Sunday, January 11, 2015

Not So Brave New World: A Cartoon Is Not Just A Cartoon

by Drew Martin
The murders in Paris last week and the fire bombing yesterday in Hamburg in reaction to profane cartoons published by newspapers in both cities, launched a public outcry, and with that a bolstered defense of freedom of speech.

There are no grounds for taking another's life, and with that I could never condone the attacks but I am equally shocked that people want to continue flaunting images that sparked the violence. They are not just cartoons. Many of the images are obscene, racist, and incredibly offensive messages.

Humor is a great social relief valve when it is self reflective and self humiliating. No one used this better, and with such a high level of intelligence, than Monty Python, who ridiculed British culture. But when it is directed across borders or inwards, at a minority group, then it works very differently and becomes hate speech.

In law, hate speech is any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group. source

The only time this is overlooked is when a minority yields it as a payback to a majority who did them wrong, but only when the majority can digest it and absorb it as a final confession, and acceptance of their actions in lieu of a sincere apology or proper retribution.

There is also something wrong when freedom of speech is used as a shelter for extreme insults. Freedom of speech and freedom of press were abused in this instance because it ignored the duty attached to it, which is to speak sensibly and decently.

In the United States the Supreme Court has ruled that "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech..." but it is not an absolute right and limits are defined for dangerous speech, slander, and public morality, which keep in check threatening language, harmed reputation, obscenity, and profanity. The cartoons crossed many lines. This is not a matter of censorship, or self-censorship, but rather human decency and the sensibility of a professional editor. Instead of empathy and sensitivity the papers decided to cash in on shock value.

It also has to be understood that an image, especially a cartoon, which in many ways is more intentional than a photograph, works very differently than speech and written words. Sometimes it becomes the very thing it is trying to depict. One of the interesting distinctions of what one can and cannot say without crossing the boundary of hate speech is that one can freely profess a hatred for a religion, abstractly, but not for the people in the religion. It is the responsibility of the cartoonist to not cross that line and to understand that you cannot illustrate a person of a faith and try to pass it off as a metaphor for the concept of the faith.