“In its original historical meaning, a cartoon (from the Italian cartone, meaning "big paper") is a full-size drawing made on paper as a study for a further artwork, such as a painting or tapestry. In modern print media, a cartoon is an illustration, usually humorous in intent.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cartoons
The current representation of conflict over the freedom to publish cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) in western media – as the conflict between ‘freedom of speech and expression’ and Muslim sensitivities - obscures what is really going on at the deepest level of our collective global psyche.
I strongly believe that the publication of the infamous cartoons in Danish Jyllands-Posten was very little about the "ongoing debate on freedom of expression that we cherish so highly", as argued by the editors. While I think that freedom of expression, speech and press is one of the greatest human accomplishments, these freedoms should be protected where and when possible and sensible but not ‘at all costs’.
That higher principles take precedence over human life is one of the central tenants of society build on hierarchical and patriarchal values. The central tenant of a society build on values of centrality of human (and human - nature) relatedness is to take seriously concerns and interests of global human community, as well as the non-human community, future generations of people and other living beings.
What is considered funny is always premised on the underlying worldview. For example, for a racist joke to be seen as funny, racism has to be an underlying worldview, we have to have an ‘inner racist’ within us. The joke about the difference between a blonde and a shopping trolley (a shopping trolley has a mind of its own) is only funny if we still have some elements of sexism within us (as most of us, raised and living in patriarchal societies almost inevitably do).
If on the other hand, the underlying worldview is the desire to negotiate - to work things out - with ‘the other’ you become sensitive about what you can say, when and where about such group. You are also careful about what type of behaviours you choose to engage in, preferring those that don’t reaffirm various forms of direct, structural, cultural, epistemological and ecological violence.
Non-violent communication and humour
If jokes that deal in ‘bigotry, sexism, racism, ageism and all the other politically incorrect isms’ are the quintessential expression of bigoted, sexist, racist, orientalist, ageist and politically incorrect/hierarchically structured and (using Riane Eisler’s term) ‘dominator’ society, what type of jokes would a fundamentally different society with a fundamentally different underlying worldview produce? For example, what would humour be like in a society in which cultures of peace, compassion and non-violent communication are firmly embedded?
1. People own up of their own ‘stuff’. There is an awareness of one’s own agenda, underlying worldview, assumptions, perceptions, fears, beliefs about self and others is present. There is also an awareness and understanding about what kind of actions may have certain (violence promoting) consequences.
2. There is an overall understanding that your speech can be part of the problem or part of the solution. That is, that your speech can be expression of verbal aggression or an expression of desire to negotiate and ‘work things out’.
3. Humour becomes a means of reducing inflated individual and collective Ego, thus you engage in laughing at self and your own group more often then in laughing at her/him/them. You also do the later, if you must, in a safe space – verbally, with ‘your own’, removed from the eyes and ears of her/him/them.
4. Reducing your own Ego also means that you don’t identify so much with certain dogmatic principles and rules that help define your own individual and collective identity. That is, you take offence against yourself and your own group as lightly as possible. And, most importantly of all, you don’t respond to one type of (ie. epistemological, cultural) violence with even more intense one (ie. physical, direct violence).
5. Humour becomes a means of destabilising centres of oppressive political, cultural, epistemological, economic and military power – and hopefully a means that can help create a world without institutionalised violence and social injustice. Apparently, the Muslim world is full of Mullah jokes, and as far as I know, portraying Mullahs is not seen as out of bounds by the majority of Muslims. Such a simple editorial intervention could have spared many grievances and intense escalation of violence and still enable expression of the ‘freedom to speak’, to express true feelings.
6. There is a consultation with local groups, and various minorities (ethnic, religious, gender) in terms of the boundaries of free speech.
7. You manage to differentiate between different humour styles, e.g. between a ‘Joy Master’, ‘Joke Maker’, ‘Fun Meister’ and ‘Life Mocker’ (Loomans and Kolberg, 1993. p. 15). While the Joy Master has mostly positive qualities, is inspiring, inclusive, warm hearted, innocent, humanising and healing (ibid.) Life Mocker has mostly negative qualities, and is cynical, sarcastic, exclusive, cold hearted, worldly and dehumanising (ibid.). The positive sides of a Joke Maker (e.g. wordplay, teaching stories, parody, instructive, insightful) and Fun Meister (slapstick, clowning, naive, imitative, entertaining) are to be balanced with their negative qualities (JM: insulting, biting, satiric, stereotyping, destructive; FM: ridiculing, dark humour, tragedy and suffering, hurtful, degrading) (ibid.).
Whatever the societal principles, the main issue is what is the spirit behind humour? Is it to put down others and get back at them, in one way or another, or to create new depths of mutual understanding and compassion?
Creatively, compassionately and honestly dealing with the current conflict over values, freedoms and humour at the global level has become the necessity of our times. It is only by these means that we could possibly hope to avoid a further escalation of violence and also to protect all our freedoms