Shock or awe? The point in political cartooning

‘Living under censorship is like being permanently hectored by a parrot and occasionally savaged by it’, Christopher Hitchens once wrote. In ‘post-censorship’, neoliberal societies, should there be limits to freedom of expression and freedom of speech? In Australia, current debates surrounding Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (1975), which makes it unlawful to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ a person on the basis of their race or ethnicity – and its related exemptions (18D) applicable to artistic, scientific, or academic work – demonstrate that the precise borders between freedom and decency are sometimes difficult to discern.

In Europe, this debate was recently revived by the outrage caused, once again, by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for its September 2016 cartoon, ‘Earthquake: Italian Style’. It depicted the victims of the August earthquake in the Italian town of Amatrice as different kinds of pasta, in which tomato sauce was substituted by blood, and lasagna was alternatively layered with the dead and the ruins. Why victimize the victims of a natural disaster, many asked? Why ridicule the dead? Deeply offended by this exploit, and in an effort to defend the dignity of the victims, the town of Amatrice filed an aggravated defamation complaint.

Since the shooting and killing of several members of the Charlie Hebdo editorial team in Paris in January 2015, there has been ongoing questioning of where the boundary between freedom of speech on the one side, and civility and decency on the other, should be drawn. Responses to ‘extreme’ cartoons like ‘Earthquake’, or the Danish ‘Muhammad’ cartoons of 2005, that caused indignation and waves of protests around the world, seem to fall into three categories: ‘free-speech fundamentalism’, ‘pro-censorship’, and the ‘middle-grounders’ who think one should analyse the  particular context that they are dealing with, assess the particular situation, and apply self-censorship if needed.

With specific reference to ‘Earthquake’, it is still difficult to comprehend Charlie Hebdo’s point, or its target. Was it an attempt on the part of the publication to get back into the public spotlight by shocking a worldwide audience? From the outset, the viewership of this cartoon was transnational; it was a cartoon about an event that took place in Italy, published in Paris, and shortly after, shared around the world via newspapers and social media (not merely within the vast Italian diaspora). Moreover, after the shootings of 2015, international readership of Charlie Hebdo skyrocketed. The cartoon’s main purpose might have been amplitude of this shock-effect. In what is a highly visual culture, the aim might also have been to create controversy for controversy’s-sake, a sort of anarchic, chaos-inducing stand to awaken the masses. But awaken us into precisely what is difficult to assess. In a subsequent cartoon, Charlie Hebdo seemed to blame the mafia, allegedly responsible for building some of the houses that did not endure the earthquake. (This is despite the fact that some of the collapsed buildings were designed and built well before the 20th century.)

Historically speaking there is of course a long tradition of irreverence within the ranks of cartoonists, who have always been fighting censorship and pushing the boundaries of expression, and reaching out where other media could not reach (and for this we should be grateful to them). Indeed, it is precisely for its immediacy, its hybridity and its non-verbal potential that the cartoon has been able to be so universal and far-reaching, much more than the written word by itself. These same aspects, however, also make it potentially more dangerous, especially now that every cartoon can become immediately global, and that cartoonists cannot choose – nor predict – their target audience. As already mentioned, the (in)famous 2015 Danish cartoons ended up triggering global protests.

Moreover, the frequency of our exposure to cartoons has moved and developed at least as fast as print culture first, and information society later. Between the Reformation and the 1830s in Europe, cartoons were occasional at best. Around the time of Daumier and Philipon in France, (and Punch in Britain) new cartoons appeared weekly, and different publications began to compete with each other for the best cartoon. By the 1890s, newspaper cartoons had become a daily appointment and in the 20th century, with the advent of morning and evening papers, cartoons were published at least twice a day. Today, thanks to the internet and especially to social media, there are cartoons created and shared all around the world at all instants.

The particular role of the cartoonist in the 21st century remains difficult to gauge. Whenever (and wherever) the official apparatus of censorship is removed, the debate around civility perhaps becomes even more central. This said, in a globally-connected world, cartoonists are still very much looking for their function. It is increasingly difficult to discern a professional cartoonist from the multitude of amateurs producing visuals that are shared on social media, like memes, which in the end should be considered and examined like cartoons. (Professional cartoonists might feel that they have to protect their own discipline, perhaps by imposing their copyright policies more rigorously, which is arguably paradoxical, coming from the most irreverent supporters of freedom of expression.)

It is perhaps time that cartoonists moved beyond the mere ‘shocking’ and the ridicule, if their aim is to have an impact on society, to promote greater participation in the democratic process, or, at the very least, to raise the level of public discourse. It seems, indeed, that shock-for-shock’s-sake, and ridicule-for-ridicule’s-sake, are failing to push any boundaries or to lead us towards any possible moral, social, political, or intellectual awakening or advancement. Plus, there are historical reasons to propose that these tools do not take us far in terms of social change. Ridiculing via cartoons did not work against Hitler during the Weimar Republic, and have not worked against figures like Donald Trump in the post-truth United States. It is precisely in this anti-intellectual climate that cartoons need to become more intellectual, and to exploit their immediacy for this revolution – let’s call it enlightenment, rather than feeding the self-referential and now outdated debate around outrage. As most won’t be outraged any longer, and the rest won’t change their minds, but will possibly become even more sealed in their own views.

It seems time for a return to the question-inducing, dialogue-sparking, intellectual cartoon – the one able to involve the anti-intellectuals, to reach out to masses via social media, to wittingly restore faith in expertise through backdoor accessibility. The one talking with, rather than talking at, the public; the one sharing a universal language.


Image: Maniac Raving’s-or-Little Boney in a Strong Fit by James Gillray / Wikimedia

Valentina Gosetti

Valentina Gosetti is lecturer in French at the University of New England (Australia). She is also a poetry anthologist, a translator, and a defender of minority languages. Twitter: @GosettiV More info on her university page.

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Richard Scully

Richard Scully is Associate Professor of Modern European History at the University of New England.

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  1. Thank you both for this sensitive piece of writing. I agree it’s all about getting the balance between freedom, on the one hand, and fraternity/ equality/ decency on the other. Nobody should be killed for not getting the balance right, and there does need to be room for transgression and boundary pushing, but not at the expense of already vulnerable people. Satirical targets need to be chosen with care, in any given context. Cartoons in pre WW2 Germany not funny, for this reason. Satire needs to target the powerful.

    1. Many thanks for your comment, Maria. The balance is indeed all there, as you say it clearly ‘not at the expense of already vulnerable people’. This said, absolutely, it goes without saying, the killings should always be condemned, without hesitation, no matter the level of bad taste. Civility/decency cannot be restored through savagery! This debate on the role of the cartoonist, as far as I am concerned, is rooted in a clear condemnation of the killings.

  2. Nice piece. I am beginning to think that terms like “post truth’ and ‘alt-right’ are in themselves euphemisms and therefore obfuscatory. Reminds me of debates in postcolonialism and post humanism about the problems with the prefix ‘post’ and a la Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (1946) – the connection between “ugly and inaccurate” English and political orthodoxies.

    1. Dear Jennifer, thanks for your insightful remark – And, yes, I think that this kind of “masking” through euphemistic terminology would deserve another piece, or even a whole book. It’s doublethink!

  3. Thanks Valentina and Richard, a good article. Just two points I would question. Imposing copyright policies does not necessarily contravene freedom of expression. One is about ensuring that the hard work of cartoonists isn’t ripped off, whereas the other is about the ability to express a wide range of views. Also, the statement that cartoons have not worked against Trump assumes that they have enormous and easily quantifiable power, whereas I would argue that they have probably had some impact on a lot of people’s psyches but need to occur in tandem with concerted large-scale social action if major change is to occur.

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