Friday, October 19, 2012

'Etc.' Is No Jonathan Swift - How the Wildcat Cartoonist's Attempt At Satire Fell Flat

TRIGGER WARNING: The following post concerns a comic that discusses the murder of a person for their sexual orientation. I do not condone the content of this comic, or the decision of the newspaper to publish it. If you feel that this may be triggering to you or make you feel unsafe, please feel free to stop reading at any point. Thank you!

Etc. comic strip of a father threatening to murder his son if he is gay.
The original comic, as published in the Arizona Daily Wildcat on Wednesday, October 17th, 2012.

I posted about this comic originally on my personal Facebook. Highly violent and generally offensive, I saw it as an attempt at dark satirical humor gone wrong. I am not the only person who didn't 'get' the joke -- almost immediately, this comic, published in a student-run newspaper, caused outcry among students and the broader Tucson community.

One of my friends posted a response to my post, in which he challenged the description of this comic as homophobic or bigoted, pointing to the author's likely intention to take something serious and make a joke of it in order to provoke real discussion of the issue. He agreed that it shouldn't have been published, but questioned the perceived status of this topic as "off-limits" to humor.

I agree with my friend to a certain extent. I certainly agree that the cartoonist's intention was not consciously coming from a homophobic place -- certainly, I would be surprised to find that this piece was conceived as anything but satire. The cartoonist, a student named D.C. Parsons, issued an apology statement that backs up this theory.

So what's the big problem with a little satire? Dark humor has been and continues to be used as both a coping mechanism and a force for shifting social norms and assumptions. Remember Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," where its suggestion of eating babies providing a vehicle for the discussion of Irish poverty -- though a similar level of violent imagery is present, no one claims that Jonathan Swift hated the Irish.

The difference between the two, as I see it, begins with the problem of this comic falling too close to reality. As much is said by the Wildcat's Editor-In-Chief, who published an eloquent and heartfelt apology, saying:
"Readers are hurt and outraged. They should be. Tuesday’s cartoon was disgusting. Perhaps it was a lousy attempt at satire by a college student who shouldn't be doing satire. He clearly doesn't understand the issue he aimed to satirize. 
It isn't an over the top satirical approach (which is what I’m to understand was supposed to be his intention) because the situation depicted in the cartoon actually happens in real life."
Swift's satire succeeds because no one would consider eating babies a reasonable course of action. Killing someone for their sexual orientation, however, is something that really happens, all the time, all over the world - and there are people who believe that it is an acceptable action, even the right thing to do. There are closeted individuals who stay that way because they live in fear of exactly this thing happening --- and although I have never had the experience of being hated for who I love, I have no doubt that this comic could be quite triggering for survivors of this kind of hatred.

The second problem with this comic, in my mind, is not so much that the father is not punished for espousing such a viewpoint (after all, villains regularly defeat the heroes in real life; there is not need for every fictional story to have a happy ending), but I feel that the cartoonist made the mistake of taking his personal coping mechanism public. I am no stranger to dark, cynical humor, nor have I shied away from controversial, tongue-in-cheek statements when I am among friends. The difference, in my case, is that I have kept such statements within a sphere where I know the backgrounds and beliefs of the individuals I am speaking with. Similarly, they know that when I say, 'Uppity women should stop flaunting their hussy vagina issues all over the place, get back in the kitchen and bake me a pie,' I am speaking ironically, and come to my statement as a dedicated feminist and advocate for equality. With the Etc. strip, D.C. Parsons appears to have been aiming for a similar ironic tone, stating,
"It was based on an experience from my childhood. My father is a devout conservative from a previous generation, and I believe he was simply distraught from the fact that I had learned (from “The Simpsons”) what homosexuality was at such a young age.  
I have always used humor as a coping mechanism, much like society does when addressing social taboos. I do not condone these things; I simply don’t ignore them. I do sincerely apologize and sympathize with anyone who may be offended by my comics [...], but keep in mind it is only a joke, and what’s worse than a joke is a society that selectively ignores its problems." 
I appreciate Parsons' call to action, that it is necessary for us as a society to address all of our problems, not just sweep the controversial ones under the rug, and I believe him when he says the comic "was not intended to offend." Apologies and explanations aside, he missed his mark when he mistook his audience -- this is a newspaper that is available campus-wide, as well as online. He was not speaking to a group of peers who hold similar negative perspectives on the horrendous nature of hate crimes. As Devon Moule wrote in his letter to the Daily Wildcat,
"[F]or every person who laughed at that comic yesterday, there are hundreds more who have just been shoved right back into the closet. Because for every small chortle that escaped the lips of a University student yesterday, hundreds more students felt the icy grip of intolerance and bigotry wrapped around their throats."
There were probably plenty of people who laughed at this comic not out a sense of hilarity for the scenario presented, but out of discomfort or cynicism, the "hehe" of being confronted with an ugly truth - and I believe that that was the cartoonist's target audience. Unfortunately, it was also laughed at by the bullies who espouse such beliefs, and felt their acts legitimized through humor. Most damningly, this comic added its voice to all those who deny victims of oppression a sense of legitimacy surrounding their experience, by presenting something as humorous which is far from being funny. This is a microagression, a small moment or act where someone from a place of privilege acts in a way that creates an environment of oppression for someone else. To learn more about microagressions, check out the Microagression Project -- it's a great idea for a way to confront an endemic social problem.

One final note: Jimmy Boegle, a writer at the Tucson Weekly, published an opinion piece calling for temperance in the outcry over the comic. While I disagree with some of his argument, I think his core message of moderation in judging the Wildcat and D.C. Parsons is a fair one. People make mistakes -- and people need to be allowed to apologize for them, grow, and move on. As I said earlier, I have certainly made statements that could be considered offensive to someone in the name of making a joke, and I have justified my actions based on the context surrounding them. However, perhaps I am wrong to make such a self-righteous assumption -- and after watching the fallout surrounding the Etc. comic, I know I will be thinking hard about what narratives I approach with humor in the future. I hope that D.C. Parsons, the Daily Wildcat, and all the members of the community who have been affected by the publishing of this comic strip will do the same.

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