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posted: 12/1/2011 5:00 AM

Editorial cartoon is a savage worth taming

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Editorial cartoons are a dicey business.

The great Pat Oliphant described them as "inherently negative," and though many great examples could be summoned to contradict that generalization, there's no question that some of the best often rely on, again quoting Oliphant, a "certain amount of savagery."

They are built on generalization, and, like the caricatures their artists often employ, they aim to portray a truth by isolating and distorting its features. When you agree with the sentiment of a particular cartoon, it can generate a satisfied laugh in a way no other medium can -- endearing you to the artist and the newspaper. When you disagree, it can stir an equally powerful indignation -- stirring disgust for the artist and the newspaper.

So, for us, there's an inherent risk -- as with all presentation of opinion, of course -- of alienating a substantial portion of our readership with every "savage" drawing we publish. We address it, first, with a goal that bypasses persuasion. We aren't so much trying to make you think like us as to make you think.

From day to day, the editorial cartoons we offer represent the whole spectrum of viewpoints on topics in the news. We want to be endeared to you -- if endearment is the right notion -- not because you appreciate our point of view but because you appreciate being engaged, whether an idea enhances your own values or challenges them. In the process, we hope you'll recognize over time that if you see a given panel that stirs your outrage, you can expect also to enjoy soon that singular joy of a panel that perfectly summarizes your views on a particular subject.

This doesn't mean that we whitewash responsibility with the excuse of diversity and throw up any image, no matter how incendiary, how naive or how offensive. Indeed, assistant editorial page editor Colleen Thomas and I frequently challenge the naked brutality of prospective editorial cartoons. Our points of departure for discussion: Does the panel represent a legitimate -- that is, supportable -- point of view? Does it make the viewer think or is it just insulting? Does it demean an individual or group? Is it drawn with some style?

Case in point: We recently accepted a cartoon we knew would be controversial in which a figure clearly representing the Catholic Church gleefully handed off a youngster labeled "Abuse Scandals" to a uniformed -- and surprised-looking -- Penn State football player. Sex abuse is not an easy subject to satirize, an observation made manifest by the large number of clearly inappropriate, often tasteless and juvenile, images we rejected. But this particular image offered a notion that, to me at least, seemed legitimately worthy of discussion: Wouldn't the church be glad to be free of the "sex scandal" mantle? Of course, a whole host of questions weren't addressed by the cartoon. Can the church really pass off the scandals so easily? Is the church-sexual abuse stereotype fair? Will people now focus their rage about the issue on college football programs? Is this really funny? Does it have to be?

Reasonable questions all, and all the type of questions that an engaging cartoon -- or, again, any engaging work of opinion -- should stir.

To one degree or another, we hope we stir such questions within you every day with our editorial cartoons. It may on occasion mean unleashing a bit of "savagery" on your political or social psyche, but it may also be one of the best ways of helping you learn to tame it.

Jim Slusher,, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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