Why Satire Matters

Justin E. H. Smith in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

ScreenHunter_1028 Feb. 25 13.19As recently as a few months ago, the common wisdom seemed to be that the only people who raise concerns about illiberalism in academic life are the embarrassing old avuncular types. You know the ones: the men in Hawaiian shirts who want to know why they can’t call women “dames” anymore. There was little serious engagement with the real problem of the trade-off between freedom of expression and the concern not to offend.

Then came a turning point, when, in Paris, a death squad targeted some cartoonists, and the widespread reaction in the online and academic left (increasingly indistinguishable from each other) was: “Well, the cartoons were offensive.” This is when I found I could no longer contain my own dismay. I, an American academic based in Paris, came suddenly to feel as though my relocation to France were not simply a career move but a proper exile from the political culture of North American academe, which has become inflexible, unsubtle, and dogmatic. The issue was no longer the anti-PC griping of uncles. It was now a matter of life and death.

If I try, in the aim of cool-headed analysis, to contain that dismay, I find that my American colleagues’ quasi-rationalization of the assassination of caricaturists is rooted in a failure to distinguish between certain basic varieties of the exercise of the freedom of expression. In particular, there seems to be a broad misunderstanding of the social function, and therefore also the necessity, of satire.

More here.