Cartoons, trigger warnings and ‘Illusion of Anonymity’

Phil YoungbloodBy Phil Youngblood

I have been thinking of cartoons and communication.

As a work of art and record of social commentary, I think cartoons have been largely underappreciated. Satirical cartoons from the 1800s have remained a viable record of how people viewed happenings of the day and speak volumes in one illustration that volumes of writing could not.

Succinct and biting, they could be understood by nearly everyone, in a day when literacy rates were not as high as today, much like the stories found in stain-glassed windows.

My personal memories go back to the days when people got their news primarily from newspapers and television and of the impact of a classic cartoon called “Pogo” on Earth Day 1971 that read, “We have met the enemy and he is us” (one source: http://teachers.yale.edu/curriculum/viewer/initiative_09.05.08_u).

I feel that that cartoon is as relevant today as back then in many ways, particularly in context since it referred to what we were doing to our planet and how we treat each other today.

Another classic cartoon I have kept is from the July 1993 New Yorker magazine, with the caption, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” (see http://www.plsteiner.com/). The author did not have profound intentions when he drew it (perhaps he just needed to publish something), but the cartoon has come to symbolize both the anonymity of online communication as well as its leveling effect, whereby anyone can be an author or artist and anyone can read what they wrote or created.

Twenty years ago the author could not have known his drawing would be the most downloaded cartoon from the New Yorker magazine or that it would be so widely seen. That cartoons and other commentary can be widely seen by anyone worldwide is one of the wonders of global online technology, but sometimes free and open communications do not synch with cultural views held by many, and anonymity is not assured. I am thinking of the cartoons printed in Denmark in 2005 and the uproar they caused, of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo during the decade before that led to the murders in 2015, and of the Jordanian cartoonist murdered outside the courthouse this week.

In my last article I wrote about another cartoon I have kept from the 1970s of a bespectacled, mustachioed, labcoat-wearing professor, arms folded, standing in front of a blackboard full of math equations, asking, “Any questions?” I remarked the role of “teacher as fountain of knowledge” and “student as willing sponge” has largely been supplanted by ready access to an overwhelming amount of information on virtually any subject that can be found online — my point being that what you find online is not only overwhelming in volume but often incomplete, inaccurate, reviewed by commenters rather than experts, and sometimes just opinion or fabrication-designed-to-shock-and-sell rather than to inform. More than ever, we as teachers must get into our students’ heads to discover how they are associating the information they see and what conclusions they are drawing, because information without context, without critical thinking, and without a discerning eye on the source, is not education.

In these contentious times, I have also been reading about “trigger warnings” used by teachers to signal material in textbooks or that may be discussed in class which may trigger memories or sensitivities in some students – see http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/opinion/sunday/why-i-use-trigger-warnings.html for one professor’s viewpoint. The problem is that while we try to get into our students’ heads to understand how they associate information, we cannot be successful with everyone because we do not have their experiences, and the university is a place to challenge one’s beliefs and experiences. What do you think? More later… [I have to get something published! J]

In 2016, I am writing about the ‘big picture’ of technology and its impact on individuals and society. As always, I invite your feedback, dialogue, and differing opinions on this topic.

 

E-mail Youngblood, head of the Computer Information Systems program, at youngblo@uiwtx.edu

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