The Malta Independent 4 December 2021, Saturday

When politics is the topic, laughter just might be the best medicine

Mark Said Sunday, 24 October 2021, 09:30 Last update: about 2 months ago

Dr Mark Said is an advocate

Although it is the Prime Minister's Prerogative when to announce the General Elections date, our Constitution is reminding us that election time in Malta is fast approaching. Indeed, we have seen propagandastic billboards going up in various prominent spots on our Islands for quite some time now. We are made to listen to the now routine Sunday morning political broadcasts by both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on their respective Party private TV and radio stations. We are also being visited by the various Party candidates, keen to present their credentials and to review their respective achievements in their constituencies in order to wrestle our vote. Whatever, all involved, candidates, canvassers, helpers, volunteers and the rest, are vividly gearing up for that do or die date. Surveys are being churned out week after week, with the incumbent administration sitting comfortably on the probability that they will be returned to power with a substantial majority, while its contenders keep on striving breathlessly to try and narrow that gap and perhaps make it to Castille. The political contestants are revving up their electoral machines and political tension is about to rise sooner or later. Election fever is starting to set in.

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Yet in this whole political process, I tend to look at the key role of humour, from stand-up routines to social media, to cartoons. It is good for a while to ponder on humour's ability to cut tension, get at truth and, perhaps, influence people's politics. Laughing at our political system, our politicians, controversy and conflict just might be the best medicine.

In addition to being a balm in challenging times, humour and comedy are used to highlight politicians' authenticity and to shape the public's view of them. Social media has been where some of the most hilarious, and cutting, political barbs have occurred. I have read somewhere of someone who will be voting for a particular candidate because he has got the stronger chin. Elsewhere, another candidate posted that he will stop telling lies about his opposite contestant if he will stop telling the truth about him. In a particular stand-up comical sketch, I laughed my heart out when a particular retortion read something like this: "An election comes along only to prove that we Maltese are tired of the experienced politicians who over the past 30 years created a country of opportunities - opportunities to steal, bribe and loot." And that is what humour's main function appears to be when it comes to politics - to render a truth, whether it is to further someone's agenda or to shed light on something uncomfortable or challenging by wrapping it in laughter to make its consumption easier.

The increasing popularity of new forms of Internet-based humour has, however, raised questions about the significance of humour in campaigning and whether online humour can be used as means of stimulating political engagement. I find that while the official party campaigns use humour very cautiously, there has been an upsurge in humour-based campaigns from social media activists as well as other bloggers. Yet, overall, the way that humour is used is paradoxical, since it often attempts to encourage participation but portrays politics as a cynical game, leaving the rationale for political participation unclear.

Lately I have been watching hybrid forms of political satire, comedies, parodies, impersonations and caricatures on such media as Youtube, TikTok and Wikipedia. They have their roots in the deregulation of the media industry in the last few years and the simultaneous rise in digital technologies.

"Political humour" is an umbrella term that encompasses any humorous text dealing with political issues, people, events, processes or institutions. Within that broad category, political satire occupies a specific role. Political satire is playful and is designed to elicit laughter, while simultaneously casting judgment. It is this function of "casting judgment" that separates satire from broader notions of political humour. Jokes and texts that treat political topics in a lighthearted manner but offer no criticism of institutions, policies or societal norms do not constitute satire. Rather, satire questions the existing political or social order, usually by juxtaposing the existing imperfect reality with visions of what could or should be. So, while satire can be biting and even aggressive in tenor, the underlying premise of a satirical text is often optimistic, as it suggests we (collectively) deserve better. Political satire skillfully gives the reader a double reward: the pleasure of an aesthetic experience coupled with the reasonable hope that a stable political order may be attainable.

Caricatures or visual exaggerations of a known person's most identifiable characteristics, are an example of parody. Other examples include impersonations of political figures as well as programmes and texts that exaggeratedly (or ironically) mimic a political concept, event, or genre. Many have been making the rounds lately.

If humour can playfully present information or argument without eliciting a negative audience reaction, then employing it could be a promising way to incite attitude change. Indeed, humour can soften or even reduce counter argumentation or argument scrutiny, in response to the premise of that humorous text.

I have seen many prime ministers in my lifetime subjected to grotesque caricatures, witty satire, ingenious parodies and comical sketches, from George Borg Olivier, Dom Mintoff, Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, Eddie Fenech Adami, Alfred Sant, Lawrence Gonzi, Joseph Muscat to incumbent Robert. If this is evolution, I believe that in 12 years, if I am still around, I will be voting for trees.

The irony is, that the people we tend to vote for actually look down on voters and voting. That is just idiotic, right? That is like a snake eating its own tail! A wolf in a trap gnawing off its own head to escape!

But in all seriousness, election day will soon be upon us, and this is an important one. Do not forget to vote.


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