Controversies over political cartoons in college newspapers are nothing new, but it’s always disappointing to see them spring back up. This time it’s Eastern Michigan University’s turn, where a cartoon depicting members of the Ku Klux Klan has drawn the ire of some students and, almost inevitably, the university itself. The Eastern Echo published the below cartoon on September 28:
So what is this cartoon trying to say? Clearly it is meant to depict an absurd situation, but what is the social commentary meant to be? The Eastern Echo explained it in its official statement about the cartoon controversy:
We understand the "You Are Here" cartoon may have offended some readers. We apologize for the lack of sensitivity some felt we showed for publishing the cartoonist’s work. The cartoon points out the hypocrisy of hate-filled people. Its intent was to ask how can someone show affection for one person while at the same time hating someone else enough to commit such a heinous act as hanging. We wish to remind readers that they are free to express their opinion on our discussion boards and we hope to continue to foster free thought and open discussion on campus and in the community.
This seems to me to be the only plausible interpretation of the cartoon. Unless, of course, we are to assume that the cartoonist and the newspaper were actually making some kind of attempt to promote the idea that people should join the KKK in order to meet their future spouse, but were also clever enough to make it so that the cartoon could plausibly be interpreted in a non-racist way. This seems to me to be somewhat unlikely on a major college campus in the year 2010.
So what is the uproar about? The problem seems to be that someone published a picture of the KKK. This has disappointing echoes of the various Mohammed cartoon controversies we have seen, in which the very act of publishing pictures of the Prophet Mohammed has been seen as an affront to Muslims. Actually, that’s unfair; the issue about images of Mohammed actually has a religious basis in Islam. As far as I know, the only objection to depicting Klan members is that some people might be offended by being reminded that there was and is a Ku Klux Klan. And it seems to make no difference why the Klan was depicted.
For instance, take the case of Keith John Sampson at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who was disciplined for "harassment" for reading an anti-Klan book that had pictures of a Klan rally on the cover. (You can watch a video about this case here.) Or this 2004 case at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (last month’s Speech Code of the Month—way to keep up the good work, guys!), where students got in trouble for drawing a whiteboard caricature of a student government leader they supported who was, they felt, falsely accused by his opponents of being "racist." (What made him "racist," by the way, was his opposition to setting aside student government seats specifically for members of an umbrella minority group on campus—a plan so obviously illegal that UMass’ own general counsel later ruled it unconstitutional.)
Despite the fact that the cartoon at EMU was mocking racists, EMU President Susan Martin quickly jumped on her high horse and released a statement expressing concern about "hate imagery" and announcing a seminar about "hate and hate symbols" as an "initial step" towards increasing campus dialogue about "race and social matters." (I’ll bet the later steps are going to involve hiring more highly paid administrators.)
Earth to college administrators: there is no reason to panic if your students are mocking the Ku Klux Klan. "Hate symbols" are not magically always evil. They can be powerful, but their power lies in their ability to effectively communicate a message. This cartoon communicated the message that it is paradoxical and absurd to find love at an event designed around hate and violence. It is unfair and frankly inaccurate to suggest that The Eastern Echo advanced the cause of racial hatred by publishing this cartoon—and anyone reading the cartoon, especially a college president, should know better.