Democracy requires tolerance of criticism

Democracy requires tolerance of criticism

Newspaper cartoons seem to pique Greek politicians and public figures in general more than any other type of criticism, including vitriolic opinion pieces. I am not sure why.

Perhaps it’s because political sketches have the power to sum up an uncomfortable truth without words. Perhaps it makes them feel like a person who is emptying their heart out in front of a judgemental psychoanalyst. It may be that the sense of humor has been all but lost as public debate is swept by incivility and ad hominem attacks. It really is hard to say.

What is certain, on the other hand, is that public reactions to cartoons are a lot different than they were, say, 10 years ago. Personal attacks, bullying, even threats are the rule these days. Most annoying are the sweeping generalizations and stereotypes from all sides.

A cartoon is said to be critical of the government because the newspaper that published it did not get enough money from some list of alleged media beneficiaries; another cartoon meanwhile is deemed as too soft because the medium received tons of money from another list. It almost seems meaningless to explain that this is not how things work; that drawing a cartoon is a deeply creative process; that the likes of Ilias Makris, Andreas Petroulakis or Dimitris Hantzopoulos do not just sit in front of a drawing board just waiting for “instructions.” This is why frustration is almost universal.

Sure, it is convenient for politicians to attribute criticism directed against them to ulterior motives. They think that, in this way, they can fool any citizen-readers who do not belong to the pool of their uncritical supporters.

I admit that over the years, I have developed a peculiar sense of respect for those who engage with politics. I do not mean the sort of respect that shortens critical distance from politicians. I rather mean that I acknowledge that these people, regardless of their ideological beliefs, take the risk of entering the highly toxic cannibal meat grinder of social media. I can perhaps understand why this atmosphere has weakened their tolerance for humor.

At the same time, I have even more respect for cartoonists who can be edgy without giving in to populism; who can tolerate all that bullying in social media, the outrageous personal attacks, even the undisguised threats by local officials. Democracy requires politicians who can tolerate critical commentary and cartoons. Also, it requires cartoonists who can withstand illegitimate pressure and, even, character assassination attempts.

I really hope that politicians can rediscover their humor. Because cartoonists will certainly not lose theirs.

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