Political Cartoons: There’s Some Method to the Madness

Before my Core Module, Visual Global Politics, I did never really pay attention to them, I thought they were just some faint dull jokes. However, when I delved into the topic for this course’ assignment, I found out that they were more creative, complex and politically relevant than I could have ever imagined. Now, I want to share some of my thoughts on them with you. What I am talking about here is: political cartoons.

After 7 January 2015 we are all painfully aware that political cartoons can provoke disaster and madness internationally. Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, which features cartoons, was the target of two terrorist attacks because of some insulting Muhammad cartoons it had published. People in the West reacted to this by supporting freedom of speech by massively taking to the streets, and posting selfies on the internet accompanied by the phrase “Je suis Charlie”. Suddenly everyone was Charlie.

The methods cartoonists use to make their cartoons critical mini-narratives of society often consist of oversimplification of complex issues and deploying dark humor to catch attention for their causes.

Muhammad cartoons have caused upheaval before. After the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons depicting Muhammad on 30 September 2005, Muslim groups in Denmark complained, and the issue eventually led to protests around the world, including violent demonstrations and riots in some Muslim countries. This time the protests were not in favor of freedom of speech, rather they proposed that the newspaper would be more careful about its contents. According to the newspaper itself, the cartoons were an attempt to contribute to the debate about criticism of Islam and self-censorship. The cartoon that was criticized most was a cartoon depicting the prophet with a bomb in his turban, presumably because of its hostile depiction of the prophet and because of its implication that all Muslims are potentially dangerous suicide-bombers. However, this generalization might not be apparent to some audiences in the West, who are more accustomed to seeing images deemed offensive to their beliefs, and for whom these pictures were generally not insulting to their beliefs. For the Danish audience, the cartoons depicted the danger of Islamic fundamentalist ideology and violence committed in the name of the prophet rather than a criticism on the prophet himself. This is an example of how different cultural backgrounds can lead to entirely different interpretations of cartoons.

These two instances of hostile reception of political cartoons are not uncommon, although these were extreme cases. The methods cartoonists use to make their cartoons critical mini-narratives of society often consist of oversimplifying complex issues and deploying dark humor to catch attention for their causes. They use metaphors, exaggeration and dramatization which are powerful tools to convey messages. However, this power can cause some international outrage as was discussed above. Cartoons reveal a side of political culture not found anywhere else. The humor and parody, which led me to not take them seriously for the larger part of my life, makes cartoons more powerful as this makes them more awe-dropping and memorable. For cartoonist who deploy parody, the key issue is not one of appropriateness, rather of the impact they can have on the audience.

Keeping the fragile balance between political relevance and straight-up insulting is however salient. While some degree of humor can raise awareness and draw attention to politically serious matters, cartoons are not necessarily funny. The controversy surrounding the Mohammed cartoons attest to the global conflict potential of cartoons, they illustrate the potential to cause outrage and offence. When the humor is put to work to point out the absurdity in the situation depicted, it can often be spot on. While I would advise cartoonists not to be offensive for the sake of it, creating some controversy can certainly help to get people to think about certain issues.

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