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Some politicians deserve to be mocked Unfortunately, satirists are the crack troops of the New Puritanism

Who will unmask the truth? Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty


July 15, 2021   4 mins

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.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
3 years ago

‘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.’

That is a very interesting observation. But it seems to me that there is a serious distinction between that and the woke wolf packs.

In the village, you have a legitimate personal interest in whether your neighbour is sincere: Will he keep his bargain with me? Are the goods he sells me sound? Will she betray my confidences? Will he be a faithful husband? Those questions genuinely matter to your well-being in your real life. Misjudge your neighbour’s sincerity and it may harm you.

But what interest does the mob have in a whether a stranger’s views on transgenderism mean that they cannot be a sincere feminist? Or whether public figure X seems to be a good person, but some diligent offence-archaeologist has unearthed and made public some ill-advised social media post made when X was a teenager?

How can such ‘insincerity’ harm you (or anyone else)?

This isn’t about protecting your own safety by avoiding harm from unreliable people you actually know. It’s about finding ‘reasons’ to humiliate and destroy strangers, who can’t do you any harm (especially not just with their opinions).

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
3 years ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

Very perceptive comment. Twitter has enabled pure impersonal malice – monsters from the Id.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

I loath this lazy analogy of Woke, Far Left/Liberalism being called New Puritanism.

“the idea that we are now in an age of New Puritanism, a new era of moral intensity.”
Why not new the Stalinism? Militant Atheism is such a better example to use for these Secular-Humanists. Stalin’s spies in every work place, in every apartment, in every government office and University, all watching, and all must find some one to send to their doom to show their own purity. No clear laws or history – just made up as it went along, no structured system of beliefs laid out for millennia – just a rage which possessed the Mob, and that they used to inflict their beastly amorality onto society.

The Puritans were devout Christians, and so had entire Books of lessons, examples, dogma, history of close to two millennia, complex and intensely thought out Theology, they has practices, clergy, services. They had Absolute Morality, and Ethics, they would be martyred literally for their beliefs, they lived their beliefs. They had Work Ethic, they were driven to do Good Works, to Build, to make better, to serve others.

The woke is entirely unstructured. There is no great book of Wokism, no laws, doctrines, no 10 Commandments, no hierarchy, no learning, no ethics and morals, just outrage, and an attempt to tear down – never to Build. Giles, I always expect better of you.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I agree with you final paragraph, but the rest is projection.
Calling them the ‘New Puritans’ is no lazier than conflating Left/Liberalism with Atheism. The most radical woke advocates would have been Puritans or any other fanatical religious types in any other era or country.
Like it or not the non-religious are the largest faith minority in the UK, and it’s not all the same people who read Foucault and no-platform people.
‘Puritanism’ works on one level because both share a comparable zeal that believes they are morally pure and correct. It also works at a more basic level just as the word Puritanism is used in everyday speech (somewhat in abstract from the actual Puritans themselves). It’s not much more than that.
Also as history enthusiast, I would not agree with your slightly (American?) misty-eyed view of the Puritans. They were too radical for Britain and Puritan England lasted barely a decade. The reason the Pilgrim fathers left was less persecution and more that British society didn’t agree with their radical views. Britain has never liked religious zealots. Orwell said it better than I could:

…the common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities. And yet they have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ. – England Your England

And sorry but this adds no value:

The Puritans were devout Christians, and so had entire Books of lessons, examples, dogma, history of close to two millennia, complex and intensely thought out Theology, they has practices, clergy, services. They had Absolute Morality, and Ethics, they would be martyred literally for their beliefs, they lived their beliefs. They had Work Ethic, they were driven to do Good Works, to Build, to make better, to serve others.

You can replace the word Puritan with Wahabist and it makes the same points.

Last edited 3 years ago by A Spetzari
Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
3 years ago

An interesting article. But I can’t help but thinking that the left wing middle class comedians, who came to saturate all programming, have a symbiotic relationship with the politicians who they claimed to be holding to account.

Ultimately both the neo-liberal politicians and the comedians were telling the public the same thing. Politics is corrupt and futile. Instead of putting your faith in democracy, put it in technocrats and experts, who are beyond reproach, who are beyond mockery. The Technocracy which has replaced our democracy is a humourless one, which takes offence at comedy and so is rarely joked about but instead hated; as often happens when we can no long laugh about our troubles.

For all of us who took the jokes about our politicians all too sincerely. The joke may just be on us.

Last edited 3 years ago by Matthew Powell
Stephen Rose
Stephen Rose
3 years ago

I don’t think the association with Puritanism is a particularly good fit for many reasons, progressives aren’t hard working, abstineous and god fearing But certainly there is prothytising, zealotry and gnosticism in the mix.
As for the current wave of satire, it is as lacking in humour, absurdity, imagination and self mockery as progressive politics.
I stopped watching, listening, to a genre I used to love, some years ago. Brass eye, Rory Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Spitting image, News Hudlines, drop the dead donkey. Swift, Wilde, The New Yorker, Private Eye, Viz, I lapped it up.
Today the jokes are horribly lame and repeat accepted truths endlessly.Full of little homilies meant to make you feel good about yourself. Which would be bad enough if they weren’t so hobbled by the need not to offend and so sterile in terms of imagination. It may be a lack of trust in the disposition of your audience and their ability to process a joke, but the idea of signalling your virtue
would seem damming to a satirist, who should publish and to hell with it. You should bite the hand that feeds you, at least occasionally. But I dare say the ÂŁ30,000 appearance fee for HIGNFY keeps you compliant.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
3 years ago

It’s more complicated yet: how do we know what we really think, never mind the reasons why? We are full of self-delusion and deceit.

Last edited 3 years ago by Martin Smith
Judy Englander
Judy Englander
3 years ago

The mask Greek actors wore was called a ‘persona’. You hid your real countenance behind a character-mask for the audience. Jung then used the term for the social self (or polite/conventional/false self) that we present in daily life. Modern virtue-signalling is simply the ancient persona brought into the online world. And it’s just as performative, just as fake, with the added irony that’s it’s a false self pretending to be a true self.

Last edited 3 years ago by Judy Englander
Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
3 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

I think we err in imposing modern moral judgement on Greek drama.
Human consciousness was very different in those days. The Greek persona developed out of earlier Eastern spiritual systems which saw Maya as the Goddess who created the outer world of appearances. She was divine. She had a divine function—creating our world. No condemnation in the sense of immorality was implied. Western Theosophists of the nineteenth century, who had an imperfect understanding of Buddhism and Hinduism, translated Maya as “illusion”, thereby giving it a derogatory Victorian prim-and-proper tone never implied in the original. If we describe a dress as a clothing covering over a beautiful inner figure, that does not imply there’s anything inherently wrong with the dress. On the contrary, the dress, too, may be lovely.
The Eastern, and then Greek, teaching referred to the distinction between the inner and outer spiritual worlds. Both worlds were spiritual, but on relatively different levels of reality. Students were taught that humans comprised an inner divine Ego-Self and an outward-facing Persona. Today we might call the divine part the likeness—we are made in the likeness of the divine, whereas the physical-world persona could be called the image of that inner divinity that we present to the outer world. Greek actors presented this image via their various masks. Equivalents can be found across the world—think of Japanese kabuki or noh drama, Indonesian wajang puppet theatre, etc. Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage..” perhaps conveys the style of Greek drama better.
Jung plagiarised this teaching then reduced its significance and import to the purely superficial “social self” you describe. Modern psychology’s founders—both Freud and Jung—did their best to update things for modern conditions, but ended up trivialising the profound depths of traditional spirituality. Jung in particular created a god-awful mess with his “archetypes”, assuming one could simply conflate all the precise, time-and-place specific, diverse divinities of previous spiritual traditions into one western consumer-oriented grab-bag of pseudo-tools for modern self-improvement workshopping entrepreneurs.
Modern psychology has taken the goddess Psyche out of her creation and appears to be in the process of reducing us all to eye-blink rates and brainwave impulses in its vain attempt to outdo the natural scientists at their own game.
This is proving right now to be to all our detriment, since we struggle to create an authentic new spirituality.
We find ourselves reduced to, on the one hand, those who would deny any divine human origins outright, thereby reducing us to our merely animal part, which is rapidly taking over in the absence of anything to balance it out, and, on the other hand, those who have given up trying to understand or know anything at all, who take refuge in a bit of mindless hand waving, accompanied by loud sighing and repeated uttering of the name “Jesus”, with the occasional fainting fit thrown in for good measure, all to a background of appallingly bad music and the rattle of the inexorable credit-card plate.
Both these camps have excluded the Christ from his own religion, thereby taking the potential for positive future evolution toward enhanced consciousness/conscience and better ability to Love, out of the picture of our possibilities.
Reading this, you will no doubt have concluded that I am angry. Very angry. Returning to the theme of Giles Fraser’s article, how can you know whether my anger is righteous anger, or morally self-righteous anger? Am I signalling a path to higher virtues, or am I virtue-signalling?

Paul Sorrenti
Paul Sorrenti
3 years ago

. . . 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

Brilliantly put. And the clearest sign that for the robots to achieve their pre-programmed mission to become more like us, the algorithm has learnt that the path of least resistance is not ‘become more conscious’ but ‘reduce their consciousness’ and meet in the middle, or very near the bottom. Clever girls

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.

I feel like there’s so much truth in this, and thank you for humanising the virtue signallers. It’s a nice antidote to the them vs us demonisation they receive in the comments section of Unherd. Irritating as they are, imagine being brought up on a diet of zoom and emojis, poor blighters. It’s not all their fault a war is coming

. . . bullsh*t

Wash your mouth out father