Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Failure of the New Yorker Cartoon

Why did the cartoon recently published on the cover of New Yorker magazine fail so spectacularly.

The cover depicts Barak and Michelle Obama in the Oval Office of the White House. Barak is dressed as a Muslim imam, while Michelle is decked out as a terrorist, while the couple is surrounded by anti-American and pro-Terrorist images.

The intent of the cartoon was to satirize the view that some ultra-conservatives are embracing that Barak Obama and his ife as anti-American and pro-Terrorist. However much money the McCain administration and the Republican Party has spent on the political campaign, nothing has been nearly as effective in damaging Obama than these lies spread through e-mail with a push now and then by Fox News.

However, many people did not see the cartoon as satire. The reaction, even Obama and many of his supporters had a hostile reaction. (See, Los Angeles Times, Barack Obama calls New Yorker cartoon an 'insult against Muslim Americans') Why is that? Has America lost its collective sense of humor?

Actually, no. Americans know, somewhat instinctively, about how communication works. People do not have time to stop and think about every piece of information that they come across. They only have time to give it a cursory glance. They form a quick opinion (based more on emotion and pre-conceived ideas than on the content of what they see), then they move on.

The vast majority of the people who will see the cover of the New Yorker magazine will not think too deeply about it. They will glance at the cartoon, which will generate an instant emotional reaction. They will then attach that emotion to Barak Obama and, over the next four months, interpret further information through the lens that this cartoon generated.

This instant, unreflective, shallow interpretation of the cartoon for a lot of people will be the idea that the Michelle and Barak Obama hold pro-terrorist/anti-American sympathies who are trying to gain control of the White House. The cartoon ends up reinforcing the very ideas that the author intended to ridicule.

Even people who know better will have a gut reaction that will suggest, "It's probably nothing, but why take chances?"

Some people will see this tendency to glance at a cartoon and derive instant conclusions that are at odds with the facts to be a moral failing. There is something wrong with people who do not take the time to understand what they see and who form snap decisions instead.

However, they would be mistaken. We do not have a choice but to form snap judgments.

Look at the huge amount of information that exists in the world. Before you can even start to understand it, you need to decide which parts of it you are going to spend time understanding, and which you will largely ignore. This means taking a glance at a huge quantity of information and forming quick opinions. From this initial scan, some elements will catch your eye. Those are the parts that you will look at in more detail. It will be a very small percentage of the total amount of information available. For the vast majority of the items we come across in an average day, we glance at the head lines, make our snap judgments, and we move on, looking for the item that strikes enough interest to generate a more thorough examination.

There is no way out of this. This is a part of the real world in which we must live, and it does us no good to pretend that things are or can be any different.

Whatever you write, whatever you say, whatever you post on your blog, you can trust that most people who encounter it will skim across the surface, then move on. A small percentage are going to be willing to spend the time to look at the issue in detail. Because, every moment that somebody spends looking at your article in detail is a moment they cannot spend doing something else that interests them more.

Instead of lamenting reality and wishing we lived in an alternative universe where different natural laws apply, we should accept reality and plan to act accordingly. We should recognize that people must skim the surface of most information they encounter, and ask ourselves, "What am I communicating to the average skimmer?"

In my own blog, the message that I seek to give the average skimmer is, "If you don’t have time to give this subject some serious consideration, then please move along. This material is not meant for skimmers."

But that's just me. This does not imply that there is anything wrong with writing for skimmers. Somebody has to do it. Hopefully, morally responsible people will accept the challenge of providing skimmers with a useful understanding of important issues.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that I am dividing the world into 'skimmers' and 'deep readers' (implying that the latter are morally superior to the former). There are a lot of subjects in the world. Deciding to become well informed on one of them requires deciding to skim many others that would otherwise take too much time to study. The brightest people in the world in one area of knowledge are, at best, skimmers of all other subjects that she does not study.

In over 1000 blog postings, I have yet to write on the subject of illegal drug abuse, because this is an area where I have only skimmed an understanding. I haven't had time for anything else.

The list of things that each of us only skims the surface of is humongous.

The New Yorker magazine failed to take this into consideration, and created a cover that communicated the opposite of what they wanted to communicate.

Others see the need for the bulk of the population to skim most subjects as an excellent opportunity to exploit them for political or social gain.

For example, President Bush announced that he will sign an executive order to allow more offshore drilling. At the same time, he blamed the Democrats for the energy shortage. The story is that the Democrats were blocking access to oil, thus keeping the price high, and causing the people to suffer.

In doing this, the Bush Administration decided to use the necessity of skimming to once again manipulate the American people to act against their own interests. Off-shore drilling will not have any effect on gasoline prices for years, will have a small effect even then, and uses up oil reserves that ultimately makes us even more dependent on other countries (by destroying our options). Off shore drilling is not a solution to the problem of gas prices. It is a way in which the executives of oil companies can make billions of dollars while the people are deluded into thinking they are made beter off.

The Bush Administration is counting on the necesity of skimming to make sure that only a few people see the true implications of their actions.

We certainly have reason to promote an aversion to using the necessity of skimming as an opportunity to deceive people, just as we have reason to avoid the harms of being deceived.

The lies of the Bush Administration will encourage people to vote for Republicans who have no good answer to the problem of the high price of energy. Smart Republicans know that offshore oil drilling will do nothing to help the average consumer. What it will do is help wealthy oil company executives make a ton of money selling oil, while distracting the people from options that actually do have a chance to help.

It would be a mistake to lay the blame on the fact that people simply skim the news – we do not have time for anything else. The blame rests on those who take advantage of this fact in ways that are beneficial to them but harmful to others. This is where the moral fault lies, and this is where the tool of moral condemnation should be applied.


caiuscamargarus said...

I disagree strongly with your post, Alonzo, and I think you're buying into a nearly, if not actually, condescending view of the subject.

First: it's satire. It's clearly satire, and anyone with the most passing knowledge of Barack Obama and the New Yorker's political leaning will know that. That is the case with just about everyone who criticized it. They know it's satire, and if they're sincerely offended, well, honestly, they're trying very hard. The intent of the New Yorker was plain. It communicates exactly what they wanted to communicate.

Now, are some people going to take it literally? Yes. Some already have. But those who have a better understanding of the candidate will look at it and, considering the absurdity of the claims it illustrates, and possibly find humor in it, if their sense of humor hasn't been sucked out by the hair-trigger of offense that plagues contemporary politics.

What I don't see is why the New Yorker has to lower its standards to avoid being misunderstood. It has no debt to the Obama campaign, nor should it be held back by those who won't bother to find out very basic facts about one of the two candidates for the highest office of the nation. Not only do I think it's condescending to hold others to such lower standards than yourself, I think it's immoral to lower your own standards for the sake of political expediency. The shame is on those who continue to knowingly spread lies about Barack Obama, not the New Yorker, who mocked them.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


According to a recent poll, 56% of the people answered that Obama is a Christian. Others think he is Muslim or are uncertain, since they have heard conflicting information, or do not answer.

We can guess that, of that 56% there are varrying degrees of certainty - as there is with the 44% on the other side. There are people in the 56% who can be shifted to the 44%, and people in the 44% who can become more strongly reinforced in their position.

The percentage of the population who "have a better understanding of the candidate" is too small of a percentage to win an election. And if the larger percentage are made to worry about these fictions, then this could cost him the election.

Those who will not find out the basic facts of one of the candidates running for office make up a substantial majority of the electorate. You can view this as condescending if you wish, but research continually shows it to be true. Political campaigns are designed and managed by people who know this fact and who take advantage of it.

I do not view it as condescending. I think it is rational for people to focus their attention on those things that can directly affect their lives and to ignore those things over which they (individually) have little control.

Ron in Houston said...

I think skimmers vs. deep readers is part of it. However, whether skimmer or deep reader there is still the tendency to self validate and see what confirms our view of the world.

I don't know how long the Obama campaign looked at the cartoon before issuing their press release, but I'll bet they were so accustom to attack pieces that this bias would have taken some time to be overcome.

Hume's Ghost said...

I wrote a post on this, too.

As I say in my post, people keep saying that it's instulting people's intelligence to say that the cover will reinforce prejudicial fears about Obama in people's minds, but that is how the brain works.

Another problem I see with the cartoon is that it is not effective satire simply because it pretty accurately describes the view of the Obamas that is being cultivated in the Republican noise machine.

The New Yorker obviously believes that these beliefs are self-evidently absurd (as they are) but fails to consider that were the self-evident absurdity of the beliefs sufficient to rebut them they would not be as successful as they are.

There is also the fact that we have a mainstream American media which has granted legitimacy and normalcy to views that are cartoonish to the point of making satire and parody nearly impossible (more on that in a moment.) For example, the New York Times magazine just did a white-wash cover story on Rush Limbaugh. That's the same Rush Limbaugh who has been saying that Osama Bin Laden is a Democrat.

As for the difficulty of satire and parody, I've twice now had posts that I thought were quite obvious parody show up on sites that took them seriously.

This one about global warming got linked to by a site that is nothing but global warming denial links ... and yet I even say I'm being sarcastic!

And in this one even a regular reader had a hard time telling I wasn't being serious, despite how outrageously over the top the post (and the obvious sarcasm.) This one got linked on one of those web log buzz sites that aggregates blogs talking about a subject (I forget which) but it was grouped in with all the Malkin type blogs.

Digby linked to this cartoonist who argued that the problem with the New Yorker cartoon is that it relies on the context of the magazine and isn't stand alone. The artist doen't mention that title of the cartoon is "The Politics of Fear" but, again, the image is going to more powerful in activating neural networks than the title.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

ron in houston

It is a fact that we tend to filter information according to our biases.

The smart response to this is not to say, "I don't do stuff like that." That's pretty much the same as saying, "I'm not human. I'm just visiting this planet."

Smart people recognize the fact of bias and adopt methods to correct for it. The 'double blind' experiement and the practice of independent verification are ways of dealing with this issue.

A true 'deep reader' will be aware of the power of bias, and actually be somewhat reluctant to trust even his own opinion. He will say, "I think X, and I will offer you my reasons, but please be aware that we are both potentially suffering the ill effects of bias. I would only trust me so far."

Ron in Houston said...

hume's ghost

I often wonder if I'm a bit peculiar. I instinctively "got it." The minute I saw it I could tell it was satire.

Of course, the fact that I got it doesn't make it good satire.

I was puzzling for some time why so many others just didn't seem to "get it."

Anonymous said...

More examples of information aimed at and influence skimmers(shallow thinkers): Hope; Change; Bush-McCain, fake presidential symbols, leaked photo of Barack in Muslim dress (by Hillary), a new direction, culture of coruption, move-on, Bush lied, people died...this is, liberal, civil-war. How about the Dems sudden embrace of the phrase "Drill Now!"

Didn't Lakoff write a book on this?

People are angered by the cartoon because like good sataire, there's nuggets of truth embedded: Barack's dad was Muslim. That neither means Barack is Muslim or that Muslims are bad- it's playing on fear- BUSH-McCAIN! Burning flag: Ayers, Wright. Mrs. Obama as radical: her thesis, and her campaign trail rhetoric. Osama pic: meme that Obama would be weak on terrorists.

Exaggeration, funny, but lacking (at a glance) sufficient political framing: BUSH- McCAIN! The outrage ensues.

dbonfitto said...

At what point is poorly executed satire indistinguishable from yellow journalism?

Does bad art require an apology to the audience?

Anonymous said...

I used to subscribe to the New Yorker "cartoon of the week" email, until after about a year I realised that they all had one thing in common: they were incredibly unfunny. How have the mighty fallen...