And An Irrational Perspective On Gun Control In The Unethical Cartoon of the Month: “America Reacts”


Since most of the news media have been making fools of themselves with their over-heated, slanted and often hysterical reaction to the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, it was predictable that the odd corner of the commentariat occupied by political cartoonists would go even farther off the rails. For one thing, exaggeration is a tool of their trade; for another, they traffic in irony, satire and humor, giving them leave to jettison fairness and balance for a good laugh. Nonetheless, political cartoons appear on editorial pages. They express opinions that should be responsible opinions, and to the extent that they purport to represent facts, they are obligated to represent them with at least a minimal level of accuracy.

“America Reacts,” the work of Chattanooga Times-Free Press cartoonist Clay Bennett, appeared on December 18. I missed it; a letter to the Washington Post today complained about the Post re-printing it, which is how it finally came to my attention. I have admired Bennett’s work for a long time— I am critical of editorial cartoonists, but I respect and enjoy the good ones—-but this particular cartoon crosses ethical lines right, left and center:

1. As the Post’s critic pointed out, it unfairly deals in gross stereotypes. “Bennett makes assumptions that guns are more important than kids to men while only women care about children. My husband has guns and loves to go shooting, but no way would he choose guns over his children,” Marie Miller wrote. The cartoon also suggests that only men appreciate guns, and that all men are irrational gun nuts. Adding gender bigotry to the gun debate is not a constructive contribution.

2. The cartoon dishonestly frames the issue at hand as a culture having to choose between children or guns. Plenty of talking heads have made the same false representation, and it is intentional distortion for the purpose of appealing to emotions over rational thought. Or it is evidence of brain damage or progressive dementia.

3. The cartoon is incompetent. What is the point that the cartoonist is trying to make? That women are ruled by maternal-instinct and men are gun happy, rendering both stupid and useless? That women’s values are spot on, and men are mad fools? That every family’s children are really at risk because of guns? Is he advocating gun bans? The message is completely incoherent. It’s just a bad cartoon….on a serious and complex subject that could benefit from a good one.

If all a political cartoonist can contribute to an important national debate is the equivalent of a stink bomb tossed into a room, he should resist the urge.


Pointer: Marie Miller

Source: Times-Free Press

38 thoughts on “And An Irrational Perspective On Gun Control In The Unethical Cartoon of the Month: “America Reacts”

  1. I love my step daughter and soon to be born son so much I plan on teaching them to appreciate and respect and *enjoy* firearms. I’ll teach them to understand the historic and civic relationship of citizens to firearms.

    I will not abuse them by stigmatizing an object so much that they become physiologically repulsed by its sight.

  2. This is an excellent example of Stuart Hall’s encoding and decoding model. The point being that different people will interpret the media in different ways when they decode it. When I see this cartoon, I come to a different conclusion as to the meaning of the cartoon — one that is less problematic.

    The meanings you associate with it, due to you interpretation, certainly lead to the conclusion that the cartoon is unethical. However, I would argue that your interpretation is one of many possible interpretations. Cartoons, more so than other forms of media, are flexible in this way. That’s part of the reason they are so fantastic!

      • If I must. Here is an alternative decoding:

        The cartoon shows two dominant reactions. The cartoon is titled ‘America Reacts’, not ‘America Chooses’. These reactions are not offered up as the only two possible choices, but rather two dominant reactions. These dominate reactions reflect the discourses promulgated by the media.

        The cartoon is satirical, and effectively so. It suggests that children’s safety is more important than gun ownership because one is worth crying over and one is not. It does not communicate that one comes at the expense of the other.

        The fact that a man is depicted holding his gun, is not a reinforcement of stereotypes because the man is seen as crying. Men are not stereotyped as being emotional. If he had been seen as angry or threatening, or dominant in some way, the argument for stereotypes would be stronger.

        Whether or not you agree with my decoding of this cartoon doesn’t really matter. The point is that I can interpret this cartoon in such a way that there is nothing unethical about it. Simply put, the cartoon is sociopolitical commentary at its best. (Ok, that last line was a stretch, but I was on a roll)

        • “These reactions are not offered up as the only two possible choices, but rather two dominant reactions. These dominate reactions reflect the discourses promulgated by the media.”-TGT

          Therein lies one of the problems. The media has made the narrative that these are the two dominant reactions (not because they have unbiasedly determined that those are two reactions, but because they’ve already decided the reaction they wish to eulogize). The media has framed this debate as a division between people who react by clinging to their children or those who cling to their firearms.

          Do you believe for once that a father and mother who believe in the sanctity and morality of an armed citizenry did not for once feel pity for the families of Sandy Hook? That is an absurd and malicious belief to hold.

          Equally absurd is the belief that because Sandy Hook occurred and the 2nd Amendment exists, your children will disappear tomorrow.

          It is a horribly flawed and malicious manner to even frame the debate.

          If I framed a debate in that posed the options as being one in which you are either “for more subsidized public transit” or you are “for drowning cute puppies and the banning of ice cream”, you would laugh such a dichotomy to scorn.

          Why? Because it is counter-academic and it appeals to emotions as the basis of discourse.

          This cartoon posits such a dichotomy. It associates two wildly unrelated categories through the seeming connection of the Sandy Hook massacre.

          Deceiving people in such a way IS unethical.

          • And it certainly doesn’t help to open up the ‘conversation’ (that liberals claim our nation needs to start*) when one side of the ‘conversation’ is immediately vilified as uncaring, cold, massacre-supporting monsters.

            *conversations that need to start:

            Biggest lie ever, and more media guidance of the narrative. The ‘gun control’ conversation (that needs to ‘start’) has been around since the 2nd Amendment has been around.

            • Sir,

              Based on your inability to remain civil during the 2 of the our 3 in depth discussions, I care little for what you do or do not appreciate.

              However, thank you for pointing out that mistake. Goes to show the power of muscle memory. I’m so used to deconstructing your posts into snippets highlighting your fallacies and immediately attributing your handle to them, it was almost second nature to type “TGT” following the quote.

    • Yeah? What’s your conclusion, then? A cartoon that doesn’t make its own point of view clear isn’t “fantastic,” it’s a waste of space. By definition, an opinion cartoon i supposed to communicate an opinion. What is it? And if no two people can agree on what it is, then the cartoon fails.

      • You ask what point the cartoon is trying to make in point three. You state that the message is “incoherent.” In other words, it was unclear or confusing. This leaves the door wide open for alternative interpretations.
        I can certainly offer my own, but that would detract from my primary point: Your interpretation is simply one way this cartoon could be decoded.

        The cartoon may be incoherent, but if it is, that only makes it ineffective, not unethical.

        • Not so. Incompetence in a profession is unethical. He has a responsibility, especially when taking up space and making a statement, or whatever it is, in the middle of a vital debate, to do so clearly and in a way that clarifies rather than confounds. Point 3 alone would not make the cartoon unethical, though—to that extent, we agree.

  3. I’ve enjoyed a number of Bennett’s cartoon as well. I’ve even posted some on my Facebook page. That’s what makes this cartoon inexplicable.

    The blatant message here is that American men have some sort of love affair with their firearms that transcends that of their love for their family. What utter nonsense! Beyond hunting, the very purpose of those weapons is the protection of the things we hold dear… that family being on the top of the list. Men don’t arm themselves just for some irrational sense of power. They arm themselves against those predators who DO have that sense and are uncaring past the point of murderousness of the rights of others, including the most innocent. This cartoon seems to attempt to classify all gun owners in that latter category.

    This is not only a slander against tens of millions of American men, but an image that plays into the hands of those who would abolish the 2nd Amendment… and with it, all ability of a father to protect family and property.

  4. Ah, you guys are reacting like a bunch of…gun nuts. The cartoon makes a point that’s relatively obvious: the Connecticut massacre made some people fear losing their children and made others fear losing their firearms. Same thing you could see all over BOTH Fox and MSNBC.

    • The cartoon makes a point that’s relatively obvious: the Connecticut massacre made some people fear losing their children and made others fear losing their firearms

      There would be no fear over losing firearms were it not for people like Piers Morgan and Erik Loomis.

    • Can’t read it that way, Bob, since the children vs. gun dichotomy isn’t the only one portrayed, or the most prominent one. The gender dichotomy is the primary feature of the cartoon. Nor do I see the balance you choose to detect. If he was pointing out that both reactions were irrational, that would be a useful, legitimate message. He doesn’t. And what do you make of the fact that the man isn’t hugging a mere gun, but a so-called “assault weapon”.?

      Bad, bad cartoon. I’m no gun nut, nor do I oppose sensible gun regulations, current or new. the reason the posts here on this subject have mostly criticized the anti-gun rhetoric is that the worst excesses, distortions, bullying, ignorance and dishonesty are coming from that sector, in the media, on the web, and in the town square. “Do we choose guns over our children?” is the refrain. It’s dishonest and dumb, and that’s what the cartoon encourages.

  5. The cartoon dishonestly frames the issue at hand as a culture having to choose between children or guns.

    I have seen this in other contexts.

    Conservatives are more cautious about infringing on individual liberties (eg of gun owners in the US and small businessmen) in order to protect vulnerable populations (such as children, animals and immigrants).

    I’ll just leave that here. Whoever wrote this is a shitsack. A fucking shitsack. He’s a fucking shitsack, end of story. Interests of gun owners and small businessmen >> those of children and immigrants? Fuck him, fucking fuck him.

    This seems to imply the author of that quote thinks that the interests of children and immigrants are categorically more important than the interests of gun owners and businesses, regardless of the nature of the interest.

  6. To me, the cartoon clearly reads as saying that some Americans reacted by fearing for their children, while others reacted by fearing their guns would be taken away. I would bet money that’s how the cartoonist intended it.

    The gender reading you’re giving it didn’t occur to me until after I read your post. It’s actually an interesting problem, because political cartoonists often have to do these “two people representing two positions” strips, and none of the solutions are ideal. You can always draw two people of the same sex, but that gets to weird places. Often the people being drawn represent generic politicians or opinion leaders; if you always draw them as female, then you’re not reflecting a reality in which most of our powerful leaders are men; but if you always draw them as male, then you’re cutting women out of your strip.

    Or you can draw two people of opposite sex, as this cartoonist does, and try not to do anything that indicates “this is a gender strip” – i.e., avoid gendered exaggerations in how the characters are drawn – and hope most readers read it correctly.

    (Of course, you can always vary how you handle this problem from strip to strip. But while that may produce balance over time, many of your readers consider your work just one strip at a time.)

    Another option would have been to draw two couples. The problem is, the more elements a one-panel strip has, the harder it becomes to “read.” If you cover every possible misreading, you end up with a strip that is cluttered.

    There’s no real way to know except to go with instinct and experience, and also trying the idea out on a few test readers. No matter what you do, there will ALWAYS be a few people who don’t read it the way you intended.

    In this case, I suspect that most readers of the Washington Post didn’t have the problem understanding the strip you did, and that most will read it the way Ethics Bob and I read it. But that’s just a guess, based on experience; I might be wrong.

    • My problem with this, Barry, is that he chose two obvious stereotypes—men love guns, women love kids. This translates quickly in this context into “men>insensitive clods” and “women>non-violent nurturing saints with their priorities in order.” Would you really bet money that no gender message was intended? None? Because the easy and obvious way to avoid that would have been to show the man hugging his kids and the woman hugging the gun, right? And as a cartoonist, if you realize that you can’t make an idea work without it being confounded with other messages, isn’t the proper response to decide it may not have been such a good idea after all?

      “To me, the cartoon clearly reads as saying that some Americans reacted by fearing for their children, while others reacted by fearing their guns would be taken away. I would bet money that’s how the cartoonist intended it.”

      If this was the only intended message, is there a cartoon there? Does he really think that there aren’t substantial numbers of Americans who had both reactions, like, say, me? (Worried about my kid getting shot, and worried about hysterics who will use an incident that gun laws wouldn’t have prevented to argue that guns should be banned, or that owners should be treated like criminals) You would agree, would you not, that the cartoon suggests a false divide, based on a false premise (it’s kids or guns)?

      Do you think it’s a good cartoon?

      • With all due respect, Jack, all cartoons can be misread (you’d be amazed), and virtually no one has the ability to appreciate a good political cartoon that they disagree strongly with. The “this is about sex” reading you’re trying to apply to this cartoon is not, in my opinion, how a typical reader would interpret this cartoon.

        To answer your question, if it were me, I probably wouldn’t have drawn the gun owner as a woman. Surveys indicate that men are three or four times more likely to own a gun than women, and in my anecdotal experience, extreme gun-rights advocates are even more likely to be male than gun owners in general. There’s a fine line between countering stereotypes and whitewashing reality; insisting that a representative gun rights extremist be drawn as a woman crosses that line, imo.

        However, if I had made up this cartoon and early readers had the same reaction that you did, I would probably have countered it by leaving the gun owner a man, but drawing in an additional figure, so the cartoon depicted a mother and father holding their child protectively on the one hand, while on the other hand a gun owner held his rifle protectively. I also might have just drawn the left-hand figure as a Dad, since it’s nice to seen Dads shown as nurturing in media. (And that is not whitewashing reality, since in real life many Dads are nurturing.)

        That said, I think you’re giving this cartoon an ungenerous reading. There is an obvious and credible way to read the cartoon, which is the way Ethics Bob read it.

        I don’t accept that drawing a cartoon that those who are motivated to disagree with you can misinterpret is unethical.

        • But Barry, how can I agree with a cartoon that doesn’t communicate clearly? If the cartoon actually was intended to state what you have said it did, without a false choice, a gender bias and an implied position, I would have agreed with it. But then it would have been just stating fact, and would not have been an editorial opinion. To state the intended opinion (which you say wasn’t intended) he in fact stereotyped men and women, to the disadvantage of men, naturally, as that is the liberal trope,and misrepresented the debate as “guns or children,” which is the current anti-gun deceit. If these were not his intentions, then the cartoon was careless, inept and irresponsible. It they were, then it was either stupid, dishonest, unfair, or all three.

          I don’t understand how this can be a good cartoon. Your defense seems to be “cartooning is hard.” I agree, but I expect professionals in difficult professions to succeed at what they do.

      • Sorry, just noticed the final paragraphs – either I missed them initially, or you edited to add them. (Which is fine, if you did, of course!)

        I do think it’s a good cartoon. It makes its point in an admirably economical fashion, without resorting to annoying labels, and the drawing is accomplished. The visual parallel is effective. I think the newspaper on the floor is cheesy and unnecessary, but that’s a minor complaint.

        I don’t think the premise of the cartoon is “its kids or guns.”

        Although that premise, which you now say is false, was a premise you yourself recently endorsed: “I know it seems harsh and callous to say so, but I am not willing to give up on ethics—the belief that enough of us can do the right things even when we have the freedom to do the wrong things—to prevent the occasional school massacre or murder-suicide.” in the context of the post, it was clear that the primary freedom you were addressing was the freedom to misuse guns. The post even had the title ‘The Inconvenient Truth About The Second Amendment and Freedom: The Deaths Are Worth It.”

        Why is it ethical for you to say that we have to make a choice between abolishing guns or school massacres, but unethical for people you disagree with to say the same thing?

        But – going back to the point – the premise of the cartoon was not “its kids or guns.” The premise is that some Americans reacted to the shootings by clutching their kids protectively, while others reacted by clutching their guns protectively.

        Your other complaint is that this cartoon is insufficiently nuanced, because some people clutched both their guns and their children. To that I’d say, short political cartoons are almost never nuanced, and can’t reasonably be expected to be nuanced. There’s a difference between a one-panel cartoon and an essay.

        • The premise is that some Americans reacted to the shootings by clutching their kids protectively, while others reacted by clutching their children protectively.

          Aaargh! Obviously, that sentence should have ended “clutching their guns protectively.”

        • 1. I did edit it. I thought I could beat you to it. You’re quick.

          2. Saying that eliminating core freedoms is not a reasonable price to pay to prevent the occasional Sandy Hook is not the equivalent of “it’s guns or children!” at all. If guns were an immediate and realistic threat to eliminate ALL children, then it would really be “choose one or the other,” and yes, I’d choose to ban guns, given that choice. But that’s not the choice….it’s just the way anti-gun zealots are presenting it to gain maximum emotional traction with the hysteria-motivated citizen…”you know, morons.” . I said, and believe, that core freedoms are worth preserving at the cost of some inevitable loss of life resulting from the predictable abuse of those freedoms.

    • A pile of paper would be too hard for readers to interpret. My recommendation, if you want to add a left-winger reacting inappropriately, is to show a person protectively clinging to an anti-gun protest sign (the protest sign can be entirely visual, like a circle with a cross through it over a handgun).

  7. I see it as two opposites. A parent holding a human life close then someone holding their assault rifle close. In other words one cherishing human life over assault rifles and the other the opposite. If you look at the cartoon to the right he’s holding an assault gun. There has been a furious flurry of people buying and protecting assault rifles. Many acts of gun violence these days involve people suddenly attacking with automatic weapons ( hand guns and rifles but mostly hand guns ). When a sudden attack happens you don’t have a chance to grab a gun of your own. Not every act of gun violence involves someone saying ” stick em up” or otherwise there being a chance of you shooting the criminal first. Not to mention that even if there is time having such an experience is very traumatic. Ever had a gun pointed at you? It’s terrifying. The more automatic guns that are available on the market ( shows and shops ) the better chance there is of one of them ending up in wrong hands. Not every insane person or criminal is going to know how to make a gun into an automatic one or know where they can find one outside of shows and shops. Especially the dangerously mentally ill who can’t think straight or rational enough to know where to turn next. I don’t believe the cartoon is saying that women are more caring or that all gun owners care more about guns than people. It’s showing what has been an obvious over reaction to proposed gun laws and background checks by people panicking and going out and buying assault guns. Think about it the next time you watch a movie or TV show where someone is firing off a multitude of bullets. Such as with an assault rifle. Do you really think, in real life you’d stand a chance of defending yourself with one? Do you honestly think the answer is to lug around an assault rifle looking over your shoulder in case someone is nearby waiting to gun you down? And how do you know, if you do see someone with a rifle of their own that they’re not a law abiding citizen too? Trust me, if you ever, in real life heard a spray of bullets where your life is in danger you’ll be too busy running for cover. Everyone has a right to bear arms but use common sense. Is walking around with an AK-47 or a semi automatic handgun with so much firepower the answer? Is being fearful all the time the way you want to live your life? If a gun so powerful as an AK-47 has to be locked away in a safe in your home then what good would it be to you if someone suddenly broke into your home ? If it’s tucked away then you’d have to scramble to get it out of the safe for protection. However, the one breaking in could overtake you and find your weapons themselves. It’s kind of scary to think that people enjoy the power behind these guns so much that they don’t think before buying.

    • I’m sorry, but I don’t see what this has to do with the cartoon, gun control or SEMI-automatic weapons, and there are too many contradiction on your post to count. Who is being fearful? Are you arguing for open carry laws? So guns are handy? Are you arguing against securing guns, or against securing guns so securely that they are useless?

      People use guns of their own to protect themselves all the time. There is also a deterrent factor—someone who knows it is likely that they will face armed opposition is less likely to attack.

      The cartoon clearly sets up a false and dishonest dichotomy: it’s kids’ safety or guns, America, take your pick, with the good gentle mothers choosing the kiddies and the bad, violent men choosing the guns. Both are intentional and biased misrepresentations.

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