In a talk given in October, Patrick Chappatte spoke emphatically about the emergent power of political cartooning. To highlight his point, he drew our attention to an image called ‘Pandora’s Pen’, where a cartoonist’s sketch leaps from the page to become a riotous mob. The image referred to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s infamous political cartoons depicting Muslim prophet Mohammed, which stirred ghastly repercussions.
“There were demonstrations, fatwa, they broke out in violence. People died in the violence. This was so sickening… people died… because of cartoons.”
Indeed this was a horrific response to the humble cartoon. But what I’d like to protest here is Chappatte’s notion that the cartoon was the cause of the violence in question. To determine the cause of an event or action, we must first ask what a ‘cause’ is. For the purposes of this post, I’d like to assert that we’re searching for the cause as being the largest instance of wrongdoing which led to the event or act in question.
The reason I’d like to search for the greatest instance of wrongdoing (rather than the first) is that I don’t wish to drag this into the concept of God. Or, for the atheists out there, I don’t want the chain of events to be dragged further back into the ‘natural’ world such that the actors in a scenario are animal and therefore incapable of committing acts which are either ‘right or ‘wrong’. For the best ’cause’ of a scenario, we need to examine the various smaller causes available to us and determine which (if any) are at the root of the event being observed.
So let’s go to another one before commenting on Chappatte further. In the recent film depicting Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook founder and CEO) and his tumultuous rise to wealth and fame, The Social Network, an instance where Mark’s friend Eduardo writes an equation for the Elo Rating System on a window is marked as the pivotal moment where ‘Facemash’ comes to life as a bona fide competitive ranking site for images of girls on campus.
Shortly after having seen this film, I heard someone comment on the mind-boggling nature of how one simple equation was the tipping point where an idea became what we now know as Facebook.
This, too, I’d like to refute. Look at the different elements in play here. There is Zuckerberg himself, a man described by his early computer teachers as a ‘child prodigy’ (in a recent article in The New Yorker which serves as a counterpoint to the film in attempting to convey an image of the ‘real’ Mark Zuckerberg), then there’s the formula he needs from Eduardo to make his ranking system work for a site which will see Mark realise the power of social comparisons online, then there’s the final product itself: Facebook.
If we were to remove this moment where the formula was given to Mark, what would’ve happened? Would Facebook never have happened? Or what if the idea for the Harvard Connection web site hadn’t been floated to mark by the Winklevoss twins (a hypothetical which formed the basis for an entire court case)?
In any scenario, there are bound to be a series of elements and factors combining to create an outcome. There are forces and agents at play, and each must be weighed before calls regarding the nature of the ‘cause’ can be established.
Some single events are genuinely once-in-a-lifetime moments which change the flow of things, to be sure, but this is the stuff of myth and legend for the most part. These instances are capitalised on by Hollywood for the sake of drama, or by the cartoonist because it flatters his ego to think of his medium as being able to carry that much weight.
In the case of the Jyllands-Posten cartoon, a multitude of ‘causes’ may be floated for the ensuing death and misery. The cartoon itself is simply the most obvious cause. As people probe deeper, they have come to blame the newspaper (which sought to publish images of Mohammed specifically and contracted cartoonists to do so), or the religion of Islam itself for having rules which contradict freedom of speech to begin with (as though Christianity is perfectly in tune with modern law).
And yet in this case, the forces at work which brought about the riots were people. Typically set upon as representative moderates of their faith by the Western media, those who chose to abhor the sleight against their beliefs with violence were not the majority. The images caused an outrage amongst Muslims, and the European newspapers fuelled the flames by syndicating the cartoons in solidarity with Jyllands-Posten, ostensibly seeking to share the burden, but multiplying the angst felt by those who were offended.
In a situation as complex as this, ‘cause’ and therefore blame (if necessary) is difficult to assign. Sociologists would be quick to blame the cultural divide bringing about insensitivity, anthropologists would be quick to blame the curious religious practises at play, philosophers would blame the fundamental nature of otherness, human rights activists would blame the notion of a religion attempting to police outside its borders, police would blame the specific people who inflicted the violence and pundits from all corners are quick to blame the cartoonists.
The point is that while the direct consequences of publishing the images in question in such a hostile climate are apparent (and therefore carry with them a certain amount of blame), the foundation and continuation of an environment where the line between freedom of speech and righteous indignation is so thin is a cause in itself worthy of a good deal more scrutiny than a single cartoon.
Let’s return to the less politically charged example of Mr Zuckerberg and his formula.
The agents at play in this example are Eduardo who possesses the formula, Mark who possesses the drive and the idea for moving social networking into a new era, and Facebook: the event itself. If Eduardo had refused to give Mark the formula for his site, what would have been the result? Mark was a dogged and determined individual who sought to create his site against any odds.
If the Winklevoss twins had never sent Mark a cease-and-desist order (which he callously disregarded), we’d likely have a trove of people positing the ‘what if’ scenario that they had.
“Can you imagine if those twins that sued Facebook had actually put a stop to it early on? Seriously, if they had just got a cease-and-desist back before Mark had any money or power, the whole Facebook phenomenon would’ve never happened!”
Seriously, resting the entirety of Facebook on one or two moments of penultimate importance is a way of creating tension and drama for Hollywood (think Changing Lanes or Sliding Doors), but has little bearing on reality. If Zuckerberg had never been given the formula by Eduardo, he’d have taken a few extra days to find a manual workaround which mightn’t have been as robust, but he’d have found a way. The notion of these life-changing moments happening is a pleasant one, because it allows us to think that such a moment may come for our lowly selves and change our lives tomorrow. We could be famous, rich, heroic, virtuous or influential, if but for one lottery-winning moment of grace.
So the blog post for this gorgeous Monday morning is simply a plea for reduced sensationalism of thought. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was hatred, nor Facebook.