In the mid-1800s, politician Boss Tweed was plundering millions of dollars from New York City and getting away with it 一 until Thomas Nast, an editorial cartoonist, started drawing him. In the pages of Harper’s Weekly, Nast drew Tweed with a sack of cash replacing the head on his shoulders, and Tweed snatching Lady Justice’s sword of “punishment” and fleeing with public money in tow. These black and white caricatures persuaded the public to vote Tweed and his cronies out of office. “I don’t care what the papers write about me,” Tweed notoriously said. “My constituents can’t read, but damn it, they can see the pictures.”
According to Tom Bivins, a Journalism Professor and Media Ethics and Responsibility Chair at the University of Oregon, Nast’s work demonstrated the potential of political cartoons. He recounted this anecdote during his talk, Political Cartooning and Free Speech, at the Eugene Public Library on Saturday Jan 11. “Cartoons have an awful lot of power,” Bivins said. Their “unique combination of words and images and symbols” gives cartoonists the ability to convey what words alone could not.
Bivins inherited his artistic streak from his father, an oil painter, but was deterred by the patience required to paint. Instead, he took up drawing. In his mid-20s, he began creating political cartoons for a local paper and has kept cartooning since. Much of Bivins’ work, including numerous caricatures of famous figures, renditions of the duck mascot, and editorial cartoons can be found on his website. His current focus is teaching and doing research in media ethics including his current undertaking, a paper on why suffragettes at the turn of the 20th century omitted satire from their campaigns. He still draws in his free time.
During his talk on Saturday, Bivins’ emphasized the idea of “punching up” with satire, or critiquing those at the top of social and political chains. “The idea of satire is the idea of journalism; get to the people in power and tell them what they’re doing wrong,” he said. “Satire is supposed to do the same thing: truth to power.” By targeting people in authority, cartoonists can check their power and expose corruption without maligning already-marginalized groups.
But not all satirists adhere to this philosophy. As an example of punching down, Bivins displayed a cartoon published in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The image, titled “Earthquake Italian Style,” depicted victims of the Italian earthquake labeled as different pasta dishes based on their injuries. A man wrapped in bloody bandages stands beneath the words “Penne Sauce Tomate,” while layers of rubble and protruding limbs are labeled “Lasanges.” Many viewers, including other satirists, bashed Charlie Hebdo for, as Bivins put it, “punching down to people who can’t defend themselves.”
Bivins also advocates for a degree of self-censorship based in normative ethics: the question is what you ought to do, not what you can get away with. “The First Amendment allows you to do it; that’s the law. Your conscience takes over from there; that’s ethics,” he said. He sees self-censorship as a way to exercise First Amendment rights by choosing what you want to say and how you’re going to say it. Communicating with tact can make a message more effective without watering it down.
Ultimately, Bivins believes that how you express an idea 一 and how offensive that expression might be 一 should be deliberate. “You’re your own best editor,” he said. The question he poses is, who will the material offend and why? Sometimes the scathing humor of satire serves a purpose: it can win attention or change attitudes by revealing how absurd something really is. Other times, unnecessary offense distracts from the artist’s message.
While Bivins advocates for more free speech on college campuses, he also prescribes a small dose of self-censorship and a consideration of who the work will offend. Students can investigate these topics through Bivins’ courses such as Editorial Cartooning (J 412/512) and Satire, Ethics, and Free Speech (J 496/596).