I always get nervous when academics write about political cartooning. I usually come away with a nagging suspicion that someone studying the profession from the outside just doesn't get it at all. True, debates about political cartooning among the cartoonists themselves get so volatile that I'm not sure the insiders totally understand what we're doing either.
But Victor Navasky, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School, and chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, having founded a magazine of political satire in the 1950s, in addition to being the editor of The Nation for many years, is probably less an outsider than most. He understands our aims and is sympathetic to the cause. He also has insights to a question prompted by the recent firebombing of the cartoon-laden French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the beating of a Syrian political cartoonist: What is it about cartoons that prompt such violent reactions?
"In the 19th century, Honoré Daumier, the great French caricaturist, was thrown into prison for his depiction of King Louis-Philippe as Gargantua. And in 1835, when the king re-established censorship, which had been temporarily suspended, it was not for print but rather for caricature ('censorship of the crayon') on the ground that whereas 'a pamphlet is no more than a violation of opinion, a caricature amounts to an act of violence.' . . .
"Neuroscientists and Freudians all have their explanations as to why and under what circumstances people — be they Muslim workers, French tyrants or members of an international court — find this 'silly,' 'trivial' and 'irrelevant' medium so threatening. I have long had a theory that one reason people become so agitated by cartoons is that there is no way of answering back. A caricature is by definition an exaggeration, a distortion, unfair. If you don’t like an editorial you can write a letter to the editor, but there is no such thing as a cartoon to the editor."
I've noticed this myself during my time at the Observer. People want to argue about the editorials on our pages. They just want to scream about the cartoons. The old cliche is that editorial cartoons make people think. Well, if that's true, it's because the cartoons shake people up first. Then, with their defenses and walls in disarray, perhaps they're open to new ideas.
But Navasky has one more insight as well. It's possible cartoons get processed on the emotional right side of the brain instead of our rational left side. He also cites some primitive cultures' wariness of images and suggests:
"... if brains could whisper, mine would be whispering that perhaps these primitive peoples were right after all; maybe they knew not merely that pictures were magical but also why we should fear them."