Cartoons that make you think

01:22, May 31 2013

Should cartoonists be allowed to offend people? Discuss. 

As a talking point, Christchurch Press cartoonist Al Nisbet's efforts in The Press and the Marlborough Express this week have achieved more than Susan Devoy will manage in the next year. 

Our new Race Relations Commissioner chose Nisbet's "racist" cartoons lampooning the Government's food in schools policy as her first target upon taking office - a curious choice, given she was as silent as the grave the previous week when Winston Peters referred to Chinese immigration as the "Seven Deadly Sins'' of Auckland. 

Social media picked up the topic, politicians tut-tutted, outraged school principals climbed aboard on the evening news, Campbell Live was suitably (and predictably) horrified and by the end of the day Al Nisbet was hung, quartered, and - er - drawn, in the court of public opinion.

And for what? Depicting a bunch of people - Maori, Pacific Islanders, Pakeha and some kids with what looks like orange and yellow hair - as lazy, greedy bludgers who would rort the food in schools programme to save a few bucks.

It wasn't Al's funniest cartoon. It wasn't even particularly pointed. Even Al admitted on Radio Live with Duncan Garner yesterday afternoon that no one in their right mind would actually dress up as a school child just to score a free bowl of milk and Weet-Bix. 

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But it wasn't racist. 

Al's view - at least how he explained it to Duncan Garner - was that there are plenty of people in this country of all ethnicities who cry poor but actually aren't, at least not by world standards. "A lot of them are overweight and have wide-screen TVs,'' Al told Duncan. 

Tune in to talkback radio any day of the week and you'll hear similar sentiments, and a lot more besides. So why did Al Nisbet get it in the neck from everyone?

Part of it, I suspect, was timing. The food in schools programme was a new(ish) announcement. The Maori and Mana parties have been feeling a bit left out, and this topic gave them a fresh angle on the story. Plus, it was a quiet news day and the media loves a good race relations stoush.

But I reckon there was something else at play, too. A little bit of reverse racism, if we're going to start bandying around the phrase. Al Nisbet, the weedy, white South Islander depicting brown people in a less than flattering light. 

"Typical. Those cartoons would never have been published in a North Island newspaper,'' sneered one Twitter user who clearly did not hail from the Mainland. TV's coverage also had an air of North Island superiority complex about it - a condescending, white-guilt liberal, "I studied race relations at university"-ness that I found tough to swallow.

Kind of ironic, really, isn't it. Forming views about South Islanders based on the publication of a cartoon.

Funny how I never heard such a hue and cry over Bro'Town, with its cringing sterotypes of Pacifica people. But that was written by brown people who live in Auckland, right? So it's OK. Along with all of Billy T James' back catalogue. 

So if Al's cartoons weren't racist, were they offensive? Certainly they were. They offended many ethnic groups, plus beneficiaries and the elderly, I would imagine, given the old geezer in the background of one of Al's efforts. 

And for the record, I don't agree with Al Nisbet on food in schools. I think the programme is a fine idea. Neither do I think many people living in poverty have a wide-screen television. But that's not the point. 

Like Voltaire, I'll defend Al Nisbet's right to say what he thinks and a newspaper's right to publish it.

Those who call for Al Nisbet or the newspapers he works for to apologise for daring to offend people need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask themselves what kind of world we'd have if we had a press that provided only bland, inoffensive, easily digestible fare. Or simply hop on a plane to China or Fiji and find out for themselves.

In the many years I worked alongside Al he drew offensive cartoons by the score. He lampooned the rich and the powerful, the politicians, journalists, academics, and anyone else who took themselves too seriously. He once drew a cartoon of me that I found particularly offensive. 

Because it's a cartoonist's job to offend people. To needle, provoke, outrage, exasperate, annoy, and entertain. To make you think. 

And Al Nisbet has done just that. 

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