Trayvon, totem and taboo.

Yet another teapot tempest at UNC, this time over the publishing of a cartoon about Trayvon Martin. There are always going to be people who hate the DTH and they typically hold dearly to this narrative and selectively pounce at every opportunity to affirm it. I have a whole thesis about this being a product of us drilling “follow your passions” into kids’ heads rather than “follow your reasons” but that’s for another day. But it’s worth trying to parse some of the ill-will.

I had several back-and-forth’s with people on Twitter and Facebook, hoping to see where all of the adverb-laden anger was precisely stemming from. I’ve got a few impressions.

I think it’s jarring to see the depiction of a dead person lying on the ground. While I don’t know what Drew Sheneman was going for with every facet of this illustration, I assume Trayvon being there is in fact meant to be jarring. It’s clear to me how this is not categorically bad and can be used to convey a powerful message. I get it.

The first accusation that really bothers me is that the DTH lacks diversity and racial sensitivity. Being white, I don’t get any cachet in this debate but I will say anyway that I don’t find this to be the case. The DTH is run almost entirely by progressive individuals who understand how not to be legitimately offensive. As for the lack of diversity, the DTH is open to all comers. The problem is, frankly, that black students haven’t wanted to join the DTH. They join in small numbers and the editorial board went for years without a black member. That has changed this semester. When I was opinion editor last year, I was glad to have one black columnist. I don’t believe in quotas, but I wanted a diversity of perspectives since the editorial board is a deliberative body. Our campus is also quite segregated and I frankly knew nothing about black issues on campus. I personally contacted the Black Student Movement at the beginning of my tenure and practically guaranteed them an exclusive column for the semester and they turned it down. I therefore have very limited sympathy on this front.

With respect to the cartoon itself, some people seemed upset, oddly, because the cartoon wasn’t funny.

As you can see, one of the points I tried to make was that not all editorial cartoons are funny, and are often intentionally quite severe. The example that always comes to my mind was Mike Luckovich’s amazing 9/11 tribute. Still gives me chills. There’s nothing funny about it. And if you want to be technical, Luckovich depicted the moment before the death of hundreds of people.

I’m NOT comparing Trayvon to 9/11. That’s absurd. I’m simply showing that one’s anger over not finding the toon funny is indicative of one’s own fault, not the toon’s.

What I think is striking about the Trayvon toon, and which I alluded to in the tweet above, is that Sheneman tried to blend both levity and severity. In fact, the bottom half is completely solemn, taken in isolation. Conversely, the top half is completely absurd.

*I think* Sheneman failed to make these two halves communicate. *I think* there’s unseemly asymmetry between the intensity of showing a dead Trayvon on the ground and Zimmerman up above. *I don’t think* it had to be that way. *I think* there was potential to exploit the incongruity to highlight the injustice in a young man lying dead on the ground as his killer provides an explanation that fails to conceal his racism, and the police officer practically scowling at the dead body, unable and/or unwilling to even rotate himself to face the victim. There’s power in that image. It just didn’t come together in this cartoon. But I can respect what Sheneman was trying for.

The last thing that got to me were comparisons to Eve Carson. Here’s a representative sample.

I don’t know if there were any absurd elements (in the non-theatrical sense) to Eve’s killing. The absurdity in Trayvon’s death is that his killer has been consistently incapable of providing a compelling case for self-defense yet has not been arrested. That’s what was being mocked and deservedly so. I don’t know what an analog for Eve’s case would be.

But I do think there’s something telling in the Eve comparisons. I think for a lot of people and especially the black community, Trayvon has become sacred and totemic very much in the way that Eve Carson has. I think this is a natural human impulse but that I think we ought to all resist it. The tragedies of both Trayvon’s death and Eve’s death are sad enough on their own without ascribed sacredness.

I think to resist this is especially important in the Trayvon case. Zimmerman is a bad man because of his stubborn convictions and his sense of vigilante justice. The kind of behavior I am starting to see from people who are especially moved by the Trayvon case and were especially offended by the cartoon are beginning to exhibit — dare I say — the same qualities.


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