Dilbert, Jesus & Censorship At The Lord’s University
Posted by Shawn L on March 25, 2008
As a Christian, does this comic offend you? Does it cross the oh-so-fine line between humor and sacrilege? For the staff at BYU’s Daily Universe, the answer to both questions was a very definite “yes.”
The March 10-14, 2008 Dilbert strips dealt with the exploits of a new cubicle dweller named Jesus, pronounced “Hay-Soos.” (You can find all of the strips here.) Over the short course of his career, Jesus gains a following among the staff and proclaims himself the “saver of databases.” Eventually, management (after being tipped off by Dilbert in exchange for 40 shares of company stock) fires Jesus out of fear that he is bucking for the CEO’s job, only to find that he has returned several days later.
Both generally and in these specific strips, Dilbert does not aspire to especially high-brow or edgy humor. Nevertheless, the Universe Editorial Staff found the cartoons so offensive that they switched them out for old, presumably less-charged, strips (I bet they all had something to do with that weird talking dog thing that works in the office). As is the case with virtually every decision made at BYU, student reaction — as reflected in the subsequent Letters to the Editor — was mixed, with supporters thanking the Universe for being a watchman on the tower against sacrilege, and detractors calling the paper “a biased, pro-censorship media outlet.”
Days later, in a rather terse editorial entitled “No Apologies For Replacing Offending Dilbert Cartoons, the Universe staff stood its ground, justifying their stance with the following analysis:
“While it may seem blasphemous to some modernists, the unrestrained flow of information (even with something as non-consequential as a cartoon) is not our highest aim at The Daily Universe, nor is it at any reputable news organization. Journalists have a responsibility to their community – not only to provide it with the best possible information that informs and engages its readership, but also to think of the overall good of itself and of the community. News organizations must constantly calculate what is to be gained and lost with what is sent to the press. In this case, the decision was an easy one.”
Given the context, I find their use of the word “blasphemous” to be a bit confrontational. Moreover, I recognize Dilbert is not high art, but I’m not sure cartoons are so “non-consequential” that they may be dismissed out of hand as a somehow lesser form of journalism. (Don’t think cartoons can convey a powerful message? Try telling that to Benjamin Franklin, Richard Nixon or even Mitt Romney.)
The bigger issues raised, however, are (i) the role of the Universe as the arbiter of information at BYU, and (ii) the appropriate use of religious imagery. As to the first point, I certainly agree (and so will any other former Zoobie) that “the unrestrained flow of information” is not the “highest aim at The Daily Universe.” I also agree that journalists “have a responsibility”; I just happen to believe that that responsibility requires an honest and open exchange of ideas. Regardless of their spin, the Editorial Staff did not act here to censor a objectively-identifiable obscenity or falsehood. Rather, they used a narrow, lowest-common-denominator approach to Christianity, denying their readers an opportunity to make up their own minds as to the appropriateness of the cartoon at issue. That, my friends, is censorship. I can’t see how the “overall good” of the BYU community was served by this knee-jerk decision. As to the second point, if this cartoon is considered too offensive to print, can there ever be a printable discussion of Christ or sacred Mormon issues in a context outside worship? Humor definitely can go too far, but are we so thin-skinned that we can’t handle a comic strip like this? What’s next? Should we look askance at the Family Circus the next time Jeffy cracks wise about Christmas?
Personally, I’ve never liked Dilbert, so I find these strips just as offensive as every other Dilbert on the sole ground that they’re just not funny. But I recognize that reasonable minds may differ. Let’s hear what you have to say.