Toronto Star crosses line for stigmatizing mental health issues

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“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

I know that bit of wisdom isn’t a gem the Lawton family can exclusively lay claim to, though I can still hear it rather clearly from my mother – and another variation from her mother.

It’s important advice in lots of areas, not the least of which being the exercising of the right to free speech and the embrace of other liberties we hold dear.  Society functions best when people have the latitude to choose their words and actions, even with the understanding some will choose the wrong ones.

This process is what Lord Moulton called the domain of manners – the space between what one is forbidden to do, like murdering or stealing, and what one would find morally benign to do, like drinking a coffee or walking down the street.

As a free speech advocate, it’s always an important balance.  The line at which I believe speech should be censored is miles higher than the one at which I think people should decide on their own to shut their traps.

A political cartoon found its way between these lines this week, taking aim at an issue near and dear to my heart – mental illness.

Toronto Star cartoonist Michael de Adder satirized Ontario Tourism Minister Lisa MacLeod’s harsh exchange of words with Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk with a cell showing a strait jacket-clad MacLeod being hauled into the distance by two orderlies who are telling her, “Yes Ms. MacLeod, we know who you are.”

MacLeod apologized for the “blunt” feedback she offered Melnyk, who did the media rounds to reject her apology and demand Premier Doug Ford fire her, which he didn’t.  There are lots of conclusions a reasonable person could draw (pun intended) about the interaction.  De Adder’s cartoon isn’t among them.

The premise of the cartoon is not a political one, but rather a personal one – that a cabinet minister is insane.  It would be easy to dismiss as a stupid gag were MacLeod not such a candid survivor of mental illness – a phenomenon that’s affected me as well.

Three years ago, MacLeod opened up about a period of several months in which she was seriously impacted by clinical depression.  She did what so many going through it do in putting on smile and facing the world, but it wasn’t until she got professional help that she was able to get back into being the firecracker MPP Ontarians know her as.

I was nowhere near as successful as MacLeod was when I went through my own struggles, but nevertheless I battled depression for a period of several years that included a nearly successful suicide attempt.  When I ran for office just over a year ago and a national spotlight was cast on my own conduct within that period, a political cartoonist decided to give me the illustrated treatment to score a few clicks and a couple of laughs at my expense.

I’m one of these people who believes comedy should be able to go anywhere, so I wasn’t offended but would be lying to say the piece wasn’t designed to be cruel rather than clever.  There was no joke at which one could laugh.  Just an insult.  The same is true of de Adder’s drawing of MacLeod.

Before you all shout “But free speech!” know that I’m not saying he shouldn’t have had the right to do the cartoon.  Of course he did; no one is arguing otherwise, including MacLeod and her colleagues.  He has the right to depict her in such a callous way, just as everyone else has the right to tell him off for it.

And many have.  From the Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Mental Health Association to MPP and Ontario Liberal Party leadership candidate Michael Coteau, people of all stripes have spoken up to say this isn’t kosher.  I have no interest in jumping into social media mobs, having been on the other side of term.  But I hope de Adder and his colleagues will, moving forward, focus on making a point, which is at the centre of any good satire.

This week, I’m at a conference in the United Kingdom devoted to media freedom; there’s actually a section dedicated to political cartoons that have taken aim at censors and autocrats.

I’m grateful to be in a country where it isn’t off limits to criticize the political elites.  While I don’t believe this right necessarily comes with any legal responsibilities beyond compliance with the law, it does come with a moral one.  One’s right to draw does not mean the rules of civility should be abandoned or obliterated.

Photo Credit: Michael de Adder, Toronto Star

Andrew Lawton is a fellow at the True North Initiative and a Loonie Politics columnist.

More from Andrew Lawton.     @andrewlawton

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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