By Chris Lamb
Dilbert, the put-upon chronicler of office life, has been given the pink slip.
On Feb. 26, 2023, Andrews McMeel Universal announced that it would no longer distribute the popular comic strip after its creator, Scott Adams, engaged in what many people viewed as a racist rant on his YouTube channel. Hundreds of newspapers had by then decided to quit publishing the strip.
It followed an incident in which Adams, on his program “Real Coffee with Scott Adams,” reacted to a survey by Rasmussan Reports that concluded only 53% of Black Americans agreed with the statement “It’s OK to be white.” If only about half thought it was OK to be white, Adams said, this qualified Black Americans as a “hate group.”
“I don’t want to have anything to do with them,” Adams added. “And I would say, based on the current way things are going, the best advice I would give to white people is to get the hell away from Black people, just get the f— away … because there is no fixing this.”
Adams later doubled down on his statements, writing on Twitter that “Dilbert has been cancelled from all newspapers, websites, calendars, and books because I gave some advice everyone agreed with.”
Adams is wrong. If everyone had agreed with him, “Dilbert” would still be appearing in newspapers.
The first “Dilbert” strip – a comic centered on mocking American office culture – appeared in 1989. It became a hit, and until recently, “Dilbert” ran in more than 2,000 daily newspapers across 65 countries.
Now, according to Adams, his client list is “around zero.”
Therein lies the moral of the story: Know thy audience.
Adams failed to grasp that being a social critic means your freedom of expression only goes as far as your audience is willing to accept it. Adams could say whatever he wanted to his YouTube audience because his listeners may have agreed with what he said.
Unfortunately for him, what he said on his program did not stay on his program.
But Adams’ comfortable salary depended on his satisfying a wider audience – many of whom found his opinions intolerable.
America’s tradition of free speech
In a country that prides itself on its tradition of free expression, it’s important to explore the limits of free expression in the United States. This can be done in part by looking at social criticism, as I did in my book “Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons.”
Cartoonists are limited by their imagination, talent, taste and their senses of humor, morality and outrage. If they want an audience they must also consider the tastes and sensibilities of their editors and readers.
The United States may pride itself on its tradition of free speech, but cartoonists throughout the nation’s history have been jailed, beaten, sued and censored for their drawings.
In 1903, the governor of Pennsylvania, Samuel W. Pennypacker, called for restrictions against journalists after a Philadelphia newspaper cartoonist had depicted him as a parrot during the previous fall’s gubernatorial campaign. A state representative then introduced a bill that made it illegal to publish a cartoon “portraying, describing or representing any person … in the likeness of beast, bird, fish, insect or other inhuman animal” that exposed the person to “hatred, contempt, or ridicule.” Another cartoonist then drew the governor as a frothy stein of beer and the bill’s author as a small potato.
The bill failed to pass.
Cartoonists working for the socialist magazine The Masses were accused of undermining the war effort during World War I with their anti-war opinions and prosecuted under the Espionage Act.
And during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, newspapers canceled Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” comic strip after Kelly drew Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev as a medal-wearing hog and Cuban leader Fidel Castro as a cigar-smoking goat because they thought the strip might jeopardize the peace process.
Perhaps no cartoonist – before the ax fell on “Dilbert” – has seen his strip canceled by more newspapers than Garry Trudeau, creator of “Doonesbury.” In 1984, dozens of newspapers canceled a series of strips wherein which Doonesbury’s dim-witted newsman Roland Burton Hedley took readers on a trip through then-President Ronald Reagan’s brain, finding “80 billion neurons, or ‘marbles,’ as they are known to the layman.” And Trudeau’s syndicate, Universal Press, refused to distribute a strip that satirized an anti-abortion documentary.
In other countries, cartoonists have been murdered in retaliation for their work. Famously, on Jan. 7, 2015, two French Muslim terrorists entered the Paris office of the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 cartoonists, editors and police officers after the periodical published satirical drawings of the Prophet Muhammad.
The importance of context
Such controversies were generally caused by what cartoonists said in their cartoons. There have been exceptions. Al Capp, who created the comic strip “Li’l Abner,” saw his popularity wane in the 1960s and 1970s when he began expressing his far-right political opinion in both his strip and particularly in his public appearances.
Adams was similarly punished not for what he included in his comic strip but rather what for what he said on his YouTube program.
The context here is important. This was not the first time Adams has been censured after saying something deemed to be offensive. In May 2022, around 80 newspapers canceled “Dilbert” after Adams introduced his first Black character in the 30-plus year run of the strip. The character identified as white to prank his boss’s diversity goals.
Adams lost some newspapers when he decided to mock diversity in the business world. He lost his strip when he used racist language to attack Black people on his YouTube program.
Chris Lamb is Professor of Journalism at Indiana University.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
Chris Lamb left out “Non Sequitur” by Wiley Miller. Miller’s great offense is that he let his personal opinion of Donald Trump slip into one of his Sunday “bear coloring” strips. A genuine difference between Dilbert and Non Sequitur is that Non Sequitur is a truly interesting and funny strip that is worth seeking out. Dilbert’s depiction of life and office life in particular had become stale.
Another difference is that Scott Adams doubled down on his position. Wiley Miller apologized. However, I do not see Non Sequitur in either the Daytona News Journal or the St. Augustine Record. Florida newspapers seem to have also eliminated “letters to the editor”. Papers outside of Florida, such as the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, owned by the same USA Today, do have such letters.
RIP Dilbert says
Wow, Gary Larson’s Far side is gone, Doonsbury and now Dilbert. One less reason to pick up a mostly liberal these days news paper off the lawn. I get his point as I don’t see too many folks residing on the East side of town contemplating moving to Bunnell anytime soon (or Vice-versa) , but don’t say that on camera jackass!!! These days its go woke or go broke. Ironically only in Chicago does going woke get you fired!!! So long Lori light foot. LOL Anyway, Im sure Adams has a comfortable nest egg to retire on. His comic where the black guy identifying as white was asked to wear a better shirt to appear both gay and black to check off boxes in his employers metric was priceless satire. Your not going to get that from the peanuts or marmaduke.
The dude says
No worries, you’ll still be able to get your daily Dilbert giggles on the Daily Stormer, Twitter, or 4Chan…
@The Far Side abides
Best way to start the day, and almost as necessary as coffee.
“She touched me once
And life then stopped.
She held my hand,
My frog heart hopped.
She left my mouth
And formed a smile
With lips that promised:
“In a while.”
I look, I hope, I stand, a dunce—
Where is the one who touched me once?”
― Walt Kelly, The Pogo Poop Book
I don’t think Adams particularly cares. Before this descent into racism he has come out skeptical of the human origins of climate change.
On the flip side, it is a given that Blacks cannot be racist, even if many feel it’s not OK to be white.
It Goes both ways says
Ralph6, Blacks can be and often are just as racist. This is not a white only problem. Just act right and nobody including law enforcement cares about what color you are.
Guys like him never seem to understand that he had the freedom to say what he thinks, but that freedom does NOT mean that there can’t be pushback. It does not mean that business can’t determine that what you say is detrimental to their business and stop dealing with you or that individuals can decide to no longer support your endeavors.
I guess Adams is calling it a day…whether he wants to or not, he’s done.
Jackson1955: I agree with you. You do have the freedom of speech to yell “fire” in a theater, but don’t be surprised when the audience runs over you while trying to get out!