Offence and context

February 16, 2011 in News

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Cartoons and offence go together as naturally as cartoons and laughter.

Reactions to cartoons depend greatly on the context in which the images are first seen – and this is usually out of the hands of the cartoonist or illustrator.

This week a national news publisher paired an image with a piece of writing by journalist Richard Littlejohn. It featured a church, a vicar, and a sign bearing the words ‘‘Poofters welcome here’’.

Because I’ve told you the drawing accompanied a column by the journalist and polemicist Littlejohn you may have a strong assumption about what the intention was here. Many people using the social networking site Twitter certainly did, and offence was quickly taken.

But the cartoonist, Gary, was satirising a real-life event, – where a B&B owner had put a sign with that wording in his window for a joke – and linking it with recent reports that gay civil partnerships may be given the status of marriage. That’s what cartoonists do, and should Gary have been expected not to use a word that had appeared in many news reports?

Press reports on the original issue in The Mirror and The Pink Paper.

Some of the offence was caused in part by the cartoon being taken out of context. This really matters in the digital world where communication of all sorts is shared and spread with incredible speed and usually without the context of its first publication.

The fact is that the only people who can tell you what the drawing means are each individual reader, and the maker. You can ask questions of the artist and the person who chose to pair the image with the words. You might also want to be clear about any business relationship between the artist and the commissioner, but any offence, or laughter, is in the eye of the beholder alone.

It’s a useful thing to bear in mind when reacting to visual communication of any sort and especially with powerful drawn content which is then shared through the  social media.

Please comment below if you would like. Bloghorn does moderate comments.

8 responses to Offence and context

  1. As a psychotherapist its always important for me to explore the context of a particular question or statement. However, sometimes we just have to make assumptions and deal with the responses. Interestingly, when an error occurs – and this can be on either or both sides – it’s a great opportunity to bring such issues out into the open. In this case it probably won’t resolve the basic issues and yet the more we talk about the the safer they get.

  2. Hmmm. This blog entry is rather patronising, and just a little bit Luddite. Also, it misses the point the outrage, which centred – not for the first time – on the fact that ‘Gary’, far from being a satirist, is simply the drone who provides far-from-sophisticated illustrations that support Littlejohn’s bigoted and misinformed opinions. (One assumes this is so the Mail’s readers can enjoy Littlecock’s prejudices without having going to the bother of reading his appalling drivel.)

  3. I don’t really get what the outrage is? The cartoonist has simply linked one news story to another. And the word “poofter” is part of it. Is the word so very offensive? What about Jonathan Ross’s former house band Four Poofs and a Piano? Are we outraged by them? This latest Twitter lynch mob (there’ll be another one along in a minute) is mostly heterosexual people getting outraged on behalf of gay people (some of whom proudly use the word “queer”, are we outraged by that?) I’m no Littlejohn fan, but even the accompanying piece wasn’t offensive. Except, of course, no one’s read that. They’re just stirred up by the New Statesman blog piece. It’s just cartoon of a camp vicar, a light-hearted joke. Let’s not all lose our sense of humour.

  4. And this in the Mail ? Shock! Horror!

  5. If the story has been in the 1930s and about the Blackshirts, would a reputable cartoon have used the words Yids because they did?

  6. There are plenty of offensive words and phrases for homosexuality that *would* be unacceptable. Is “poofter” really up there with them? Why would a mainstream gay cabaret act call themselves Four Poofs and a Piano if that were the case? I don’t use it myself, but I’m not offended by it. It’s certainly not comparable to yid.

  7. Language is a living thing. It changes as social attitudes shift. Offence and prejudice is found in the individual beholder and also in the psychology of groups.
    News organisations and publications follow readership profiles closely and this usually accounts for the acceptable language and subject matter in their products.

  8. When Littlejohn’s employers hired me to do some work they warned me what that the persons views might not reflect my own. I told them that it’s got nothing to do with what I believe nor whether I like what they say, my job is to create an amusing and salient piece to go with the story. In this case the offensive word was merely a quote from a real life story that will have been the inspiration for Littlejohn’s article. Have we really become such a nation of busy body hypocrites we cannot tell the difference between something that causes real offence and merely satirising those who take offence because they think they should? And I’m not the Gary in question.

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