That column ran in the immediate wake of the firebombing of the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. A little more than four years later, of course, Charb (the pen name of Stéphane Charbonnier) would indeed be among the five cartoonists, and 12 people total, killed by Islamic extremists in January’s massacre at the offices of the French satirical weekly.
I feared for the lives of Charb and his fellow Charlie Hebdo artists because their cartoons, which knew no sacred cows, prompted that firebombing, and because the staffers proudly would not be cowed.
Last Friday, while accepting the George Polk career award, “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau was highly critical of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, particularly those aimed at Islam and depicting Muhammad. In stating that free speech can be its own kind of fanaticism, the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist drew a line between responsible and irresponsible satire.
I was not surprised by Trudeau’s speech, because he expressed similar sentiments at the Richmond Forum in January, just a few weeks after the massacre.
Nor was I surprised by the fact that many — if not most — American political cartoonists have their own distinct sense of “responsible satire.” When the “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” controversy arose several years ago, the responses and reasons I heard for participation, or non-participation, from top cartoonists varied widely (with some, as Trudeau did last week, even invoking the word “childish”).
What Trudeau’s speech prompted me to think about, though, was whether most American cartoonists hold any potential targets as truly, personally taboo.
In other words: If editorial cartoonists are surgeons of satire, is there anything that is off their operating table? When they cut so incisively, are there any “red lines” each of them prefers not to cross?
Here is how 15 of America’s leading cartoonists responded:
NICK ANDERSON (Houston Chronicle):
I don’t think in terms of red lines; I tend to think in terms of context, which requires judgment. What is over the line in one context might not be over the line in another. If I’m drawing a really outrageous cartoon, it is probably because I’m trying to employ a fitting metaphor for a situation that I find particularly outrageous.
That being said, I can’t say I’ve ever felt the need to attack or belittle the founder of a religion — Jesus Christ, Muhammad, etc.. I prefer to attack and belittle their followers, who often willfully misinterpret the words of the founders for their own twisted ends.
I agree with Trudeau that “because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must.” And this does not mean that criticizing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons puts one in league with the Charlie Hebdo murderers. One should be able to cross the line in a free society without fear of violent reprisal. The answer to speech that crosses the line is more speech.
PAT BAGLEY (Salt Lake Tribune):
I’ve cartooned for decades in a state that comes as close to a theocracy as any in the United States of America. Garry Trudeau said in [his] speech that “the French tradition of free expression is too full of contradictions to fully embrace” — suggesting it was impossible to grasp and there should be a role for censorship. The Mormon tradition of “freedom” and “choice” suffers from the same contradiction.
When I went to BYU in the ’70s, the running joke was that the university motto was “Free Choice; and How to Enforce It.” I thank whatever Enlightenment thinker — probably French — came up with the idea of free speech, now enshrined in our U.S. federal Constitution. Otherwise the 90-percent Mormon, white, privileged male Utah legislature would be tempted to dictate my choices.
NATE BEELER (Columbus Dispatch):
Personally, I generally think it’s unwise to publicly set “red lines” for what you won’t draw. Every controversial cartoon idea needs to be judged on merit within its context, and that’s both a personal and editorial decision on whether to go forward. Each cartoonist must decide what type of reputation he or she wants to cultivate.
I agree with much of Trudeau’s speech, particularly with the notion that “because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must.” But I take serious issue with Trudeau giving rhetorical cover to terrorists who murdered his cartooning compatriots. … People everywhere have the inherent right to freely express themselves in “childish” and “unserious” ways — which is lucky for Garry Trudeau. …
I can tell you that you’ll never see me draw a cartoon about Garry Trudeau being savagely beheaded by free-speech absolutists.
DARRIN BELL (Washington Post Writers Group):
I won’t blame religion for anything in my cartoons. Fanatics are fair game. People who cherry-pick from their religion in order to justify the denial of equal rights to others are fair game. People who use religion as an excuse for tribal fighting and slaughter are fair game. Holier-than-thou hypocrites are fair game. But so far I’ve never depicted an entire religion as being fundamentally flawed.
I don’t draw that line because I think religions are above reproach; I draw that line because I feel blaming religion itself lets the bigots, the hypocrites and the ignoramuses off the hook. Religion is a tool. Some use it to build discriminatory laws. Others use it to build civil-rights movements. I’d rather focus on the carpenter than on the tool.
For example, it should be clear in this cartoon that the focus of the satire is the elephant wielding the cross, not the cross itself:
MATT BORS (Medium’s The Nib; Universal Uclick):
Obviously, I think satirists should punch up and not down when choosing targets, including scolding dead cartoonists.
I use my best judgment and try not to gauge what I do based on the most easily offended or quick-to-murder reader.
STEVE BREEN (U-T San Diego):
I thought that what Garry Trudeau said was right on. It seems to me, from what I have read, that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were pushed by their editor to cross red lines…to become, as Trudeau put it, fanatics for free speech.
It seems to me a good editor pushes us [cartoonists] to be as accurate, clever, clear and concise as possible. He or she should help you affect people but not intentionally enrage them. When people are enraged, they hate you — and when they hate you, they’re no longer able to be objective when they consider your point of view.
I don’t operate in terms of specific red lines, but I do rely on the filters in my head, as well as the guidance of my editor to look at something and say: “Whoa, this might be a red zone we should steer away from — why not try making the same point in a powerful but less-inflammatory way?”
MIKE LUCKOVICH (Atlanta Journal Constitution):
Great question. I view my mission differently than the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. I don’t set out to provoke. My goal is to get my point across. If it upsets one group or another, so be it.
I’m nominally Catholic. During the pedophilia scandals, I hit the church repeatedly and was criticized for it. However, my red line is never drawing a cartoon mocking Jesus Christ or any other religious icon to make a point about a particular faith. I won’t negatively caricature Muhammad to slam Islamic radicalism.
JIMMY MARGULIES (King Features):
The question of which topics or issue would cause me to shy away from in my editorial cartoons is somewhat difficult to answer. Personally, I try to distinguish between things which people have no control or choice in — such as nationality, race, ethnicity, disability — and those which they do have a conscious role in, such as thoughts, beliefs, actions, policies, etc. The former in my opinion are not fair game, but the latter are.
I say that the question is somewhat difficult to answer because in reality, the red lines are not set by cartoonists themselves, but by an editor who decides what is suitable for publication.
Whether an editorial cartoonist is employed by a newspaper or draws for syndication, it is always the decision of the editor what gets published. So the question of what a cartoonist may decide is acceptable makes for a very stimulating discussion. Ultimately it becomes an academic exercise, since the cartoonist does not have the final say.
When I was employed at the Record in New Jersey, my editor would not permit cartoons which ridiculed Gov. [Chris] Christie for his weight. I never proposed any that targeted him for his weight alone — they were always in conjunction with something else for which I was criticizing him. But the mere suggestion of poking fun at his size was always an obstacle to getting approval.
JACK OHMAN (Sacramento Bee):
I think any cartoonists who work on daily newspapers stay within what are commonly accepted parameters.
Offhand, I wouldn’t say there were subjects I wouldn’t or can’t comment on. I do try not to be derogatory about a person’s religion. I will comment on a religion if I disagree with a position the leadership of that religion has taken.
While cartooning is extremely reductionist, there are taste boundaries, and those boundaries are stretched constantly. One example for me was Gov. Jerry Brown’s use of the word “fart,” in describing Gov. Rick Perry. That was the first time I went in that particular direction.
JOEL PETT (Lexington Herald-Leader):
Where to draw the line when drawing lines?…OK, I personally, would never draw anything that might get large numbers of people killed. This also applies to “maimed” and “imprisoned for life at the mercy of Dick Cheney.” … Unless, of course, I could select the individuals from the ranks of corporate and government evildoers past and present against whom I harbor grievance.
I would also never criticize a cartoonist of Garry Trudeau’s stature, whom I respect for many reasons. Major red line! I would graciously, but not obsequiously, concur with some of his major points, like “punching up” and that writing satire in a free society is a privilege, one that comes with attendant responsibility. I would downplay the holes in his speech, giving him the benefit of the doubt, assuming that something was lost in translation, or lack of inflection or facial expression or the like. Examples of these would be: 1) that “free speech absolutists…denounced using judgment and common sense”; and 2) the usefulness of his conclusion about “whether anyone at all is laughing.”
Never one to nitpick, I’d just smile and internalize my thoughts about how “absolutists” merely defend the right of people to say dumb things, and that some idiots will laugh at almost anything. Also, small point, but the lines aren’t red at all, and in fact they have more shades of grey than “insert S&M joke.”
I might mention that all of the highly publicized battles over free speech involve parties acting irresponsibly, or at least doing and saying things that most of us wouldn’t dream of. Like publishing Hustler, donning swastikas and marching in Jewish communities, picketing military funerals with signs reading, “God hates f—“, drawing the prophet for a nonprofit, or simply being Rush Limbaugh.
Please do not translate this into any other language, hand-letter onto a scroll or chisel into a tablet, as something may get lost over the centuries, causing untold misunderstanding. Thank you.
ROB ROGERS (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette):
I consider myself a free-speech absolutist in the sense that I don’t believe anyone should be murdered or even jailed for expressing themselves. I don’t think any kind of speech, no matter how offensive or “taboo,” should result in a death sentence.
Once we begin to allow certain people or groups to dictate what is OK to say or draw, it is only a matter of time until those exceptions become more and more restrictive. It is a slippery slope to ultimate suppression. By criticizing the content of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and there is certainly plenty to criticize, we run the risk of blaming the victim. If only they hadn’t drawn the prophet Muhammad … . If only the rape victim hadn’t worn that short skirt. … These kind of arguments only embolden the attackers and those who think their actions were justified.
Also, while I would never draw the kind of shocking images found in Charlie Hebdo, I think it is also a big leap to say that by depicting Muhammad in an unflattering way, those cartoonists were attacking a powerless disenfranchised minority of Muslims. I read it as them attacking a religious taboo, not a group of people.
My own personal moral code is certainly one of not punching downward. My goal is to create satire that champions justice and equality, and I try to avoid images that may undermine that purpose. I believe in going after the oppressors, not the oppressed. I attack the hypocritical and corrupt, the rich and powerful, the cruel and pompous rulers … not their poor followers. While I don’t think I have any red lines, per se, because I would never want to put those kinds of restrictions on my creativity, I probably do have some pink lines. I avoid images that could be seen as racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc., because they would be antithetical to my intended message.
In 2014, I was called anti-Semitic for a cartoon I drew about Gaza that criticized Israel’s use of military force in the region. My particular cartoon style includes large, bulbous noses on all my characters. I don’t think my depiction was anti-Semitic, but in the future, I will be more sensitive when drawing cartoons about Israel.
JEN SORENSEN (Fusion and Austin Chronicle, et al.):
I’ve been asked this question a lot over the past year, and I’d suggest that the phrase “red lines I won’t cross” is somewhat flawed. People crave absolutes, but there are no lines — only specific contexts and circumstances. Also, the phrase seems to imply that I’m repressing something I *should* be saying.
I’ve often said that being a political cartoonist is like being a doctor; I try to heed the golden rule of “do no harm.” Will my work contribute to hatred and misunderstanding? Or does it serve to illuminate and defend the less-powerful in society? The only subject I won’t draw about is one about which I have no good cartoon ideas. Rather than follow lines, I follow my conscience. And in the U.S., I’m fortunate to have tremendous freedom to do that.
I may be in the minority among my colleagues, but I greatly admired Garry Trudeau’s speech on Charlie Hebdo. Garry gets it. There are ways to criticize terrorism and religious extremism without humiliating and alienating an entire people at the bottom of the power structure.
SCOTT STANTIS (Chicago Tribune):
[I have] no hard and fast “red lines.” Like the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on pornography: I’ll know it when I see it.
I would also ask Garry [Trudeau] or any others defending the pretext of the Charlie Hebdo attack exactly what “punching down” the people at the kosher deli, where the attackers went next, were guilty of?…
[Trudeau’s] point seemed to be that the satirist’s first obligation must be to sensitivity and not to moral outrage.
Apparently, one of the Charlie Hebdo covers that really set off the attackers ridiculed radical Islam, going as far as renaming the publication Sharia Hebdo. If that’s “punching down” then more satirists ought to do it.
I am also aghast at his sneering label of “free-speech absolutists.” Count me as one of those as well.
SIGNE WILKINSON (Philly.com):
Different people have different lines, which is why no ONE person should be able to declare crossing a particular line to be a death-penalty offense.
Personally, I work for two newspapers with general-interest audiences with wide tastes. I don’t do nudity, profanity or graphic violence. My line on religion is that when a religious group starts asking for special favors from the state — whether it’s tax privileges for their schools or exemptions from regulations everyone else must abide by — or acting in ways that affect others — abusing kids, cutting off apostates’ heads — they become part of the political process, and should be treated as the political players they are.
As much as I respect Garry Trudeau, I disagree with his argument on Charlie Hebdo. Like Trudeau, I wouldn’t have drawn most of the cartoons they published, and didn’t follow their publication. However, their cartoons did not kill people. Humorless religious fanatics did. IT is the assassins we should be worried about, not a bunch of cartoonists whose work was largely being ignored by non-terrorists.
ADAM ZYGLIS (Buffalo News):
As Trudeau mentioned in his speech, I, too, believe my role as a cartoonist is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
My goal is to express an opinion to my readers in a way that’s honest to what I believe to be right and wrong. If in the process I provoke anger or vitriol, then so be it. But to needlessly provoke is to reduce what I do to public shouting. I suppose that’s my red line: Do not be gratuitously offensive.
I don’t have any topics that are off the table in my commentary. I let my editors do the editing, and I’m lucky that in my case, I’m given free rein in terms of message. With imagery, my paper used to be sensitive to depictions of the Pope and the Catholic Church [in light of the abuse scandals], but I still found ways to make my point.
Free speech has its limits, and producing work for a mainstream newspaper means certain images will needlessly provoke. Religious symbols, such as the cross or a depiction of Muhammad, need to be handled with care when crafting cartoons. It doesn’t mean they’re off the table — it just means you must use them responsibly.
The same is true for racially charged imagery.
The cartoons of mine that have been the most controversial have been ones immediately following a tragedy. For instance, after a Buffalo plane crash in 2009, I was highly critical of the poorly trained pilot and the sub-par safety standards of the regional airline industry. The cartoons were circulated around the airline industry to many who weren’t regular consumers of satire. The reaction was overwhelming — so many people were offended because they didn’t know cartoons aren’t always like “Garfield.” But since then, I’m more cognizant of the timing of my cartoons.
Note: On April 30, Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonists Signe Wilkinson and The Post’s Ann Telnaes will give a talk at the Library of Congress, titled “That’s Not Funny,” about political cartooning in today’s world.