Humour and the Freedom to Satirise

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/4463.htm)

Humour is not only used to make people laugh.  It can be used to ridicule someone in a way which they may find difficult to defend themselves against: if they become angry, they are accused of lacking a sense of humour.  The only effective riposte is another piece of humour – but people have to be quick-witted for this to be successful.  Humour is thus a powerful weapon, and it can be misused. 

Philosophers classify humour into three broad theories: incongruity, superiority, and relief.[1]  The use of humour to establish superiority over another person, or to maliciously highlight differences as incongruities, conflicts directly with the Golden Rule: it is the opposite of showing them respect.  It happens often between individuals and most people are either able to laugh at it or they accept it as part of everyday life.  Sometimes, though, the sensitivities are such that real damage can be done – as was the case with the 'Danish Cartoons' incident.

A Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published 12 cartoons that included representations of the Prophet Muhammad; it said that it had done so to protect freedom of speech and to protest against an increasing tendency to “self-censorship” on the subject of Islam. [2]  The cartoons were intended as ‘satire’.  Their target was Islamic, though part of the intense controversy that it generated is the question of whether the target was Islamic terrorism or the religion as a whole. 

The Danish Muslims were deeply offended by the cartoons.  They asked for, but were not given, a meeting with the Danish Prime Minister; they then asked other Muslim countries for support (and added further inflammatory material when doing so).  There were protests, demonstrations and riots as the controversy widened, resulting in 139 deaths – thereby emphasising one of the points that the cartoonists were making: the tendency of some people to resort to violence as a form of Self-Protection (7.2.3) rather than to participate in debate.  The use of violence, or threats, is a form of censorship.

The cartoons were reprinted in over 150 other papers,[3] in Europe and around the world.  By the time that these reprints were published, their editors can have been in no doubt that Muslims found them offensive.  A typical justification was ‘to protect the freedom of speech’, though that can be questioned:

"There are double standards at play here: insult Muslims and it's free speech; insult anyone else and it’s racism".[4] 

Many other newspapers published editorials on the subject, which was undoubtedly a topic that warranted further discussion, but they did so without reprinting the cartoons.   Repeating the insult was not necessary in order to discuss the matter.  The Economist, for example, wrote, in an article which did not include a reprint of the cartoons:

“It is not a good idea for newspapers to insult people's religious or any other beliefs just for the sake of it. But that is and should be their own decision, not a decision for governments, clerics or other self-appointed arbiters of taste and responsibility. In a free country people should be free to publish whatever they want within the limits set by law.” [5]

It is legitimate to question the moral values of those editors who did reprint the cartoons.  If they had been applying the Golden Rule, they would have asked themselves whether they should not have tried to take into account the feelings of Muslims.  In a pluralist society, it is surely right to determine whether the often-used phrase 'in the public interest' should not itself take account of the interests and sensitivities of the minorities who form part of that public.  The editors had a statutory right to publish the material, but a moral duty to avoid being offensive.  It is immaterial whether one calls it "self-censorship" or just common courtesy to show consideration for the feelings of others. 

The main problem in this case was that one of the cartoons depicted a figure of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban.  Most (but not all) Muslims regard any form of representation of the Prophet as blasphemy, and this particular depiction added insult to injury.  And its target appeared to be the whole of Islam, which is a peaceful religion.  This does not mean, though, that satire of Islamic terrorism is not feasible or appropriate.  If the figure had been entitled ‘Osama bin Laden’ with a bomb in his turban, the point would have been much more accurately made – that the Islamic religion is being subverted by Al-Qaeda, whose original grievance was Western domination of the Middle East.  A constructive debate would have focused on politics rather than religion. 

It is useful to examine this problem from the perspectives of different actors: the Jyllands-Posten newspaper and its readers, the Muslim community in Denmark and world-wide, and peace-loving moderate people who probably constitute the majority of the population.

A summary analysis of people’s positions across all five dimensions can be expressed as a chart:


Jyllands-Posten and its Readers


Moderate Non-Muslims


The paper appeared to champion freedom of the press.

The cartoons were seen as blasphemous and hostile.

They presumably preferred peaceful coexistence.


It assumed (correctly) that a law against demeaning a ‘globally recognised religious community’ wouldn't be enforced.

They had no legal redress.  (An attempt to sue in France, using blasphemy laws, failed).

They might prefer restraints on the press, either by changing the law or enforcing existing laws.


Adverse Muslim reactions had the effect of increasing support for anti-immigrant parties.

Muslims are in the minority in Denmark.

The Danish Prime Minister refused to meet them.

The majority presumably want peace but they don't want to lose their freedom of speech.


The paper increased its revenue due to the publicity generated.

Those who disliked the paper's action would not have been its readers anyway.

Bans on Danish imports would not hit the newspaper directly (but might persuade the government to act).

Lost exports estimated at €134M.

Companies were unable to, or didn’t, sue the newspaper for damages.

Self-Protection  (by use of violence)

Any violence would enhance reader support and the paper’s revenues.

The paper’s staff felt themselves to be at some personal risk.

Muslim extremists saw violence as an opportunity to gain support. 

They risked a backlash against moderate Muslims.

Some of the people affected by violence would be innocent, i.e. they would be non-participants.

This chart shows that the newspaper and its readers appear to have a very strong position and the Muslims a very weak one.  The newspaper was almost certain to gain benefit and Muslims could do nothing that would have provided effective redress.  It would have been better, though, for Muslims to engage in coherent argument on the issues rather than complain about the publication of the cartoons; their use of violence simply strengthened the newspaper’s argument and increased its profile.

The moderate non-Muslims, who are probably a large majority, have a problem: they have been damaged in terms of peace, security and prosperity – yet they have no redress. They probably weren't readers of the newspaper concerned and so cannot exert direct pressure upon it.  The obvious solution would appear to be for the public to demand the enforcement of the law,[6] to place constraints upon the publication of inflammatory material – as being the least harmful option.  Enforcement of the law was the solution recommended by Anatol Lieven,[7] who referred to “the threat of terrorism and communal strife”, acknowledging that his attitude "has been profoundly shaped by the years I spent in India" (where communal strife reached lethal levels at the time of Partition).[8]

The best solution would have been for the journalists themselves to have taken a moral perspective when deciding what to publish – taking care to aim at terrorism rather than the whole of Islam.  “Self-censorship”, for moral reasons, would be better than causing so much damage.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014

[1] The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy published an article entitled Humor, which was available in May 2014 at http://www.iep.utm.edu/humor/.

[2] The Danish Cartoons controversy was the subject of several articles appearing in Prospect magazine in March 2006.  An overview was published in an article by Jytte Klausen, entitled A Danish drama, which was available in May 2014 at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/adanishdrama/.

[3] A Wikipedia entry – List of newspapers that reprinted Jyllands-Posten's Muhammad cartoons – was available in May 2014 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_newspapers_that_reprinted_Jyllands-Posten%27s_Muhammad_cartoons.

[4]  Sarah Joseph, the editor of Emel, a Muslim lifestyle magazine, made the quoted comment about the insulting nature of the cartoons in an exchange of letters entitled Should Muslims turn a blind eye to the cartoons?, which appeared in Prospect magazine in March 2006 and which was available in May 2014 at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/shouldmuslimsturnablindeyetothecartoons/.

[5] The Economist article Cartoon wars, from the Feb 11th 2006 edition, was available in May 2014 at http://www.economist.com/node/5494602.

[6] “Article 140 of the Danish criminal code allows for a fine and up to four months of imprisonment for demeaning a ‘globally recognised religious community’", according to the Jytte Klausen article which was available in May 2014 at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/adanishdrama/.

[7] Anatol Lieven is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, Washington, DC.  The quotation comes from an article A Long Voyage, published in Prospect magazine in March 2006 and available in May 2014 at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/alongvoyage/.

[8]  The book The Great Partition by Yasmin Khan gives a graphic account of the communal strife between religious communities before, during and after the Partition of India; it records that 1 million lives were lost (sleeve note).