elettaria: (Triffid geranium)
The BBC has published an article about a cartoonist depicting Obama as a dead chimpanzee, which has outraged a vast number of people. The next two paragraphs are the ones I've just sent as a comment to the article, though knowing the BBC it won't get published.


Cartoonists and satirists need to be aware of the connotations of images they use, including historical connotations. Using a chimpanzee to depict a black man* is the equivalent of using a sheep to depict a Jew. Both images have been used repeatedly as ways of attacking those particular ethnic groups, accusing them of being animals. These attacks have often been in the form of cartoons, such as those made by the Nazis.

The author's intent isn't really the point. The text, in this case the cartoon, is what matters. It's what's out there and what will be read by many different people in many different ways. Some interpretations may be the sort which are so far out that you have to squint to see where they're coming from and only a small handful of people will think of them. Some interpretations will be so obvious that a large proportion of people, even the majority, will think of them. The old insults about black men being animals is in the second category, and the reference to an obscure news story is in the first. The cartoonists seem to be so far removed from reality that they've got those two the wrong way around.


This is really niggling at me. I think it's partly because I want to beat them around the head with Death of the Author theory, an idea I'd always found blindingly obvious even before I read Barthes, but partly because they're just being so pig-headed and self-centred. You can't expect people to mind-read, you have to accept that they will be looking at the final text and once it's out in the world it has to fend for itself. You can't sit there and say smugly, "My interpretation is the only one that counts, even if it's the least likely one, and no one is allowed to be offended because they're not allowed to think for themselves." Freedom of speech? Yes, that's vitally important, but to insult a group which has been horrendously oppressed throughout history and is still putting up with a lot of shit now, and then to tell them that they're not allowed to be offended by the most obvious reading of your insult, is to silence that group, the very opposite of freedom of speech. (Incidentally, I feel that legally they should probably be allowed to print this sort of cartoon, though I'm wavering slightly on where to draw the line since this could be construed as inciting racial hatred, but that morally it's inexcusable.)

The thing is, we're not talking about a minor stereotype here. It's not a joke about lesbians having short hair. It's about animality. It's tapping into a long and vicious history of denying that certain ethnic groups are even human, genocide, lynchings, persistent deprivation of human rights. It's Gone With the Wind, where a mugging by a black man is written as if it's a sexual assault (and punished by razing the local shanty town), and a rape by a white man is written as marital bliss, and the film conveniently neglects to mention that several chief characters are running the KKK and is hailed as an all-time masterpiece. You can't just deny the possibility of such a reading and present it all as a light-hearted joke. To do this to a newly-installed president who is at extra high risk of assassination because of his skin colour and who has one hell of a mess to clear up is beyond belief.

To prove that I'm not just ranty today, here, have a pet vixen. Be sure to follow the link to the tree-climbing Jack Russell afterwards.

* I'm British, we say "black" rather than "person of colour", it's used respectfully. I do sometimes use "person of colour" if I'm in an overwhelmingly American context, but this was a British news site and I'm writing on my own blog, so I'm using my native vocabulary.


elettaria: (Default)

January 2014

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