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This newsletter is the eighth in a series on complexity. Our
informal and formal educational systems, and our everyday life
experiences, help us learn to deal with the complexities of complexity.
Understanding and Mastering
Complexity: The Role of Caricature
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
This is the second of several articles on the important roles that
analogy, caricature, humor itself, and analogical extensions play in
helping us to understand and then to master complexity.
and other forms of humor quickly get to the essence of understanding
and diffusing complex issues. That's probably why folks who do this
effectively play such important societal roles.
cartoonists, and viral videos on the Web often ridicule poorly thought
through political and cultural proposals. Their analogical ridicule
then frequently gets more attention than the original proposal. When
Obamacare became the morphed version of the Affordable Care Act, it
switched attention from national health care to presidential hopes. The
presumed existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction was a principal
impetus for the Iraq War, but when none were found, their existence was
ridiculed as an example of a presidential fiasco.
The previous article in this series synthesized elements of Hofstadter and Sander's monumental work on analogy, Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking
(2013). Thought requires concepts, and analogies are perhaps the best
way to gradually understand a concept. Analogical thought identifies
and uses common elements between an understood concept and one that's
not yet understood. Using a water pump to explain a heart is a good
analogy because the key mechanism in both pumps and hearts regulates
the flow of liquid. A person who understands how water gets pumped
technologically can thus move towards understanding how blood flows
This illustrates one of the difficulties in
teaching. Each student has a unique background of knowledge and skills.
A teacher and instructional materials try to explain new concepts using
analogies based on knowledge all students are assumed to have. But,
some don't have it! This is especially true in teaching a group of
students with mixed language and cultural backgrounds.
Successful Comedians and Cartoonists
What successful comedians and cartoonists do in ridicule is to create a
caricature of a current situation. Although their exaggerated
simplification of the issue (that starts the laughter) might initially
seem superficially incorrect or unfair, effective caricature either
actually represents the central issue or at least nudges people into
thinking that it does. Caricatures of issues work best when they
represent the emotions of the audience through an unexpected analogy
that immediately resonates. A straightforward analogy is too bland for
the passionate. They want their criticism to go to the edge and to
analogically highlight the elements that sparked their passion.
example, late night comedian Jimmy Fallon took on both Presidents Obama
and Bush in a simple caricature that encapsulated very complex
governmental responsibilities. He suggested that the almost $900
billion health care act is about 2000 pages long, and so it cost about
$2 million per word. Fallon suggested that these were the most
expensive words to come out of Washington, D.C., since George W. Bush's
"Mission Accomplished" speech given on May 1, 2003.
Caricature and Political Power The U.S. is a secular democracy. Since a secular democracy was a
new concept in 1789, we had to design it ourselves. No monarch or state
religion would exist, and majorities would determine legislation and
administration. Courts would insure individual rights. Still, power
could move towards a relatively small group of wealthy people and/or
those who controlled powerful cultural organizations.
updated medieval English Court Jester could perhaps become the solution
for those who lacked political power—such as women, non-whites, the
young, and the poor. Wealth and organizational leadership can provide
power for the few, but the few will still have to get the majority of
the rest to vote for them. Widespread ridicule within the
disenfranchised is thus a powerful antidote for political pretensions
Fast forward to the 21st century and a national
population of 300 million. The various forms of social media have
further elevated the importance of contemporary Court Jesters to
rapidly shape opinion and to strike fear into the hopefully powerful.
Politicians who might otherwise say one thing to one group of voters
and the opposite to another have learned the truth of what comedian Jon
Stewart said, "Don't they know that we tape everything, and we never
erase the tapes?" Control problems still remain 200+ years later, but
the powerful white male property owners who controlled things at the
founding of our country are encountering more and more opposition.
What Makes Caricature Effective?
Assume a political or cultural proposal with potential problems. If the
problem is systemic, the caricature should get to the heart of the
problem. If the systemics of the proposal are OK but the proposal
doesn't consider the possible negative effect of variables, the
caricature should be directed at an example of an especially vulnerable
variable. It's frequently possible to argue both sides of the same such
issue with almost identical analogies. For example, consider these two
bumper stickers: Work Harder: Millions on welfare depend on you. -and-
Work Harder: Wealthy people need their tax breaks.
either seek to ridicule structural or superficial features of the
proposal. A structural feature is something that defines the category
itself (the purpose of immigration). A superficial feature refers to
things that can be modified without necessarily affecting the function
of the category (immigrant selection criteria).
societal problems are now too complex for an average person to
understand, caricature as a form of analogy frequently begins by
ridiculing superficial features (Annoyed by immigrants? Tell it to the
Indians.). One might think that this is a negative approach for making
a point when human cognition is basically about thoughtful analysis.
Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman begs to disagree (2011). He defines two
systems we use to determine decision and consequent behavior. Emotion
is a primitive evolutionary system that allows us to rapidly size up
and then respond to a situation. Inferential reasoning capability came
along much later and requires an advanced understanding of the issue
and rational thought prior to decision and response.
thus see features of an issue that novices either don't see or don't
know how to interpret. To the extent that Jesters can insert the
essence of depth into surface features, they help the naive to get into
the structural issues without extensive initial study. The opposing
side also has its Jesters. Democracy rests on the ability of voters to
attend to both sides before arriving at a decision. So maybe it's the
Jesters and the political artists who have now most increased their
political power in an electronic age.
We're a secular
democracy with a strong scientific focus. This has caused a rift. Both
religion and science are currently seeking increased political power.
Church and science differ in perspective and in the way they validate
claims, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that the Jesters have
entered the caricature fray on both sides. For example, "This
scientific paper contains much that is new and true. Unfortunately,
that which is true isn't new, and that which is new isn't true." -and-
"Don't pray in my school and I won't think in your church."
the increased impressionistic availability of caricature in social
media, educators must especially help students learn to understand the
role of caricature in analogical thought.
Hofstadter, D., and Sander, E. (2013). Surfaces and essences: Analogy as the fuel and fire of thinking. New York: Basic Books.
Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the
University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to the IAE Newsletter.
His most recent books are A
Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press)
and The Adolescent
Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press). He also
helped to write/edit three books for IAE. See http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Newsletter.
He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection
during its entire 2000-2009 run. Contact information: email@example.com.
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