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Ralph Steadman on Charlie Hebdo, the Right to Offend and Changing the World

Ralph Steadman is an amazing cartoonist who is most famous for his collaborations with writer Hunter S. Thompson. Newsweek interviewed him recently about the Charlie Hedbo situation, since he too has made some political and offensive cartoons. I thought I would share his remarks. The article is pretty long, so I am posting some highlights from the interview. (However if you would like to read the entire thing, here is the link.)

We were sitting in a bar in Aspen, Colorado, almost 20 years ago, I remind Ralph Steadman, when he first told me that he’d become a cartoonist because he wanted to change the world. It wasn’t the first time he’d made this declaration and it wouldn’t be the last. “It is interesting that you should mention that remark today,” says Steadman, “because, looking at what has been happening in Paris, I now feel that I have succeeded. I did manage to change the world, and it is a worse place than it was when I started. Far worse – an achievement I had always assumed would be impossible.” “Obviously there’s a long tradition of work in which satire and vulgarity collide,” I suggest. “But is it always legitimate to cause offence?” “There can come a stage where what you are producing is just irresponsible graffiti. For which – yes – there is no point. But working as . . . I don’t often find myself using the phrase ‘a responsible satirist’ . . . you would seek to produce something that is very funny in some way.” “It is quite reasonable for a reader to be offended. It’s slightly less reasonable to enter an office armed with two Kalashnikovs and a grenade. Most people would regard that as something of an overreaction.” “Tragedy provokes different offshoots of thought,” he replies. “Even at a wake, you can’t keep sitting there saying, ‘Oh, it’s terrible you know. I feel terrible. Do you feel terrible? You must do, I know, but I can tell that you don’t feel anything like as terrible as I do’. As humans we just can’t do that.”

Steadman's original piece for Newsweek in reaction to the Charlie Hebdo Murders.

Steadman’s own satirical targets have tended to be men abusing positions of power, and consequently very different people from the Charlie Hebdo assassins, who came from the class commonly described as the urban dispossessed, and who would undoubtedly have experience of scorn and racism. In many ways, Steadman argues, “I think that terrorists and some political leaders share a similar mindset, in that they consider themselves to be believers. They are devoted to a cause and they’ll go to any lengths to uphold their chosen position. They are not completely stable, as the word is usually understood.” “I didn’t come here meaning to quote my own work,” I tell Steadman, “but there is a psychopathic character in one of my books who is described as dangerous ‘because he believed that the pen was mightier than the sword, but didn’t always have a pen to hand’. People all over the world, on the streets and on social media, are finding all kinds of visual ways to rework that old proverb. These shootings could place cartoonists at the heart of contemporary conflict rather in the way that poetry became the most important form of artistic expression in the First World War.” “I think – I know – that satire does frighten fascists. Fascists don’t like satire. They don’t like it at all. And they especially don’t enjoy visual satire. Because of its unique power to communicate. As Wittgenstein [Ludwig] asserted, the only thing of value is the thing you cannot say. Sometimes you can’t communicate the idea or the emotion, but a drawing can. You draw something, and people say: ‘Oh, I see what you’re getting at now’.” And that thought, Steadman says, “brings us back to what happened in that room at Charlie Hebdo. Some things,” he adds, “there are no words for”.

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