On Offence, for Index on Censorship, published / by Rich Hobbs

Offence, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

And so we all know that taking offence is an entirely subjective

business, for the simple reason that we’re all different. For different reasons

we have different values, with higher or lower thresholds of tolerance

accordingly. That in itself is often a source of regret for many people who

believe that there’s a whole range of human activities or opinions which

should be either protected or forbidden because of their capacity to give or

take offence. Nonetheless, they can comfort themselves that at least some

human activities or opinions are held to be universally offensive. This is

because an overwhelming consensus has developed which judges that things

like cannibalism, incest, paedophilia, necrophilia or coprophagia are so

beyond the spectrum of acceptable behaviour that it’s not just offensive to

engage in or advocate these vile practices; it’s offensive even to mention


That’s the power of offence. It’s about taboos; it’s about respecting or

transgressing that deep yet vague common notion of what’s right and wrong,

the kind of ur-morality we all sort of recognise even though, like Milton’s

description of God, it’s also a recognition of something which is unperceived

but understood.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t individuals or even whole

societies or cultures which enthusiastically embrace cannibalism, incest,

paedophilia or coprophagia. In his play "Jumpers" Tom Stoppard has his hero,

the philosopher George Moore, reflect that in some societies they venerate

their parents by eating them, while in others the veneration is displayed by

buying them a small cottage in the Home Counties. Even so, many people

would be deeply offended by the suggestion that there are clearly elements of

cannibalism in the Christian celebration of the Eucharist, and they might be

even more offended if it was pointed out to them that the epidemic of the

disease kuru among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea - a form of

spongiform encephalopathy similar to CJD, transmitted by prions as a

consequence of the Fore’s cannibalistic funeral practices - only appeared in

the 1950s after the tribe had been converted to Christianity. Failing to grasp

the nuances of the new theology, the Fore started scoffing their dead parents’

brains in their own, twisted interpretation of the Last Supper.

Likewise, incest was central to the dynastic politics of the Egyptian,

Persian, Roman and Ottoman empires, in order to keep the blood line pure.

Paedophilia, or at least the way we define it today, flourished in the Ancient

and Islamic worlds and continues, consensually if furtively, among children

themselves. Necrophilia and coprophagia, on the other hand, remain minority

enthusiasms, almost always as an adjunct to deeply offensive sexual

perversions. That said, there’s a widespread myth about Frank Zappa which

claims that at a gig one night, he called on members of his audience to join

him up front and do the most repulsively offensive thing they could imagine,

and he promised to outdo them. A young woman duly accepted the offer, and

came up and shat on the stage. Zappa then ate the shit.

This takes us to the heart of the matter. Offence, both given and

received, hinges on the dynamic conflict between different values, held by

different cultures, groups, individuals or generations. We all delineate and

define our lives with large and small taboos, and it’s the transgression of those

taboos which offends us. But in the endless series of dialectical struggles

which operate throughout human existence, from the domestic to the global,

the transgression of your enemy’s taboos is probably the most potent weapon

available in your armoury. Moreover, because the taboos themselves are

frequently the apparently irrational results of ancient and now obscure social

or cultural conditioning, their power lies in their mystery: the taboos are, in

practice, part of a deep, dark magic which you defy at your peril. But for that

very reason, transgressing the taboos has an equal or even greater potency,

both in damaging your opponent and asserting your power over them. But of

course, because this is a dynamic process, once the old taboos are torn down,

new ones come to replace them, and the potential to give and take offence

ratchets upwards and ever onwards.

Forty years ago, the older generation was deeply offended by the hair-styles,

dress sense, politics and sexual licentiousness of their children; the children, in

giving offence, were demonstrating how deeply offended they were by their

parents’ rigidity, complacency, cowardice and conservatism. A mother’s deep

offence at her daughter’s miniskirt was just as likely to be matched by the

daughter’s deep offence at her mother’s fur coat.

(Note, for a moment, the dimensions of offence. It’s invariably deep,

and never wide, or long, or thick. This always pertains, even when the

offenders are themselves offended by the shallowness of the issue over which

the offended have taken offence.)

Similarly, most people, myself included, are now deeply offended by

racism, and a belated recognition of the monstrous crimes committed in its

name has resulted in racism, in public at least, in being one of the dominant

taboos of Western Society. And yet 100 years ago racism was in the

mainstream of European cultural philosophy, and in private and in practice it

maintains a powerful if vestigial virulency. But however half-hearted

Establishment sponsorship of racism as a taboo may be, these days the onus

for taking offence lies with the anti-racists. Until very recently, things were

the other way round.

Forty-five years ago, when my mother was fostering babies prior to

their adoption (because the circumstances of their births meant they’d broken

the taboo against illegitimacy, just as their mothers had broken the taboo

against sex outside marriage) one day she was wheeling one the foster babies

down the road in his pram when she met a friend of hers who, on seeing that

the baby was black, turned it on its stomach to avoid the possibility of giving

offence to anyone who might imagine that my mother was guilty of breaking

the taboo against miscegenation. Thirty years earlier, when racism was still

respectable, a German brownshirt went to see a Marx Brothers movie in

Berlin, before the Nazis banned all such films, and laughed and laughed and

laughed. However, on leaving the cinema, someone told him that the Marx

Brothers were Jewish, and he immediately went to demand his money back,

having been deeply offended at being misled into watching a film featuring

members of a race whose very existence he found offensive.

Sixty years later, the stand-up comic and conjurer Jerry Sadowitz was

waiting in the wings at a charity comedy gig when a fellow comedian made a

bet with him that he wouldn’t dare crack a joke about Nelson Mandela.

Mandela’s status as a champion in the struggle against apartheid has

effectively rendered any criticism of him a taboo in itself, but undeterred

Sadowitz went on, grabbed the microphone and yelled "That Nelson Mandela:

what a cunt!" When the uproar that ensued - a mixture of shocked laughter and

howls of protest - finally died down, Sadowitz continued, "The bastard owes

me five quid".

Personally, I align myself with anyone who finds each or all of those

examples of racism in action offensive. However, each offense is different,

both in practice and purpose. My mother’s friend was mostly guilty simply of

thoughtlessness, even though this kind of complacency in the face of

convention and conformity can often prove to be deadly. The brownshirt, on

the other hand, was more personally culpable, because the source of his

offence (and his offensive behaviour) lay in his own politics. But because the

dialectics of politics are just as littered with supposedly inviolable taboos as

any other area of human interaction, respect for or transgression of those

taboos is an integral part of politics. And so, accordingly, is being both

offended and offensive. Nor should we doubt the genuine nature of the offense

taken by the brownshirt: it’s just that he was madly, murderously and, well,

offensively wrong.

Sadowitz, however, presents us with something altogether different: unlike in

the other two cases, he wasn’t being offensive in retaliation for having been

himself offended. He was trying to be funny. In other words, he was just

having a laugh.

I’ve believed for a long time that humour is a hardwired evolutionary survival

tool. Given our species’ capacity for cognition, we recognise many things

about our individual existence - including the inevitability of its ending - that

would drive us mad and have us all screaming in existential terror from the

cradle to the grave if we couldn’t laugh at them. That’s why we laugh at death,

sex, other people or, for that matter, the noise made by all this disgusting stuff

that pours out of our bodies on a daily basis, the sound of defecation providing

evidence of a kind of bedrock of humour present in human beings. After all,

one of the first things babies laugh at is when you blow a raspberry at them.

Humour is infinitely more complex and sophisticated than that

predicating PHWSSSSST! suggests, although integral to it is that it isn’t and

shouldn’t be treated as if it were. We all know that if you analysis a joke you

disable its potency, because it stops being funny. That said, we use humour in

a vast variety of ways: to diffuse tension, defuse potentially dangerous

encounters, reinforce our sense of ourselves and our control the world around

us. Thus humour can be used both aggressively and defensively, typified best

by the difference between an Irish and a Jewish joke. The purpose of the Irish

joke is aggressive, to mock the other; the Jewish joke, on the other hand,

mocks the teller, but by using humour to reinforce the teller’s status and power

through inverted mockery. In other words, if I can laugh at myself and my

misfortune as a defence strategy, I’ve taken control of both myself and a

dynamic in which you were previously mocking me aggressively in order to

exert your control over me. Which, in turn, means there is a chasm of

difference between the same joke told by different people, a nuance we

probably all understand without having to be told.

By the same token, it’s a common response to appalling events to tell

jokes about them. Jokes about Biafra in the 1960s were retold about

Bangladesh in the early 70s, and then told again about Ethiopia in the 1980s.

When Princess Diana was killed in 1997, famously there was a "national

outpouring of grief", a spontaneous and collective phenomenon that obsessed

the media just as much as Diana’s death itself. What wasn’t noticed, however,

was the simultaneous outpouring of sick jokes: the difference being that the

emoting was public, while the jokes, often told by the same people who’d

been weeping in the streets, were told - either in the pub or round the office

water cooler - in relatively privacy.

That in itself is another dimension of how we use humour: it both

presumes and creates an intimacy. There are a wealth of good reasons why

people advertising for sexual partners in the Lonely Hearts Columns are often

more concerned in getting someone with a Good Sense Of Humour than a stud

of enormous sexual prowess who doesn’t get a joke. In the most reductionist

genetic terms, a capacity to laugh at the changing vicissitudes of life suggests

a greater adaptability, and therefore survivability. But we shouldn’t forget

what happens when we laugh: we release all those lovely endorphins, the

mood altering hormones our bodies have evolved to produce to modify our

behaviour to ensure survivability as well, and which quite simply make us feel

better. So it follows that someone who makes you laugh makes you feel good,

so you want to associate with them, whether by seeking to have sex with them

or paying good money to go to a Comedy Club.

A Good Sense of Humour is, therefore, a vital social tool. When I was

at school in the 1970s, we all knew that there were certain boys whose social

skills were either unformed or congenitally absent, so they’d recite entire

Monty Python sketches to make us think they had a sense of humour so we’d

like them. In his book "The God Delusion", Professor Richard Dawkins

repeatedly invokes his dead friend Douglas Adams, author of "The Hitch-

Hikers Guide to the Galaxy", for the same reason.

And in 2003 I presented Michael Foot with a cartoon to celebrate his

90th birthday at The Gay Hussar Restaurant in Soho, and afterwards I was

standing out on Greek Street talking to a photographer who then asked me for

my contact details. As I don’t have a business card, I was writing down my

email address in my sketch book, when Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s

Director of Communications, came out of the restaurant and immediately

started shouted at me, "Isn’t that fucking typical? Martin fucking Rowson

writing fucking autographs!" When I protested that I was doing nothing of the

kind, he went on "‘Course you are, you fucking wanker! You fucking love it!"

The point of repeating this story is not to demonstrate once more that

Campbell is a foul-mouthed bully, but because I realised almost instantly that

he was trying to be funny. True, it was more Derek and Clive than Dorothy

Parker, but we play we the cards we’re dealt, and Campbell’s coarseness

doesn’t obviate the fact that, in his heart of hearts, he just wanted me to love


Or maybe he wanted me to hate him. Either way, his brutal joviality

was intended to elicit some kind of response, both of them equally potent in

altering my mood, so he was using either aggression or humour in a standard

attempt both to control me and either reinforce or welcome me into some kind

of intimacy with him. It probably says more about me than about him that I

chose to laugh. But I could, just as easily, have taken deep offence, despite the

fact that his true intention may indeed have been to make me laugh.

Objectively, the same could be said of any joke, even if its purpose is

to charm and disarm. Objectively, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a Jew or a

non-Jew telling a Jewish joke, if you find all jokes about Jews offensive.

Likewise, a gauche and gawky schoolboy could, in reciting Monty Python’s

Parrot Shop sketch, unexpectedly find himself in deep water if he unwittingly

performed his shtik in front of a particularly touchy and recently bereaved

parrot owner. And although the Diana jokes fulfilled a social and

psychological function in both releasing tension and reinforcing social bonds

just as much as the public displays of grief, there were many people who

would have been deeply offended by any mention of Diana which ventured

beyond the reverential and the mawkish. I discovered this to my cost at the



It’s my job, as a satirical cartoonist, to give offence. But I need immediately to

qualify that statement. I see my job as giving targeted offence, because satire,

like H.L. Mencken’s definition of journalism, is about comforting the afflicted

and afflicting the comfortable. In other words, if I draw rude pictures of

people less powerful than me, what I do ceases to be satire, and creeps into

one of the wider spheres of aggressive, bullying humour and into areas which

I, personally, consider to be offensive.

So, although I’m inclined to think that the non-satirist’s standard

definition of satire as "puncturing pomposity" is one of the most pompous

phrases in the English language, I buy into it. This is because the urge to mock

our social or political betters is something else hardwired into us, to stop us

going mad at the injustice of them being held to be superior to us in the first

place. Indeed, it’s been argued by several anthropologists that early humans,

unlike other social primates, lived in largely egalitarian groups, mostly as a

result of the equal division of labour between the genders involved in hunting

and gathering, but where the status quo was maintained by physically weaker

individuals forming alliances against the strong and keeping them in their

place through mockery. It was only later, once agriculture obliged us to live in

settled communities, that the strong seized the opportunity to impose their will

and power on the rest of us, thus reverting human beings back to the condition

of baboons.

Perhaps because of this ancient race memory, mockery of the powerful

is as ubiquitous as humour itself. In political tyrannies, tolerance of the public

expression of this kind of mockery is extremely limited, and bolstered by

thousands of years of cultural conditioning, itself reinforced by the creation of

taboos like blasphemy or lese majeste (which are themselves closely linked

and often interchangeable). Even in less oppressive political circumstances,

these taboos endure. To return for a moment to Diana, you can see in both the

tragic and comic responses to her death the interplay of respecting and

transgressing both political and religious taboos: on the religious side, there

was the death taboo, as well as a kind of attenuated blasphemy when

discussing a woman who had been elevated, by both the media and herself, to

the status of a lay goddess; and on the political side, the instinctive deference

to royalty and, in its way, a trace of the divine right of kings provided other

taboos even though, ironically enough, the death of Diana threatened, for a

short period, to destabilise the Monarchy itself.

Although this whole seething compost of grief, death, religion and

politics was riddled with irony, the public recognition of those ironies became

a fresh taboo, and not for the first (or last) time it was confidently stated that

Diana’s death was a catastrophe so great that, once more, Satire (like Diana)

Was Dead. This meant that almost everything had a heightened capacity to

give offence.The post-Diana edition of "Private Eye" contained lengthy satires

on the media response to her death, and was pulled from the shelves of

W.H.Smith’s and many other outlets. The cartoons I and my colleagues drew

during this time were subject to much greater editorial scrutiny than usual

because of the fear they might give offence, and I actually had a cartoon

pulled by The Independent on Sunday from its edition the day after Diana’s

funeral. Significantly enough, it had nothing to do with Diana, but instead was

the latest in a series of cartoons I produce for the Sindy’s books pages. This

one was about the recently deceased American writer William Burroughs,

famous for his cut-up technique of writing, and it showed his relatives sitting

in a lawyer’s office listening to the reading of his will. They were each

holding badly wrapped body parts, and one relative was saying "I’m pleased

to see that Uncle Bill stuck with his cut-up technique to the end". The fact that

the cartoon wasn’t published was clearly because it was about the wrong

death. It was several weeks before I felt I could get away with an even mildly

satirical treatment of the whole Diana Death phenomenon, in a cartoon for

Time Out of The New Britain, In Touch With Its Emotions, which showed

two tramps sitting in cardboard boxes in Kensington Gardens and wearing

smiley masks. One tramp was saying to the other: "Y’know, I’m getting sick

of eating flowers." By that stage the intensity of national emotion was

beginning to dissipate, so I only got a few complaints, but Diana maintains her

strange juju power as both manufactured and spontaneous icon, and the only

reason I drew a cartoon to mark the 10th anniversary of her death, showing her

holed up in a bar in Valparaiso with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, wondering

whether she should let Charles in on the joke yet, was because it still had the

potential to shock, offend and, therefore, make people laugh.

In Britain, satirists and cartoonists have enjoyed this licence to saying

the unsayable for centuries, mostly thanks to the new political dispensation

that followed on from the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the Government’s

failure to renew the Censorship Laws in 1695. The nascent democracy the

Revolution produced was based on the idea of religious tolerance (except for

Catholics, widely seen as potential terrorists bent on the overthrow of the

State), itself a response to the failure of imposing religious orthodoxy which

had resulted in the Civil Wars of the 1640s and 50s and the deaths of a tenth

of the population of the British Isles. In other words, the various warring

parties agreed that, although they’d continue hating each other, they’d no

longer kill each other. Thus they channelled their hatred elsewhere, into the

party system, an irresponsible press and satire. John Locke and his followers

may well have thought that they were ushering in an Age of Reason, but 1688

also spawned a mushrooming of public satire, with Pope, Swift and Hogarth,

all the way through to Gillray, which ran like a sewer beneath the

Enlightenment. And it was tolerated because, in this new, experimental,

pluralist society, it worked. In the 1780s, the French Ambassador to the Court

of St James reported back to Versailles that he genuinely believed that

England was on the verge of a revolution, on the basis of the truly offensive

cartoons of the Royal Family freely and publically available from the

hundreds of print shops throughout London. But it was, of course, France that

had the revolution, where the mockery and satire were repressed, unlicenced

or private, and where the pressure cooker of resentment finally exploded.

So, while it may be my job to give offence, and for my part I choose to

target that offence at the powerful rather than the powerless, in practice the

whole enterprise is almost ritualistic because satire and satirical cartoons have

been established as a valid part of British political discourse for over 300

years. Moreover, the standard template for political cartoons - the caricaturing

of real people into an alternative, shape-shifted reality, where they act out a

narrative of the cartoonist’s devising - was concreted in by James Gillray 230

years ago and has remained completely unchanged ever since. But in some

ways, despite its status as a semi-detached part of what used to be called The

Establishment, visual satire also exists in the same realm as taboo: it’s about

deep, dark magic, and not just because caricature can be described as a type of

voodoo, doing damage to someone at a distance with a sharp object, albeit in

this case with a pen. It’s also concerned with control, like all visual art. By

recreating the observable or imagined world, that world is synthesised through

a human mind, and therefore is tamed through its recreation, in the same way

as the mysteries of human experience are harnessed, recreated and controlled

by theatre and literature. It’s an often repeated cliche that when so-called

primitive people first encountered cameras, they believed that their souls were

being stolen when their picture was "taken"; the same is true of caricature,

inasmuch as one of the defining factors of an individual - their physical

appearance - is appropriated by the cartoonist, and distorted so that the victim

is changed and altered into something else, far more than simply a

combination of lines on a piece of paper. Alastair Campbell, once again,

proved the point several years ago when I drew him from the life as part of a

project I was involved with to caricature the more celebrated patrons of the

aforementioned Gay Hussar restaurant in Soho. He clearly hated the whole

thing, and unlike my other sitters, instead of getting on with his lunch he sat

glowering at me, and at one point shouted across the restaurant "You just

won’t be able to stop yourself from making me look like a really bad person!"

(I replied that I draw what I see.) However, the notion that I was, in some

mysterious way, stealing Campbell’s soul, or at the very least wresting control

from him, was confirmed when I presented him with the drawing for him to

sign as a true record of himself over the course of his lunch. What he did was

fascinating, because he instantly clawed back control - over his soul as much

as anything else - by saying "This is a good picture of [Jeremy] Paxman. Now

where the fuck’s the one of me?" In other words, he denied the power of my

dark magic; by insisting it didn’t look like him, he was claiming the caricature

had failed to "capture" him (even though it was just a picture), and thereby

disabled the voodoo.

He was right to do so, as all these words like "taken" or "capture"

confirm. Being caricatured is a transgressive as well as an aggressive act,

which is why it’s central to political cartooning. Consequently, it’s the

caricatural dimension of a cartoon which has the potential to give most

offence. To give a further example of this, a couple of decades ago I had a

dismal gig at a youth festival the Royal Shakespeare Company was putting on

in Stratford-on-Avon, and one night as I was leaving the Dirty Duck pub

through the restaurant I was called over to a table by about a dozen or so

young actors, all of whom insisted that I draw them then and there. I did so, in

exchange for drink, and finally got back to my guest house at about three in

the morning. The following lunchtime I returned to the pub, shakily in search

of a hair of the dog, but when I finally caught the attention of the landlady she

leaned across the bar, grabbed me forcefully by the shoulder and said "Listen,

if you come in here with your sketchpad again, you’re not to draw them

however much they ask. I’ve had them in tears in here this morning, and it’s

more than I can cope with." Even though, on this occasion, I’d intended no

malice in my caricatures, there remains something inescapably malicious

about the whole process of caricature, be it a nose too long here or a chin too

weak there. Again, I put this down to the voodoo, the fact that one person’s

appearance is filtered through the consciousness of another, and thereby, in

some way, stolen.

Politicians recognise this, while also recognising the established role of

cartoons as part of the political discourse, even if it is a ceaseless re-echo of

the ancient, primitive and primal politics of our early ancestors mocking

putative tyrants in the tribe. By and large they tend to laugh off - even if they

don’t laugh at - cartoons of themselves, and maybe even be flattered that

they’re sufficiently interesting or important enough to grab the cartoonists’

attention; but often they’ll also buy the original artwork, which they invariably

hung up on their toilet wall. In other words, through a psychological proximity

they’re able to flush away the bad magic of the cartoon along with the rest of

the shit, and thus neutralise the offence both given and taken.

And the idea of giving offence is integral to the medium. A cartoon

which isn’t knocking copy becomes merely propaganda, in that strange

reverse transubstantiation that likewise renders a joke which isn’t laughing at

misfortune unfunny. Even when a political cartoon draws back from being

deliberately offensive, the ballast the medium brings with it will outweigh the

cartoonist’s intention. On 11th September 2001, I was planning to draw a

cartoon for the next day’s Scotsman about Tony Blair visiting the TUC

Conference in Brighton, when I heard the news that the first plane had struck

the World Trade Centre. I then watch the second plane hit the second tower on

TV, and spent the rest of the afternoon staring at a blank sheet of paper,

wondering how on earth I was meant, as a cartoonist, to respond to the violent

and terrible deaths of 3000 people. I ended up producing a cartoon of a

monstrous cloud, shaped like a skull, billowing out from Lower Manhattan

about to snuff out the torch held by the Statue of Liberty, and then phoned my

editor to apologise for the cartoon being meaningless and senseless, and he

replied that meaninglessness and senselessness were more or less the mood

they were after. Nonetheless, the next day the paper received several

complaints because they’d published a cartoon at all. Irrespective of its

content, the space on the page carried the subliminal message to the readers

that this was a cartoon, and therefore funny, and therefore offensive. Other

cartoonists fared far worse than me, having their work pulled or, in one

instance, being told to cover another topic (there were no other topics). It

seems that although 9/11 was the most visual event in human history, repeated

over and over again on television, and with every newspaper in Britain

devoting pages and pages to photographs of the attacks and their aftermath,

the one visual medium which instantly became intolerable because of its

capacity for offence was the cartoon. But once again, the difference lies in the

execution: television images and photographs may consequently be subject to

human intervention, but they are "captured" (that word again) by machines;

cartoons, on the other hand, are the sole creation of human beings wielding

primitive tools, who create or recreate reality by filtering it through their

human minds. The process is too human, too raw sometimes to be entirely


Worse still, a cartoon, like any other image, is received by its readers

in a different way to the way they receive text. A cartoon isn’t, as such, "read"

at all, because reading is a slow, linear process of nibbling information as you

work your way down the column over a period of minutes, while a cartoon

(often squatting like a gargoyle on top of the column) is swallowed whole in

seconds. Worse than that, on top of being intrinsically different from a

machine made photograph, a cartoon is a piece of polemical journalism, which

is what also makes it different from an illustration. Given the visceral way a

cartoon is consumed, straight from the eye to the reptile brain, it’s

unsurprising that the response is often equally visceral. And the offence, freely

given, is duly received.

Still, although I use offence as just part of my satirical armoury - to express

outrage or to trigger a shock of laughter - I often get as good as I give. Which

brings me back to that point about offence being in the eye of the beholder.

Offence is a response, but it’s also a tactic. Unlike Jerry Sadowicz, I

rarely produce cartoons merely in order to offend for offensiveness’ sake.

Instead, it’s to make a point, often in reaction to something of itself far more

offensive. As such, I’m expressing an opinion, albeit visually and weirdly, but

as part of the wider political discourse. But this is where offence comes into

its own.

In the past, I may well have produced some genuinely offensive

cartoons, like the one I drew for Time Out after a biography of Princess Diana

revealed that she suffered from bulimia, depicting her vomiting over the bow

of a ship being launch, with a flunkey in the background saying "The real

bugger of it is trying to get her to eat a bottle of champagne during lunch..."

Many of Time Out’s readers were probably quite justified in taking offence,

although the calls for me to be publically castrated were, perhaps, over egging

the pudding. In admittedly hopelessly disingenuous mitigation I’d say that I

think the joke was quite funny, and that public figures - in other words, people

more powerful than me - are fair game, and can always retire to private life if

they want to break the contract between themselves, the public, the media and

me. I was also rather heartened by a letter published a week after the first

deluge of hate mail, saying that the writer was herself bulimic, thought my

cartoon was very funny and had cut it out and stuck it on her fridge.

Other cartoons have been more directly political, but have excited

equal outrage. A drawing I did for the Sunday Tribune in Dublin at the time of

the 1992 UN Population Conference in Cairo, prior to which the Pope had

entered into a tactic alliance with the Ayatollahs of Iran, resulted in the Trib’s

offices being picketed by nuns and members of Opus Dei. Then again, I had

drawn the Pope standing at the Conference reception desk, flanked by bearded

mullahs stoning women delegates and holding "Death to Rushdie" placards,

and saying "Hellow! We are the Pro-Life delegation!" After Pope John-Paul

II’s death, I drew a rather sweet cartoon for The Guardian of the Pope being

escorted across a heavenly cloudscape by the Grim Reaper, who’s saying to

him, "What do you mean? Am I pro-life?" That got a few complaints, but

none as baroque as the one inspired by a relatively innocuous cartoon, which

the reader said was the most offensive, vile, repellant, calculated to offend,

disgusting (and on he went, having clearly got out his thesaurus) cartoon or

image to have appeared in any paper or publication "since the foundation of

the State!" Along the way I’ve also been reported to the Press Complaints

Commission by one man who considered a marginal gag written in tiny letters

on a fax in the body of the cartoon ("The Pope is Catholic. The Blairs shit in

the woods") was a grossly offensive intrusion into the private life of the then

Prime Minister’s private life, and by a supporter of the Animal Liberation

Front who was deeply offended by me comparing the ALF to the Continuity

IRA after the Omargh bombing.

These were minor disruptions to my peace of mind. It was only after

The Guardian started to publish my cartoons on their website that I discovered

how truly (and, of course, deeply) offensive I could really be. Starting with a

cartoon suggesting that the 2004 US Presidential Election would result almost

immediately in a new American Civil War between the Christians and the

Constitutionalists ("Death to the Gay Abortionists!"), followed by Bush, Rice

and Rumsfeld in Nazi armbands emblazoned with crosses instead swastikas, a

cartoon of Bush crossing Canal Street in New Orleans pastiching the famous

painting of Washington crossing the Delaware, Bush and the Chinese

President shaking their blood soaked hands and discussing White Phosphorous

and many other cartoons on Bush’s presidency and Iraq, I regularly received

hundreds and hundreds of hate emails. My correspondents were clearly deeply

offended by my cartoons, and many had been alerted to my offence by

websites reproducing them. And to be honest, as my intention had been to

offend, I can’t really complain if people were duly offended. But the strange

thing was how offensive the responses were themselves. One started "When

you’ve finished scraping the maggots out of your whore-mother’s cunt" and

went on to describe in detail how I regularly rape my children, but only after

I’ve tired of raping Arab boys. Another said I was "dumber than an Irish

cunt". Most limited themselves to telling me that I was a dumb limey asshole

who’d be speaking German if it wasn’t for the USA, and would soon be

speaking Arab, after the Islamist takeover of Europe. One person even

enrolled me, without my knowledge, on a gay dating website, and I got several

mystifying inquiries from interested parties in Florida before I discovered their

source and cancelled my unconscious membership.

My friend and colleague Steve Bell receives even more of this trash

than I do, but sensibly observes that if these idiots are writing bilious emails to

him, they’re too busy to do anything truly dangerous. However, mixed up in

all this Tourettic spleen there were several fairly plausible death threats.

Things got worse after I produced a cartoon for The Guardian during Israel’s

disastrous incursion into Lebanon in the summer of 2006. It was, I concede, a

brutal cartoon, commenting on brutal events, and perhaps I should have

painted the Stars of David blue on the knuckle dusters on an Israeli fist

smashing a Lebanese child’s face while missing a Hezbullah hornet, to make

it quite clear that I was referring to the flag of the State of Israel rather than

the symbol of Worldwide Jewry. I doubt, however, that it would have much

difference, not least because the presence of the Star of David on the Israeli

flag is there precisely in order to claim to represent Jews everywhere. The

equation of Israel and Jewry has proved to be a brilliant tactic to disarm

Israel’s critics, simply by calling any criticism of Israel and its action

antisemitic. In the thousands of emails I received, again mostly fomented

through various websites, the message in all of them can be distilled pretty

down to "Fuck off you antisemitic cunt". And as a tactic, it worked. I was

deeply shaken by being accused of something I’m not, although I eventually

worked out that the heart of the insult lay in the word "antisemite" rather than

any of the others, because insults usually work best when they accuse you of

being something you’re not. Otherwise they’re not insults, merely statements

of fact. But long before this incident, I’d got used to receiving complaints

whenever I drew Ariel Sharron, that I’d produced the most anti-

semitic cartoon since the closure of Julius Streicher’s notorious Nazi hatesheet

"Der Sturmer". Again, the offensiveness of the response seemed to outweigh

the original offence. All I’d done was caricature a fat, Jewish-looking man in a

stupid drawing, in no more exaggerated a way than I’d depict anyone, and yet

as a consequence I ended up being compared with the principle cheerleader of

the Holocaust.

The disproportionate nature of these responses - the obscenity and the

death threats - pales in comparison to the response to the cartoons of the

Prophet Mohamed published by Jyllands Posten in October 2005, which five

months later resulted in worldwide protests, the burning down of several

Danish diplomatic buildings and the deaths of up to a hundred people, even

though they were all Muslims, shot dead in the streets of their Muslim

countries by Muslim policemen and soldiers after having been incited to riot

by Muslim clerics. In this infamous affair, it’s clear that Jyllands Posten set

out deliberately to offend, as part of the newspaper’s longstanding campaign

against immigrants, recruiting the voodoo powers of the medium to damage,

or at least discomfort, a group of isolated, beleaguered, powerless and poor

people in Danish Society, many of whom probably also clean the toilets and

empty the bins at Jyllands Posten’s offices. Because they targetted people less

powerful than themselves, Jyllands Posten failed my personal Mencken test,

and so I concluded that the commissioning of the cartoons was wrong, even

though the response - by powerful Danish mullahs, let alone the Saudi and

Syrian governments - almost justified them in retrospect.

But it’s worth reflecting on the purpose of all these reactions, whether

from Muslims to the Danish cartoons, or the response to my cartoons by

Muslims, Zionists, neo-cons, Americans in general, Catholics, Serbs,

Spaniards, or any of the other groups I’ve apparently offended over the years,

including some atheists who judged a cartoon I drew of Richard Dawkins for

New Humanist magazine to reveal me as deeply homophobic, because I’d

drawn him banging his wrists together in glee, and wearing sandals. But while

I don’t doubt that all these people are truly, deeply offended, and have ever

right to be, rights, despite any amount of wishful thinking, are merely

assertions. In the Babel of conflicting human opinions the right not to be

offended works out, in practice, as just another tactic to win an argument by

compelling your opponent to shut up because what they say is offensive.

Special interest groups, whether motivated by politics, religion or anything

else, constantly seek to create new taboos to make them, their attitudes and

their opinions inviolable, so that all criticism is rendered not just unspeakable

but unsayable too.

This totalitarian imperative to be freed from the threat of being

offended has operated throughout human history. Gods, kings and dictators, in

addition to all their followers, have all demanded that they be allowed to

control other people’s thoughts and behaviour to save them from the terrible

pain of their feelings being hurt. Doubtless train spotters would insist on the

same privilege, and enjoy the same freedom from mockery, if they thought

they could get away with it. But with repulsive regularity, the penalty for

transgressing the taboos and giving offence has been death or the threat of it,

even though it should be blindingly obvious to everyone who’s ever lived that

the most offensive thing anyone can ever do to anyone else is kill them.

That said, there are other kinds of damage that can be wrought, and

cartoons, as a subset of mockery, are capable of doing more damage than a lot

of other things. That, to a large extent, is their purpose. That damage can

either be benign, as I’d insist that my work is, keeping the powerful in check,

or malignant, as in the case of the Jyllands Posten cartoons or the cartoons that

Der Sturmer really did publish. They are, consequently, as offensive as you

wish them to be, depending on your point of view. They’re also part of that

deep, dark magic that also defines the taboos we create, which in their turn

inform our propensity to give and take offence. But you can invoke that magic

in all sorts of different ways.

After my Lebanon cartoon appeared, the Guardian published a letter

from the Israeli ambassador in London, which pulled the usual trick of

equating criticism of Israel with anti- semitism, but he started his letter in

an interesting way by giving a dictionary definition of a cartoon.

By these light, he argued, not only was my cartoon offensive, but it wasn’t even a cartoon.

I’m used to the formulation "so-called"

qualifying my critics’ description of my cartoons, along with assertions at how

badly I’ve drawn them, but this was something new. What he was saying was

basically that he disagreed with my cartoon, but as a consequence not only

pleaded being offended to make me shut up, but also asserted that, in its own

terms, the cartoon didn’t even exist. Now that’s smart magic.

For while offence may be in the eye of the beholder, you mustn’t rule

out the option of simply blinking and looking away.