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Giving the wrong impression

Is satire dead? David Moloney examines the changing role of caricatures in society

During the recent Irish presidential election, there was a notable resurgence in the use of political caricature to satirise the presidential candidates by the Irish media. We had Martin the Terrorist, Dana the Ghost of Ireland Past, and Michael D Higgins the Goblin from Gringotts amongst others appearing in our papers, on our websites and even on the radio. What was most interesting about these caricatures was their complete and utter inefficacy to influence public opinions and peoples’ choice of candidate. An argument could be made that it was the use of caricature that finished off Sean Gallagher’s chances at becoming the Irish President, but this wasn’t and isn’t the case. The Dodgy Businessman, Fianna Fáiler caricatures of him had been around since the beginning of his campaign and proved no obstacle to his success during it. So if this is all true, why did the Irish public fail to respond to the political caricature, and is this a new phenomenon?

This immunity of the presidential candidates to caricature, and the apathy of the public towards them, is not a new phenomenon in our society but rather a development that signals the need for a shift in the motive and role for political and social caricature. Caricature has been around for a long time and is constantly evolving. It was quickly adopted by people to focus the public’s attention on something disagreeable in the political and social climate at the time with the aim of motivating change. The political caricature that we are most familiar with in Ireland took form in the legendary satirical magazine Punch, which was published during 1840-1992, and has persisted in our society ever since in a variety of forms such as Saturday Night Live, Scrap Saturday and Spitting Image.

Political and social caricature uses an exaggerated form of the implied values of the group that they are targeting. It is hoped that by doing this they will slowly change people’s opinions through wry smiles and provocation of thought. It is used to point out the ridiculous nature of some people or group’s traits, characteristics and/or views to achieve two things; to get the public to acknowledge that these characteristics are unacceptable and absurd in our society, and also to make people realise that they’re caught up in a movement that is preposterous, thus motivating them to change out of self preservation and respect.

Possibly one of the most famous and effective attempts at political and social change through caricature was the introduction of the ‘Clan of the Fiery Cross’ to the Superman radio show to caricaturise the Klu Klux Klan. Stetson Kennedy was a journalist who infiltrated the Klan and supplied the writers of the radio show the rituals and passwords the members used. The writers then exaggerated these aspects of the Klan, satirising them and making them appeal to children. Soon enough members of the Klan were mortified to see their children playing games that imitated and mocked what they held so dear. Due to this humiliation the Klan didn’t seem quite as impressive anymore, and membership levels swiftly dropped.

Satire can backfire however. Two good examples are the Tea Party Movement in America and the Ross O’Carroll Kelly phenomenon that hit Ireland at the start of the Celtic Tiger. Both were serious attempts to caricaturise a preposterous segment of society but they were both totally ineffective in changing attitudes toward the groups. What happened instead was that these groups embraced the caricatures and rallied around the caricaturised images of their group. They didn’t look at themselves and think ‘what are we doing?’, but rather liked what they saw and began to exaggerate the caricaturised traits, thus becoming caricatures of themselves. We see Tea Party members taking pride in the fact that they don’t believe or trust in science, almost revelling in displaying ignorance about certain topics. They wear their close-mindedness like a Blue Peter badge for bigotry, and compete with each other to show who has more zeal for the movement. A similar effect has been seen within the RO’CK group but to a less extreme and terrifying degree, thankfully limited to them gleefully adopting all the new words, terms and abbreviations that Ross uses without a shred of irony and exaggerating the snobbery and superiority complex exhibited by the characters in the books.

Satire has always had huge potential to invoke social change and we should be worried that it may no longer be effective. If it loses the ability to effect development, we lose one of the most potent peaceful and non-confrontational methods of moderating the less pleasant aspects of our society.