This morning my husband and I were reading commentaries on the July 21st cover of the New Yorker magazine featuring a satirical depiction of Michelle and Barack Obama, and we were struck by the ways interpretations of the image differed from each other and our own.
What the artist, Barry Blitt, asks viewers to do in this image is to interpret it as a caricature of a caricature. As Blitt explains, the image, entitled "Politics of Fear" is intended not as a satire of Barack and Michelle Obama rather as a satire of certain sectors of the media's representation of rumors/propaganda that have been floating around the Obamas. (See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/07/13/barry-blitt-addresses-his_n_112432.html. However, many Obama supporters criticize the image as offensive and Obama spokesman Bill Burton released the statement: "The New Yorker may think, as one of their staff explained to us, that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Sen. Obama's right-wing critics have tried to create. But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree." Other Obama supporters argue the image is positive for the campaign: it brings to light the false rumors/innuendos/connotations (on things such as Michelle's supposed militancy, Barack's rumored lack of patriotism, and the suspicious rhyming of "Obama" with "Osama,") and through a funny ‘over the top' image makes people confront the ridiculousness of these rumors which explicitly or implicitly may be affecting their beliefs about the Obamas. See fellow PT blogger Stuart Fischoff on the effects (or lack thereof) of not the image but the controversy around the image.
I'm not going to present my interpretation of this illustration (much less get into why it shouldn't be considered tasteless or offensive!) nor get into how the controversy over it is handled in the media. I'm interested in a social cognitive question-thinking about how complex and layered the relationship between intentions, imagery and interpretations (not to mention how interpretations of how others may interpret imagery and intentions etc. etc.) can be around satirical images such as this, and reflect on what it requires of our mind/brains to make sense of them. It is apparent from the controversy that viewers, even those from roughly the same political perspective, see the image in very different ways.
Irony, Theory of Mind, and Development
Studies of irony are part of a stream of psychological research often termed "theory of mind." Theory of mind research looks at how we theorize about others' beliefs, desires, intentions. When someone makes an ironic statement, we need to recognize that she is not communicating literally, we need to have a theory about her mind's intentions as different from our literal interpretation of her words to recognize and understand the irony. To date, studies of irony have been usually limited to simple verbal expressions (e.g., a person shown in a picture of sunny, warm day says "What awful weather!," a mom struggling to carry bags says to her unburdened son "Thanks for your help."). Even in such simple expressions such as these, researchers detail out a fairly complex process of how we take information from context, situation, and tone to recognize an expression as ironic rather than just literally true (For a comprehensive up-to-date collection and review of studies of irony see Gibbs & Colston, 2007). Some research finds that we first interpret a situation literally, and then later-perhaps only milliseconds later-see it as ironic. Researchers even have some insights into which parts of our brain are important for detecting sarcasm (the right parahippocampal gyrus in case you were wondering)
We're not born recognizing irony; over time children develop a greater understanding. Preschool children can be sensitized to the simplest forms of irony, but there is particular growth in both the ability to understand and create ironic expressions in middle childhood (5-10 years old), with some growth continuing through adulthood. As we develop, we become more aware of how various contextual and situational cues can signal irony, and we can interpret more subtle forms (Filippova & Astington, 2008; Pexman & Glenwright, 2007). Some sub-populations, such as people with autism spectrum disorders, find detecting irony a challenge throughout their lives (Martin & McDonald, 2004).
The type of understanding or irony that seems to develop more or less from being around varied social contexts by the time you are ten or so, does not prepare you however to make the complex interpretations required by the many satirical images and dialogue in contemporary culture. We need more targeted education/experience for that. Ironic images are ubiquitous in our visual culture and satire can be powerful artistic/social/political tool that is particularly good at getting us to simultaneously examine related truths and falsehoods. But, as we can see from the controversy over the New Yorker image, understanding satire is not a given (This is of course not to say you couldn't get the satire and still find it a ‘tasteless and offensive' image). It is also pretty interesting to note that at least some of the controversy seems to stem from people thinking along the lines of "I get it but I worry about others who won't get it"( which leads to a whole ‘nother line of social cognitive research on self/other biases I won't get into now...)
(And, yes, it does strike me as ironic that the New Yorker cover that is intending to be satirical about the tasteless offensiveness of media representations is accused of being a tasteless and offensive media representation).
Filippova, E., & Astington, J. (2008, January). Further development in social reasoning revealed in discourse irony understanding. Child Development, 79(1), 126-138.
Gibbs, R., & Colston, H. (Eds.) (2007). Irony in language and thought: A cognitive science reader. Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
Martin, I., & McDonald, S. (2004, June). An exploration of causes of non-literal language problems in individuals with Asperger syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34(3), 311-328.
Pexman, P., & Glenwright, M. (2007, March). How do typically developing children grasp the meaning of verbal irony?. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 20(2), 178-196.
Wang, A., Lee, S., Sigman, M., & Dapretto, M. (2006, April). Neural basis of irony comprehension in children with autism: The role of prosody and context. Brain: A Journal of Neurology, 129(4), 932-943.