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Rights and Responsibility

Evan Goldenberg’s and Seth Rogen’s film The Interview. Trey Parker’s and Matt Stone’s musical The Book of Mormon and television series South Park. The late Stéphane Charbonnier’s magazine Charlie Hebdo. All examples of satire and all protected under free speech.

Although many countries celebrate free speech, such as the United States, free speech should be used with caution. “We have a right to say what we want, but that doesn’t make it right,” said film and theater teacher Nicholas Freeman. And when people start feeling offended by something protected under free speech, a divide opens up.

In satire, specifically that divide is between the creator of satire and the audience of satire, and can often be an unhealthy, even violent, one. Both creators and the audience have their own responsibilities when creating and viewing, to peacefully exchange their ideas and opinions.

They may not come to any conclusion or bridge the divide completely, but both voices can be heard and heard effectively without censorship or violence.

Satire is born out of the mind of its creator, so the first responsibility in the exchange of satire lies with them. The creator should be very specific about what they are trying to say.

“Is its intent to prompt a conversation?” said U.S. History and Government teacher Matthew Ridenour about the questions a creator of satire should ask themselves. “Or is it’s intent to simply insult, humiliate, or otherwise anger a group of people? I think it’s all about intention.”

After the creator is completely certain about what they want to convey through their satire, they must consider their audience.

“I think the author should take into consideration who will be most affected,” said senior Matt Ganter. “[They should] think about how bad is it going to be for these people [who are most affected] and then also take into consideration how big of a population that is and the degree to which they are affected.”

Then they should also consider the way they are conveying their message and whether it’s going to be most effective. Is satire really the way to go?

“Sometimes [satire] alienates and polarizes another group,” said senior Payton Kinkead. “I think through satire individuals should be cautious of that because you want your message to go out to as many people as you can, you want your words to have actual power.”

And after they weighed their message and their communication method, they have to be prepared that some people are not going to like what they have to say.

“If you want this power to say whatever you want, then you also have to assume the fact that there are probably other people who are not going to like what you’re going to say,” said English teacher Kristofor Sauer. “And as a result, you may need to curb what you’re going to say or be OK with them being pissed off that you expressed yourself in that particular way.”

They also must be prepared that sometimes their audience, especially those offended, won’t look for the truth inside the satire.

“I would say that a creator of satire needs to understand that a target audience may latch on more to the offensiveness than the germ of truth present in their work,” continued Sauer.

Sometimes, creators of satire draw, write, photograph, say or film what they do because they want to offend and shock. There was an art show that started in London in 1997 called “Sensations” that later toured Berlin and New York, and although it was not considered satire, it did most certainly offend and shock.

But that was what it was supposed to do, said art teacher Nathan Stromberg, who saw the exhibition in New York.

“The point of the show was to do things that straddled being borderline offensive and a powerful art statement,” he said.

However, just because it was offensive, doesn’t mean it had no redeeming value. The  viewer’s responsibility comes in when seeing satirical art.

“I do think that sometimes the really offensive things can sometimes make a really powerful statement depending on where the viewer is at,” said Stromberg. “I’ve seen really crazy, offensive art and have had crazy discussions about it because when you first see it you just think, ‘That is…what? Come on’ but it’s actually profound in its own way.”

Others may see value in how the satire is delivered.

“Every time I see South Park or Family Guy that make fun of certain individuals, I often will say to that it better be creative and it better be well thought out if you’re going to offend me,” said Freeman. “And when it is, I don’t have problem with it.”

If someone can’t find redeeming value in the offensiveness itself or the way the it’s delivered, the person who’s offended shouldn’t give up looking for the underlying profound message.

“[The viewer should] try and look past the initial ‘wow’ factor of whatever it is,” said Ganter.  “Don’t just sit there and say ‘wow, this is offensive, and therefore it has no meaning.’ Look for the meaning, and if you still can’t find it maybe it is just offensive.”

After the viewer tries to find the redeeming value but cannot locate it and finds the piece of satire just as offensive as before, they, too, have that right to free speech and say they don’t like it.

“You can offend me, but I have a right to speak back,” said Freeman. “And I have a right to creatively, and hopefully, intelligently respond to whatever’s offensive in whatever platform that will make my voice heard.”

And that is what most free speech comes down to: giving people a voice. Sometimes  that voice can be literal or figurative, like just changing the channel said Freeman. Both creators and the audience have a right to free speech.

A creator of satire has the right to create and share their message. But they also have a responsibility to consider their audience. A viewer of satire has a right to be offended and to respond in a peaceful way.

But they have a responsibility to understand the creator’s intention. With rights and responsibilities all in order, creator and viewer can make a connection that is too often discarded when first creating and viewing satire and free speech.

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