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date: 17 May 2021

Folly in the Fourth Estate: Editorial Cartoons and Conflicting Values in Global Media Culturelocked

  • Christopher J. GilbertChristopher J. GilbertDepartment of English, Assumption College

Summary

The editorial cartoon is a touchstone for matters of free expression in the journalistic tradition. Since their early inception in the politically charged engravings of 18th-century pictorial satirist William Hogarth to the present day, editorial cartoons have shone forth as signifiers of comic irreverence and mockery in the face of governmental authority and in the more generalized cultural politics of the times. In democratic nations they have been cast as a pillar of the fourth estate. Nevertheless, they—and the cartoonists, critics, commentators, and citizens who champion them—have also long stood out as relatively easy targets for concerns about where the lines of issues such libel, slander, defamation, and especially blasphemy should be drawn. This goes for Western-style democracies as well as authoritarian regimes. In other words, the editorial cartoon stands at a critical nexus of meaning and public judgment. At issue from one vantage is what it means to promote the disclosure of folly as the foolish conduct of public officials and the stupidity of institutions that are thereby worthy as objects of ridicule. From another vantage, there is the matter of what it is to deplore the comicality in journalistic opinion-making that goes too far.

To approach editorial cartoons from the standpoints of free expression and press freedoms is to verge on conflicting values of civil liberty in and around the so-called right to offend. This was true in the age of Hogarth. It was true in the days of famed French printmaker and caricaturist Honoré Daumier, who was imprisoned for six months from 1832 until 1833 after portraying Emperor Louis-Philippe in the L Caricature. It is also particularly true today in a global media age wherein editorial cartoons, whether or not they are syndicated by official newspapers, can traverse geographic and other boundaries with relative ease and efficiency. Furthermore, the 21st century has seen numerous cartoon controversies vis-à-vis what many commentators have referred to as “cartoon wars,” leading to everything from high-profile firings of cartoonists (including in the United States) through bans and imprisonments of artists in Middle Eastern countries to the 2015 shootings of cartoon artists at the headquarters of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Indeed, if the threshold of the free press is the killed cartoon, the limit point of the freedom of expression is the killed cartoonist. Hence the importance of looking beyond any one editorial cartoon or cartoonist in order to contemplate the comic spirit in certain historical moments so as to discover the social, political, and cultural standards of judgment being applied to the carte blanche of journalism and the comic license of those using graphic caricatures to freely editorialize their takes on the world—or not.

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