The speech of Prince Constantijn from www.koninklijkhuis.nl
Speech by Prince Constantijn, 7 december 2005
on the occasion of the presentation of the Prince Claus Prize 2005 in Amsterdam.
Humour and Satire. A great theme and an equally great challenge for a speaker. In preparation I read a selection of literature on the topic, including Freud’s ‘Der Witz’. Instead of providing some inspiration, it put me to sleep;
It is clear that talking about humour is problematic and mostly boring. But you have not come here to be bored. In fact, under its name bearer, the Prince Claus Fund has built up quite a reputation for allowing the unexpected to happen. Every year, guests, and media would gather in anticipation of the next surprise.
This year’s theme would have put a twinkle into Prince Claus’s eye. He enjoyed challenging conformism, and saw the uplifting force of dialogue and laughter. In humour, he looked for quality and subtle wit. His unique sense of humour did not always resonate with the directness and bluntness of Dutch culture.
Looking back we will remember humour as one of his finest qualities.
Today we honour the universal quality and importance of humour and satire. Quality is central to anything that the Fund does. So we do not honour the banal, the derogatory or the cynical. Nor the sense of exclusion that humour can create. One should not forget that humour is often used to offend, and to degrade. It can be applied to exclude the outsider, and to insult the weak.
No – today we celebrate the freedom of speech; and other forms of expression that can even go beyond words. We acknowledge the potential of humour and satire to enrich social discourse, development and the quality of life. Today we honour our laureates who have displayed the forementioned quality in their work, in their personality and in their engagement with the societies that they work and live in.
Someone told me that the ultimate test of the quality of satire is wether the object of the joke is able to laugh about it. Satire may be harsh, but ultimately it must also be fair in the given context and not intentionally malicious. Obviously this test assumes that the object of satire actually possesses a sense of humour, even under fire, and we all know that is not easy to be mocked.
This need for a sense of humour holds the key to answering the question; why humour and satire are so powerful. It is not so much the comment or the joke itself that holds the power. The impact lays in the reaction of the people and institutions who are the object of the joke; and their ability – or inability - to self-reflect.
Humour is so powerful because power – almost by nature - has no sense of humour. Why does the a state, a corporation, an organisations or even an individual feel threatened by the words of a stand-up comedian or a mere cartoon? Because a joke is uncontrollable and potentially embarrassing; it has the capacity to expose the mechanisms of power and the hypocrisy with which it is exercised.
As power itself is humourless, it lends humour its power. Power is obsessed with control and seeks to arm itself. Humour disarms. No general or politician will ever state: “Relax, nothing is under control”. The fear of losing face turns power into a caricature of itself, which is mirrored in the truth of a joke or a cartoon.
An anecdote from a concentration camp in the Second World War is a compelling example of how humour can disarm power and endow the hopeless with dignity, and it reassurance us that, with humour: even the powerless can assert their moral superiority over their oppressors.
A camp guard had one glass eye and two prisoners discussed how to tell which was real and which fake. Finally, one of them hit on the answer: “It's obvious; one eye still shows a gleam of humanity . . . that must be the glass one.”
It is a gift to find such humour in even the darkest of times. As the chairman of the prize committee mentioned before: humour thrives in hardship and despair.
So, we may mock others and ridicule situations or behaviour, but we should not forget to make fun of ourselves, as this – in my view – is the true sense of humour.
Recently, in this country, we have been taking ourselves awfully seriously. We have come up short on laughter. Racial and religious divides, economic recession and demographic trends have turned our proud nation of righteous people into soul-searchers. The so called “Dutch uncle” - as the English call someone who preaches morality - is becoming a bit of a bore; sulking in his corner of Europe; navel gazing, instead of looking the world in the eye and leading the way. It takes strength to laugh about oneself; to make the joke that breaks a taboo. It is probably the strongest sign of self-confidence.
We have a long tradition of political satire in the Netherlands. Recently a new breed of satirists has emerged to whom we owe our gratitude. Branded as ‘allochtoon’ - or those foreign in origin – a number of comedians and singers are holding up a mirror to themselves, their communities and the nation as a whole. Through their satire and self-mockery they question the clichés about our tolerance, flexibility, open-mindedness and internationalism. With their humour and songs, they have become instrumental in enabling an open discussion of sensitive issues such as guilt, discrimination and the taboos of our multicultural society. In entertaining us, they help us bridge some of the divides that have recently emerged.
In free countries and regions, laughter is an essential part of living freely; we need satire to keep power in check. In occupation and oppression, humour is even more important; it means survival. People dedicate their lives to humour and satire, putting their freedom and safety at risk. But without it, they may have dried up and died along with their communities. The world needs people who say the seemingly unspeakable, who expose the hypocrisy, corruption and vanity of power. We need to encourage those who wield this mysterious and universal power called humour to help create spaces of freedom in which all people are at liberty to think, speak, live, explore and develop.
Seeking out the zones of silence and creating spaces of freedom is a leading objective of the Prince Claus Fund. It is within this framework – however broad – that the Fund has a special focus on humour and satire. In line with its belief in the developmental aspect of culture, the Fund is particularly interested in expressions of humour and satire that are not only innovative and unique, but also convey quality and a certain degree of social commitment.
The laureates today have all in their own way given new meaning to this idea by speaking out, and by contrasting the silence with their wit and braveness, laying bare the raw nerves of the truth.
Few can rival the cartoons of Jonathan Shapiro, alias Zapiro. Local and global themes are represented in an irresistibly humorous manner; each cartoon touching on the essence of the issues at hand. Zapiro has used his gift to question the system of apartheid and continues to challenge the clichés and dogmas of his home region and the world at large. He also teaches and shares his views and qualities with coming generations. For the outstanding quality of his work, for his social and political commitment and his contribution to culture and development it is a great honour and privilege to hand the 2005 award to Mr Jonathan Shapiro of South Africa.