Satire, cartoons and drawing our own limits

Satire debate

One of the recurring issues when talking satire and freedom of expression at Think!Fest has been the limit to which we can say what we want. With Pierre de Vos, Justice Albie Sachs, Tara Notcutt, Jeremy Nell and Tjeerd Royaards on the panel and a full house ready to talk satire, chair Anthea Garman begins by asking what each speaker is personally offended by, and what they avoid speaking about in order to not offend.

Royaards, a Dutch cartoonist, says that the cartoon is an opinion and it is about making a connection with the audience. Anything that offends the audience can work against you if the offence outweighs the message. Nell, more commonly known as the cartoonist Jerm, is willing to draw anything, but being aware that certain topics provoke people, he will not depict religious figures. “If I’m being honest, it’s more about my safety,” he admits.

De Vos acknowledges that despite being a regular Twitter user who is used to insults that arise during disagreements, when people refer to his sexual orientation or HIV status as an insult, it cuts. Sachs agrees, saying that for him, the limit is where people are in pain or have been wounded. “You don’t trample on the pain,” he says.

“You don’t go after the weak because it’s not funny, it’s not fair,” agrees Royaards. The cartoonist also feels it is taboo to speak of something you have not researched properly. This begs a further question, when it comes to knowing what you’re satirising, how much is enough?

“You have to be able to defend what you have made” says Royaards, and the only way you can do that is by researching. De Vos adds that it’s not just about what you say, but the tone you use and the manner in which you do it. Furthermore, it isn’t about knowing what you know, but being aware of what you don’t know and being humble and willing to admit that you do not know and understand everything.

As more cartoonists are publishing independently rather than being linked to a newspaper, the character of cartoons is changing, which allows them to be more personal but also riskier. There is a danger of the misuse of certain elements of satire, stereotypes in particular. “Stereotypes are just really lazy,” says Notcutt, director of the satirical show The Three Little Pigs. “It doesn’t take a lot of work to be smarter than a stereotype,” she adds. Royaards uses particular political figures to represent a country, rather than resorting to a stereotype, while Notcutt never mentions names in her show. Nell, however, does not shy away from stereotypes. He believes they are about feeding into a particular prejudice in order to draw them out, and when used cleverly they can have a powerful effect. De Vos suggests that rather than avoiding a stereotype, one should attempt to completely turn it around.

Having discussed their own personal limits to satire, Garman suggests that perhaps limits are not limiting, but may inspire the most creative work. The apartheid regime in particular, despite its censorship laws, resulted in plays such as Woza Albert. Now we have a constitution that allows us freedom of speech, but requires greater thinking. According to de Vos, when you live in a free society you have the right to say many things, but it’s not necessarily the right thing to say.

Having listened to previous talk freedom of expression in Britain and France, it is clear that compared to other countries we are more advanced in our practice of freedom of speech. However, it is striking that in being given complete freedom, we are learning how and where to draw the line for ourselves.


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