Back to the Old Drawing Board: the power of humour in social change

March 9, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Last year’s corona cartoon competition and accompanying post by Pablo Suarez got a lot of people clicking and thinking about the role of humour in communicating about social change. Here Pablo’s collaborator and ace New Yorker cartoonist Pat Byrnes reflects on the 80th anniversary of a historic cartoon and what it tells us about social change.

Back to the drawing board cartoon

Eighty years ago this month, something funny happened. We learned a new expression for talking about the impossible.

The US was different then. Humbler. To the point of insecurity. Its obstacles were overwhelming. It had been pummeled by a decade of joblessness. And the emerging war in Europe intimidated the hell out of it. Even the prospect of building its way out of the Great Depression by becoming the “arsenal of democracy,” as President Roosevelt had proposed, felt beyond reach. Hitler’s sidekick Göring hit a sore spot when he mocked, “Americans should stick to making razor blades and refrigerators instead.” Why would Churchill even accept our planes when they crash so often? Plane crashes were regular headlines back then.

The New York Times gave a full page to two bombers that collided over New York City. Everyone aboard died. So did a woman sitting on her couch below, crushed by flaming debris.

A few months later, March 1, 1941, The New Yorker magazine responded with this full-page cartoon. It captures the alarm, the panic, the helplessness. So it was patently absurd that this one little fellow should turn his back so blithely and utter, “Well, back to the old drawing board.”

And yet, it was… so natural. So obvious. So liberating.

Within two years, this newly coined phrase graced more American lips than rationed meat. It became a watchword of can-do optimism. And the country was shattering its boldest projections in manufacturing technology for its allies.

Ideas have power. Especially when everyone gets to experience the power of having them.

Cartoons are ideas in visual form. And they give people that experience. Readers of Duncan Green’s FP2P blog have surely experienced how cartoons walk them to the threshold of insight and dangle a reward on the other side. But readers have to step through on their own to get it. When they do, they can then take ownership in it, and feel empowered to act.

The area of change where we have the most control is in ourselves. The prime target of the humor in New Yorker cartoons is typically its readers. Ask any of its cartoonists: their most self-deprecating cartoons are always their best received.

Is there anything else I can do wrong for you?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu pokes fun at himself all the time. He is very deliberate about it, because of its ability to support positive change. “I believe that one of the ways of changing the hearts of people,” he says, “is the capacity of making them laugh.”

If we laugh at ourselves, we admit we have room for improvement. And are open to change. It sets an example. But if that humor is something that others can relate to as well, then their hearts may likewise be opened. That’s the key to systemic change. Hearts before minds. And hearts at mass scale. Anyone who believes that mountains of data and a scolding tone are what change minds hasn’t been paying attention in the last few— well, ever.

Like seventy years ago, we are at another global existential crisis. How many different issues can you name that could take the place of the plane in the cartoon? Poverty, power, climate, development—how many more?

If ever there was a time to get “back to the old drawing board,” it is now, because what we are doing to change minds and hearts isn’t working. At least, it isn’t working fast enough, given the choices we confront.

Absurd as it sounds, I suggest that cartoons are an ally we need to—ahem—draw on. Cartoons, cartoonists, or simply the way cartoonists think. This cartoon, for example, was not done to entertain, but to reveal something urgent about attitudes around forecast-based financing for disaster relief. Initially created for a Red Cross Climate Centre conference, it was quickly co-opted by the UN World Food Programme as a central metaphor in a Reuters Foundation Report. The way humor often changes the way we see is by bringing clarity and concreteness.

Cold coffee cartoon

Seeing is believing. Rather than badger with abstract thoughts and data, we need to visualize the absurdities, contradictions, tensions and ambiguities that are unacceptable yet accepted, in order to change them. This requires mental models of crises and potential solutions that people can relate to. Metaphors, analogies, fables, parables, These things are the heart of our language and understanding. Wisdom teachers across the ages have used them because they engage empathy. They cut past the distracting detail to the heart of an issue. And the humor makes it possible for us to reconcile seemingly contradictory premises. When we can open our hearts with laughter, things don’t merely seem possible, they become possible.

The three component thought processes of cartooning—imagery, metaphor, and humor—activate and create functional connectivity between the three large-scale neural networks our brains require for creative thinking. The imaginative, the reactive, the analytical, all collaborating as one. Nothing else does that. At least, nothing that anyone can do, any time, anywhere, with the simplest of tools.

The physical act of putting pen to paper lets your mind wander with that line, and allows your subconscious mind to explore and discover. The goal isn’t to create great art, but to think with your whole creative brain. And then to engage the hearts and minds of others.

Here’s a simple example of where you can start: Instead of simply naming an issue on a whiteboard or slide, scribble a shapeless blob and label it. Instantly it becomes a thing. A thing with heft. A concrete reality, instead of an ethereal abstraction to be read and forgotten. Then, dare to laugh. Turn your back on panic and paralysis, and step out of that scene, into something more constructive.

It’s too soon to tell how we will prevail against the seeming impossible challenges we face seventy years after that great cartoon. But we know where to begin. By getting back to the you know what.

Pat Byrnes is a New Yorker cartoonist who has shared his talents with the likes of the Red Cross Climate Centre, World Bank, Open Source Fund and others. He is a co-founder of The Drawing Board, a training and creativity consultancy for business, centered around the art and science of thinking like a New Yorker cartoonist. Previous careers include ad copywriter, comedian, inventor, author, voice actor, and aerospace engineer.

March 9, 2021
Duncan Green