Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier
This month, a lot of people were offended by a Sean Delonas political cartoon in the New York Post. A lot of people were also not offended by it. By now, most of you will probably have seen a copy of the cartoon; if you haven’t, please look at the cartoon below. (You may choose to be offended or not offended, as you see fit.)
I think it’s OK to be offended by the cartoon. I also think it’s OK to be unoffended, as long as you don’t see the president in it. (Because really, if you think the chimpanzee represents the president, and you think it’s acceptable or even funny to depict him shot dead, you’re probably not someone I’d get along with.)
To understand what the cartoon was about, it’s important to know about the two current events juxtaposed in the cartoon.
The scene is from the rather weird news story about the pet chimpanzee in Stamford, Conn. that attacked a woman on Feb. 16, and tore her face off. The same chimpanzee attacked a police cruiser, so the police officers shot and killed it. It’s a sad story, but it was still national news, just because it was such an unusual occurrence. Not serious, need-to-know news, but still interesting nonetheless.
On Feb. 17, President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, about a week after Congress voted mostly along party lines to approve the bill. One of the objections opponents raised was that Congress (and the public) had fewer than 24 hours to read the final version of the gigantic tome before the votes (and, much like the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, it was passed in an atmosphere in which a president frequently cited the necessity of action.) That’s serious, need-to-know news.
Bearing in mind that the New York Post’s editorial board opposes the legislation, it becomes easier to visualize the atmosphere in which Delonas worked at the time he drew the cartoon.
Many of the unoffended readers saw a dead chimpanzee, saw the comment from the police officer, and thought something like, “Congress is a bunch of chimpanzees, ha, ha.” Most of the offended readers interpreted the situation as the police officers standing over a dead chimpanzee, then making a joke that President Obama was a chimpanzee, a double-whammy when coupled with the disturbing imagery of making jokes about assassinating a president.
I was in the group of unoffended readers, because in my interpretation, there was no possibility that the chimpanzee represented President Obama. Perhaps I am biased because I work for a newspaper, but the notion that any American paper (even one owned by Rupert Murdoch) would think it is OK to make a joke about killing an American president just seems ludicrous to me. That, coupled with the fact that the president didn’t write the stimulus bill in the first place, made an interpretation of Obama as chimpanzee quite impossible — for me.
Others saw the image and remembered the history of racial discrimination in America, particularly the historical use of simian simile to refer to black people (an interpretation that might have seemed more plausible if the reader hadn’t known of the chimpanzee attack), and possibly thought that the act of signing a bill into law is functionally equivalent to writing it, making the chimpanzee a depiction of President Obama. This interpretation made a lot of people angry, and frankly, if that is how I interpreted the cartoon, I would have been quite angry, too. Many of the offended people charged that the cartoon was a racist message.
I haven’t read up enough on what makes art art; I heard an art professor say once that the artist’s intent makes art, but I just googled the question, and it seems like the matter is controversial. But I think that to levy a charge of racism in art, it’s only fair to look at the intent of the artist.
When I visited Korea in the 1980s, I was shocked to see the swastika in a Buddhist temple. My immediate reaction, even as a child, reflected how I’d been conditioned to respond to the symbol by my own culture. I didn’t know at the time that for thousands of years, Hindus and Buddhists used the swastika as a peaceful symbol. It would have been unfair of me to call the Buddhist monks Nazis. (But it was reasonable of me to have been offended until I heard an explanation for why the swastika was not a Nazi symbol when displayed in the context of a Buddhist temple.)
The psychiatrist George Bach (who was cited in my group communication textbook in college) had a term to describe when a listener insists that a speaker had a different meaning than what the speaker says they meant. He called it “mind raping” because it assumes that the speaker’s words have only one possible meaning: the one that the mind rapist interpreted. In personal relationships, it can be used as a form of psychological abuse because the mind rapist refuses to accept the meaning that the speaker intended. My professor also used the term to describe when someone assigns feelings to another person abusively: An abusive boss who employs mind-raping might tell you angrily, “you obviously don’t care about the quality of your work!” before investigating why the quality of your work is inferior.
Bach’s mind-raping definition can be logically extended to include all ambiguous forms of communication, including art. For example, if I photograph a dejected student athlete realizing that the team is about to get knocked out of the playoffs, I’m not doing it to make him or her look bad. Whatever emotions I see on the athlete’s face are probably also being experienced by many of the fans in attendance (especially the ones that cry at movies.) All I’m trying to do is capture that heartbreak, frustration and agony for the people that didn’t make it to the game. I want people who see the picture to feel what the player felt.
It hasn’t happened yet, but if a student athlete felt humiliated by the publication of such a photo, and let me know how they had been hurt, I’d take that into account in the future (because I’m not trying to hurt kids with my photos). But if anyone would insist that I took the photo in order to humiliate the athlete, even after I explained my rationale, that would be unfair to me, and I would consider it mind raping.
The Post ended up publishing an editorial apologizing to the people that were offended:
It was meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill.
But it has been taken as something else – as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism.
This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologize.
They’ve said what they thought the cartoon meant. They said they apologize to people that thought it was a depiction of the president. And really, if anyone is in a position to know what they meant, and what they did not mean, it’s them.
I personally think the apology would have been better if it stopped with the apology rather than tweaking the people the Post perceives as their enemies. Instead, they said:
However, there are some in the media and in public life who have had differences with The Post in the past – and they see the incident as an opportunity for payback.
To them, no apology is due.
I don’t think that part does anything to heal the wounds suffered by the offended, nor does it help anyone understand why they made the choices they did. I would have preferred to see some rationale for why they think the image is explicitly not of President Obama, but I can understand why they might not have wanted to go that route: can anyone truly apologize by convincing someone else they were wrong?
It’s fair to have been offended. It’s fair not to have been offended. It’s not fair to declare that the cartoon means something that the Post says it doesn’t (though it’s fair to say that the cartoon could be interpreted that way, with some rationale). It’s not fair to say Delonas is racist using only this cartoon as a basis.
(I’ve seen some examples of Delonas’ other work at Gawker. They were selected by people that were offended, as examples of his work that might offend the readers of Gawker. I find most of the cartoons there to be in poor taste. I think the way he portrays gay males, with an upturned leg as if they’re prancing about, offensive and unnecessary. I think it’s a stretch to call any of the selected cartoons racist. One criticizes Al Sharpton; I don’t understand why Delonas drew him with a gigantic rear end fifty times the size of his head, but I don’t think it’s because Delonas is trying to say something about anyone other than Al Sharpton.)