By Sean Carroll | January 27, 2006 11:19 am

Political humor is always a tricky business; taking a strong stand tends to annoy more than half of your potential audience rather than make them laugh, while wishy-washy moderation just isn’t that funny. This post at Joe’s Dartblog pops open the hood on an editorial cartoon and looks inside, showing something we don’t usually get to see: three cartoons about a single topic, by the same artist, taking three different ideological perspectives (left, moderate, right). Even though I love political humor when it’s insightful and agrees with my predelictions, this exercise actually highlights the rhetorical limitations of the medium. A joke isn’t an argument, and the techniques of humor can be much more directly employed to bolster opinions that people already have than to make them see things in a new way. (Via the Volokh Conspiracy.)

  • Elliot


    I don’t think this exercise works at all. I think the artist was trying to do too much and therefore accomplished very little. I think that good political cartoons (both on the right or left) do tend to reinforce existing beliefs but if even if I disagree, if they are really good they at least make me think for a moment about the other viewpoint. At their best they are visceral momentary slices of truth.


  • Kristin

    I agree that the problem with political cartoons is that you can’t have too much nuance or complexity in them (at least, if they’re the single panel type like these are). If readers are to be able to “get” the cartoon immediately, the image will have to have a certain degree of familiarity already…which favors received ideas.

    But that’s the style that plays in the mainstream newspapers, which don’t want to offend anyone. I read Daryl Cagle’s cartoon weblog for a while a couple of years back and learned that the most anodyne cartoons are the most popular, like when a recently deceased famous person is depicted at the pearly gates of heaven.
    Anyway, this old-fashioned style of political cartooning is probably going the way of the dodo, between newspapers paring staff and better ways of communicating complex topics. Ted Rall edited a book titled Attitude: the New Subversive Political Cartoonists, and they all employ a multi-panel narrative form. (Ted Rall has explicitly railed against the old-fashioned Thomas Nast-style cartoons with elephants and donkeys and figures with labels written on them (as in the example above). Then again, he rails against a lot of things.) And you might already be familiar with Mark Fiore’s animated cartoons.

    I don’t know how many people are swayed to see a different perspective by political cartoons, though. Probably they are becoming increasingly window dressing for a paper’s known slant and not meant to ruffle any feathers, and you’ll have to go to the alternative press to find anything trenchant.

  • Plato

    It almost like “laughing” on realization of the comedian’s Joke. Of course, I do not think political ramifications are to be taken lightly.

    “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” You need a “left” or “right?” :)

    What is “the essence” of the observation. It is not always immediate sometimes but on further reflection….hmmmmm. Definitiely, an art form:)

  • Plato

    Let’s say your daydreaming while carrying on with the day’s events? :)

    Sean’s example, is more I think, a call to focus what is happening within society in the Americas. I could be wrong though.

  • Ryan

    Why is it that the first Dartmouth reference I’ve yet seen on CV (besides the phantom energy stuff) is a link to Joe Malchow’s insipid blog? I’m so ashamed…

  • Torbjorn Larsson

    Humor is a break with the expected. So it is also one of the few ways of making people see radically new ways. I believe one of the arguments for that is it so is that it’s usually frowned upon by dictators or, as Sean says, by a large part of the potential audience.

    It’s not an argument, but perhaps an inroad to making an argument from a perspective the audience didn’t acknowledge before.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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