This essay discusses the philosophy of humour and representation behind our cartoons. It examines the legal and philosophical concepts of freedom of expression, the essence of good humour, the right not to be offended, hate speech, discrimination and harassment, images and representation and concludes on the meaning of our political cartoons.
Freedom of Expression
Subs. 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication,” subject “to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” under s. 1 of the Charter.
A healthy sign of a “free and democratic society” when it comes to freedom of expression is the ability to speak truth to power, as opposed to nonsense to anyone.
The Essence of Good Humour
Philosophers, comedians and scientists have long contemplated the essence of humour. According to Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) and George Carlin, the essence of humour is exaggeration. They also agree that truth is essential to comedy, as there is always something true about a good gag, be it a true setup or punchline.
Plato, however, believes humour consists of the superior making fun of the inferior. An example is when Socrates rhetorically asks a student of rhetoric if the latter’s laughter at Socrates’ argument is supposed to be some new way of proof (see Gorgias). Plato’s theory, at any rate, holds in the case of pratfall humour, vengeance humour, lampoon and satire, which are clearly examples of the superior making fun of the inferior, and may thus be called ‘bad humour.’
Whereas bad humour puts people down for the mere sake of putting them down or laughs at their foolishness or misery, good humour does the opposite. It brings truth to light for a good purpose, which is to bring it to power.
In short, we believe the essence of good humour is a true exaggeration of stupidity that takes itself or wants others to take it seriously (i.e., falsehood that pretends to be true), which combines the theories that humour is found in truth, exaggeration and superiority (namely that of truth over falsehood).
The Right not to be Offended
The common law doesn’t recognize a right not to be offended. In Langille v McGrath  AN-B, no 488, 233 RN-B (2e) 29 (BR) the court determined that mere words don’t constitute assault unless there’s reason to believe they represent a real threat. Nor do mere words constitute defamation unless the statement is untrue and causes the victim loss of business or reputation.
In short, the common law favours the development of ‘thick skin’ according to the proverb: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me,” even though this technically contradicts the ‘thin skull’ rule and courts’ awards of general damages for psychological trauma. It also contradicts the common law’s history of allowing, and even encouraging, duels between offended gentlemen. In fact, the last duel in Canada occurred in 1833, in Perth, between John Wilson and Robert Lyon, who were both law students.
In any case, the law is the law.
S. 319 of the Criminal Code defines public incitement of hatred and willful promotion of hatred (aka ‘hate speech’) as consisting of the following attributes:
- public speech
- against a specific group of people
- that will likely disturb the peace
unless the person accused of hate speech can show that:
- the statements are true or they reasonably believe(d) they are true
- they sincerely argued an opinion based on a religious text or belief
- their statements are relevant to the public interest
- they sincerely meant to censor material that inspired hatred of a specific group of people
The key is not to maliciously target a certain group of people and disturb the peace (which is a serious consequence) with words or other media.
This has given rise to people like Charlie Hebdo who declare themselves equal opportunity haters (EOH), which isn’t a defence to hate speech but a confession of guilt.
Discrimination and Harassment
Discrimination and harassment are grouped together in this discussion because they are not crimes or torts but human rights violations according to the Ontario Human Rights Act. Human rights violations are heard in separate human rights tribunals, which are not courts of law.
The Human Rights Commission defines harassment as unwanted speech or action that causes offence or humiliation and is a form of discrimination. The Human Rights Act defines discrimination as denial of equal opportunity or accommodation based on enumerated grounds in subs. 3(1).
Discrimination and harassment are the two allegations most likely to confront freedom of expression, especially in the form of political cartoons. Unlike assault, defamation and hate speech, discrimination and harassment have no concern for the truth or public interest underlying the expression. Their only concern is with the feelings of offence or humiliation reported by the complainant.
We believe the common law approach is the correct one in regard to freedom of expression and that the human rights approach–which ignores the truth, public interest and the need for thick skin–is fundamentally deficient and easy to abuse.
Images and Representation
For instance, biblical law (Sharia and Halakha) traditionally forbids the representation of living things other than plants and minerals, although it is preferable that even these should be symbolically portrayed if at all. Two main reasons for this are, firstly, because images are associated with falsehood, since they are never exact representations of the things they depict. Second is because of their frequent misuse, for instance, for idolatry, propaganda and pornography, which all fetishize their subjects as objects.
The benchmark of this analysis is accurate representation, which is impossible through images. As a result, it would seem that biblical jurisprudence is correct: imaginal representations are inherently unjust and therefore unjustified.
Should the use of images, then, be banned from the sage’s arsenal? We don’t think so. Our philosophy is similar to Socrates’ who concluded in the Gorgias that while rhetoric (like images) is falsehood, it can be a useful device in the service of truth.
We agree with Whyte that “When it becomes degrading to a population, [. . .] that’s where you should draw the line.”
Our philosophy of humour and representation may be summarized thus. Our theory is that good humour is a true exaggeration of falsehood that is meant to speak truth to power in a powerful way and thereby empower truth. This translates directly into our method of designing political cartoons and their proper critique and interpretation, which consists of asking the following questions:
- What falsehood is being represented?
- What truth is being represented?
- Is the represented falsehood actually false?
- Is the represented truth actually true?
The answers to these questions are objective. Of course, the representation or exaggeration–the ‘comedic twist’ which is the substance of the humour–is subjective and carries little to no truth-value. The ‘comedic twist’ may be compared to three methods of proof in science and logic, namely:
- reductio ad absurdum (which is rhetorically equivalent to ridicule),
- proof by example (which is rhetorically equivalent to casuistry) or
- proof by induction (which is rhetorically equivalent to hyperbole).
A picture is worth a thousand words. Just because it looks funny doesn’t mean there isn’t a serious argument behind it. Our method of cartooning is a summary form of argument.
We hope that readers of our political cartoons read this essay instead of coming up with their own interpretations of our works. We can’t take responsibility for meanings people freely choose to give our works despite our explaining them clearly.