Writing Right with Dmitri: Provoc, Anyone?
We're all for Free Speech.
We deplore violence directed against writers and artists.
Even satirists. Even tasteless satirists.
We don't even like it when people censor Robert Mapplethorpe, though we may not find his art appealing.
All that being said…
People, this is the Year of the Fruitbat. Come on, writers. Wake up and smell the coffee. If you want your humour, satire, social critique, whatever, to be effective, you need to do better than simply assault the sensibilities of your audience. And saying, 'This is part of a grand tradition reaching back to the 18th Century' is not much of an excuse. You mean we haven't learned subtlety in the last 300 years? I'd give up.
That sort of attitude is much like saying, 'No offence intended, but…' and following that opening with a sexist, racist, or just plain offensive joke. Sorry, offence taken. I won't try to take an AK-47 to you, but I will leave the room. And refuse to buy your magazine.
That being said, what should be our approach as writers – particularly humorous ones – toward trying to change opinions, or challenge silly notions? In English, we talk about attacking sacred cows. The Germans used to refer to cutting off queues, a play on 19th-century Chinese men's fashion. You know what I mean. You're going to step on toes, but how to go about it in such a way that the end result is enlightenment rather than mayhem? Can this be done at all?
I think it can.
Dos and Don'ts, Profusely Illustrated
Let's use our YouTube skills to see if we can figure out the difference between thought-provoking and annoying (or just plain offensive).
- You don't like Nazis? You want to win hearts and minds? Do you try
a hard-sell war bonds cartoon?
or a screwball comedy like this?
Of course, if you're Herr Hitler himself, you might think you were a stand-up comedian, too.
- You want to make a point about annoying people on the telephone??
Do you harass the audience with prank calls,
or riff on the Chinese takeaway? Which makes a point, and which is merely rude?
- You want to critique the media?
Which is better: this old SNL chestnut,
Or this titbit from Newswipe?
You get the point, don't you? It's possible to introduce nuance, have a bit of fun. It is not necessary to be tedious and offensive. And you can get your audience on your side before you deliver the punch. That way, you don't have to claim airily, 'But we're provoking discussion, don't you see? You're supposed to see past the offence, and understand the point.' If you haven't got the point across, it's your fault – as an artist or a writer. Try harder.
Poke gentler fun, friends, and the world might be a bit brighter – and, just possibly, a little bit safer. This doesn't mean the bad guys won't put you on their hit list, but you'll have done some good along the way.
And it's hard to take serious offence at a self-mocking satire like this.