Brainstorm of an Ishmaelite

Cartoon Philosophy

Introduction

This essay discusses the philosophy of humour and representation behind my cartoons. It examines the legal and philosophical concepts of freedom of expression, the essence of good humour, the right not to be offended, hate speech, discrimination and harassment, images and representation and concludes on the meaning of my political cartoons.

Consumers of my art are advised to read this essay instead of coming up with their own interpretations. I can’t be responsible for meanings people ascribe to my works despite my explaining them clearly. To avoid misinterpreting my writings, see my post: The Key to Understand Me.

Freedom of Expression

Subs. 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication,” subject “to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” under s. 1 of the Charter.

A healthy sign of a “free and democratic society” when it comes to freedom of expression is the ability to speak truth to power, as opposed to nonsense to anyone.

The Essence of Good Humour

Philosophers, comedians and scientists have long contemplated the essence of humour. According to Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) and George Carlin, the essence of humour is exaggeration. They also agree, as I do, that truth is essential to comedy, as there is always something true about a good gag, be it a true setup or punchline.

Plato, however, believes humour consists of the superior making fun of the inferior. An example is when Socrates asks a student of rhetoric the rhetorical question if his horse laughter at Socrates’ argument is supposed to be a new form of proof (see Gorgias). Plato’s theory, at any rate, holds in the case of pratfall humour, vengeance humour, lampoon and satire, which are clearly examples of the superior making fun of the inferior, and may thus be called ‘bad humour.’

Whereas bad humour puts people down for the mere sake of putting them down or laughs at their foolishness or misery, good humour does the opposite. It brings truth to light to bring it to power, which is a good cause.

In short, I believe the essence of good humour is a true exaggeration of stupidity that takes itself or wants others to take it seriously (i.e., falsehood that pretends to be true) which combines the theories that humour is found in truth, exaggeration and superiority, namely the truth’s superiority to falsehood.

The Right not to be Offended

The common law doesn’t recognize a right not to be offended. In Langille v McGrath [2000] AN-B, no 488, 233 RN-B (2e) 29 (BR) the court determined that mere words don’t constitute assault unless there’s reason to believe they represent a real threat. Nor do mere words constitute defamation unless the statement is untrue and causes the victim loss of business or reputation.

In short, the common law favours the development of ‘thick skin’ according to the proverb: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me.” However, this technically contradicts the thin-skull rule and courts’ awards of general damages for psychological trauma. It also contradicts the common law’s history of allowing and even encouraging duels between offended gentlemen. In fact, the last duel in Canada occurred in 1833, in Perth, between John Wilson and Robert Lyon, who were both law students.

The law is what it is, at any rate.

Hate Speech

S. 319 of the Criminal Code defines public incitement of hatred and willful promotion of hatred (aka ‘hate speech’) as consisting of the following attributes:

– public speech

– against a specific group of people

– that will likely disturb the peace

unless the person accused of hate speech can show that:

– the statements are true or they reasonably believe(d) they are true

– they sincerely argued an opinion based on a religious text or belief

– their statements are relevant to the public interest

– they sincerely meant to censor material that inspired hatred of a specific group of people

The key is not to maliciously target a certain group of people and disturb the peace (which is a serious consequence) with words or other media. This has given rise to people like Charlie Hebdo who call themselves equal opportunity haters (EOH) which isn’t a defence to hate speech but a confession of guilt.

Discrimination and Harassment

Discrimination and harassment are grouped together in this discussion because they aren’t crimes or torts but human rights violations according to the Ontario Human Rights Act. Human rights violations are heard in separate human rights tribunals, which aren’t courts of law.

The Human Rights Commission defines harassment as unwanted speech or action that causes offence or humiliation and is a form of discrimination. The Human Rights Act defines discrimination as denial of equal opportunity or accommodation based on enumerated grounds in subs. 3(1).

Discrimination and harassment are the two allegations most likely to confront freedom of expression, especially in the form of political cartoons. Unlike assault, which is concerned with threats of violence, or defamation and hate speech, which are concerned about the truth or public interest underlying the expression, discrimination and harassment aren’t concerned with any of these things. Their only concern is with the feelings of offence or humiliation reported by the complainant.

We believe the common law approach is the correct one in regard to freedom of expression and that the human rights approach–which ignores the truth, public interest and the need for thick skin–is fundamentally deficient and easy to abuse.

Images and Representation

As editorial cartoonist Megan Whyte puts it: “Images are really powerful, and they can be very dangerous” (see article). I agree with this entirely.

For instance, biblical law (Sharia and Halakha) traditionally forbids the representation of living things other than plants and minerals, although it’s preferable to portray these things symbolically if at all. Two main reasons for this are:

1. images are associated with falsehood, since they’re never exact representations of the things they depict

2. images are frequently misused, e.g., for idolatry, propaganda and pornography, which all fetishize their subjects as objects

In short, the problem with images is misrepresentation, since they can’t accurately represent their objects. As a result, it seems biblical jurisprudence is correct: imaginal representations are inherently unjust and therefore unjustified. Should the use of images, then, be banned from the sage’s arsenal? I don’t think so. My philosophy is similar to Socrates’ who concluded in the Gorgias that while rhetoric, including images, is false, it can be a useful device to serve the truth.

I agree with Whyte that “When it becomes degrading to a population, [. . .] that’s where you should draw the line.”

Conclusion

My philosophy of humour and representation may be summarized thus. My theory is that good humour is (1) a true exaggeration of falsehood that is  (2) meant to empower truth by speaking truth to power. This translates directly into my method of designing political cartoons and how to properly criticize and interpret them, which consists of asking the following questions:

– what falsehood is being represented?

– what truth is being represented?

– is the represented falsehood actually false?

– is the represented truth actually true?

The answer to these questions is clear, since my art and writing are methodical and meaningful, not arbitrary and ambiguous. A picture is worth a thousand words when there’s no meaning to it, just like “sound and fury” that doesn’t constitute a meaningful expression. 

Just because a cartoon looks funny doesn’t mean there isn’t a serious argument behind it. My method of cartooning depicts an argument. Of course, the representation and the exaggeration that makes it funny–like Pinocchio’s nose–carries no truth-value. Exaggeration is comparable to three methods of proof in science and logic:

Method of ProofRhetorical Equivalent
Reductio ad absurdumRidicule
Proof by exampleCasuistry
Proof by inductionHyperbole