it thoroughly and verify all facts. Any lapse of accuracy will affect the credibility of the satire.

Brainstorm for ideas. Here students should think through the subject matter, reflect on it, and begin to structure the satire. This step may occur partially at the time of topic selection. Students may spot an incongruity or other element worthy of satirizing and form an initial idea for approaching the topic, or have an insight about it. Students would then begin their research while fleshing out the satire.

Writing the satire. The elements of the satire should be put into a logical order and examined for readability, viewer comprehension, interest, and humor.

Dissemination. This can vary from a class presentation to sending the satire to the media as free-lance work or a letter to the editor. Some students may enjoy writing satire as poetry (Otten 1987) or as a rap song; they may want to produce an audio tape or a videotape for radio or television. The students can critique each other's presentations using the suggested guidelines in this article.

George (1989) provides suggestions for developing a high school course for writing satire. Although the suggestions pertain to the English curriculum, some elements can be adapted for social studies classes. Satire writing by students also lends itself to collaborative planning between social studies and English teachers. Whereas the former can address topic, research, and application, the latter can concentrate on technique and style.

Problems with Satire
Teachers must consider limits on their students' satires. For example, Lamb (1988) approvingly notes that the satire of Gary Trudeau "tests the limits of taste, fairness, and appropriateness." A class discussion about discretion is in order, especially if they intend to disseminate their work. Suppose a student directs a biting satire at a powerful local person, or decides to satirize a controversial issue such as abortion. Steadfast rules will be impossible to establish; each circumstance will be unique. Teachers must exercise care in supervising this activity.

Because satire can be powerfully effective, the class should discuss libel and slander issues-especially if the satire will be publicly disseminated. Truth is a defense to such charges, so students should realize the importance of accurate and timely background information. Fair comment is also a defense as long as the comments are not malicious (Mitchell 1991, 19).1

Finally, the topic of satire itself can be a current events issue. For example, at the time of writing this article the legislature of the province of Saskatchewan passed a house rule prohibiting reporters from broadcasting for entertainment purposes comments made by legislators.2 This prohibition resulted in part from a skit on April Fool's Day satirizing the Saskatchewan New Democratic Party government's financial difficulties. The skit presented the NDP as selling the legislature for use as a gambling casino (Canadian Broadcasting Company 1992). With current issues such as this students can both develop their own satire and use the style of other satarists.

Satire is a powerful, yet enjoyable, tool for training students to be knowledgeable and effective critics in a democratic society. With little more than a current newspaper to find topics and some examples of satire teachers can begin to work with this tool right now.

1Where defamation might occur yet the student insists on disseminating the satire, the principal should be consulted and a legal opinion obtained. This is an extreme situation, however, and most probably the student could be encouraged to modify the offending element. To avoid problems of this nature, students can sign a statement giving the teacher final authority for permission to disseminate satires developed as class projects.2Such a prohibition is a violation of Section 2b ("Fundamental Freedoms") of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.References
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