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"Racist" Cartoons:

A commenter questioned my questioning Art Spiegelman's statement that this cartoon is racist — not just critical of Islam, or at least of some strands of Islam, but racist (or perhaps more precisely "ethnically bigoted," though for our purposes we can view the two as roughly interchangeable):

I know that people have sometimes argued that any cartoons that depict stereotypical racial or ethnic features are racist; but I've never been quite persuaded about that, whether as to such cartoons that depict Jews (a common source of this argument) or as to cartoons that depict Arabs.

Cartoons, like illustrations generally, are supposed to provide images that at least have the air of verisimilitude. If one is to depict a generic Jew, a generic Arab, a generic Swede, or an archetypal Arab whose true appearance is unknown (here, Mohammed) one ought to depict him in a way that makes people recognize what is being discussed. "A conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image" (the definition of stereotype) may be unsound if used as an overgeneralization about people's traits — but that's what cartooning requires. If you can't use characteristic features of a group's appearance, effective cartooning — or illustration generally — becomes much harder, in my view unjustifiably harder.

I think the matter is different if the features are portrayed in a way that makes them look ridiculous or disgusting. At some point, exaggeration, for instance a ridiculously beaked nose on a Jew or on an Arab, or exaggerated lips on a cartoon depicting someone black, does make the subject look that way, and may be seen as an aspersion on the ethnic group to which the person belongs. But the important point, in my view, is that this is true as to certain sufficiently exaggerated or distorted depictions, not as to depictions of stereotypical features generally.

The cartoon does depict Mohammed negatively — but because of what he's doing, coupled with the fierce cast of his features (which is not necessarily linked to their stereotypical qualities). One might compare it, for instance, with this cartoon:

The features are comparable, though not identical; but the latter cartoon seems like a humanizing and even compassionate portrait. It's the message of hostility to a particular religious belief system embodied by Mohammed that differentiates the two, not that one uses somehow inherently "racist" imagery and the other doesn't.

In any case, that's my take on it. Perhaps I'm mistaken, but it seems to me that the permissible stereotyping vs. exaggeration to make the group look ridiculous or disgusting distinction is an important one, and that visual stereotyping can't be universally condemned at least where cartooning is concerned.

But, as I said before, the more important point is that one can't even have this discussion unless one can see the cartoons themselves — further evidence that it's unsound to argue, as the New York Times did, that "report[ing] on the cartoons but refrain[ing] from showing them" "seems a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols, especially since the cartoons are so easy to describe in words."

UPDATE: Thanks to Human Events Online for the high-resolution cartoons, and to reader Nels Nelson for the pointer to those cartoons.

Marcus1 (mail) (www):
I thought this was also the most brilliant of the cartoons. It's targeting fundamentalist Islam, not Arabs as a race. Of course, many simply don't want to allow for that distinction.
5.19.2006 6:20pm
kdonovan:
I don't see the top cartoon as saying so much this is what Mohammed actually looked like but rather a commentary saying that some of his contemporary followers' actions portray him this way.
5.19.2006 6:34pm
Justin Levine:
National Review went through this same nonsense around March or April of 1997 when they depicted Asian caricatures in their cover regarding an article dealing with U.S. policies towards China (showed Al Gore as a Buddhist monk, Hillary Clinton as Madame Mao and Pres Clinton as an Asian businessman - drew them with slanted eyes, buck teeth, "coke-bottle" glasses, etc.). Their cover drew lots of criticism for their "racism" (primarily by those who disagreed with the political stance of the magazine).

Cultural archtypes are not the same thing as racist depictions.
5.19.2006 6:35pm
Christopher Cooke:
I agree with the Professor that political cartoons may have to invoke stereotypical images, so that their meanings are widely understood and recognized. But, isn't that another way of saying they are appealing to our own biases about the people they are depicting?
5.19.2006 6:48pm
BGates (mail) (www):
I agree with the NYT that not publishing the cartoons would be "a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols." Did the Times mention what news organizations those are, and whether they have an English language service?
5.19.2006 6:53pm
Houston Lawyer:
There's a fine line between versimilitude and racism in cartoons. Typical features of a group need to be clearly present in order to get your point across.

On the other hand, the line has a lot to do with the sensitivity of the group being represented. How does one draw a racist cartoon of white people?
5.19.2006 6:55pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
The top cartoon isn't racist, but it's not a good cartoon, either. Is thare a caption missing or something? I'm mystified what is "brilliant" about it.

And to that extent, now that I think about it, that's Spiegelman's best case for its supposed racism: it tells us nothing about Muhammed other than that he had a big nose and looked angry. If I caricature Jesse Jackson as looking black, and that's all I have to say about him, then what's up with that?
5.19.2006 7:01pm
Chris Bell (mail):
Anderson,

I think the point of the cartoon is all the black. The cartoon is satirizing all the things that Islam forbids viewing of. Women's bodies aren't allowed to be seen. Any picture of Muhammad is also forbidden, as shown by blocking out his face. I think the cartoon makes two points:

1. There's a whole lot of 'forbidden' in Islam.
2. The 'forbidden' is pretty sexist, as shown by the different amount of blacked out space. (Plus it looks like the bar over the man's face is almost an exact cut out of the woman's face.)
5.19.2006 7:21pm
tomawesome (www):
I agree with Chris - the humor is in the pointing out the ban of depictions of Mohammed. this is an example of the slippery slope where one can poke a bit of fun without prompting a fatwa. although, who knows? fundamentalists by definition have little room for dissent. isn't it also sacreligious to even print the qu'ran? should we even be allowed to speak of the prophets name? how far can we go whilst walking on eggshells?
5.19.2006 7:52pm
The Drill SGT (mail):
2 points:

1. Remember the basic starting point of the controversy. The paper was providing commentary on the fact that a children's author could not find anyone that would provide an illustration of Mohammed for a children's book. The point of the paper's story was self censorship by artists in fear of attack by the Muslims. THEY were right.

2. BGates, there is some great irony on your comment.

I agree with the NYT that not publishing the cartoons would be "a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols."



On 8 Feb 2006, in an article about the cartoons, the NYT refused to publish the cartoons that were the focus of the article but had no problem illustrating the article with the Dung Madonna. Obviously it doesn't have a problem with gratuitous assaults on religious symbols as long as the folks offended don't cut your head off. They proved their point, both the islamists and the secularist NYT. All religions are not equal. The more crazy you act, the more respect you are given in some quarters.
5.19.2006 8:57pm
Bottomfish (mail):
Surely there are people who think thick lips are more attractive than thin, or that a large hooked nose is more attractive than a small unhooked one. Every people tends to have a norm of beauty that is based on the features of its own. If exaggerating such features is "racist" then you are employing a norm that is to some degree racist. The implication of these discussions of exaggerated features is that there is at least something of a norm of beauty that everyone on the globe shares, and it is the European one. This is unpleasant to admit but there it is. If someone really does think his large nose is more beautiful then he should not be offended by seeing it exaggerated in a cartoon. No one ever thought Dick Tracy was made ridiculous by his preposterously square jaw.
5.19.2006 9:15pm
crane (mail):
Justin,
National Review went through this same nonsense around March or April of 1997 when they depicted Asian caricatures in their cover regarding an article dealing with U.S. policies towards China (showed Al Gore as a Buddhist monk, Hillary Clinton as Madame Mao and Pres Clinton as an Asian businessman - drew them with slanted eyes, buck teeth, "coke-bottle" glasses, etc.). Their cover drew lots of criticism for their "racism" (primarily by those who disagreed with the political stance of the magazine).

Cultural archtypes are not the same thing as racist depictions.


Wait, are you saying that buck teeth and thick glasses are cultural archetypes in Asia? You must not have seen many actual asian people in your lifetime; those features are characteristic of racist depictions of asians, not of asians themselves.
5.19.2006 9:36pm
Shelby (mail):
Bottomfish:

No one ever thought Dick Tracy was made ridiculous by his preposterously square jaw.

Um, not to undercut your point, but I always thought he looked loony.

To actually undercut your point, sure different peoples have different ideations of "beauty" (as do individuals within those peoples) but that doesn't prevent some depictions from actually being racist. Take a look at cartoons in America depicting blacks in the early 20th century, or Japanese during WWII. Perhaps these are racist because of the context in which they were presented (i.e. to presumably white American audiences thought to share negative stereotypes of those groups) -- but you don't need a European standard of beauty to get there.
5.19.2006 9:41pm
Anonymous Koward:
There's a fine line between versimilitude and racism in cartoons. Typical features of a group need to be clearly present in order to get your point across.

On the other hand, the line has a lot to do with the sensitivity of the group being represented. How does one draw a racist cartoon of white people?


This?

Note the lynching noose on the tree.
5.19.2006 9:43pm
Tom952 (mail):
A racist is one who believes that racial differences produce an inherent superiority (or inferiority) of people. For example, Nazis. However, even racists have first amendment rights, as do proponents of all unpopular viewpoints.

Here we have something different. The appellation "Racist" is popularly used here and elsewhere to condemn and silence the critic without debate. It is used to choke off debate, criticism, and ridicule (which is a form of social criticism) by those who consider themselves above criticism or ridicule.

In the case of the Mohammed cartoons, it is literally a manifestation of the Islamic "Holier-Than-Thou" position, holding themselves as more special than all others, superior you might say.

This is unfortunate because fundamentalist Islamic societies direly need to respond to some criticism to function. Without the heavy flow of oil money they would be nothing but murderous anarchies.
5.19.2006 10:18pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
Anderson,

I think it puts the backwards priorities of fundamentalist Islam in a very stark and funny light. The women can only show their eyes, but figuratively speaking, the religion forbids actually using them. So what are we left with? The blind leading the... well, leading something. It's not necessarily a brilliant argument, but I loved the cartoon.
5.19.2006 10:29pm
Malvolio:

The cartoon is satirizing all the things that Islam forbids viewing of. Women's bodies aren't allowed to be seen. Any picture of Muhammad is also forbidden, as shown by blocking out his face.

I interpreted it differently: "Islam keeps its female adherents from being seen and it's male adherents from seeing."

I don't think that's even supposed to be Mohammed, just an angry Moslem, blinded by intolerance.
5.19.2006 10:47pm
Justin Levine:
Crane says "Justin...Wait, are you saying that buck teeth and thick glasses are cultural archetypes in Asia? You must not have seen many actual asian people in your lifetime; those features are characteristic of racist depictions of asians, not of asians themselves."

Of course not - I am saying that those characteristics are cultural archtypes of Asians here in Western socities (and particularly here in the U.S.) that are often used in caricatures. But I suspect that you know that and you are just being a silly contrarian. If not - then I would have to assume that you do indeed think the Mohamad cartoon is "racist", that you disagree with the reasing of Prof. volokh in his post, and that you would in fact object to the depiction of any racial features in cartoon caricatures since they must by definition depict such features.

It is no different that Japanese-Anime that almost always depicts Western women as having very wide eyes and big breasts. It is not an "acurate" depiction of Western women - but neither is it racist. It is an archtype that the Japanese culture has about Western women.

Really, this point is so obvious that I am surprised I even need to make it.
5.19.2006 11:05pm
Allen:
I found that first cartoon the cleverest of the entire bunch. It implies the blindness of the patriarchial side of the culture.

The black strip over the eyes also recalls the older style of hiding identities on TV before pixilation became common, so we can't even be for certain it's Mohammed without seeing the eyes.

And there's just a perfect artistic inversion between the women and the man.

A couple of others were funny, but that one was one of the fiew thoughtful ones.
5.19.2006 11:13pm
steve k:
The Drill SGT claims The New York Times isn't afraid to publish gratuitous assuaults on religious symbols since they showed Chris Ofili's painting The Holy Virgin Mary (or as he calls it, Dung Madonna). I can't speak for the Times' general policy, but I don't think anyone should feel this is an assault on Christians, much less a gratuitous one.

The painting (you can see it here among other places) isn't even recognizable as the Virgin Mary—we only get that from the title. It's a black woman in a blue sheet with a gold background and little bits flitting about that look like butterflies but on closer inspection are private parts. The style is somewhat "primitive" and it actually looks pretty sweet. (The woman, by the way, seems to have some overdone racial characteristics, but no one's claimed yet the painting is racist.)

Then there are the small mounds of elephant dung (it's not smeared on, as many claim). Leaving aside the meaning of elephant dung where the artist is from, it's worth noting he uses it regularly in his art. For instance, anther painting feature clumps of dung on the names of African-American heroes like Miles Davis. Is that also meant to be offensive? Should jazz fans try to shut down the exhibit?

Without commenting on other religious sensibilities, we can note that showing Mary is not in and of itself offensive to Christians. And different artists will wish to show her in different ways. If a viewer honestly tries to understand the painting—not a great effort, just see it (which many haven't, not even a photo) and read a caption perhaps—she should not be offended.
5.20.2006 12:21am
Shangui (mail):
Of course not - I am saying that those characteristics are cultural archtypes of Asians here in Western socities (and particularly here in the U.S.) that are often used in caricatures.

Yes, but they (buck teeth and coke bottle glasses) are depictions with distinctly racist overtones. Do you really not think Andy Rooney's depiction of the Japanese guy in Breakfast at Tiffany's is not a racist stereotype? What would you say about cartoons about blacks eating watermelons and fried chicken? That's certainly a "cultural archtype." It also happens to be a racist one. Or maybe hook-nosed Jews lending out money at high rates of interest? You can't tell me that's not a "cultural archtype."

It is no different that Japanese-Anime that almost always depicts Western women as having very wide eyes and big breasts. It is not an "acurate" depiction of Western women - but neither is it racist. It is an archtype that the Japanese culture has about Western women.


Do you read much anime? You do realize that all the characters have very wide eyes, including the Japanese ones, right? And basically all the main female characters, even (or especially) the Japanese schoolgirls have huge breasts. The comparison with the depictions from the NR cover just doesn't work. The Japanese do have plenty of racist Sambo-like depictions of African Americans and I don't have any problem criticizing them just as I would the NR cover.
5.20.2006 12:29am
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
Allen,

>And there's just a perfect artistic inversion between the women and the man.<

My thoughts exactly.

The other element that it satirizes is the simultaneous repression, particularly of women. The blindness of the guy then implies the pointlessness of that repression, along with the rest of the ideas that have been mentioned.

I also like the way in which the sum-total of the blackout results essentially in a complete smothering of the entire person.
5.20.2006 1:28am
Lev:
Hey, Volokh, you're cruising for a fatwaing.
5.20.2006 1:31am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Political cartoons always use caricature to readily identify the characters. (Within my family we've drawn cartoons from time to time to make a point or to decorate a greeting card, and as none of us can draw particularly well, individuals are always illustrated wearing a shirt proclaiming their schools, or carrying particular sporting equipment or pet. I get the thick glasses.) As others have said, this can be positive, neutral, or negative, and the offense can be intentional or not. What would be inexcusably offensive today can be excused by ignorance and different sensibilities when the work was produced.

I find more offensive the denial of ethnic features, such as a depiction of a blond, blue-eyed Jesus, especially if all the other Semites are shown more realistically swarthy.
5.20.2006 11:11am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I agree that the first cartoon was good because of the way that the eyes were either depicted or not, depending on whether it was Mohammed or his wives. I thought it quite clever.

I think that my memory of this entire discussion will always be colored by the treatment of the subject, and, in particular, the differing treatment of Jesus and Mohammed, in South Park.
5.20.2006 11:14am
Brian G (mail) (www):
You should be arrested for posting those cartoons and this website should be shut down because of your violation of my First Amendment right not to be insulted or have my feelings hurt. You wouldn't dare do that to Christians because you know the evil power of the Religious Right.

Oh, I am sorry. I was just taken over by some goofy leftist poltergeist. Thanks for posting them, albeit months later than you should have.
5.20.2006 3:28pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Ah. I actually thought the black bar wasn't part of the original cartoon.

Still not terribly impressed, though maybe b/c I was slow to get the joke, but at least I see the point now.
5.20.2006 3:47pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Brian G: I first posted all the cartoons two months ago, see here.
5.20.2006 5:32pm
Brian G (mail) (www):
Thanks, Professor. I must have somehow missed that. My apologies. Please keep the spirit of your textbook alive on this site.
5.20.2006 11:40pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Brian G: No problem, and thanks for the gracious response.
5.21.2006 12:40am