Humour in Free Speech

Humour in free speech must be allowed in general, but some limits are necessary – depending on the sensitivity of the target.

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 must be quick-witted to do this.  Humour is a powerful weapon, and it can be misused.

The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy article, Humor, classifies it into three broad theories: incongruity, superiority, and relief.  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.  Lightness of tone can indicate that no hurt was intended by a joke, but the same words when written can be inflammatory.  Sometimes the sensitivities are such that real damage can be done – as was the case with the ‘Danish Cartoons’ incident.

In what Prospect magazine described as A Danish drama,  the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons that included representations of the Prophet Muhammad – even though “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’”.  The newspaper 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.  The cartoons were intended as ‘satire’.  Their target was Islamic, though part of the intense controversy that it generated is 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, having added further inflammatory material to amplify the problem – as described by Richard Dawkins chapter 1 of his book The God Delusion, where he detailed the additional material added by the Danish imams.  There were protests, demonstrations and riots as the controversy widened, resulting in 139 deaths – thereby illustrating the point 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.

Wikipedia’s List of newspapers that reprinted Jyllands-Posten’s Muhammad cartoons included more than 160 other newspapers, 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.  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 – Cartoon wars – 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.”

The main problem in this case was that one of the cartoons depicted a named 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, so this depiction was doubly insulting.  And its target appeared to be the whole of Islam, which is a peaceful religion.

Satire of Islamic terrorism is possible without offending all Muslims.  If the figure’s turban had been labelled ‘Osama bin Laden’, the point would have been 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 the Danish population – which is mostly peace-loving and moderate. The controversy over this particular example of can be analysed in all five dimensions of power:

Economic: The newspaper probably benefited from the publicity and few of its readers would stop buying it in protest.  Muslims in other countries banned imports from Denmark, causing an estimated $134 million loss of exports – but not effectively putting pressure on the newspaper.  Danish companies were adversely affected but had no remedy.

Moral: The paper appeared to champion freedom of the press to use humour in free speech, but its attitudes appeared racist – treating Muslims as inferior and assuming that offending them was unimportant. Muslims saw the cartoons as blasphemous and hostile.  The incident generated a damaging polarisation in Danish society.

Legal:  The newspaper assumed (correctly) that a law against demeaning a ‘globally recognised religious community’ wouldn’t be enforced. The Muslim community was unable to obtain legal redress, but it would have been in the interests of Denmark as a whole if the law had been enforced.

Political: Adverse Muslim reactions had the effect of increasing support for anti-immigrant parties.  The Danish Prime Minister refused to meet the Muslims, who are in the minority in Denmark.  Most people presumably want peace, but they don’t want to lose their freedom of speech.

Ungoverned Force: Any violence would enhance reader support and the newspaper’s revenues, but its staff felt themselves to be at some personal risk.  Muslim extremists saw violence as an opportunity to gain support, but they risked a backlash against moderate Muslims.  Some non-Muslims affected by violence would be innocent victims.

In summary, the newspaper was in a strong position – which it abused.  It is morally contemptible to offend those who, like the peaceful Muslim minority in Denmark, were in a weak position.  Anyone meeting the cartoonists or the newspaper’s editor should not hesitate to condemn them.  Some Muslims unwisely resorted to violence, and they should also be condemned.  The Danish population as a whole was damaged by the incident.

One obvious solution would appear to be for the public to demand the enforcement of the law, to place constraints upon the publication of inflammatory material – as being the least harmful option.  Enforcement of the law was the solution recommended in Anatol Lieven’s article, A Long Voyage, which referred to “the threat of terrorism and communal strife”.  He acknowledged that his attitude “has been profoundly shaped by the years I spent in India”; (the Partition of India was associated with massive intercommunal violence and many deaths).

The journalists themselves should 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.

A more recent example of a murderous reaction to ‘satire’ was the attack in January 2015 reported in the BBC as Charlie Hebdo: Gun attack on French magazine kills 12.  It had many similarities to the Danish Cartoons incident, and the journalists responsible were similarly open to criticism for using satire against groups who could not easily defend themselves.  The Guardian’s comic strip, Joe Sacco: On Satire – a response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, made this point wittily and forcefully.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/4463.htm.