Growing up during the turmoil of the 1960’s and 1970’s, I wanted to help, to make things better. I wanted people to be happy and I wanted people to get along. The only thing I thought I knew how to do was draw cartoons. They made my mother and my friends happy, so I figured maybe I had a shot. I saw the editorial cartoonist Herblock make a difference in my hometown paper, the Washington Post. I set my sights to being an editorial cartoonist at that early age, and it took me a number of years to get there.
In 2005, after years of drawing political cartoons for The New Yorker, I woke up to read a front page above the fold story in the New York Times with the word “cartoon” in the headline. The article was about the recent events surround the publication in Denmark wherein cartoonists drew the image of Mohamed and this ended up causing a lot of violence and protests as a result. It was shocking to see how cartoons could have such an impact.
Soon afterwards, I was invited to be a part of a weeklong event at the United Nations, called Unlearning Intolerance, hosted by the Kofi Annan, then Secretary General. One day in the week, the twelve invited cartoonists from around the world spoke about their work and what cartoons mean to them. Mr. Annan opened the proceedings with these remarks (in part):
“I have always thought that cartoons are one of the most important elements in the press. They have a special role in forming public opinion — because an image generally has a stronger, more direct impact on the brain than a sentence does, and because many more people will look at a cartoon than read an article.
If you are flicking through a newspaper you have to make a conscious decision to stop and read an article, but it is hardly possible to stop yourself from looking at a cartoon.
That means that cartoonists have a big influence on the way different groups of people look at each other.
They can encourage us to look critically at ourselves, and increase our empathy for the sufferings and frustrations of others. But they can also do the opposite. They have, in short, a big responsibility.
Cartoons make us laugh. Without them, our lives would be much sadder. But they are no laughing matter: they have the power to inform, and also to offend. Short of physical pain, few things can hurt you more directly than a caricature of yourself, of a group you belong to, or — perhaps worst — of a person you deeply respect.
Cartoons, in other words, can both express and encourage intolerance, and also provoke it. And the sad truth is that they often do all three.”
It was overwhelming to hear someone of his stature felt this way about cartoons. That the United Nations — an organization I had always admired — valued what we do enough to hear us speak, was wonderful.
Around that time, Annan and Jean Plantu, cartoonist for Le Monde, created Cartooning for Peace. This group is still going strong and I feel is needed more than ever now. We speak at events, participate on panels, curate exhibitions, and visit schools. Membership is now 183 cartoonists from around the globe, and our cartoons are not specifically always about peace; the idea behind the organization is to use cartoons to facilitate communication and to understand others and other cultures.
CFP in also now a foundation and every two years gives a prize of financial support to a cartoonist whose life and work is in grave danger; I am honored to serve on the jury. Mr. Annan is Honorary Chair of the Foundation, and every two years I was fortunate to meet him in Geneva when we give out the prize. He was warm and generous and loved to laugh, it has been a highlight of my career to see him and talk with him over the years.
Kofi Annan achieved a great deal for peace in his lifetime, was the 2001 recipient of the Nobel Prize, yet he took time to recognize the importance of cartoons. For that, I will always be grateful to him. In his absence, remembering his championship of what we do will stay with me. The Kofi Annan I knew only briefly was a man of great seriousness and deep concern and commitment; but also a man who loved to laugh. These things are indeed compatible; my childhood ideas were not crazy. The world needs to smile, but we need to break down stereotypes, bridge divides and share commonalities. Cartoons can help.