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    The sacred and the profane

    Grand Stand has a post up about the cartoons thing, and of course, it’s good. I’d love to agree with it. I go on and on about civilized discourse myself all the time.

    The reason I can’t is that I think context matters. We accept that there are settings in which any political speech would be offensive–you don’t take your aunt’s funeral as an opportunity to decry her having voted for Dukakis two decades ago. Political cartoons are at the opposite end of the spectrum. They operate on caricature; they condense complex issues and actions into jolting pen-and-ink images. A public figure who’s recently displayed greed will soon open the paper and see herself depicted as a very large pig with its snout in a very large trough.

    Does that mean that there are no lines to be crossed? Of course not. But whether a drawing is mere childish provocation or a genuine contribution to the public debate that uses its shock value in a meaningful way is often going to be an issue that no one can settle. Perhaps the result would be unladylike and ungentlemanly either way, but that’s why we look for context clues: Do the other cartoons this guy has drawn consistently jeer at a particular group? Does the rest of the editorial page at this publication take a balanced view of the issue being treated? One doesn’t want to slide into easy defenses of caddish behavior, but one also doesn’t want to stifle genuine free thought by demarcating some ideas as off-limits to criticism or extrapolating too much from a 9 in2 drawing.

    Maybe you could argue that if the hang-up is over iconography, the debate has to be conducted in words rather than images; but I think you could just as easily argue that if visual representation is the issue, images are the most direct and immediate way to get to the heart of the matter. You could also argue that there are some questions the free, skeptical mind can’t ask without offending people. So fine–people are offended, and they respond with more speech. The minute newspapers that print controversial material start bleating that people are getting furious with them, I will be back at Grand Stand’s side immediately. That’s what’s supposed to happen. What’s not supposed to happen, when you dwell among the sane, is the torching of embassies and the issuing of death threats.

    2 Responses to “The sacred and the profane”

    1. Maria says:

      “What’s not supposed to happen, when you dwell among the sane, is the torching of embassies and the issuing of death threats.”

      Not only if you dwell among the sane, it’s even truer if you dwell among the CIVILIZED. Even in my most insane moments I know the difference between childishness and mature behavior. My response to the torching of embassies, etc.–GROW UP, PEOPLE!

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      No kidding. I’d be far more sympathetic to the argument that the newspapers that ran the cartoons are just getting what they bought if it weren’t for the fact that part of the implicit point they were making was, “Look, in the West, no idea is immune to criticism.” It would be nice if they hadn’t been so obnoxious about it, but we can get around to that AFTER we’ve made it clear that we’re going to protect free thought no matter what we think of its motivations.

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