WHEN is it acceptable to print cartoons that attack people by portraying them as animals? Not loveable, appealing animals, but ugly and gross ones.
Even worse if, as in this case, the animal chosen has a special significance in the cultural heritage of the person being caricatured. Someone who happens to be an Asian woman with a Hindu background.
She has been drawn as a bull. Cattle are of course sacred in Hinduism. Whether or not the cartoon’s subject felt any particular sense of cultural offence at being given horns and a ring through her nose, it’s certainly not a nice picture.
Although you can accept that free speech demands we allow such work, you might still find it rather nasty. More than a harmless and allowable lampoon; needlessly disrespectful of its subject’s religious and cultural background; even racist or misogynist.
Perhaps it’s not that important an issue. Far worse things happen to people than to have insensitive and unflattering cartoons drawn of them. But you might expect the defenders of wokeness at, for example, the Guardian newspaper to be howling their disgust and calling for sackings, apologies and reparations that an Asian woman had been shown in this way.
But that’s not happening in this instance as the cartoon is of Home Secretary Priti Patel. It appeared in the Guardian itself, drawn by its house cartoonist Steve Bell.
You can bet that if a cartoon had appeared in the Daily Mail, perhaps taking off Diane Abbott or Dawn Butler, showing a similar insensitivity to their respective backgrounds, there would be protests and comment pieces denouncing Right-wing racism. But it seems that to the Guardian, anyone who happens to be a Tory is fair game.
I’m neither surprised nor especially bothered that the Guardian published this crass and unfunny cartoon. There’s no need to call for smelling salts or to find some moral high ground to stand on. Offence culture has already gone far enough without needing my support.
It’s hardly a shock if the Guardian publishes a tasteless, unfunny cartoon. The issue here is hypocrisy. If, like the Guardian, you’re happy to preach sermons on race, ethnicity and gender; on the demonisation of the ‘other,’ then you need to show some decent standards yourself. Starting with basic civility to your political opponents.
Once, a very long time ago, I used to think Steve Bell was talented, funny and full of satirical bite. In my defence, this was in the 1980s and I was about 15 or 16. My levels of judgment and sophistication were what you might expect from a boy of that age.
But that was then and, although this might just be a question of taste, I don’t think Mr Bell has been funny for a very long time. His technique seems to be simply drawing the most grotesque caricatures of people possible, linked to an action or wording that’s boiled down to the very crudest parody of their words or beliefs. Technically, I suppose it’s satire, but it lacks anything that normally makes satire funny.
You won’t find much subtlety, charm, wit or many novel takes on complex problems in Mr Bell’s work. Although to Guardian readers he is doubtless ideologically sound – and that’s probably more important than actually making you smile. But judge for yourself. You’ll find him in the Guardian often enough and there are plenty of examples on Google images.
Mr Bell has also attracted quite bit of attention for his take on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. He has been accused of anti-Semitism, something he firmly denies. One of his cartoons which created controversy was said by some to carry echoes of the horrible trope, beloved by crazed conspiracy-theorists, that the Jews are puppet masters, diabolically manipulating politicians to control the world. Again, you can judge for yourself here.
He drew another cartoon which showed Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu happily sitting by a fire in which a Muslim woman burned. Whatever his intentions, it’s perhaps not much of a jump from such a picture to images of Auschwitz’s ovens. Delicacy does not seem to be Mr Bell’s greatest strength.
Back to Ms Patel. It’s too early to say if she will prove to be a good Home Secretary, though if she’s managed to make the Guardian dislike her so much, she has made a good start.
I would imagine that she wouldn’t be too upset by the cartoon. She doesn’t strike me as a snowflake and it would be surprising if she suffered any dents from Mr Bell’s efforts. But to characterise her in the way he did is deeply unpleasant. He should be free to express himself as he wishes, but we can still point out how nasty his work is and call shame on the Guardian for choosing to print something a decent newspaper should be embarrassed by.