CAIR-Chicago Talks “Free Speech” with Cartoonist Scott Stantis

CAIR-Chicago hosted veteran cartoonist Scott Stantis for a discussion about how Islam is portrayed in the changing political cartoon landscape. Stantis has worked for the Chicago Tribune since 2009, and has also worked at several other publications such as The Birmingham News and The Arizona Republic.

A cartoonist for 30 years, Stantis said cartoons are a “great way to project ideas and ideals”. He also considers himself to be a provocateur, and his job as a cartoonist is to get people to think. Many cartoonists, he says, especially when it comes to portraying Islam, fail to think for themselves and habitually follow mainstream narratives that can be damaging.

When asked about over-sensitivity on topics such as race, gender, and religion, Stantis said it’s difficult to talk about topics without inciting severe reactions, yet there’s still a clear line between being rude and making a statement. Having the freedom to be hateful does not mean one should be. He reference several examples of cartoons from throughout America’s history that crossed the line into being racist, specifically drawing parallels between current demonizing imagery surrounding Muslims and 19th century caricatures of Irish and other immigrants. Some modern examples he used were the cartoons of Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, calling them insensitive and preposterous. Stantis said news outlets and even cartoonists can be “seduced” by the idea that Islam is one entity. This misunderstanding leads to negative portrayals based on extreme yet well publicized outliers.

Yet Stantis admitted that he too has at times been guilty of this destructive mentality. In 2006, he published cartoon of Pope Benedict XVI expressing peace while an ominous Muslim caricature threatened to kill him for it. When asked about the drawing, Stantis called it an unfortunate mistake, he’s not proud of it, and wouldn’t draw something like that now. Interns and staff discussed with him his process of self-reflection, the difficulty in challenging ideas, and often finding oneself pushing concepts too far. The discussion was honest and Stantis reiterated how valuable it was for cartoonist and the public to engage in open conversation.

Despite falling into the same biased trap, Stantis believes it’s important to admit mistakes and learn from them. Unfortunately, Stantis explained, people reflexively adopt certain narratives, which is why some cartoonist follow their political parties or the mainstream news cycle instead of creating thought-provoking images. “When we get afraid we act irrational,” Stantis said. “But we have to be careful.”

As with all types of media, cartoons and the artists behind them have a responsibility to encourage their audience to think outside of the box. Stantis said it’s good to have feedback to know what the landscape is evolving to, and without it there will be no room for improvement.

Despite political and philosophical differences, the discussion was a demonstration of mutual respect, curiosity, and honest dialogue. CAIR-Chicago is glad to have made the connection with Stantis and looks forward to maintaining the relationship in the future.