July 15, 2021

Of all the excellent Matt Hancock memes to emerge in recent weeks, my favourite is a clip of Boris watching the football, doctored so that he appears to be watching a video of the former Health Secretary kissing his aide. “Hooray,” shouts Boris. “He did score?” I laughed, of course. It was funny — but even so, I still felt some small back note of anxiety that a family tragedy had become the subject of such widespread ridicule. Perhaps it’s a religious thing, but I have a soft spot for the publicly disgraced. Morality can be so persecutory, especially when weaponised by satire.

The complex relationship between leaders and satirists is as old as politics itself. Aristophanes attacks Socrates in his comedies, Plato accuses Aristophanes of misrepresentation and whipping up the mob. Nearly two and a half thousand years before the invention of the internet, the same issues surface again and again: hypocritical public figures, comedic put-downs, public anger, the manipulation of public anger. But have satirists ever had this much of the upper hand? Those who would expose political deceit have so many more means of detecting hypocrisy — cameras in Government offices, for heaven’s sake — and increasing access to audiences to expose it to.

The jester used to sit in the corner of the royal court, occasionally telling the truth about the king in the apparently innocuous form of comedic banter. Now the jester has a court of his own. Sometimes he is better paid than his targets. He may have a larger public profile, perhaps even more political clout that those he mocks. As the satirist Steve Punt joked on Private Passions, there are some young people who watch Have I Got News For You but won’t watch the news itself. Comedians have real power in holding politicians to account; but how do we hold them to account?

Part of the trouble is to be found in the complex eddies of truth that swirl around the notion of hypocrisy. The exposure of hypocrisy is the satirist’s stock in trade. The danger however is that the satirist can all too easily presume that he or she is above it. As R. Jay Magill writes in his fascinating little book on Sincerity, “satirists mean sincere things by saying them insincerely, hypocrites say sincere things but actually mean them insincerely.” In other words, despite their superficially self-deprecating irony, the purpose of the satirist is one of deep sincerity and moral seriousness. They possess the true heart, so beloved of religious Puritans since the sixteenth century.

And this may be part of the problem: the mocker becomes the moral hero. Those who would cast our political life as a parade of stupidity and hypocrisy understand themselves to be above the very things they point to in others. Often, we don’t even know who they are. Who produced all those Hancock memes? I have no idea. And no idea whether their own lives match up to the moral seriousness they see lacking in their target.

One explanation for our increasing concern with sincerity — with whether people are who they say they are — is that it came about following the Industrial Revolution, as people moved from a settled rural life to an increasingly transitory urban one. In the rural village setting, if you are born and die in the same place, people can eventually work out who you are. If you say one thing and do another, others notice. Your true nature emerges over time. But when people move about more frequently, the question of whether someone is as they profess to be becomes much trickier to establish.

Something similar is also produced by the way our relationships are now so mediated by technology. Where there is a screen between you and me, I no longer feel I have access to the social cues that can reassure me of your sincerity. In such a context, we often insist upon our own sincerity by signalling it to others in increasingly deliberate ways. Ironically, there then becomes something increasingly artificial about the profession of sincerity – which only intensifies the cycle of distrust and the need for a more genuine expression of sincerity. With so much work, and even socialising, done on Zoom, the whole of our lives seem to resemble a kind of demonic Turing Test, an attempt to work out the truth of the other at some impossibly digital distance.

There are many echoes of the past here. The Puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries were gripped by the fear that others did not sincerely hold to the faith that they professed. Was the conversion of others genuine? Or was it mere outward performance? How could you tell? It is no coincidence that with this Puritan anxiety came a new proliferation of testimonies and autobiographies, all attempts to show the inner self to the outside world, proving sincerity.

Much has been made of the idea that we are now in an age of New Puritanism, a new era of moral intensity. Some call it woke, but I wonder if the more interesting comparison is with the anxiety about sincerity. As our lives are more mediated by technology, and as the wearing of masks has become standard practice, the question of the truthfulness of the other is once again intensified. The very word hypocrisy derives etymologically from the Greek for play acting, referencing actors who wore masks on stage. Now we all wear masks. And so now the question of hypocrisy has intensified, generating renewed social anxiety.

This is where the satirists come in, and why they are the crack troops of the New Puritanism. Imbued with a sense of moral righteousness, they set about trying to unmask the deceivers. And politicians make for a ready and easy target. Don’t get me wrong, they often deserve it. And satire is a vital component of a society saturated with bullshit, political and otherwise. But the rise in the importance of, and our need for, satire is also a consequence of the weakening of the social bonds that used to form the basis for our mutual understanding. Increasingly, is is also a consequence of the kind of mediated and distanced lives we are being forced to live through technology.

Like the Puritans of old, we are obsessed with the fact that others might not be as they seem, with hypocrisy, with transparency. And like the Puritans, we are obsessed with parading our inner righteousness in moral testimonies for all to see, making public demonstrations of sincerity. We now call this virtue signalling — which is not about younger people being more self-righteous, but more about the need to demonstrate moral sincerity in a context where so many of the traditional mechanisms for establishing it have collapsed.

In the end, however, the old-style Puritans had God to settle the matter. He alone would know the secrets of your heart, He alone would unmask the truth. The new-style Puritans give this role to The Now Show and Mock the Week.