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May 09, 2010

Thinking in Caricature

If you've ever been to a fair, street carnival, or seaside boardwalk, you probably have one of these: a stylized, humorous portrait of yourself or your loved one, your head freakishly large and misshapen (and invariably grinning like a monkey), atop a spindly little body that is engaged in some activity that you told the artist you enjoyed -- riding a horse, jogging, water-skiing, or just standing around like a goof.

The term derives from the Italian caricare, which means to "charge" or "load". Thus a caricature is a "loaded portrait". The art form has been around for many centuries; caricatures of politicians have been found scratched into the walls of Pompeii. It is generally used as a kind of shorthand: it exaggerates certain physical aspects of the subject in order to give the viewer an idea of the subject's "inner person". It is meant to illuminate the subject's personality by assuming that personality is to extent at least expressed through the face and body.

Of course one man's humorous caricature is another man's outrage -- many an unfortunate artist has been sent to the gallows for making an unflattering portrait of the King. The wise artist knows how to read his subject, in other words: when the line between humor and cruel mockery has been crossed. (Some cross it deliberately, of course: much political caricature is deliberately cruel rather than humorous.)


The art of caricature (at least when done well) is often a very subtle and difficult one. How does an artist "catch" the personality of a person in a single image, particularly on short acquaintance? This difficultly explains why much of modern caricature is political in nature: we have a huge existing storehouse of metaphor and simile to relate to when it comes to politicians and politics. A caricaturist can draw a politician as a swine and we immediately know the topic is greed or gluttony; if as a monkey or ape, we know the topic is stupidity or excitability; if as a top-hatted toff with a monocle and a walking-stick, we know the topic is elitism or class-warfare.

This kind of thing is valuable in the sense that it's a concise and often humorous way to get an editorial point across. But it also has the inherent defect of over-simplification and distortion. A caricature is by definition an exaggeration, a comic misstatement of the subject.

Think now about what kind of world it would be: if when people saw the caricature some artist drew of you some July day on Coney Island that they thought that's really how you looked. Freakishly huge forehead, big Dumbo ears, a promontory of a nose, a mere afterthought of a chin, and a giant Cheshire grin full of piano-key teeth! What a specimen! But we know that not even a very stupid person assumes that a caricature is an accurate, real-life representation of the subject -- don't we?

Alas, this turns out not to be the case, at least in the non-visual realm. A comic drawing or sketch we can readily identify as caricature; a thought or idea much less so. In fact human beings are lamentably prone to thinking in caricature, of building their mental worlds around exaggerations and overstatements and misunderstandings.

In this country, the gulf between the politically Left/liberal and the Right/conservative is explained by this habit of thinking in caricature more than anything else. Most people can explain their own beliefs with fair accuracy, but often fall back on caricatures when describing that of their opponents. We see this all the time in the abortion arguments: pro-abortion advocates describe their foes as anti-female, anti-civil-rights, knuckle-dragging cave-dwellers; anti-abortion advocates describe their foes as baby killers and death-fetishists. The mental model of the opposition exists only in caricature, and a particularly blunt sort of caricature at that: one that admits very little subtlety or nuance.

This habit persists across all kinds of ideological divides. Free-market vs welfare-state, large and paternalistic government vs a small and non-interventional government, hawkish vs dovish foreign policy...the list goes on and on. And over time we in America seem to have lumped together all these caricatures into two big piles labeled "liberal" and "conservative" and then predicate much of our political thought on them.

The Founders clearly were not men who thought in caricature, or at least knew enough to suppress the temptation. They tried hard to listen to their political opponents, to understand even when they did not agree. They knew that reasonable compromise can only flow out of mutual understanding.

That spirit was lost almost as soon as the Republic was established, though, and has only grown more pronounced as the population has grown in both size and diversity. We have reached a point now, much as we did in the 1850's, where compromise seems completely impossible. A major health-care bill that affects every single citizen in the country can be ramrodded through Congress without a single vote by the opposition party, and still declared by its supporters as an "historic success". On nearly every major social and civic issue facing the country, liberals and conservatives are implacably opposed to one another.

Our political house now is as divided as it has ever been, and the rift seems to get wider with every day that goes by. The mental caricatures harden and ossify until they admit no nuance or subtlety at all -- the caricature is reality, as far as we're concerned, and if reality doesn't agree, well, so much the worse for reality. This is madness -- literally so. A person who believes in a mental world that doesn't accord well with the physical world is judged to be insane. We now have a country where hundreds of millions of insane people are running around.

Charles Mackay, in his book Extraordinary Popular Delusions & The Madness of Crowds, posited that individually-sane people become more prone to irrationality when part of a larger group. The mechanism seems to be the diffusion of responsibility for outcome: if things go wrong, no one person can be blamed, yet the benefit (if any) accrues to all. If you combine this trait with a habit of thinking in caricature, you end up with many of the maladies that afflict us in the modern world: booms, busts, crashes, ideological warfare, and lack of social cohesion. It's astonishing that the Republic has lasted as long as it has (and it was a close-run thing). And we have managed it by forcing ourselves, often with the greatest of pain, to compromise. To force ourselves to get rid of the mental caricatures and adapt ourselves to the real world.

I say all this not as a centrist making a crie de coeur to my conservative colleagues to make common cause with our liberal brethren. Ideology, morals, and ethics matter. There are real and fundamental differences between liberals and conservatives in this country, and those differences matter. It's not just a question of means, but also of ends.

I am simply saying that it is incumbent to bear your beliefs in detail, so that the purpose and intent are not misstated. Don't think in caricatures! You must strive to understand your opponent, but also strive to understand yourself. Why do you believe what you believe? What end do you seek (if any)? What purpose do you serve on this earth (if any)? Do your actions serve your beliefs? How willing are you to stand up for and sacrifice for the things that you believe?

Here's the thing about the caricatures you get at Coney Island or on the carnival midway: no one takes them seriously. Not even you.

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posted by Monty at 10:06 AM

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