All of the recent news about the French satire magazine "Charlie Hebdo" has caused much discussion about the role of satire in the public arena. And some confusion about the literary forms of parody and satire. So let's try to clear the air.
First, a parody is a work that imitates the style of another work, usually for humorous effect. Social commentary is not generally involved.
An example of a parody is the book, "Bored of the Rings," which is a send-up of Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." A parody has to be different enough that it doesn't violate copyright, but similar enough so that the readers can see how the parody makes fun of the original work.
A satire, on the other hand, tries to arouse public disapproval of a subject by means of ridicule or exaggeration. A satire stands on its own, although the subject being made fun of is usually easily recognizable. An example of a satire is the George Orwell book, "Animal Farm," which pokes fun at the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
Both parody and satire have a long and sometimes vicious history in the arena of political debate. In fact, the Supreme Court back in 1988 noted with approval that satirical political cartoons are often designed to deliberately hurt the feelings of the target, many times by making fun of physical traits of the victim.
Going back to the early days of the republic, President George Washington was sometimes portrayed as a donkey in political cartoons.
After the Civil War, cartoonist Thomas Nast took on a criminal syndicate in New York, and his cartoons were readily acknowledge as going well beyond the bounds of good taste and manners. Yet they were critical in helping destroy "Boss" Tweed and his criminal associates.
Political cartoonists made fun or Lincoln's gangling looks, and Teddy Roosevelt's teeth. Even Franklin Roosevelt, who White House photographers never photographed in his wheelchair, was the target of satirical cartoons.
Satire is by its very nature hurtful. But somehow I think that public figures, politicians and religious leaders should be strong enough to stand on their own, and at some level not worry about what cartoonists think of them.