Italy And Political Satire: A Complicated Relationship

Why Italians are so sensitive about satire, despite we still desperately need it.

Political Satire
Elya / CC BY-SA

In the last few years, Italians have received political satire quite negatively. What is exactly so venomous about this genre for us?

For centuries, satire has been part of the European literary, cultural, and political debate for its unique combination of anger and humor. What is fascinating about satire is that it is an art form able to address many controversial issues.

In its purest form, satire is a critique of some human behaviors or social issues. The intent should be to persuade the audience to view it disdainfully and, ultimately, encourage a degree of social change. 

“Satire is negative,” points out John Mullan, professor of English at University College London. “And that’s the point.” In fact, Mullan further explains that there would be no point in even writing satire if there wasn’t something wrong to write about.

A strong defender of political satire in Italy was the late Dario Fo, the world-famous Italian avant-garde playwright who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997. It is worth noting that during his career, Fo often faced government censure as a theatrical caricaturist with a taste for social agitation. Satire, as he explained in an attempt to explain and defend the genre, is mockery, derision; it has no rules. According to Fo, satire aims to hurt and sting, it cares little about good taste.

For this reason, some people can find satire profoundly disturbing; as a consequence, over time its very existence has been harshly criticized and questioned.

In the last few years, Italians have received political satire quite negatively. The Italian audience showed deep outrage and solidarity in the aftermath of the infamous Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015, but later condemned the same magazine for attacking their country in a critical and painful moment like after the 2016 earthquake in central Italy. What is exactly so venomous about this genre for Italians? Most importantly, however, it is important to reflect how this stinging art form fits in the current debate about political correctness and discrimination.

Why it is hard to defend and condemn satire at the same time

Satire can be a powerful tool for encouraging critical thinking and, ultimately, social change. Because of its important social role, satire has enjoyed special freedoms in many societies. Countries like Germany and Italy protect satire in their constitution. The right to satire is in fact safeguarded under Articles 21 and 33 of the Italian Constitution, which guarantee freedom of expression and freedom of artistic and scientific elaboration.

Nonetheless, it is far from an undeniably good thing. On the contrary, satire can often be nasty, harmful, and even abusive. This is an acquired taste that, as Dario Fo reminds us, is not for everyone.

Although some people may not appreciate satire for its cutting irony, this is not the genre’s only problem. Indeed, the constant criticizing, laughing at politicians, and deriding the political system may be contributing to the creation of apathy, rage, disengagement, and pessimism within the audience. 

As satire can easily shape public opinion, it is apparent that public pessimism is lethal in a working democracy. This attitude can lead to disillusionment and disenchantment in the system, which ultimately may translate into a less active electorate.

If you do not hope for better, why vote?

The controversial relationship between satire and Italy since 2015

What about Italy and the Italian audience have defined satire in the most recent years? There have been episodes that triggered indignation, as people felt personally attacked by a certain form of humor. 

The most recent one, linked to the COVID-19 pandemic while the number of cases was increasing rapidly in Italy, included a video that circulated in the French television. The video, titled ‘Corona pizza’, showed an actor dressed as an Italian chef coughing and sneezing on a pizza. 

In particular, when it comes to Charlie Hebdo, it is interesting to see the Italians’ reaction over the years. When the magazine made the infamous cartoon about Prophet Mohammed, a very sensitive topic for the Muslim community, everyone defended their right to freedom of expression. On the other hand, when the same satire hit home, public opinion drastically shifted towards harsh criticism and disdain. 

An example includes the political cartoons by Charlie Hebdo about the recent earthquakes in Italy and the tragedy of Ponte Morandi that happened in Genoa in August 2018. 

Many Italians, some of whom lost their loved ones in these tragedies, felt personally attacked and betrayed; the pride of Italy, for some people, had been wounded.

Not surprisingly, some Italian populist parties decided to make this disdain their own. They publicly condemned these cartoons and videos harshly, calling it “anti-Italian rubbish.” This stirred up tensions between those who condemned these pieces and those who defended satire as an instrument of social critique.

Regarding these episodes, we should strike a blow for Charlie Hebdo and their cartoons. As a matter of fact, Charlie Hebdo’s satire did not address or ridicule those who died. Rather, it criticized the causes that led to their deaths.

But is this double-standard uniquely Italian? Or does it have something to do with the rise of populism and far-right parties in general? As mentioned, in Italy the politicians who were most enraged by the satirical pieces were the populist, conservative political parties.

In fact, in 2015, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a Eurosceptic, right-wing populist political party in the United Kingdom, went as far as requesting the Kent Police to investigate the BBC, claiming that some comments about the party leader Nigel Farage during the famous comedy show Have I Got News For You could hinder his success in the general elections. The BBC promptly released a statement in response, asserting that “Britain has a proud tradition of satire.” They also pointed out that, “Have I Got News for You regularly makes jokes at the expense of politicians of all parties.”

Could it be that those politicians who so fiercely attack satire have a hidden political agenda? It is now apparent to everyone that the real, good satire is so much more than mere entertainment. On the contrary, a study conducted by Ohio State University has demonstrated that satirical news has real effects on those who consume them. What the study showed is that satire can reinforce the audience’s political viewpoints. Moreover, it can influence the way one feels about the possibility of personally impacting political processes.

The authors of the study conclude that “satirical news matters,” as it has “a real-life impact on viewers.” For better or worse, satire makes us think and evaluate our views. Of course, this is something some politicians do not always appreciate. 

What about being politically correct?

It is quite obvious that if there is not a main idea or critique behind the irony and it is all just about angrily attacking someone or something, it cannot simply be defined as satire. What happens when satire becomes sexist, racist, homophobic, islamophobic, transphobic, or just not acceptable for our changing society? Is it still humorous when satire hurts someone’s beliefs or reinforces stereotypes we are so desperately trying to knock down?

It is often those at the bottom of society who are demonized and derided, in satire as in other genres. Is there enough scrutinizing of the poverty-paying bosses, the tax dodgers, the bankers responsible for economic disaster, the corrupted?

Satire can be brilliantly effective at encouraging us to challenge the way we run our society. However, it can also encourage a patriarchal, elitist, white-centric behavior that activists all over the world are fighting to disrupt. That’s why it’s crucial to distinguish between social critique and vilification, something on which Italy still has a lot of work to do.

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