The recently satirical New Yorker cover depicting Obama and his wife as fist-bumping Islamic terrorists comes under fire in an article for The Chronicle by psychologist Mahzarin Banaji who argues that it irresponsibly creates an implicit association between “Obama and Osama”. Banaji is almost certainly right, but neglects higher levels of cognition which can make this ineffectual.
Banaji is most known for her extensive work on the implicit association test (IAT), which we discussed only the other day. What this and other work has shown is that despite our conscious thoughts (“hair colour has no association with intelligence”) we still might have an unconscious bias that associates certain concepts (‘blonde’ and ‘dim’).
Along these lines, Banaji suggests that the artist, Barry Blitt, who created the picture has harmed the political debate by unintentionally strengthening an inappropriate link:
The brain, Blitt would be advised to understand, is a complex machine whose operating principles we know something about. When presented with A and B in close spatial or temporal proximity, the mind naturally and effortlessly associates the two. Obama=Osama is an easy association to produce via simple transmogrification. Flag burning=unpatriotic=un-American=un-Christian=Muslim is child’s play for the cortex. Learning by association is so basic a mechanism that living beings are jam-packed with it ‚Äî ask any dog the next time you see it salivating to a tone of a bell. There is no getting around the fact that the very association Blitt helplessly confessed he didn’t intend to create was made indelibly for us, by him.
It is not unreasonable, given the inquiring minds that read The New Yorker, to expect that an obvious caricature would be viewed as such. In fact, our conscious minds can, in theory, accomplish such a feat. But that doesn’t mean that the manifest association (Obama=Osama lover) doesn’t do its share of the work. To some part of the cognitive apparatus, that association is for real. Once made, it has a life of its own because of a simple rule of much ordinary thinking: Seeing is believing. Based on the research of my colleague, the psychologist Daniel Gilbert, on mental systems, one might say that the mind first believes, and only if it is relaxing in an Adirondack chair doing nothing better, does it question and refute. There is a power to all things we see and hear ‚Äî exactly as they are presented to us.
It strikes me that Banaji is perhaps being a little disingenuous here. Certainly the advert does strengthen that unconscious association, but, as as the intention of most satire, it attempts to include another association into the mix – that of absurdity.
In other words, the idea of the cartoon is presumably to trigger the association Obama = terrorist, but also include another so it becomes Obama = terrorist = absurd. It’s the humourists equivalent of the reductio ad absurdum argument.
Of course, this can rely as much on the same implicit associations as Banaji mentions, but it can be also seen to work very effectively through a process of reinterpretation that alters the impact of automatic connections through changing their meaning.
In fact, this process so can be so powerful that it is used to treat psychiatric problems.
In clinical work it is called ‘cognitive restructuring’. For example, in panic disorder, people begin to interpret normal bodily reactions (increased heart rate, temperature etc) as a sign of impending heart attack or other danger, which leads to more anxiety, further interpretations and a spiral of terrifying anxiety.
Cognitive restructuring teaches people that these bodily changes and worried thoughts aren’t signs of an impending heart attack, they’re normal reactions, and the spiral of anxiety is not a risk to your health, just a pattern you’ve got into. In other words, they begin to believe something different about the significance of the link.
Humour also relies on a process of reinterpretation. Most theories of humour stress that it usually requires the reframing of a previously held association.
However, the key to good satire is that this reframing should be obvious and we might speculate that the reframing effect should be more powerful than the effect of simply reviving the old association.
We can perhaps wonder then, whether the controversy over the New Yorker cover is not that it made an association between Obama and terrorism, but that it was not effective enough in making it obviously absurd.
I suspect one of the difficulties is that the cartoon was actually attempting to satirise not Obama, but the media discussion of him. This is always a risky strategy because it requires so much cognitive abstraction that the automatic association is far more apparent.
Link to Banaji’s article in The Chronicle.