The above cartoon is the work of Michael Leunig, an Australian cartoonist of some note. Apparently the drawing got him into serious trouble with the social media and political correctness mobs Down Under. Color me completely bewildered, mate.
I have always regarded Australia as a having an admirably rough, honest, brutally independent and common sense-based culture. Apparently I’m missing something; maybe one of Ethics Alarms’ Australian readers can explain what. (There have been about 24,000 views of the blog there so far this year; Australia is the second largest source of Ethics Alarms readers outside the U.S., after Canada.)
Because of the cartoon, Leunig, who has been creating cartoons professionally to express political and social commentary for half a century, is being threatened with cultural “cancellation.” He writes in part that the drawing has “brought so much hostile public reaction that I began to lie awake at night wondering why I had followed such a troubled, painful and precarious career path….
…[To]be so hated, insulted, slandered in the public domain for this – as I was – is indeed a dismal fate for the lone cartoonist. It speaks volumes about the current condition of civil society and tolerance. This is bigotry. The malice has been astounding and so extreme that it has plunged me into a deep contemplation about the nature of angry hatred. Indeed, I am coming to the view that there is an emerging new form of hatred in society which might be more of a mental illness than a passing emotion. Perhaps I would call it “free-floating, obsessive compulsive hatred”.
His son wrote of the effect on the cartoonist’s family:
Early in the morning I switch on ABC breakfast radio and listen to the co-hosts debating the cartoon. Of course it’s a more intelligent and nuanced discussion than what is playing out online. One of the hosts happens to be an old friend of mine who disagrees with the cartoon. …my aunty Mary, also a cartoonist, is interviewed … Mary and Michael no longer talk. She has drawn a cartoon of herself killing him that is now being lauded and shared across social media….
By lunchtime the orgy of hate steps up a notch on Twitter. I’ve grown used to reading comments like this directed at my father over the years…However, when it gets into threatening territory – “I hope Leunig dies a slow and painful death” or “If I had the chance I would burn Michael Leunig alive”– it does start to affect you after a while. Yes, I shouldn’t look at it (and won’t in the future) but sometimes it’s hard to escape.
On Facebook I see friends debating not only the cartoon but offer up their opinion on my father as a person. Some of them have never told me personally how much they detest him but are comfortable making it known online. This is a consequence of public life. No matter what sort of relationship one might have with their parents it’s a bizarre thing watching, listening and reading so many disdainful opinions about them.
What’s going on here? I have no idea. I feel like I’m living in an alternate universe.
There is nothing wrong with that cartoon. I’m not saying that I personally am not offended by the cartoon, I am saying, with the unseemly and annoying certitude that regular readers know so well, that it is an excellent, amusing and inoffensive cartoon that the cartoonist and his family should not have to defend, and that those trying to “cancel” him because of it are completely, inarguably, in the wrong as well as badly confused about right and wrong, humor, humanity, modern culture, and probably many other things as well.
I hope I make myself clear.
I got Leunig’s message immediately; it is one that I have discussed on Ethics Alarms. In his words,
In the offending cartoon I drew a mother with her eyes glued to a phone and wheeling a pram from which her baby had fallen completely unnoticed. The child lies abandoned on the footpath behind mother, wishing that he was as interesting as her phone. Black humour indeed but making a worthy point about the perils and disasters of the phone addiction which is spreading across the world like a plague.
A newspaper cartoonist can be something of a natural anthropologist; a keen observer of society with a sense of impending cultural change and its possible tragedies. Like many others I had been noticing with sadness the growing number of parents lost in their phone screens while wheeling babies in prams through busy streets. Heaven only knows what goes on in the home. Negligence caused by distraction is the issue. The roads are becoming deadlier because of it, and God only knows what other failures and disasters are being caused by phone addiction.
I drew a mother not out of misogyny but because of my lifelong special interest in the mother-infant relationship and all that is at stake in that early connection. For many years I have pored over the marvellous works of Donald Winnicott, the great English paediatrician and psychoanalyst, who gave us the idea of the “good enough mother” and identified and described in much detail what he called the “primary maternal preoccupation”. This refers to the natural deeply attuned attention that in most cases a mother gives to the baby which has just emerged from her womb – and all the vital developmental facilitation that is set up in the child through this deep connection at the start of life.
To paraphrase Winnicott: the attentive loving eye contact made by mother with the baby is crucial in the child’s developmental process. It is this sustained meeting of eyes between mother and infant which activates the development of the baby’s sense of a secure self. The baby needs to be seen; it needs to be held in the mother’s gaze as well as the mother’s arms. What the father can do best at this point is to protect and nourish the flourishing of this early mother-child connection.
All of my life I have been fascinated by the talk of mothers, grandmothers, aunties, sisters, spouses and offspring about this ancient business of mothering, where we all began. In ordinary homes and around kitchen tables I was witness to a lot of this passionate conversation about the best way to care for a baby and raise a child. It is one of the great eternally interesting topics for discussion, and what is at stake makes it more important than most political debates could ever be.
Leunig really has to explain this to his fellow Australians? What’s the matter with them? I’ve made the same point on Ethics Alarms, not only about parents ignoring their babies and children because of their addiction to cell phones, but criticizing my neighbors in Alexandria for similarly neglecting their dogs, who also require contact and attention when they get a chance to go on a walk with their beloved masters.
Is guilt driving the attacks on Michael Leunig? Is that it? They are punishing a truth-teller for using satire and humor to hold a mirror up to their faces like satirists and social commentators are supposed to do? If that cartoon sparks such anger, what would these people have done to Swift, Voltaire, Gilbert, Shaw, Parker, Wodehouse, Vidal, or even Dave Barry?
The cartoonist was spot-on, right, deft and effective. His critics and would-be agents of his cancellation are wrong, and their treatment of him is demented, cruel and irrational.
Unless I’m missing something.
I can’t imagine what it would be.
Pointer: Mark Metcalf