Social commentary is the act of using rhetorical means to provide commentary on issues in a society. This is often done with the idea of implementing or promoting change by informing the general populace about a given problem and appealing to people's sense of justice. Social commentary can be practiced through all forms of communication, from printed form, to conversations to computerized communication.
Two examples of strong and bitter social commentary are the writings of Jonathan Swift and Martin Luther. Swift exposed and decried the appalling poverty in Ireland at the time, which was viewed as the fault of the British government. Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation against practices of the Catholic Church. Examples of social commentators from the lower social strata are Charles Dickens and Will Rogers.
This list is far from exhaustive. Examples of social commentary may be found in any form of communication. Artistic works of all mediums are often defined by what they say about society. Despite being wordless, the memorable image of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 may be considered one of the most profound commentaries of the power of the individual.
Inspiration for some artists can come from issues that are present today. Deborah Silverman, Professor of History and Art History at the University of California in Los Angeles, states that the "Analysis of particular visual forms expands to an interpretation of art and artists as carriers of cultural history in the crucible of modernity." This notion has been present in art throughout time. An example is Vincent Van Gogh's 1885 painting 'The Potato Eaters'. This picture depicts a group of poverty stricken people gathered in a small room around a table. Vincent Van Gogh created this piece of artwork in order to present a confronting time to the viewer. A modern example is street art, also known as graffiti. With an international reputation, artist and political activist Banksy is known to produce street art that raises public issues such as slave Labour, loss of childhood and the effects of war.
Social commentary photography's purpose is to "expose social issues on ethics, society, religious, the way of life, how people live and other similarities." Sometimes this includes the harsh reality of society such as homelessness, discrimination, war and defenceless children. "Social Commentary artists try their best to create artworks in order to convey messages to the community." Due to the fact that the photos are of real life situations, the contents can be perceived to be more confronting than other visual forms of social commentary. An example are the works of photojournalist and war photographer James Nachtwey. James Nachtwey's works include the Rwanda Genocide (1994), the Somalia famine (1992) and the Jakarta Riots (1998) and the September 11 attacks in 2001, just to name a few.
Most public speaking constitutes social commentary of some form. Many sermons will describe the ills of society and offer religious solutions. Many politicians may speak in a similar fashion – in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar one can see Mark Antony's funeral speech as a commentary. The larger audience offered by radio and television has diminished the significance of public speaking as a means of social commentary.
The United Nations General Assembly is one of the biggest global organisations that focus of planet Earth and humans. The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) strive to make the Earth a better place, however without the input of many passionate individuals the UNGA would not be able to achieve this. Influential public speakers such as Malala Yousafzai, President Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II, comment of society's issues. This allows the UNGA to directly listen to the issues at hand and address them accordingly.
Allegorical fictional works such as Animal Farm clearly contain a social commentary and one can find some degree of social commentary in almost any novel. To Kill a Mockingbird can be interpreted as a commentary on racial issues, especially given the date of its publication (1960). Another example of social commentary is Thomas More's Utopia in which he uses the Utopia to satirize the values of 16th century Britain. Social commentaries have been searched for even in fantasy novels such as The Lord of the Rings, though such connections often require much conjecture.
Directly speaking to a topic in the social discourse in writing by defining the audience, the bounds of the topic, and the presenting facts and opinions based on the primarily author and possibly on another's perspective.
Radio, television and film
Fictional works in these mediums have a similar scope to that of their literary counterparts and documentaries to the non-fiction works described above. Television and films often use powerful images to enhance their message, for example, Michael Moore's films utilise this to great effect in promoting his political beliefs. Some examples of films include Food, Inc., The Story of Stuff featuring Annie Leonard, and Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me. And to a lesser degree, the prominent Italian exploitation film Cannibal Holocaust uses graphic violence, shocking imagery, and underlying topics in anthropology to express Ruggero Deodato's distaste for modern society – more importantly – what it has become. West Indian calypsonians participate annually in songwriting competitions with the common use of double entendre, humour and metaphor as well as monikers to avoid legal complications (see Calypso Music).
An early radio monologist was the American Will Rogers, with sharp and good-humored observations upon society during the 1920s and 1930s. Current American monologists include:
There are a number of discussion shows that do not have a call in segments, but which sometimes have discussions (beyond mere interviews) with personages of current interest. In the United States of America, some such shows include:
Talk shows (call-in)
In the late 20th century through the present, radio and television phone-in shows allow limited discussion and sometimes debate on such issues, although if involving politics or issues exploited for political purposes the discussion is often directed by the "moderator" toward a specific point of view, typically by terminating non-conforming phone calls.
In more balanced forums it is common that a panel of well-known social commentators or experts on aspectc of a topic will respond to comments from listeners after an introductory interactive discussion directed by the moderator, with only the obstreperous or extreme caller summarily terminated.
Newspapers and comic books
What is probably the most common social commentary is that of the editorial section of newspapers, where columnists give their opinion on current affairs. The letters section of papers allows a similar platform for members of the public. Editorial cartoons, such as those in The New Yorker, perform a social commentary, often with a humorous slant.
The conventional comic section is more limited, but sometimes with social commentary, often subtle and oblique, or more bold, abrasive, and consistently pointed as in, Li'l Abner, Pogo, Doonesbury, Bloom County, and Boondocks or in pulp comics such as Howard the Duck. Many other even more explicitly provocative comics (usually with a far left of center point of view) appear in various free weekly newspapers such as the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the East Bay Express (in the San Francisco Bay Area) and the Village Voice (in New York City), and similarly in many other locals, often those with a strong university or college presence.
The web performs a similar function to the letters section described above. It is ripe with social commentary because it allows the dissemination of ideas by anyone with a computer to a potentially enormous audience, as well as instant comment and discussion. Its international scope is particularly attractive, with language the only major barrier to communication. Discussion and debate occurs in many forums and chat rooms.
The internet is viewed as one of the greatest modern-time advances in terms of freedom of speech and thought; however censorship is not impossible, for example that performed by the authorities in China. W.H. Auden's poetry also served as a medium of social commentary.
Famous social commentators
- Alison Bechdel
- Adam Smith
- Bill Hicks
- Mike Davis
- Bob Dylan
- Brian Merriman
- Charlie Chaplin
- Charles Dickens
- Frank Fu
- Frank Zappa
- Geoffrey Chaucer
- George Carlin
- George Orwell
- Jean-Luc Godard
- John Lennon
- John Locke
- JK Rowling
- Karl Marx
- Rex Murphy
- Lenny Bruce
- Lewis Black
- Mark Twain
- Martin Luther
- Martin Luther King Jr.
- Michael Moore
- Oscar Wilde
- Camille Paglia
- Fran Lebowitz
- Ann Coulter
- Christopher Hitchens
- Roger Waters
- Rush Limbaugh
- Thomas More
- Virginia Woolf
- Will Rogers
- Howard, Robert Glenn (2005). "The Double Bind of the Protestant Reformation: The Birth of Fundamentalism and the Necessity of Pluralism". Journal of Church and State.
- Salib, Peter (2015). "The Law of Banksy: Who Owns Street Art?". The University of Chicago Law Review. 82. Retrieved 14 May 2016.
- Yaacob, Husaini; Azahari, Mustaffa Halabi; Ismail, Adzrool Idzwan (2013). "Visual social communication through photographic images" (PDF). The Asian Conference on Media and Mass Communication. Retrieved 15 May 2016.
- Möller, Frank (2010-04-01). "Rwanda Revisualized: Genocide, Photography, and the Era of the Witness". Alternatives: Global, Local, Political. 35 (2): 113–136. doi:10.1177/030437541003500202. ISSN 0304-3754.
- Weiss, Thomas G. (2010-10-01). "How United Nations ideas change history". Review of International Studies. 36 (Supplement S1): 3–23. doi:10.1017/S026021051100009X. ISSN 1469-9044.
- II, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth (2011-02-01). "The United Nations: A Real Force for the Common Good". The Round Table. 100 (412): 95–96. doi:10.1080/00358533.2011.542302. ISSN 0035-8533.