Can memes revive political satires and cartoons?

I had a realisation this week that, in a way, memes are a millennial’s version of the political cartoon. That realisation came after Ms. Priyanka Sharma shared on Facebook a photoshopped image of a recent photo of Bollywood heroine Priyanka Chopra from the MET Gala event in New York, replacing her face with that of the Chief Minister of West Bengal and Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Ms. Mamata Banerjee, and it went viral. Outside of making her friends laugh and poking fun at her political opponent during this time of general elections in India, I think she didn’t mean to make any sort of political statement with it, at least the image doesn’t convey anything. Ms. Sharma is an activist of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), the youth wing of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a political opponent of TMC in the state of West Bengal.

Priyanka Chopra at MET Gala 2019
Priyanka Chopra at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute advantage occasion commending the opening of the “Camp: Notes on Fashion” show on May 6, 2019, in New York. (Photograph by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Viral content on social media like memes are becoming frequent content in political communication too. Recent years we have witnessed satirical, funny and very popular form of presenting political candidates in memes on social media. Watching the meme spread made me realise memes are often used as, or interpreted as, a political statement — just like political cartoons.

Cartoons or caricatures are visual representations, words or signs which are supposed to have an element of wit, humour or sarcasm. Freedom of speech cannot be encroached upon if there is no incitement to violence or intention of disrupting public order, says the Bombay High Court judgement on Aseem Trivedi’s cartoons.

Ms. Banerjee and her party TMC weren’t amused. One of her party colleague lodged a police complaint against Ms. Sharma. Following the complaint, West Bengal police immediately arrested the 25-YO girl on May 10 under section 500 (defamation) of the Indian Penal Code and under other provisions of the Information Technology Act and put her under 14-day judicial remand. Her arrest was followed by protests from the BJP and other social media users. The speed of arrest is really noteworthy.

According to an article on PETRIe written by Sergio López and edited by Elena Stanciu, when printing material gained popularity in Europe, satire became an important political tool to control public opinion. In particular satire, a visual and verbal type of news discourse, the so-called political cartoon, enjoyed great success. New ways of communication, and the endless opportunities that the internet brought about, helped this process of gradual change. Well-respected political cartoonists were abruptly replaced by social media users able to produce short-live content.

During the hearing before granting her bail today, the Supreme Court bench observed that though freedom of speech is non-negotiable but “your freedom of speech ends when it infringes upon others’ rights.” Freedom of expression means that the government doesn’t interfere with an individual’s right to express their thoughts or feelings, so long as the expression doesn’t invoke or cause any immediate harm or danger. Due to the controversy on the morphed image, I am not posting it here. I wonder how can that banal meme cause any harm or danger to anybody, incite violence or disrupt public order! Maybe Ms. Banerjee and her party colleagues have lost their sense of humour in the heat of elections.

Political cartoons are an important tool to frame social crisis. This is because, contrary to journalists who strive to produce unbiased content, cartoonists are encouraged to choose a side. Because of their humorous nature, some experts argue that these illustrations are more provocative and influential than other forms of opinion.

Humour is the foundation of a cartoon and it is its limitation. Attempts to rationalise humour in terms of today’s utilitarian social structure probably explain why political cartooning, and the genre of cartooning as a whole is a dying art. Memes are often innocuous, used for banter and as an in-the-know way to communicate and feel part of a group. While they’ve been embraced for a harmless inanity, they also often veered into the harmful, racist, sexist, and violent.

In a fast-paced environment such as the internet, memes emerged as a one-dimensional satirical illustration; they don’t engage with the issue and, therefore, their moral message and practical impact are limited. In the twenty-first century, political humour experiences difficulties gaining traction, as everyone appears to be in on the joke.

12 thoughts on “Can memes revive political satires and cartoons?

    1. Indrajit Roy Choudhury

      Very true. Humour is the foundation of a cartoon and it is its limitation. Nehru himself was an ardent follower of Shankar’s cartoons about which he once remarked “Don’t spare me Shankar. Hit, hit, hit me hard.” We hardly get such politicians nowadays, who can enjoy the humour of a cartoon.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Indrajit Roy Choudhury

      Yes, Rakhi, memes are often innocuous, used for banter and as an in-the-know way to communicate and feel part of a group. While they’ve been embraced for a harmless inanity, they also often veered into the harmful, racist, sexist, and violent.

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  1. Ankur Mithal

    Unfortunate commentary on our times and on our egotistic politicians. I wonder if a similar meme of Saurav Ganguly or any other prominent non-political but well-known person (since we are talking Bengal) would have invited such swift retribution from the rulers whose usually thick skin turns wafer thin when it comes to them being in the hot seat. Eventually it is a commentary on us, the common men and women, who let such buffoonery survive. I guess we don’t see that the joke is on us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indrajit Roy Choudhury

      Very rightly said, sir. You will be surprised by an action of the Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh. I read in Financial Express today. Rajeshwar Shastri Musalgaonkar, a Sanskrit lecturer of Vikram University, Ujjain, was placed under suspension on May 7 and also attached to another department for predicting that BJP will win in the Lok Sabha polls. Where are these ministers and lawmakers leading our great nation to!!!
      Here is the link to the news item: https://www.financialexpress.com/elections/kamal-nath-government-suspends-lecturer-for-facebook-post-predicting-big-win-for-bjp-in-lok-sabha-polls/1577513/

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      1. Ankur Mithal

        Read about it. Shocking and sad to say the least. Unfortunately, many of us don’t suffer from either guilt pangs or erosion of self-respect. We will keep licking the hand of the same guy as long as it is feeding us, even though it may be tainted with the blood of others.

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  2. swamiupendra

    Problem is that, be it any party, it will enjoy and preach until it is somebody else’s face. As soon as their own face comes up, they will become equally intolerant. We have seen this with every major party. But, no doubt that memes are quickly replacing traditional cartoons.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indrajit Roy Choudhury

      Yes, all modern time politicians are of same colour. They’ve different scale when it matters to them, with a few exceptions. Intolerance to cartoons, memes, Facebook/Twitter posts has been shown by all the political parties. No party is holier in the present political ecosystem in this regard.

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  3. Durga Prasad Dash

    When politicians react to such memes they do more harm to themselves than the supposed perpetrators. Against the atrocities and the autocratic ways of the people in power, cartoons, memes etc. provide a kind of temporary relief to the helpless common man. The more tolerant a society is towards political satire be it in the form of cartoons or memes or words, the more developed it is.

    Liked by 1 person

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