So a political cartoon was published last week and there was quite a reaction. By various turns it was judged by many to be offensive, grotesque, insensitive, and so on. Cringe-worthy. Truly objectionable. The artist’s head was called for. Required in fact. There were demands that he withdraw it. Apologizing was the least he could do. No doubt other acts of penance were demanded, though I didn’t see them as I quickly lost interest in the absurdity.
The stated “problems” were numerous, but at base the allegation was that it was atrocious to make light of violence against women. And of course the picture clearly does that. But does it? Let’s break this down.
First, let me digress. While I haven’t been on stage in years, I am a stand-up comic. When I was learning the craft, I delved deep into the techniques that make a joke funny. There are many general rules, but three key rules are:
1) Every joke has a “target”. In a self-deprecating joke, I’m the target. I can also make fun of my kids, specifically, or perhaps an entire age group, like Gen X’ers or Millennials. Targets can also be behaviours; like hypocrisy or bullying, or social conditions, like poverty or privilege. Quite common targets are beliefs — racism, homophobia, sexism, the possibilities are endless.
2) Editing is important. The fewer words the better, provided that you don’t lose the meaning during the editing process. This is critical, as you have to be able to convey your idea to the audience. If you fail, so will the joke.
3) A good joke has to be surprising. There has to be an ‘ah ha’ moment. That point when you “get it”. It is the sudden surprise or shock of getting it, that delivers the laugh. If you see it coming, you might smile, but that’s about it.
For a while I questioned these concepts. I actively sought out jokes without a target. It seemed cruel. Many laugh-less evenings later I concluded that the rules were correct. Perhaps target is too strong a word, but the joke had to skewer someone, something or some idea, and to do that it had to have a point of view.
Henny Youngman is famous for one of the shortest jokes ever written: “Take my wife … please”. “Take my” can be a way of introducing an example “take my brother, he’s the best runner ever…” But in this joke the twist is that he is instead actually asking you to take his wife. He conveys that with the simple request “please”. But the target is his wife. He wants you to take her for a reason, but the reason remains unstated. He’s unhappy with her, is about all we get.
So let’s now look at de Adder’s comic. https://twitter.com/deAdder/status/1096409886425038848 Who or what is the target? What is being skewered? It’s not actually a difficult question. The target is Trudeau’s behaviour in the #LavScam scandal, and more specifically how Trudeau is treating the former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. That’s it.
What the comic skewers is the fact that Trudeau keeps giving statements that suggest the former Minister wasn’t being directed or pressured to go easy on SNC Lavalin or even that she might be at fault for not speaking up if she felt pressured. And he is doing so while she is prevented from responding. She is prevented from responding because as the Justice Minister at the time she was the government’s top lawyer and is arguably prohibited from speaking about the interactions by solicitor-client privilege. And here is the kicker. That privilege belongs to the government. To Trudeau. He could easily waive it, allowing her to tell her side. But he hasn’t. Instead he speaks for her, while effectively gagging her. Hence the cartoon.
The target is not Jody Wilson-Raybould or, more relevant to the furor, violence against women. Trudeau is attacking Minister Wilson-Raybould’s reputation in real life. He implies that she must have misunderstood, while he deigns to speak for her. The reputational violence is a secondary target, and is also skewered. The restraint on speaking may be legal and not physical, but it is a gag. Her hands are tied, and it is within Trudeau’s power alone to untie her, to allow her to speak. Trudeau’s chief advisor, Gerry Butts, is “in his corner” urging Trudeau to keep beating her up. The comic is not offensive, grotesque or obscene. Trudeau’s behaviour is though, and that is the point. Frankly, I think the comic is brilliant.
But none of this is the problem. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and we can disagree. We’re all free to express our views how we want (as Graeme MacKay did in a virtually identical cartoon that same day in the Hamilton Spectator, with little push back. I’m not making this up). Or at least most of us are. Apparently de Adder wasn’t supposed to express his opinion on Trudeau’s behaviour, because some readers found it offensive.
But to be clear, it wasn’t de Adder’s actual point of view that attracted the ire, it was the fact that his cartoon used violence as a metaphor and that Jody Wilson-Raybould is a woman. But herein lies the real problem. Some small number of readers may have interpreted that to be making light of violence against women. They expressed those views which then snowballed. But, of course, he didn’t. He depicted physical violence against one person as a metaphor for the verbal violence that was actually being used against that specific person. And she happens to be a woman.
If you have a problem with that, then attack that. Say you can’t use a depiction of violence against a woman, even if it is to defend and support that woman. In this case, you can’t satirize an obscene attack by someone in authority if the victim happens to be a woman, because that somehow trivializes physical violence against women. Is this where society has descended to? We have to hope not.
Now combine this “through the looking glass” experience with the current rage: online lynch mobs. What could possibly go wrong?
For inspiration I turn to J.P. Sears social commentary on the pre-Christmas hysteria about the song “Baby it’s cold outside”. Seemingly appalled he skewered the well-publicized outrage in a long rant including my favourite tongue in cheek line:
“If my interpretation of the song is correct, and I know it is because I’m really angry…”
And even more recently when he satirized lynch mob campaigns against self-interpreted “hate speech” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=agIIDGRspKY]:
“…her life is destroyed, which means that you successfully dealt with hate speech with your hate and remember, the more people you can get on board with your emotionally charged outrage, the better.”
Sadly, he’s nailed it. Real lynch mobs existed because the psychology of mob behaviour made unconscionable acts a reality. No one had to take responsibility, because “the mob” was doing it. Victims died. The modern online equivalent is dangerous in a different way. Groups are bigger and even more anonymous. There have been deaths — online mob driven suicides, but the trend is destroying reputations; destroying careers; destroying lives.
It is just too easy. Misinterpretations, exaggerations or outright lies are repeated until they become accepted fact. The target is fixed and the onslaught escalates. Facts are spun to suit the argument. At best, their reputation is wounded or perhaps destroyed, but they still fight hard for the truth. At worst they capitulate and surrender. They validate the lies by apologizing which, at least in part, justifies the attacks. The mob is sated, and can’t wait for the next transgression, real or imagined.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.”― Edmund Burke
Which brings us back to Michael de Adder. He apologized over the weekend. Why? I expect we’ll never find out, but someone found the mob pressure too much. What did he apologize for? For offending women. Did he offend women? No, he offended some women (and some men). His apology, of course, offended others.
I’m not offended either way. For years now I’ve believed ‘it is what it is’. Still, I’m sad for de Adder, who I don’t know and have never met. Political cartoonists tend to be opinionated and fearless. That’s what makes them great. Whatever caused him to apologize, whatever caused him to take responsibility for some people being offended, well, it’s not just a shame for him — it’s a shame for society.
If we want to combat violence against women we need to be able to freely talk about it. Forcing an apology, not for joking about violence against women, but for using the imagery of violence against a person who happens to be a woman, is a horrible precedent.
Mob behaviour diminishes the #MeToo movement, it does not enhance it. It diminishes us all, and robs us of important opportunities to discuss violence against women. It does so because people start to self-censor and self-censorship is the worst kind of censorship. Fear of starting or entering into the discussion just feeds the problem. It is trite to note that violence against women flourishes in the shadows.
So next time you see a mob, behaving like a mob, don’t join in. And if you’re really feeling frisky, analyse it independently, exercise your own judgement and then let the mob know what you think. Who knows what might happen….