I was going to make this an Ethics Quiz, but category that can’t quite encompass the issues involved, and the more I considered it, the more certain I became of what should have happened. Here is the story:
A student-drawn cartoon was published last month in the La Jolla High School’s “Hi-Tide” newspaper. It depicted eight ethnic groups in a blatantly stereotypical manner ( which is to say, it was a cartoon), with each figure pictured wearing T-shirts with messages reinforcing the stereotypes. The cartoonist’s purpose was to lampoon the controversial H&M ad that caused the company to pull the ad and apologize:
Here was the student’s cartoon…
The requisite number of sensitive students and /or their sensitive parents complained about the cartoon to compel the school principal to grovel an apology, saying that the decision to publish the cartoon was an “error in judgment and a breach of all the values we hold dear at La Jolla High School,” since the cartoon depicted multiple ethnic groups as “ugly racial stereotypes.”
1 The cartoon, in context, is intelligent satire and makes a valid point about the T-shirt as and how it would appear for other ethnic groups to see a representative wearing a shirt with a message that referred to or appeared to refer to a denigrating stereotype of their groups.
2. In that context, there is nothing offensive about it, except in the same sense that the Princeton professor was deemed offensive in the episode covered by this post. It falls underf the Niggardly Principles: something that is not intended to offend nor done with offensive motives is found offensive by individuals who either misunderstand the actual message or deliberately looking to be offended.
3. Perhaps I need to add “The Jehovah Paradox” to Ethics Alarms concepts: when one must clearly or graphically reference something offensive in order to explain why it is offensive (or not), thereby risking being accused of the same offense that one is trying to analyze.
4. If the cartoon was not accompanied by a caption that explained the context, it was botched. That’s OK: it’s a school paper, the cartoonist is a kid. Nonetheless, that’s one reason why the drawing didn’t work. (I suspect it would have been attacked anyway.) Where was the faculty supervisor for the paper? That was his or her job: to protect the student and the paper.
5. Should such an edgy cartoon be deemed appropriate fare in a school paper? Sure, in a sane culture with competent educators…in other words, no.
6. Is it an edgy cartoon? How different is that drawing of stereotypes from these, from the longest running comedy on television?
Well, those are drawn a little better, but the intent is benign in both cases, and the message is the same: everyone’s ethnic group, or group of any kind, can be spoofed…and I hold with the attitudes of vaudevillians and comic past—should be spoofed. You know, my mother found the old SNL skits about the Greek diner funny.
7. It is terrible—cowardly, unfair, irresponsible and wrong— that the school principal tarred a kid with breaching the school’s values when at worst, the fault lay with his faculty.
8. The episode could have and should have been used as a teaching opportunity, clarifying the cartoonist’s message , exploring the complex issues the drawing raised, discussing satire and its uses, and reaching beyond knee-jerk “I’m offended!” complaints.
But that would have required bold and competent educators with courage and imagination.
Pointer: Andrew Myette