Sunday, January 18, 2015

Does the Internet Undermine Utilitarianism?

Tim Parks' NYRBlog post about the Charlie Hebdo affair, "The Limits of Satire," basically tries to analyze the situation from a utilitarian point of view. In other words he is more interested in the usefulness of satire than in questions of freedom of speech (or, for that matter, hate speech) that have occupied the mass media ever sense the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office. He argues that the utilitarian objective of satire is "to produce an enlightened perspective on events, not to start riots." While I do not question this position, I feel it overlooks the extent to which it has been undermined by the Internet. When Jonathan Swift wrote his "Modest Proposal" essay in 1729 (the case study behind Parks' analysis), he could reasonably assume that his readers would be members of an "enlightened" class of Englishmen, rather than either the starving Irish or a coven of insane gourmet chefs. American satirists, such as Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, and Bill Maher, probably also take for granted that most of their regular viewers are similarly "enlightened" and thoughtful, looking for something other than having their opinions reinforced by Fox. The problem is that, thanks to the Internet's capacity for mass distribution of content to sites about which we know little if anything, such content is now encountered by less "enlightened" audiences; and, more often than not, the consequences are not good.

Parks gave another telling example. After it appeared, Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses was just another book, enjoyed by many readers and respected by many others. Then it got on the Booker shortlist, and the newspaper India Today decided that it was now worthy of attention. They ran an interview with Rushdie, after which a large swath of South Asian readers learned that the characters included prostitutes named after Muhammad's wives. That was the one small step that led to Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa, putting the author's life at risk.

I take the Rushdie story as a case study in pre-Internet mass communication. Charlie Hebdo, on the other hand, is a post-Internet story. Whatever benefits satire may provide for "enlightened" discussion, we can no longer assume that it is read only by those those respect such an enlightened stance.


DigitalDan said...

So the Ayatollah Khomeini was among the unenlightened, who should not have been exposed to, because he could not appreciate, the satirical intent? The whole post seems a bit elitist to me. Could be correct, too, but I'd like to think many who can appreciate such thoughts now have access to them, who did not before.

Stephen Smoliar said...

I definitely agree with DigitalDan's last sentence. In the Rushdie case, however, I do not think that Khomeini was the unenlightened party. To the contrary I think that his rise had much to do with having a clear understanding of the nature and exercise of power. Rushdie provided him with an opportunity to flex his muscles as the authoritative voice for his followers. Indian journalism provided him with the right timing.