Cartoons Have the Power to Inform, and to Offend

In early 2006, a set of cartoons caused violent global protest and outrage. Now, a year later, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan takes a look at freedom of expression and respect for the beliefs and feelings of others, and weighs the case

About 300 Muslims demonstrated peacefully outside the Danish Embassy in Bangkok on Monday 6 February 2006 (photo: AP)
Kofi Annan: "Cartoons can encourage us to look critically at ourselves, and increase our empathy for the sufferings and frustrations of others. But, they can also do the opposite"

​​I have always thought that cartoons are one of the most important elements in the press. They have a special role in forming public opinion – because an image generally has a stronger, more direct impact on the brain than a sentence does, and because many more people will look at a cartoon than read an article.

If you are flicking through a newspaper you have to make a conscious decision to stop and read an article, but it is hardly possible to stop yourself from looking at a cartoon.

That means that cartoonists have a big influence on the way different groups of people look at each other.

Cartoon dualism

They can encourage us to look critically at ourselves, and increase our empathy for the sufferings and frustrations of others. But, they can also do the opposite. They have, in short, a big responsibility.

Cartoons make us laugh. Without them, our lives would be much sadder. But they are no laughing matter: they have the power to inform, and also to offend. Short of physical pain, few things can hurt you more directly than a caricature of yourself, of a group you belong to, or – perhaps worst – of a person you deeply respect.

Cartoons, in other words, can both express and encourage intolerance, and also provoke it. And the sad truth is that they often do all three.

So, if we are going to "unlearn" intolerance, we need to engage cartoonists in the discussion.

They can help us to think more clearly about their work, and how we react to it. And, perhaps, we can help them to think about how they can use their influence, not to reinforce stereotypes or inflame passions, but to promote peace and understanding. Certainly, they can help each other to do that.

An important form of social and political comment

Plantu, who is a brilliant and sensitive cartoonist, had this idea long ago. When he came to see me about it, we were both still blissfully unaware of the furore about the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, which was just about to burst upon the international scene.

Kofi Annan (photo: AP)
Kofi Atta Annan is a diplomat of Ghanaian ancestry who served as the seventh Secretary-General of the UN from 1997-2006

​​Yes, cartoons can offend, and that is part of their point. If we banned all offensive cartoons, we should make our newspapers and websites very dull, and deprive ourselves of an important form of social and political comment.

In fact, I am not convinced that the solution to this problem lies in invoking the authority of the State at all. Even if we decided to ban only cartoons that are deeply offensive to large numbers of people, we would still be asking the State to make some very subjective judgements, and embarking on a slippery slope of censorship.

I would much prefer to leave decisions about what to publish in the hands of editors, and of the cartoonists themselves. They need to be aware of their responsibility, and at least to think about how their work may be seen, and felt, by different groups of people.

What kind of "self-censorship"?

Does that involve "self-censorship"? In a sense, yes – but exercised, I would hope, in a spirit of genuine respect for other people's feelings, not out of fear.

Does it involve "political correctness"? Not, I hope, if that means being dull and pretentious. But again, yes, if it means remembering that other people have feelings. There is nothing admirable, or indeed funny, about heaping further humiliation and contempt on any group in society whose members are already feeling vulnerable and frightened.

I hope also that we can avoid getting into a kind of "cartoon war", in which one group seeks to retaliate for the offence it has suffered, or believes it has suffered, by publishing whatever it thinks will be most offensive to another group, reflecting the mentality of "an eye for an eye".

That approach, as Mahatma Gandhi taught us, in the end leaves everyone blind. It is certainly not the way to promote better understanding and mutual respect between people of different faith or culture.

Tension between peace and justice

I am not suggesting that there are easy and clear answers to all these problems. We have to face the fact that sometimes there is tension, if not contradiction, between different values which in themselves are equally precious.

In peacemaking and peacebuilding, we often find that tension between peace and justice. In the present case, we may find it between freedom of expression and respect for the beliefs and feelings of others.

When that happens, the answer is not simply to assert the primacy of one value over the other. We have to work to find ways of preserving and reconciling both.

Kofi Annan

© Kofi Annan/UN 2007

This text by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was previously presented at the "Unlearning Intolerance: Cartooning for Peace" Seminar at UN Headquarters in New York on 16 October 2006.

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