In defence of humour, political satire, poetry, story and social criticisms in the educational process

“Satire, to be worthy of its name generalises, exaggerates and distorts. Because it relies on its immediate impact and addresses topical vices and abuses, satire can rely on persistence in its struggle against hypocrisy, pretence and oppression.
Usually, satire is treated as a form of humour generated through ridicule, irony and sarcasm, but a humour that is deadly serious in intent.” (Riley, D. 1997 “The Satire Workshop.” 26th February, Green Left, p.24).

Our world is peopled with writers, artists, storytellers, comedians, singers, graffitists and others who have difficulties surviving in and living with inequities, injustice and tyranny.

It is possible to write, tell, act or paint straight pieces and get them published and read widely.  But we have too few Pilgers, Chomskys, and Picassos.  The symbolic importance of Picasso’s Guernica is not that it is good art or even astute social criticism but that Picasso, an artist of world renown, painted it and placed his social criticism of Franco’s Spain alongside his art.

Some poets are wordsmiths of high standing – their work is Art. Some are social critics first. To the extent that their work has artistic merit, it is just an improved vehicle for their criticism.  Woody Guthrie used to claim “his guitar killed Fascists”.  No-one who has listened to his “Dust Bowl Ballads “, “Pretty Boy Floyd “or “Refugee” carefully can have failed to note the force of social justice which inspired his writings.  It is the humour and satire, which fills his songs, which has given his writings their continuing relevance. “This mechanic fellow charged me ten dollars and told me it was engine trouble”.

We arrived out the West Coast broke,
I was so damn hungry I thought I’d croak,
I bummed up a spud or two
and my wife cooked up a ‘tata stew.
Mighty thin stew though.
You could read a newspaper
right through it.
I always have thought
and I always have figured,
if that old stew
had been just a little bit thinner,
even some of these here politicians
could have seen through it.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) used satire to make his criticisms of British brutality in Ireland.  To formulate his criticism in a straight manifesto would have endangered his safety.  Throughout the world today social critics are ‘disappeared’. Writers, musicians and artists are invariably high on the lists the juntas draw up in the wake of their coups.  But even in stable parliamentary democracies, such as Australia is in the process of becoming, critics are often wary of confronting directly the forces of reaction.  In the early 1970s Aboriginal stockman and songwriter, Dougie Young, in his song The land where the crow flies backwards was able to get away with the lines:

“The white man took this country from me.
He’s been fighting for it ever since”.

Many switch off when confronted by detailed social policy criticism.  Oodgeroo, had for years militantly campaigned against governments’ maltreatment of her people but it was not until We are Going with poems like Son of Mine that she broke inside the hearts of many white Australians.  Patrick Cook, Michael Leunig, Bruce Petty, Tanberg, Prior and other cartoonists convey progressive messages every day to ordinary Australians to an extent that no politician, social critic, academic can achieve.

In a long tradition stretching from the strolling troubadours of medieval Europe, through the Weavers, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Buffy Saint Marie, Peter, Paul and Mary, Phil Oaks, Tom Paxton, Redgums, Midnight Oil, and Yothu Yindi the difference between knowing and feeling is played out.  Comedians like John Clark, Lenny Bruce, Tony Hancock, and the Goons, whilst their “message” is never unambiguously progressive, at least force the thinking to reassess aspects of society.

Pauline Hanson and her One Notion Party (or should that read Pauline Pantsdown and the One Motion Party) is following in this fine comedy tradition. Most thinking people have long realised the Party’s membership is composed entirely of seriously unwell comedians and that is why collectively they amount to little more than a very sick joke.  Pauline rang me the other night, I asked her what she thought about global warming she said that she thought “it would be all right in winter but she did not think we could afford to do it for the whole world”.

There are some in any social movement who take the struggle so seriously that they find no place for humour or satire. Feminists raised the important point about humour being one of the weapons used by men to reinforce patriarchy.  Similar criticisms are made by anti-racists about ethnic jokes. The real issue is not that humour per se is the enemy but that some forms of humour that denigrates relatively powerless people or promotes hegemonic ideas about gender, race, age, disability, class, or regions should be confronted. The growing band of feminist comedians present the opportunity to confound the humourless – they also provide some very good lines to use in the struggle against patriarchy. If you are going to be part of the revolution for a more humane society then bring to the fight all the humour you can muster.  A humane society can only exist when people are having fun at no other powerless person’s expense.

Satire has a particular component not generally available because it turns ideas on their head, inside out or at least on their side.  It provides the opportunity to look anew at social issues.  Because it allows us to look at ourselves at one step removed from our “normal reality” it presents the opportunity to question past ideas and even actions in a less directly confronting fashion.

When satire puts the spotlight on the dirty underbelly of the grossly unequal societies we live in we are able simultaneously to laugh and feel revolted by the obscenity of poverty, racism, urbanism, sexism, paramilitarism (police killings), ageism, discrimination against people with disabilities and exploitation of the poorest of our citizens.

This is not to suggest that attempting satire is not without its dangers.  In the early 1980s I was at a weeklong national youth conference in Townsville.  From the first day it was obvious that some of the young men were having a bit of difficulty adjusting to what they described as the “heavy feminist line” which they saw as being pushed.  That night in the bar of the Great Western Hotel as we were reviewing the forthcoming events, the one thing which seized the attention of these young men was Thursday’s “Beer and Prawns Night”. They assured me there were going to be bands such as Men’s Own and so it would be a night for the “boys”.  What I did not tell them was that the conference organisers had certainly ordered beer and prawns but that Men’s Own was a name that one of Townsville’s feminist bands had appropriated for the night.  The organisers thought it would give the “boys” something to hold on to.

At this same conference I was asked to write a short piece for the Conference Newsletter.  I wrote Three Bikies Mob Dog – Dog Wins . Despite it being a description of what had transpired the animal lovers at the conference were so distressed I was forced to write Youth Worker mobbed by Pig-Youth Worker wins:

Three Bikies Mob Dog – Dog Wins

Last night, as we sat on the balcony of the Great Northern trying to drain the last drops of McWilliams Royal Reserve, we grew tired of the usual blood sports turned on by Townsville locals as a tourist attraction.

We had watched the king hitters brawling outside Stiletto’s Night Club and had applauded the dexterity with which they kicked their opponents in the head once they hit the footpath. The police’s treatment of Aborigines was uninspiring, consisting mainly of a racist routine we had seen in many parts of the Deep North. Then to our delight, an anguished scream pierced the still night. We grabbed our glasses and leant over the balcony.

Three bikies in full leathers had cornered a stray dog which had, with malice aforethought, run in front of one of the bikes dislodging the rider. These leather knights were determined to teach it a lesson.  The dialogue at this point was not well enunciated but we were able to discern several words which would have been totally inappropriate at the Hotel Townsville.

Finally the dog was caught but as they strove to kick its guts in, they demonstrated an appalling lack of finesse, which we considered unforgivable. From then on, what had been reasonably tolerable theatre, degenerated into pure farce and, to our disappointment, the dog got away.

It was an interesting attempt to entice tourists away from the Bull Rings of Madrid but it needs to be reworked. Either the management will need to ensure the dog is more seriously injured in the first instance or that fitter bikies are engaged.

Almost immediately following the newsletter’s circulation, the conference organisers were inundated with complaints about the piece. The majority of delegates who complained, thought it promoted ill treatment of dogs, others considered it anti-police, and still others thought it denigrated Queensland. My response was to write:

Youth Worker Mobbed by Pig – Youth Worker Wins

Arriving at Townsville Airport, our young youth worker, fresh from Surfers Paradise, found his intended entry into the terminal blocked by a pig. “I know you, you’re a *!-@@ trouble maker,” grunted the pig.  “No, I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else”.

“We don’t make mistakes,” was the snorted reply. “Well, I’ve got to go to the Youth Workers Ball, my fairy godmother gave me the fare and I’m hoping to meet a charming ponce there”. ”You’re going nowhere – we’re taking you down to the station,” said the senior pig with a couple of stripes on his right shoulder. “You shouldn’t call it a station, it’s a sty!  A station is where they keep cattle and sheep,” commented the hero of this story.

Whilst they were scratching their heads trying to work out the significance of this comment, the youth worker slipped away, collected his suitcase and ran off to the Youth Workers Ball. There he drank all night with many ponces but never ever got to dance with a charming one.

(This story has been written to assuage the feelings of animal haters in our midst who became upset by the unnecessary publicity given to a dog which attempted to interfere with the legitimate travel arrangements of three bikies.)

Learning from the past

With this experience behind me I certainly would not suggest that you wander down to your local Wilderness Society Shop and ask any of the volunteers if they have in stock the just released books 163 Ways of Serving Potted Potoroo or Innovations in Koala Skinning.

During the Gulf War I published “Saddam Hussein is the Monster” and a song “Don’t die for me” written in collaboration with Peter Hancock.  The first antagonised several politicians. But it was the song which upset the local Canberra RSL and which led to considerable anti-war coverage. The article about Saddam pointed out that the “civilised” world did not consider him a monster when he gassed 10,000 Kurds or fought an 8 year war against Iran but he very quickly became one when he launched an assault on western interests. It was the chorus of Gallipoli which most concerned the RSL.

Gallipoli seems so far behind us now
but it has become some kind of sacred cow.
No one here recalls the old Boer War
or what it was that we were fighting for.
Why we fought and who we tried to please
Nor why we bombed the Germans
and killed the Japanese.
Or what it was that we held so dear
when we marched away to die in South Korea.
We remember the dying and the shame
of napalming Vietnam and spreading orange rain.
The US now wants us to be their foil
and fight Iraqi soldiers for their oil.

In the aftermath of the first Gulf War over a million Iraqi children died as a result of the continuing sanctions the Western Alliance has enforced on that country in the name of justice, freedom, humanity and the New World Order. We exacerbated that country’s miseries when we invaded again.

Economic modernisation in Australia today

At the university where I work, management purports to implement a cooperative management style but I believe it is driven by top down economic fundamentalist managerialism. Australia’s indecent obsession with free trade and its connivance with corporate globalisation leads it to sign, with alacrity, international trade treaties which protect the interests of corporate multinationals. At the same time its enthusiasm for binding international treaties does not extend to United Nations conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of Racism. The current enthusiasm for economic fundamentalism has blinded many to the downsides of the present efficiency drives which have for most of the last decade resulted in 2 million Australians being unemployed or underemployed whilst the majority of full time workers are doing 10 hours per week in unpaid overtime.

Humour and satire don’t work for every one

Teaching a large class necessitates confronting the issue that individuals learn in many different ways. What makes comprehension easier for one student can confound others in a class. Then there is the issue of disability. Some students may be blind or have severe visual impairment and others could be deaf and still others have brain damage or learning difficulties. This makes it makes it harder to use satire, cartoons, song, poetry.  But even in such situations there are ways round the problems.

Deaf students can be given copies of the words of the song or poem. Students who have difficulty processing information which is not delivered in didactic systematic fashion can be supplied with either full notes or summaries. Students with visual impairments can be provided with copies of cartoons and you can put the cartoon in context and read out the punch lines.

If you attempt to incorporate humour or satire you may find that:

  • Some students are rigid, interested only in concepts rigorously and conceptually explained.
  • Some are censorious – conforming – have managed to get through life holding on to a constrained view of the world and have no desire for intellectual flights of fancy.
  • Some students exhibit no sense of humour.
  • They may see story, song, poetry, cartoons, humour and even drama as wasting their time.
  • Satire, such students perceive, as gratuitous sarcasm.

Humour is often interpreted through the cultural and gender filters of the listener. So even if you are careful to avoid unnecessarily upsetting the audience you may find that your humour retains residues from earlier times. Though now I am a totally reconstructed new age male I did mention to a humourless feminist that the one thing I regarded as being worse than a male chauvinist pig was a woman who would not do as she was told. Then of course you would not want to attend a national disability conference and ask people “Do you know how to sell a duck to a deaf man?” The answer of course is “WANT TO BUY A DUCK!!!!!!!Insiders can tell them – outsiders can’tIn the mean time, follow the example of all good anarchists and drink herbal tea because “proper tea is theft”. 

Why use satire, humour, poetry, songs and drama in education?

Why not?  You could speak in a monotone and bore people to death. Anything that interests students gets them involved in a subject and once they’re interested they’ll work hard. Often no matter how hard you work at explaining social or political changes occurring in this country in recent times it is not until you have caricatured, poked fun at, turned on its head, distorted and pulled it inside out, pointed to its inconsistencies, highlighted the emotion and dramatised the pathos that students come to understand the implications the Government’s cut backs in the social wage or the current treatment of Indigenous people in this country.

Some of the students may have read about the 1930s treatment of the unemployed, but they generally know little about the ‘Susso’ scheme with its compelled labour in return for rations, they know even less about the Elizabethan poor law system of mutual obligation, yet unless these connections are made and understood students will have little understanding that the alleged ‘new’ welfare policies of the current Federal Government have a number of intimate connections with the past. Trying to explain to a predominantly non-Indigenous group of students John Howard’s refusal to say sorry to the stolen generations when they have not read Henry Reynolds, the Indigenous Deaths in Custody or the Bringing Them Home Reports is made a little easier by playing a recording of the actor John Howard’s ‘sorry speech’ from The Games or by relying on comedian Andrew Denton’s insight that “Johnny Howard does not have to say he’s sorry – you only have to look at him to see he’s a poor sorry little man”.

Written circa 2005 not published