The most astonishing thing for me to arise from the recent massacre of Charlie Hebdo was my realization of how few political cartoonists remain in the United States. Gary Trudeau was the last of mainstream cartoonists. Cartoonists in general are a disappearing species. The New Yorker is an obvious example of a magazine that continues to employ them but there are few. I am not sure whether it was the conversion of print to digital where line art lagged in technological support–photo’s and text can be transferred easily and immediately–the lack of art being taught in public education, or Americans support of righteous and indignant political commentary but not humor. Are we all so damned sincere that we can’t be bothered with cartooning?
This is a sensitive issue because on social media bullies and ignorant jerks have excused their viciousness by saying it’s all a joke. Death threats, rape threats, and many other promises of harm are dismissed by these bullies as jokes and can’t the victims just take a joke. A backlash has been the desire to have trigger warnings where anything remotely offensive would be flagged to prevent unnecessary harm. Another solution has been to eliminate anonymity as that is often the shield to hide the source of hideous remarks, drop a bomb from the dark.
Cartoons of criticism are quite different than threats of harm. A cartoon is posted for one to see as they wish. Threats are directed to others in comments and posts very specifically and personally. Social media is a kind of public space as a hyper public space. Never before has it been so easy to make personal remarks to people that otherwise one wouldn’t have access. Never before has it been so easy to mistake criticism for personal attack. Context vanishes in disconnected threads of discrete bubbles. With the penchant for short sentences and comments how can one possibly communicate effectively with a simple “that’s great” or “that sucks” both of which easily morph to “you’re great” or “you suck”.
So much so that commenting on grammar and style is the new ray gun of lowest common denominator attack. We once laughed at people for how they dressed or looked and now we laugh at people for how their text looks. As if typo’s and grammar mistakes represented the content within. Business has spent considerable time demanding everyone to dress appropriately, dress for success, and only the marginalized creatives can vary. Appearance is so important in spite of insisting that appearance doesn’t count.
So much so that someone like J Lo can show up at an awards show with her breasts on near full display but no one should comment on them or that, like a challenge to not see the obvious under tacit agreement that appearance is everything and nothing. A kind of nuanced politics of sexuality that most people can’t get.
In my own experience, I have had remarks taken for criticisms when they weren’t. Especially in forums of women’s voices where nerves are raw from near constant abuse and the block finger is near bloody from needed use.
In reading comments of others so many are more of some sort of me-too echo than what I would call a comment. Just say anything to show you showed up. It has been noted that social media aggravates the tendency to build inclusive circles of like minded people insulated from outsiders if at all possible. For marginalized people it is good to find like minded friends. It also contributes to confirmation bias and balkanized politics.
Another result with such buttons as Like, Up, and Friend is the yielding of subtlety and nuance to yes-no polarity. You’re on the bus or off. Make a mistake and be defriended. Maybe that’s good as some of the threads I have followed have been so painfully and extravagantly drawn out that you just wish the damned discussion would be stopped and who cares who is right. It’s a pornographic discussion of distempered disagreement. At least interactively, face to face, communication could be more complete. Indeed facial expressions and vocal tone are often the most important part of a conversation.
The easy ability of access and criticism does cause too many to attack without any content. Bullies have quoted Diogenes thinking that peeing on people is good commentary when of course Diogenes was making specific coherent statements and not just peeing because it satisfies some inner desire for aggression and ego boosting. “I don’t like what you believe so I’ll just pee on you to show you’re wrong.” Hard to think about content when you’re wiping the pee off.
Since feminism has been a dear subject in my family I have seen where being a good feminist or discerning real feminism from not can occupy an incredible amount of time. Where ostracism of those who aren’t really feminists becomes too much like high school social battles where it’s nearly life and death to which clique one belongs.
Yet, social media bullying definitely can cause PTSD and it is understandable that at some point people say enough and build up shields and walls to keep them sane.
America really doesn’t have a good history of humor and political disagreement. Our Calvinistic background makes us so damned serious and sincere, because the issues are just so vital and important, that we can’t joke about them. Yes, people lie and exaggerate but that actually shows the intensity of belief–righteous indignation and offense leads to the ends justifying the means. If it isn’t true it should be true. If this case isn’t true then creating a case that isn’t real is still true because there is some such case somewhere.
Our religious background has also caused us to disallow criticism and certainly not humorous criticism. Which Abrahamic character laughs in the sacred texts? Rather, in spite of so called free will choices, the real issue is to obey and follow and not even think a sin much less whether or not to address its sinfulness. The pulchritude of democracy has been so vitiated that too many claim that cussing is as sinful as murder. Indeed, many Americans took to postmodernism as support that everything is relative and hence relatively equal, forgetting that postmodernism was to destabilize those chain-bound relations in the first place.
And yet the internet has allowed many new cartoonists to express themselves but one has to hunt to find them. They won’t be on a corporation’s home page. Charlie Hebdo was dying and had little readership. I wonder if this last hurray isn’t just that. A good send off where everyone shows up, says they loved them, and then buries the entire project.
Jim Newman, www.frontiersofereason.com