Political Cartoons are no laughing matter

Political cartoons are no laughing matter. Whaleoil has been taken to the Human Rights Commission in an attempt to silence us. People have decided that they are offended and they want to take away our freedom of speech. The people worldwide who condemned Charlie Hebdo for offending Muslims are no different to those who have taken Whaleoil to the Human Rights Commission. They think that their right to not be offended, trumps our right to publish a political cartoon. I have a little lesson for them from my days as a history teacher because I think that they fail to grasp the point of a political cartoon. Like a good blog, a political cartoon’s purpose is to stimulate debate, to make people think and to sometimes put the spotlight on issues we would prefer to ignore.

What is a Political Cartoon?

A political cartoon is a cartoon that makes a point about a political issue or current event.

Their main purpose, is not to amuse you but to persuade you.

A good political cartoon makes you think about current events, but it also tries to sway your opinion toward the cartoonist’s point of view. The best political cartoonist can change your mind on an issue without you even realizing how he or she did it.

Cartoonists’ Persuasive Techniques

Cartoonists use several methods, or techniques, to get their point across. Not every cartoon includes all of these techniques, but most political cartoons include at least a few. Some of the techniques cartoonists use the most are symbolism, exaggeration, labeling, analogy, and irony.

Once you learn to spot these techniques, you’ll be able to see the cartoonist’s point more clearly. You should also be aware of any political slant, or bias, that he or she might have. When you know where the cartoonist is coming from, it’s easier to make up your own mind.


It would be really nice if those who ran to the Human Rights Commission and Susan Devoy let people make up their own minds about this cartoon. It’s purpose was to stimulate debate on an important issue and it has achieved its goal.

Here are some political cartoons for you to consider. Each of them is guaranteed to offend someone but that is not the point of a political cartoon.



Some European women might find this racist as the woman shown is white. Other women may find it misogynistic since it is making fun of a woman. Yet others may consider it fat shaming. The cartoon however is making a point about the irony of a women’s movement that wants the government to have no say over abortion but still expects it to provide free contraception. You may not agree with the view expressed by the cartoonist but you don’t have to.

Next I have two New Zealand cartoons for you to compare. The first one was drawn by Tom Scott and no one complained about it but the second one by Al Nisbet was called racist.

This Tom Scott cartoon made a similar point to Nibett's, but I don't recall any outrage. Of course, no Maoris were depicted which might explain that ...



290513 The Marlborough Express Al Nisbet cartoon

The Marlborough Express Al Nisbet cartoon


I can say I don’t think it funny or insightful. Like Susan Devoy, I find it distasteful. I struggle with the word offensive, however, because cartoonists are supposed to get under our skins and use visual hyperbole to tell a truth.

Heck, cartoonists, like good columnists and sketch writers should sometimes offend – our sensibilities, our prejudices and even our ethics. The pen is said to be mightier than the sword because it can up-end us with an idea so powerful it can change our view of the world, or even change the world itself.

So Nisbet has every right to push the boundaries of taste and convention and I don’t think it reaches the bar of being officially racist. To make the point he wanted to make he had to make the people one ethnicity or another. Would it have been racist to cast his cartoon with all Pakeha faces?

…Nisbet has said he makes no apologies because the cartoon is aimed at “bludgers”.

“I’m not talking about the average poverty people. I’m talking about the ones who say they’re poverty stricken, but they’re on welfare getting handouts – they have their tv and they have their fancy cellphones and they have their alcohol and they have their pokies and they have their smokes.”


Who do you think BoomSlang was aiming his cartoon at? Is being distasteful a crime? Is being distasteful racism? Or is being distasteful a side effect of a political cartoon that is designed to make you think about the recent slaughter of a helpless child and the unpalatable fact that his ethnicity is disproportionately represented in the child abuse victim statistics?


Interestingly John Key had this to say when award winning cartoonist Al Nisbet’s cartoon was called racist.

Prime Minister John Key has urged critics of cartoons about the the Government’s breakfast in schools programme to accept cartoonists can blow things out of proportion.

While he had not seen the cartoons, Key said he had heard second hand reports about them and understood they may not be to everyone’s taste.

“By the description I was given it certainly could be offensive to people.”

As a general rule, however, he tried not to comment too much on cartoons.

“I’m often the source of the humour in them, if you like, and I try and take it all with a grain of salt because cartoonists are notorious for taking a mile out of an inch.”

Susan Devoy had this to say:

Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy said the cartoons were offensive and appalling.

Her distaste for them has spurred her to question the high threshold required for a finding of racism within the commission’s inquiries and complaints process. The threshold under the law was “very high” and was about inciting racial disharmony.


The editor of the paper that published Al Nisbet’s cartoon said:

…the newspaper would not be apologising for a piece of comment that expressed a strong view.

“I am an editor not a censor, and we regularly publish content that expresses a range of views

…”The intention was always to provoke discussion around a really important social issue, and I think we might be losing sight of that.”

…”We all agreed it was fairly close to the line, but there are times on important issues where you do need to push the boundaries a little bit, the main objective obviously being to stimulate discussion on a really important issue.”

The cartoonist himself said:

Nisbet said the outcry was unexpected as he had done “a hell of a lot worse”.

“Obviously the cartoon worked. It got reaction. You’ve got to push the envelope otherwise you have namby pamby PC cartoons.

“I was born in Scotland, we get stereotyped all the time. But you don’t hear Scots complaining because they’ve got a sense of humour.

“I think people should lighten up a bit.”

Nisbet said he was not racist, and the cartoons were not intended to be so.

Rather, it was directed at anyone who complained about poverty and “blow their money on booze, fags and pokies”.

The main idea with the Marlborough Express cartoon was adults dressing up as children.

Some of the characters were dark because it was mainly northern schools taking up the programme, he said.

“They [complainers] always point at the dark figures, they never look at the white ones.”



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If you agree with me that’s nice, but what I really want to achieve is to make you question the status quo, look between the lines and do your own research. Do not be a passive observer in this game we call life.

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