If a cartoon has your blood boiling, live with it and leave artistic freedom alone, says Eusebius McKaiser.
Johannesburg - Some South Africans seem to be puzzled by how best to respond to a cartoon they don’t like. They respond instinctively by asserting that freedom of speech is abused.
Others add with an ominous tone that cartoonists should be lucky that in our country they have freedom to insult. The unsubtle implication being that maybe cartoonists have too much freedom to sketch as they please.
All of these attitudes are, in my view, wrongheaded, and I want to explain why.
It’s even worse when they react to what is obviously a fake cartoon, made to look as if it was drawn by perhaps the best-known South African cartoonist. You might have seen it on social media at the weekend, it was certainly shared and retweeted often enough. It’s a remake of the 2002 Zapiro classic about American president George W Bush undergoing a colonoscopy that reveals his brains up his behind, except this time it features President Jacob Zuma, coinciding with news that the president has undergone routine medical check-ups over the past few days.
The social media landscape lit up like Chernobyl.
Tweets included the following: “Zapiro has gone too far”, “Zapiro is taking this freedom of speech thing too far”, “Zapiro doesn’t respect Zuma as a person”, “Black people: you must condemn and boycott @zapiro and the newspaper whose editor sees nothing wrong with the colonoscopy cartoon #tsek” and “I personally find that cartoon to be distasteful”.
The real Zapiro was a hero the previous week, of course, when he criticised the Eyewitness News cartoon as crossing an invisible line of what commentary is acceptable. That cartoon portrayed ANC voters as poephols and government ministers as clowns.
City Press carried an interview on Sunday in which Zapiro reiterated his criticism of that cartoon by saying there was a difference between censorship and taking account of the feelings of the public when you comment on public issues as a cartoonist.
Notwithstanding that, people still chose to believe that he could well have remade his 2002 cartoon into one featuring the president. And it became patently obvious that when Zapiro’s remarks please those who don’t like a particular cartoon – like the Eyewitness News one – then they defer to his magisterial authority. But when he pisses them off, then he gets verbally assaulted.
In other words, he’s only cool when he can be used to prop up the sentiment of the angry reader. We really are an odd bunch.
So what’s going on here with these confusing, inconsistent responses, including predictable noise about free speech abuse? Are critics of this latest cartoon outrage right or do they not get this artistic freedom thing? What is the best way to engage cartoons, and cartoonists, that make your blood boil?
First, there are limits to free speech and artistic freedom. Not all speech is protected speech. Hate speech, for example, is legally barred in our country. And it’s definitely morally unacceptable.
So yes, of course artistic freedom doesn’t mean that anything goes. You don’t lose your progressive credentials if you think speech should be limited. Because there are good progressive reasons to do so: like protecting the inherent dignity we each have.
But here’s the snag. The fact that there are acceptable limits on artistic freedom – even in a country with a liberal constitutional framework – doesn’t mean every single objection to an artist is the right kind of reason to limit that artist’s freedom.
And this is where the responses to the fake Zapiro cartoon are wrongheaded. If I find a cartoon distasteful, tough luck. That isn’t a good legal ground to limit the cartoonist’s right to artistic freedom. It simply reflects my sense of what is tasteful, and that is deeply subjective. I can express my disgust, sure, and expressing disgust is a powerful initial response to any artwork, but the role of being disgusted must not be exaggerated.
Being disgusted is not evidence of my dignity being trampled on, for example. It simply is a recording of my emotional response to what I see, hear or otherwise experience.
I hate pork tjops, and the idea of pork tjops on a pizza disgusts me. But it doesn’t follow that Debonairs violate my dignity with their wacky combos.
Some of us seem to think that feeling sufficiently disgusted counts as good evidence that a cartoonist has overstepped the mark – if not legally, then certainly morally or socially.
But I’m afraid you need to do much more with your disgust before you’ve successfully indicted the cartoonist as an abuser of free speech. You need to construct a full argument of what the harm consists in in the cartoon, and why that harm is not merely as trivial as making you annoyed but rather something more substantive.
The right to dignity is bloody hard to make sense of in law because the very concept of dignity is philosophically slippery, and if philosophers grapple with the concept, then our jurists – who aren’t philosophers – will struggle too.
But what we can say, however, is that feeling aggrieved isn’t strong enough reason, on its own, to constitute your dignity being trampled upon.
Even being insulted or belittled isn’t overriding proof of your dignity being violated.
So if you want to portray the president as having his brain up his behind, sure it is insulting to the individual, but it is just a diss, for goodness’ sake. No lawsuit against this cartoon – or whoever drew it – would survive a Constitutional Court analysis of Zuma’s rights being violated.
The president, like you and me, does not have a right to never be ridiculed, never be laughed at, never be insulted. We have to live with the fact that the general right to artistic freedom includes Zapiro’s entitlement to diss us to a point where you might go “Damn. This one will send Number 1 straight back to hospital!”
After 20 years of constitutional democracy, we really should grow thicker skins already and get used to the norms we signed up for.
So what should you do with feeling pissed off? Simple: engage the cartoonist by telling the public why he is a bigot, why his portrayal of Zuma is factually unfair, why his portrayal of Zuma tells us more about him, than about (y)our beloved president. Then leave it to the court of public opinion. End of story.
So stop moaning about the boundaries of free speech and rather defeat the cartoonist with words. Eyewitness News, for example, is an excellent and trusted news brand that suffered little brand damage last week because responses focused on free speech rights.
If I was Zizi Kodwa, the ANC spokesman, I’d have celebrated the cartoonist’s right to draw that cartoon, reiterate my commitment to their right to draw another cartoon like that one and then proceeded, instead, to offer an awkward, devastating analysis of how the cartoon reveals an ugly institutional identity that tells us a lot, say, about EWN and South African newsrooms.
In other words, I’d have engaged the cartoonists artistically and politically, not moan about free-speech boundaries being crossed.
Leave artistic freedom alone. Rather learn to construct compelling criticism of the content of artists’ work.
* Eusebius McKaiser is the author of the bestselling book Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.