Outrage over offensive political cartoons is a curious reaction to a medium incapable of instigating violence or inciting revolt. Cartoons are incomprehensible, uninformative and unconvincing symbolic fusions of current events with cultural tropes. One year after Charlie Hebdo attack, Ilan Danjoux, Assistant professor in the Azrieli Institute of Israeli Studies at Concordia University and author of Political Cartoons and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Manchester University Press, 2012) offers his reflections on what cartoons tell us and why cartoon literacy is the best reaction to controversy. An earlier version of this piece first appeared in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronot (March 28, 2015).
The 2015 shooting of cartoonists at French weekly Charlie Hebdo was a sobering reminder of the precariousness of political cartooning. Threats and intimidation are commonplace in a profession whose work transforms so easily from a commentary on, into the subject of, current events. Their use as evidence of the endemic prejudice, sexism and xenophobia lingering beneath polite media make them lightning rods of angst, protest and scorn.
The fear and foreboding that grip those ridiculed, demonised and ostracised in political cartoons reflects the medium’s long association with war, revolution and genocide. Arab cartoons in the weeks preceding the Six Day War left little doubt of both mounting anti-Israel hostility and the cartoon’s association with conflict. Paul Revere’s depiction of the Boston Massacre is credited with fueling the American Revolution. The rebel headquarters in Benghazi enveloped itself with caricatures of Muammar Gaddafi. The demonization of Jews and Tutsis in German and Hutu political cartoons remain the ominous precursors of both the Holocaust and Rwanda genocide. It is little wonder that ethnic, religious and national groups protest, petition, litigate and demand cartoonists avoid symbolic attacks on community members and symbols; or that leaders censor, intimidate and legislate cartoonists away from mocking their image and deriding their policies. These efforts are seldom effective.
The versatility of visual symbolism, resilience of satire and ubiquitousness of digital communication enable cartoonists to evade control. Double entendre imagery circumnavigates prohibitions by substituting subjects with acceptable alternatives in proxy attacks. Inept, corrupt and conniving politicians cannot be punished without risk of implicating oneself as the subject of attack. Satire frustrates by openly applauding the very actors and behaviour it means to attack. The greater the praise of incoherent, incongruent and ineffective policy, the more obvious the discrepancy between the intent and content of political cartoons. It is nearly impossible to silent satirical attacks without admitting the implausibility of these accolades. Digital distribution channels disrupt repression by using social networks to bypass censors.
The difficulty in suppressing cartoon content explains the force used against their creators. Cartoonists are threatened, firebombed, tortured and killed for their unfavourable depictions. Violence has proven itself far more successful in silencing cartoonists than many wish to admit. The decision by Jyllands Posten, the newspaper whose 2006 Mohammed cartoon contest sparked international rage, not to reprint the Charlie Hebdo cartoons due to security concerns, is a telling example of the disciplining effect of violence. It was the feared effectiveness of the shootings at Charlie Hebdo that sparked massive rallies, viral memes and millions of solidarity purchases of its survivor issue. This was an unexpected show of solidarity for a magazine with a print run of 60,000 that was verging on bankruptcy days before the attacks.
Cartoons do not instigate violence or inspire revolt.
They neither inform nor enlighten
The staunch support of, and vocal outcry against Charlie Hebdo raises the question of what is gained, or lost, in the silencing of cartoonists. Cartoons do not instigate violence or inspire revolt. They neither inform nor enlighten. They are incomprehensible, uninformative and unconvincing symbolic fusions of current events with cultural tropes (Danjoux, Ilan. Political cartoons and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Manchester University Press, 2012). Extensive background knowledge is required simply to decipher their complex juxtaposition of distorted caricature. Warnings of Orwellian surveillance or Altalena schisms are impervious to those unfamiliar with both science fiction writing and Israeli history. Importantly, readers able to understand cartoon meaning are not swayed by its message. Cartoons offer no explanation, evidence or argument for their accusations, allegations and insinuations. It is hard to imagine that the depiction of rabid leaders or reformed militants will force audiences to reconsidering their opinion. This did not stop the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from trying, when it dropped cartoons over Southern Lebanon during the 2006 conflict in a vain attempt to sway popular support away from Hezbollah.
Cartoons make sense of politics by embedding issues within existing debates. They reiterate, reinforce and confirm rather than inform opinion, making them visual records of public sentiment. Their appeal is the ability to capture these opinions in succinct visuals. Silencing of cartoonists will not eliminate the prejudice and animosity they depict. Rather, it can only mask opinions one wishes did not exist. This is no more effective than outlawing opinion polls. This is acknowledged even among the most ardent critics of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum’s accusation that the paper’s depiction of Mohammed is a “deliberate incitement to violence” becomes difficult to reconcile with organisation’s own use of cartoons to document Israeli public opinion. On November 14, 2012, the Hamas newspaper Filistin translated and reprinted an Israeli cartoon to show the impact of its missiles on popular opinion.
There is more to gain from addressing
cartoon sentiment than suppressing caricature
Those wishing only to ban certain imagery from a cartoonist’s repertoire ignore the fact that hostile and demeaning cartoons that carefully avoid prohibited symbols are no more palatable nor any less disconcerting than those that graphically offend. Defenders of free speech might add that exposure to even the most bigoted opinion are not only portents of doom. They might also serve as an opportunity for engagement. Only in recognizing that the authors of political cartoons are not their creators is it possible to shift attention away from their choice of imagery and towards the opinions they embody. In the debate over free press, it is worth remembering that there is more to gain from addressing cartoon sentiment than in suppressing caricature.