Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Satire on Religion

Cartoon on Palin offends Pentecostals

The Washington Post cartoonist Pat Oliphant received some serious flak from the Pentecostals for his sketch on Sarah Palin’s faith. According to the WP ombudsman herself : “Speaking of overdoing it, a political cartoon by Pat Oliphant that appeared on Wednesday prompted complaints from about 350 readers who said he lampooned their faith.”

Dr. George O. Wood, General Superintendent for ‘The General Council of the Assemblies of God’ was one to express his outrage: "The cartoon is despicable. Millions of Christians today follow the example of first century Christians who prayed in other tongues. The Washington Post would not think of printing a cartoon that mocked members of the Muslim or Jewish faiths. It should be ashamed.”

Which brings us to the question, when it comes to religious satire, where should we draw the line? Do we exclude cartoons that are openly critical of ‘people of faith’? Should we exclude those that will potentially incite violent and negative reactions? Should we exclude those that would offend a majority of readers - the religious majority? (Should we prove Chomsky’s ‘flak’ filter?)

William Thrall in ‘A Handbook to Literature’ defines satire as a literary manner which blends a critical attitude with humor and wit to the end that human institutions or humanity may be improved. The true satirist is conscious of the frailty of institutions of man's devising and attempts through laughter not so much to tear them down as to inspire a remodeling.”

According to On the Media, New Atheists have taken on the remodeling task. Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, calls for less moderation. “Because moderates insist that we respect their religious faith, we can't criticize the role that religious faith is playing in dividing people.”

Austin Cline’s Atheism blog on claims that “it's arguable that by singling out satire and sarcasm for special objection, people are effectively admitting that such methods can do more than ‘sober’ and ‘serious’ critiques to poke holes in their favored beliefs. If that's the case then the truth is that we need far more of them, not less.” The humor under attack is “the sort of humor which is designed to challenge the powerful and the privileged by denying them the sort of deference or respect which helps reinforce their authority.” Films like Maher’s ‘Religulous’ are a “chance to laugh about the thing that we hold very sacred and that, in a way, remains a taboo in our society to question.” Sam Harris hopes, “maybe we’ll just have people making jokes that are funny enough and true enough, so as to put religious certainty in a bad light.”

With the ever dwindling separation of church and state and the undeniable role of religion in political campaigning, religion and God (or Bob, as hailed by the Church of SubGenius) are not so much a personal choice but a human institute deserving of scrutiny. Logic and science do not fare well against faith and belief. Religion is too taboo a subject for debate in many social circles. Humor is a powerful weapon, not just for non-believers but for those looking to critique the status quo. Satire is not intended to please everyone - religious satire can be held to the same standard as political, economic or social satire. And here’s the controversial bit of my argument: When in doubt, better to err on the side of controversy than on the side of nothing at all. (Ironically, when picking links to examples of offensive cartoons, these were not my first choice. My original picks may have been too offensive.)


Abe Fried-Tanzer said...

Cartoons have an incredible power to suggest and incite, and I think your extensive analysis is very thorough and convincing. Your final point, however, confuses me a bit. You say that it's better to err on the side of controversy rather than safety, but then point out that you censored yourself so that you wouldn't risk offending your audience. While that's certainly a concern, and you don't want a random Internet surfer coming after you for citing an inflammatory cartoon, you're contradicting yourself. Additionally, the mere citation of a cartoon shouldn't come across as too offensive. You're using them as analysis, and not necessarily saying that they're positive or that you support them, but rather that they're fodder for your analysis. I think your points are strong, but by admitting that you stopped yourself from using evidence because you feared it might be too controversial suggests that perhaps it's better to err on the safe side.

Keith Olsen said...


I agree with Abe.

I think that by trying to prove your overall point (don't censor to appease) you actually disproved your thesis with your last paragraph. Your argument was well-reasoned and supported by different types of evidence (books, film, articles). But once you trailed off about your preference to stir controversy rathern than be safe and then say the original cartoons you found were, in essence, too provocative, you lost me.

I'd lose the last graf and I think then you'd have a really strong argument.

Joseph Coscarelli said...

Not to bandwagon, but I have to echo our classmates in saying that your final parenthetical, while ironic, only undermines your argument. If not on a class blog, where we all respect one another's intellects and know everyone to be far from bigots, then where would this "controversy" fly? I'd love to see your more antagonistic choices.

That said, I especially loved this quote in your piece:
"it's arguable that by singling out satire and sarcasm for special objection, people are effectively admitting that such methods can do more than ‘sober’ and ‘serious’ critiques to poke holes in their favored beliefs. If that's the case then the truth is that we need far more of them, not less."


Rhea Anklesaria said...

I think my final statement was an acknowledgment that while its easy to accuse the news media of spinelessness, it is much easier said than done. And unfortunately, I suffer from the same unwillingness to antagonize readers as I suspect most reporters do. (Although they may well have more economically based reasons.)

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think Palin is done. I consider her old news and should never represent or associate with Christianity in general(just saying).

When it comes to humor and satire, we often poke fun at ourselves and what's "familiar" to us(namely our own people, the majority). We joke about "our" politics, "our" politicians, the stereotypes, Britney Spears and whatever's close to home..We play off the familiar and generalized image/public persona. So we get jokes like Christians speaking in tongues, Jews being stingy, Chinese and Indians being cheaper. For more, click Russell Peters here

What we need to answer here is whether or not the Christian population is "familiar" enough for criticism and satire..

Secondly, you can bet that comedians aren't going to censor themselves for making these racially driven jokes. Well..except for when that Michael Richards (guy who played Kramer) said the 'N' word at the Laugh Factory.

But the cartoon on WP was supposed to be comedic right? Censor the WP when we censor comedians!

And finally, when are we ever politically correct nowadays? I really think you should post some of the other cartoons on here because we too should be able to decide what's "too offensive." You won't be criticized for it, I'm sure.

Everything can be offensive.
Printing a photograph on the NYT of a dead Japanese journalist is offensive to me because I felt a sense of exploitation. Others may differ on that view...again, we can't please every reader.

Will Marshall said...

Very interesting points. You ask lots of great questions, I wish you would have answered more of them! Your central question though, is the most important: “When it comes to religious satire, where should we draw the line? Do we exclude cartoons that are openly critical of ‘people of faith’?”

The definition you included of satire from “A Handbook to Literature” goes a long way in answering this. I agree with Thrall’s point that satire shouldn’t just tear down, but inspire a remodeling. It should be constructive criticism, so to speak. I think this also speaks to why religious satire is so touchy. While everyone knows that politics need remodeling (Obama, after all, ran on the platform of change), religion is not the type of thing that can be overhauled. Dogma is not open to interpretation and the whole idea behind tradition is continuity. So, when someone draws up a satirical cartoon targeting religion, people of faith are unlikely to accept an outsider’s evaluation as constructive.

However, I don’t think that should stop artists from satirizing religion. If honest discussion about taboo subjects like religion and race are impossible to discuss sincerely, I’d rather people get pissed off at cartoons and discuss WHY they are offensive than not speak about these touchy subjects at all. I agree with your strategy: err on the side of controversy.

Audrey Tran said...

Great topic, Rhea: politics, religion, and humor all rolled into one post. Only, I wish you had mentioned the blogosphere as part of this equation too.

Pat Oliphant’s cartoon appeared on a WP blog, not in their paper and this should have opened the WP community to more controversial, touchy subjects, only it didn’t (the 750 angry commentors evidence that).

Like Joe said, the class blog is truly the site where we shouldn’t fear sensitive discussions and I think his comment applies to all other blog species as well.

Howell says in a later column,

“The online world is different. Syndicated cartoons are not chosen at; they are posted through an automatic feed,”


What cannot appear on the Op-ed page may be voiced on the Web, thank God.

Lastly, Will’s words regarding why religion is not the sort of institution that can be overhauled easily explains why Oliphant’s image angered so many people. I wonder though, would an insider have been more successful? I’m not sure I know of such cartoonists.

M. Dery said...

Pardon my groupthink, but agree with the consensus, here, that your last paragraph knocks the props from under your earlier argument that one should err on the side of controversy. That said, deft---and funny!---use of supporting and/or illustrative links. Some questions you might have wrestled with: in our Age of Unreason, when the fundamentalist rabble responds to satirical cartoons with fatwahs and firebombs, should journalists (ARE political cartoonists a species of op-ed writer, do you think?) and publishers think twice, then think again about erring on the side of controversy? The Danes rode into battle with the flag of free speech as their standard, and look what it cost them. As for the limits of religious satire, my godless secularism must blind me to the need for special pleading on religious's behalf. Why should this cow be more sacred than any other? The religiosity of the American people is irrelevant, I'd argue. Should journalists or editorialists cut the cloth of their opinions to the sensibilities of their readers? Then again, as you note, there is the little matter of flak; enrage your readership chronically, and they may carve your financial epitaph with their canceled subscriptions.

Paul said...

It's a joke. Don't get so defensive over someone's right to free speech.

Stacy said...

hi friends
religion has always been a topic of conversation in society, like generic viagra ... there that this is taken as the subject of many satires used for entertainment

Anonymous said...

Heh, that's pretty funny.