Wednesday, November 03, 2010

On Offensive Cartoons

In Outlook India (Nov 1, 2010, Strip the Skin), Manjula Padmanabhan tells us that cartoons are meant to sting. (emphasis added)
People talk about humour as if it were something cute, cuddly and inconsequential but really, it’s just the opposite. It’s a vital outlet for releasing pent-up angers and frustrations. It’s not surprising that a lot of humour is scatological. Laughter acts like a neuro-laxative, purging the mind and heart of toxins. If communal hatred, for instance, could be expressed through vicious plays instead of riots, biting satire instead of car bombs, and blasphemous cartoons instead of arson and rape, maybe Indian streets might see fewer and less catastrophically destructive riots.

Sadly, we will never know whether or not that assertion is true. The world is going the other way. Remember sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me? Today the opposite is the norm. Words can inspire hate crusades that eventually engulf lives and trigger pogroms. It’s like the exact opposite of what Neo does in The Matrix—he’s able to “resist” bullets by telling himself they’re only as real as his mind allows them to be. In our world today, something as insubstantial as a single cartoon, or a blogpost, can gradually escalate into a hail of bombs that pulverises individuals, communities and nations.
Cartoons, caricatures and satirical drawings are intended to be rude. The point of rudeness is that it has to be offensive, like a vaccination has to employ real germs, in order to train a person’s immune system to recognise an invading virus and guard against it effectively. When we go to a doctor, we expect honesty and forthrightness, even if the diagnosis is frightening and in that sense “rude”. We accept bitter or painful medical treatments because we want to feel well again. But when it comes to the daily news, we change the channel and burn down newspaper offices if the forecast isn’t sunny all day, all night.