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‘The right to be offended’: Political cartooning in an ideologically divided country

Courtesy of Matt Wuerker, a Pulitzer Prize- winning political cartoonist for POLITICO

A political cartoon is worth a thousand words of opinion. And opinion has topped journalism-related headlines the last several days. An essay by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas caused upheaval at The New York Times. A cartoon published in a Missouri newspaper shook up the family ownership

Political cartoons can particularly rankle an audience. Because they are an image, their impact is swift, often visceral. A good cartoon will make you think, reveal hypocrisy or depict injustice. Sometimes they fail, playing on stereotypes or racist tropes. 

We reached out to Matt Wuerker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist for POLITICO and president of the Cartoonists Rights Network International, for his insights about cartooning in a fraught political environment. He emailed us his response.

How do syndicates, publishers or editors draw a line between censoring and rigorous editing of political opinion?

Wuerker: It’s completely a matter of taste. Different editors and syndicates have different tolerances and sensitivities to what’s over the line. A lot of cartoonists these days self-syndicate. So in those cases, it’s really just up to the cartoonists themselves.

Many editors describe this moment as a time of reckoning for the news media. How does that affect how cartoonists, syndicates and publishers examine political cartoons?

Wuerker: I’m of two minds on this. I do think that it’s great that this time of reckoning has come. We have a lot to think about, lots we can improve upon as a country. I welcome the idea editors and cartoonists are taking this moment to be introspective and even awaken themselves to the levels of racism and bias in American society. I don’t see how you can see this as anything but a good thing.

That said, there are plenty of people that find this “time of reckoning” an offensive idea, just like they thought [Colin] Kaepernick taking a knee was hugely offensive. … And they’re saying so in their cartoons. Hey, it’s a free country! The backlash, though, is different this time. In the age of social media, the slap-down of anyone taking an opposing view is itself over the line. 

Calling for editors to resign and cartoonists to be sacked comes from an unhealthy intolerance. Everyone has a right to be offended by the opinions of others, and they have the right to express that offense. But Twitter mobs out to hunt down the heretics and burn them at the stake (this goes on on both sides) seems out of control and un-American to me. 

I think the free market of ideas is not just a good idea but it’s an essential part of pluralistic democracy. I love political humor, but for political satire to survive, it needs to operate in this open free market where people have to tolerate opposing views and accept that some of them will be offensive to some people.

Do your colleagues in political cartooning feel they are under increased scrutiny on any cartoon that addresses the protests and the social justice movement? Should they be under increased scrutiny?

Wuerker: I think it’s wrong-headed to frame this as just a problem of the thought police on the left. The cult of personality around [President Donald] Trump engages in the same thought-policing of its ranks, and I think is likely far more dangerous. Any criticism of Trump from Republicans is voraciously attacked. Trump can say and do anything, and what we used to call the conservative movement kowtows to all of it.

The argument on the left is far more diverse and contentious than the lock-step obedience you find in Magaland.

Is there a danger that some cartoonists will shy away from certain political topics in the new climate?

Wuerker: I fear that we’re seeing the center not holding. The mainstream media [is] eroding away. The middle ground where you’d encounter diverse conflicting opinion is being replaced by polarized tribalism.

Instead of shying away from hot topics, I think cartoonists, like many journalists, are choosing which choir they’re going to preach to and catering to those viewpoints. Sadly, we’re losing the ability to have a conversation across the battle lines that have been drawn in our severely divided country.

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