This month’s double-issue of The New Yorker carries a cartoon that took me about 10 hours to draw. It was conceived of on my weekly podcast, purchased by the magazine then the composition was discussed by myself and the cartoon editor of the New Yorker before it went to print. Once it was published in print, The New Yorker published it on their Instagram. That's when this happened...
That's about 20% of the comments.
On of the great joys of being a cartoonist, a comedian and a writer in a democratic country is that we get to say whatever we want. But with that freedom comes the understanding that the second those words come out of our mouth (or your pen), it's no longer in our control about how it is supposed to be interpreted. You can be as careful as you can possibly be, build failsafes to ensure it is understood the way you intended it, but people will always find meaning in your work that you might not have intended. Sometimes people take your work out of context and project their own biases onto it, and that's the deal you make in sharing it with the world.
But, if you are immediately offended by this cartoon, you’ve proven the following fact:
People won’t read the whole story before they decide they’re offended.
A good cartoon should get a response. A laugh, a shout, a cry, a yell -- something. It might even stir a bit of controversy if it's done well. But this cartoon was an exercise in people reacting to just part of the cartoon. It is the equivalent of leaving halfway through the first act of a play to write up the review. I'm always excited and happy to welcome artistic interpretation on any of my work, - some love it, some hate it, some are indifferent. That's all brilliant. But not if the work is not actually observed before those assessments are arrived at.
Within hours of being published, this cartoon had over 95,000 likes and over 3000 panicked comments asking if the New Yorker’s Instagram had been hacked. I was labelled sexist, a misogynist, a woman-hater -- but not by anyone who actually saw the whole picture.
“Why don’t you just flip the cartoon?”
If I flip the cartoon, there are more men working out than women. And more women on their phones than men. That’s even worse.
”Yes, but the initial foreground would look different. It wouldn’t ‘seem’ so unequal.”
Perhaps. But if you’re forming your final opinion on just the foreground, you’ve missed the point. I could have put two guinea fowls walking into the gym, and the foreground would also look different. But you shouldn’t form your entire opinion after just seeing the guinea fowls.
Actually, that sounds like a pretty good cartoon…
For the record: There was a flipped version. It was considered. It was dismissed in favour of this one. This one has more men on their phones than women. Women are more favourably represented in this cartoon than men.
As a rule, I never engage in social media comments sections especially when it comes to my work. My comments are all in the work; it should speak for itself. I like to publish the work and let people to just fight among themselves about it and watch from the bleachers. But this time around was different. People weren't just content to just tell me what I was, based on their interpretation of the cartoon. They then started trawling through my social media profiles, reaching out to my wife and telling her she should be 'ashamed for marrying such a woman-hating c*nt". Not just one person- more than 5.
This. is. not. normal. behaviour.
Something is different here.
People will reach out to let you know what they think (which is great), but then they'll insist on going through your other photos/work in your feed and comment on other things about the initial piece of work. Like this dear soul did on a photo of Sophie on my wall...
Here is a fact: All genders are equally represented in this image. The two men on their phones balance out the one woman in the foreground. The two women working out balance out the one man in the foreground. However. If you do not take in the whole picture, you would be right in thinking it appeared oddly gendered. Nothing in a New Yorker cartoon is there by accident.
Here is another fact: What you see in this cartoon will be completely different to what someone else sees in this cartoon.
That first fact doesn't appear to matter in 2018. Even upon realising their oversight, some will, and have created their own narrative to reinforce their initial cognitive biases. This, combined with the increased algorithmic encouragement of confirmation bias bubbles on social media, and a hefty dose of the online disinhibition effect, creates the perfect storm of deafening belligerence.
Every cartoon is now a Rorschach painting, except now the artist is somehow responsible for your biases that you’ve projected onto the image.
"Most of us now just prefer to surround ourselves with opinions that validate what we already believe. You notice, the people who you think are smart, are the people who agree with you?
Funny how that works."
~ Barack Obama, May 2018
Discourse is broken. Where once reasoned argument stood now stands vehement outrage and extremist dogma. Vast bias has overtaken everyone's ability to pay attention to anything. People very readily scream bloody murder the moment they’re able to project personal offence on to any kind of written, painted, broadcast, spoken or drawn art. Very often — as in this case — it happens before they’ve even gotten the full story. They read the headline and start painting a protest sign before reading a word of the story.
Ready, Fire, Aim.
The offended parties call for all manner of art to be taken down from public view and the artist reprimanded for creating something they don’t personally agree with. They don't realise what a toxic attitude that is in a democracy. Lecturing artists on what is and isn’t okay for them to create is one of the most repressive, conservative things an individual can do. (And it isn’t the conservatives doing it.)
As Sam Harris said in speaking about Identity Politics this week,
"There appears to be a new generational religion of installing these tripwires in your mind and simply waiting to be offended."
This criticism and outrage at art is nothing fundamentally new, but the relentless ‘flying off the handle before you hear the end of the sentence’ trigger-happy activism is currently at fever pitch — And it’s drowning out the sound of reasoned, rational debate. Nuance is lost.
I’ve written about this before as it pertains to my observations in stand-up comedy over the last 11 years. It has gotten -and will get- much, much worse. The pendulum has swung way too far for it to be in the name of actual progressive change. History proves it will need to swing back for things to properly progress.
This isn't hypersensitivity to criticism. I've been a syndicated cartoonist for 10 years, and a political cartoonist for 15. I've had more than my fair share of vehement bilious feedback over the years. One time my car was doused in used engine oil by a group of people who disagreed with a political cartoon I drew for a Perth newspaper 12 years ago. That wasn't fun.
Needless to say, I've grown a thick hide since those oily days as a young ink-slinger in Perth. I understand the nature of outrage, and the lines one dances around when making a statement with your work. But I need to say this again:
Something has changed.
The tone has escalated to Bruce Banner levels of blind fury, and nobody can hear each other over the deafening explosions. Among the rubble sit the smouldering careers of the alleged offenders as the mob moves on to the next thing they're incensed about. Nobody is allowed to have an opinion contrary to the ‘virtues’ the Twitter mob is chanting on any given day. It’s tribalism at its ugliest.
As Conal Hanna writes in The Age today:
In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman described the two competing systems at work in our brain.
System one is the fast, reactive, impulsive side that is essential for survival but is prone to being misled. System two is the considered, rational side that engages logic and works through nuance. The internet, more than any medium before it, is surely all about system one. It’s what keeps click-bait headline writers in business.
I worry that in the digital age society is losing its capacity to engage system two. That the muscle is atrophying over time. And that it’s affecting our behaviour offline.
Politicians continue to perfect the simplistic appeal to system one through bite-sized slogans that prompt discontent with no consideration of the consequences. That’s how you end up with a knee-jerk decision like Brexit that has no logical path to becoming reality.
We can all do better than this. We need to move our energy away from projecting our misguided outrage onto cartoons about smartphones at the gym. Additionally, to insist that I personally don't have the capacity to fathom the daily instances of latent and overt sexism and misogyny living within the patriarchy is simply not true. It is something I take a great deal of time and energy to understand and work towards correcting. One does not intrinsically need to be the one oppressed to understand the nature of that oppression.
It isn't shameful to admit that your biases kicked in at first glance. They should. What is shameful is trying to preserve your pride by creating a logical fallacy to back your specious argument, and in turn, through a narcissism of small differences, create enemies out of allies.
Pick your battles, friends. Jokes and cartoons are not you should be focusing this kind of rage on right now. Policing humour for racism or sexism -that often isn't there- is wrong-headed. Humour is meant to build bridges, not break them.
Click on the image below and take a look at the staggering majority of comments of outraged people who haven't looked at the whole cartoon... tell me I'm wrong.
You can listen to us coming up with cartoons like this every week on my podcast with Scott Dooley called "Is There Something In This?" available wherever you listen to podcasts.