Rhetoric of Political Cartoons

Societies need both stability and change. Shared values provide the stability; cultural critique and satire provide the change.

This balance between stability and change could also be described as a balance between the needs of the group—the society as a whole—and the needs—sometimes the rights—of the individual.

Most of the social space in a society promotes stability: religions, sacred texts, constitutions, laws, and schools. However, most societies also designate space where even the most cherished values and beliefs can be questioned.

Carnival: Liberation from the Established Order

In Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin pointed out that, even societies in medieval Europe, during a historical period that was considered hierarchical, centralized, and rigid, allowed the prevailing dogma to be questioned during times of carnival, a time of both an official feast of the Church, the agent of stability within this periods, and carnival, the folk feast, which questioned the dogma of the Church:

As opposed to the official feast, one might say that carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed. (10)

Carnival was allowed to exist in its social space, but that space was clearly limited so that it could be recognized for being apart from the norm. It was of the streets (carnival could not, for example, spill into a church or a courtroom), and it occurred during a special time each year.

"Swahili spoken here" by Jon Kennedy depicts Bill Alexander coming into his appointment secretary's office saying, "EEE SCO-B-DOO BOOGALOOOO UB MAMBO-JAMBO!!!" One secretary looks at a guide to Swahili while the other says, "I think it means he's had it with the media." July 17, 1985.

“Swahili spoken here” by Jon Kennedy exaggerates the character of Bill Alexander. July 17, 1985.

Political Cartoons as Liberated Space

We can think of political cartoons as occupying a similar space within the pages of a newspaper. They appear on the editorial page. Thus, within the editorial page, where a newspaper expresses opinions rather than reports facts, there is a special space where even the most venerated politicians can be lampooned and the most cherished beliefs of a culture can be questioned.

Within this special social space, political cartoons call social values into question, even cherished social values. This is not surprising. What some people might find surprising about satire is that it also reaffirms social values.

Satire Questions Everything

A simple way of thinking about any form of satire, including political cartoons, is that it throws values into the air, questioning everything, to see which values hold up and which seem dangerous or outmoded.

"Me? I got caught with a marijuana cigaret'" by Jon Kennedy depicts a small boy standing with a group of tough looking prisoners explaining his crime. November 8, 1970.

“Me? I got caught with a marijuana cigaret'” by Jon Kennedy questions the American criminal justice system. November 8, 1970.

As an example, we can look at a well-known piece of satire, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”

As we begin to read this work, we encounter a rather flat textual environment. A seemingly sincere writer states a problem (people are starving in Ireland) and provides a sensible solution (feed them the flesh of small children). We, as good citizens, are horrified at the proposed solution, which the author offers as if he were making the most mundane proposal. Why are we horrified? Because the author has questioned the value of children.

At some point, most readers realize that “A Modest Proposal” is satire. At this point, the textual landscape changes. We, as readers, start to understand that the author, that person who made the outrageous proposal, is actually a persona, a mask. This persona is not reflecting the views of Jonathan Swift. Rather, Swift is using the persona to provoke the reader. By devaluing children (by the persona, the apparent author, saying we should use children as food), he is forcing us to revalue children (we reply that he must respect the sanctity of children). As values are questioned, so too are values reaffirmed.

One other important turn happens in “A Modest Proposal.” Readers are provided with an opportunity to reflect on their own values and actions. Most readers will begin to ask themselves, “Why haven’t I done more to help the starving children of Ireland?” From its special, sequestered space, satire can provoke social change.

George H. Jensen


George H. Jensen, Ph.D., Professor of Rhetoric and Writing, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, is a specialist in Composition and Rhetoric. His recent books include Some of the Words Are Theirs: A Memoir of an Alcoholic Family, Identities Across Texts, and Storytelling in Alcoholics Anonymous: A Rhetorical Analysis.