When Does Political Satire Go Too Far?

Satire can be a great proponent of truth as well as a source of lies.


Alexander Woodcock

A piece from The Borowitz Report, a liberal-leaning source of political satire.

Alexander Woodcock, Staff Writer

Republican…or not? This was the question posed in a certain skit on Saturday Night Live. In the skit, a game show was being hosted in which contestants had to guess whether certain people were Republicans or Democrats.

It was, by all accounts, a great work of satire, with both sides of the political aisle being able to laugh at the other and, more importantly, themselves.

The first guest on the show claimed that he thought Facebook was evil, prompting the contestants to wonder whether this was because Facebook spreads disinformation or because they banned Donald Trump.

Another said that her pinned tweet on Twitter was “my body, my choice,” leading guests to question whether she was criticizing abortion restrictions or vaccine mandates.

The skit, as I have mentioned, was a piece of political satire, a work intended to mock a political figure or idea through humor, exaggeration, and exposition of general truths.

Satire is one of the most powerful tools a politically minded individual or team can employ. Indeed, there is little that can stand up to humor when it comes to bringing lightheartedness to the realm of politics.

But I feel compelled to ask when political satire exceeds its appropriate boundaries. For there are indubitably times when the mockery of politicians or political beliefs through satire does nothing but anger both sides of the aisle. This anger is usually due to at least one side feeling that the comparison or joke being made is unfair.

A clear example of this was a cover page of The New Yorker during the 2008 presidential election that showed then-presidential candidate Barack Obama dressed in traditional Muslim clothing and his wife decked out as a terrorist.

Both the Obama and McCain campaigns were quick to denounce this piece, and it is quite easy to see why. It was ill-advised, misinformed, and offensive. This is easily a way that political satire can overstep its societal boundaries and go too far. If misleading or simply wrong information is being spread through satire, it fails to be funny for anyone.

Truly good satire is only concerned with truth.

But even if truth is the principal concern of a satirical piece, I find it indisputable that satire also goes too far when it acts more as propaganda. Let us examine the political rise of now-famous Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

Something that many do not know is that the current president of Ukraine was once an actor who starred in a popular Ukrainian political satire series known as Servant of the PeopleThe series sought to satirize the corruption that was taking place in Ukraine. It placed Zelenskyy’s character as the president of Ukraine and generally showed him in a positive light.

It is now easy to see where the connection to reality may lie. If Zelenskyy was exhibited positively in the show and was subsequently elected president of Ukraine, could the satire in the show have glorified him to help achieve his current position?

The answer to this question is, of course, unknown. However, if the satirical piece did lead to Zelenskyy’s rise, it could very well be considered propaganda, since it showed the people of Ukraine a generally positive side to the actor.

All of this is not to say that we should steer clear of satire; quite the opposite. Satire can lighten the typical dreary forecast that has come to define the political landscape and can help understand both ourselves and our opponents’ points of view better.

But when satire exhibits lies or becomes propaganda, it will inevitably be condemned. Thus, in creating or consuming satirical pieces, we must all be cautious and aware when matters go too far.