Is This Funny? Humour, Satire and (Non)Violence (2006)

By Ivana Milojević

“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.” (Wikipedia, 2006)  

The current conflict over the freedom to publish cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad – or alternatively, the freedom to have your community and their views respected by others touches on perennial themes of what are the boundaries of freedom, if any. As debates for thousands of years by philosophers and ethicists testify, there are no easy answers here. No clear boundaries. One thing is for certain – any given freedom requires boundaries and implies responsibility to use the freedom wisely and for the greater common good.

This implies that any freedom – and by implication the boundaries of such freedom – is always negotiated, dependent on consensual agreements of most members of a community, society, civilisation. 

Contextualising humour – a personal history 

What is also negotiated is what constitutes humour, what is considered funny. I still remember my (male) colleges at the university where I worked at the time joking over the rapes of women in Bosnia. It is not just Serbs doing it they said, every side involved in the conflict (i.e. Bosnian Muslims, Croats, Serbs) was doing it, it just depends who is better in this task! Being the only female in the room, and being a feminist, and having spent painful months reading testimonies of raped women, I simply couldn’t find that ‘joke’ funny. In fact I was insulted and saddened over the lack of compassion exhibited. I felt diminished as a person and as a woman. How they felt about me not joining in and sharing a joke with the blokes I didn’t know, but it is possible that they thought I was too serious, not fun to be with, stern and burdened with ‘political correctness’. 

I also remember the question posed on Australian national radio some years back by a show host: Which section is missing from the feminist library? The humour section, was the ‘correct’ answer. To me, this was just nonsense. While I (and I guess many other people as well) do not enjoy jokes about stupid blondes, bosses and secretaries and doctors and nurses, I do enjoy a good laugh. I still recall going to the cinema to watch Baby Boom in 1987 and laughing out loud while listening to Diane Keaton re-telling the Cindarella story to her daughter. As I was the only one in the cinema laughing I started to feel all these eyes on me. I had to gather all my energies to stop. Luckily, a minute later there was a scene in which a near avalanche of snow falls on somebody after they open an entrance door and with all the other movie goers now laughing out loud also, I managed to release the accumulated energy through laughter. While I personally thought that particular scene was pretty stupid, I welcomed it as an opportunity to both express my self and ‘fit in’ at the same time. These days I do enjoy various forms of political satire – with Judy Horacek being my favourite political as well as feminist cartoonist.  

I’ve seen two of the twelve cartoons that have caused so much stir all over the world. I am not sure what to think of them. But that is beside the point as they are not mocking my lot and me.  All I know is that sensitised by my experiences of being a woman influenced by feminism and yet living in the patriarchal world (which continuously provides endless misogynous jokes that cause very little if any uproar), I am usually conscious of whether a joke may offend people whose religious worldviews and cultural beliefs I don’t share. I would especially not dare tell/repeat a joke about an Aboriginal person, whether in Australia, or overseas.  And I don’t think I’d be able to share in a ‘humour’ which would put down racial and cultural groups already vilified by western media and worldviews.

Verbal aggression 

But not everybody shares my view here. In fact, authors of The Penguin Book of Australian Jokes Phillip Adams and Patrice Newell argue in their introduction that with the exception of the jokes involving innocent plays on words, almost every genre of jokes circulating in Australia is fundamentally “an act of verbal aggression against a fear or an enemy, be it defiantly targeted or dimly perceived” (1995, p.13). Almost without exception, they continue, the jokes about Australian Aborigines are a “quintessential expressions of the hostility that accrues to blacks in our cities and country towns” (ibid.). So while a joke in isolation “may be a ‘thing of beauty and a joy forever’” (p. 12), jokes in bulk are “appalling, Almost without exception they deal in bigotry, sexism, racism, ageism and all the other politically incorrect isms. They clearly help people deal with their deep distaste for their own sexuality, their excremental functions, their foreign neighbours, their political masters and an infinite variety of things that go bump in the night.” (ibid. p. 12)  

Not only is the publication of cartoons part of verbal aggression, it goes much further then that, argues Johan Galtung (2006):

“To publish a caricature of the Prophet, or indeed any visual depiction, is among the most blasphemous acts that can be done to Islam…. Useful parallels: burning flags; using pictures of the King or Bible pages as toilet paper; tearing the Bible apart, throwing it in a toilet like guards do to the Qur’an in Guantanamo. These are acts of direct violence, using symbols as arms, a declaration of war, and war tends to be two-way traffic. Nobody should be astonished, or hide behind some human right to be surprised if there is counter-violence.”

Still, Adams and Newell argue that even though there may be a link between the unpleasant joke and the unpleasant social outcome (e.g. “anti-Semitic jokes providing the mortar for the bricks of the crematoria”) to ban them, to deny their existence, would be hopeless and possibly even dangerous, as bottled up resentments intensify rather than dissipate (p. 18). Furthermore, humour and jokes allow people the pleasure of laughter; a method of dealing with the darkness. They help subvert dogma and religious certainty (ibid.). And lastly, politically incorrect jokes, jokes about “racial or sexual relationships are the most honest of indicators about what we are really feeling” (p. 16). 

With the previous discussion in mind, how do we, as a global human community, decide on the boundaries of freedom and how do we negotiate what is funny? Cartoons that mock the Muslim Prophet are possibly an honest indicator of the way many people in the West feel these days towards Muslims and their faith. By the same token, the riots and burning of embassies in the Muslim world possibly are also an honest indicator about the way many people there feel about the West in general and about some actions by some Westerners (such as publishing a picture of the Prophet) in particular. Now that these honest feelings are out, the main question becomes: Where do we go from here? Can we find ways to negotiate the boundaries of freedom so that a freedom of one group does not infringe on the freedom of an another one? Should these freedoms be negotiated within the boundaries of nation states, cultures and civilisations or do we need a new global ethics for a global millennium? Can we develop some sort of a moral compass for humour devoid of bigotry, sexism, ageism, blondeism and homophobia? Can we begin joking and cartooning more and more about ‘us’ and less and less about ‘them’?  

Laughing at the self vs laughing at the other 

It is bad enough that more than half of Australian schoolchildren in Victoria view Muslims as terrorists, and two out of five agree that Muslims “are unclean” (Sydney Morning Herald, 5th February, 2006). The continual portrayal of ‘the other’ as barbaric, violent and strange in western media does nothing to reverse this prejudice. Rather, this orientalism (Edward Said) may directly contribute to both the growing Islamophobia in the west as well as to growing radicalisation of Islam elsewhere. The rise of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism, at the expense of Islamic nonviolent liberalism, is associated with ‘pride, cultural assertiveness and defiance and a search for authenticity’ (Zakaria, 2006, p. 14). Any attack on deeply held values within Islam, and any identification of the whole religion with the violent behaviour of some of its members will do little to help the forces of liberalism within the Islamic world. Instead “it will feed the fury that helps … [radical Islam] win adherents (Zakaria, 2006, p. 15). 

Thus while it would certainly be very unhealthy to live in a humourless society, it is important to realise certain guidelines and boundaries for humour in a contemporary multicultural, global society. In today’s society “to be monocultural is no longer sufficient to be literate” (Galtung, 2006). Rather, some multicultural knowledge and sensitivity beyond that is needed not to overstep norms of decent human behaviour” (ibid.).  For humour to be able to dispel various forms of darkness rather then reinforce them we need to negotiate and learn from ‘the other’ what/when/by whom is considered funny. 

I think this is important as I myself remember not being offended by a particular critique of Yugoslav people when published by local persons living in the former Yugoslavia  – in fact I always welcomed such self critique. But I often found deeply offensive some cartoons coming from those residing outside of these boarders that portrayed Yugoslav people using similar mockery. Especially as they were connected to particular politics (as in ‘lets go bomb the barbarians’), as humour and all the other forms of communication inevitably are. I also found deeply offensive cartoons that engaged with a nationalistic discourse during the break up of Yugoslavia – cartoons that were used to somehow diminish the other and enhance one’s own group feelings of self-importance and self-righteousness. 

There is a big difference between self-critique and the critique of the group external to the self – between laughing at the self/one’s own mob and laughing at/ stereotyping/ putting down the other. In the second case, I have come to learn that the joke is only funny if both parties involved think so.  

The role of the underlying worldview 

I strongly believe that the publication of these 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. Or, that this issue ‘pits the strictures of Islam/Muslim Sensitivities’ against ‘Western freedom of expression/liberty’ (Zakaria and Roy, 2006, p. 13 and 16). This is because a “freedom of expression does not mean the duty of expression of whatever comes to one mind” (Galtung, 2006) which is “rather obvious” (ibid.). In fact, in these very societies where ‘freedom of speech’ is a right and a highly respected value, many “legal and social limits on expression” (Roy, p. 16) are already imposed and in place:

“Anti-Semitic cartoons would almost everywhere [in Europe] be liable to legal prosecution. More and more European countries have passed laws banning homophobia or protecting minorities from degrading insult. Would cartoons mocking dwarfs or blind people be published in respectable European newspapers? No. Why, then, the social acceptance for mocking Muslims, which sometimes verges on racism?” (ibid.)

The actions of editors of newspapers that published cartoons went “beyond valid norms for public space” argues Johan Galtung (2006):

“They broke into Muslim private space; like a thief into a private home … claiming freedom to move as a human right.”

So 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.

A joke about a ‘three legged pig’ or ‘gorillas mating with Poms’ (Adams and Newell, p. 197-8) is only funny if you are not sensitised about the actual torture and suffering animals go through in the hands of humans, and/or if you are not ‘a Pom’ (British). The other day Australian ABC radio featured an interview with a cartoonist who fiercely defended freedom of speech telling Muslim protestors to ‘lighten up’. And to – if they can’t ‘take a joke’ – not read the ‘bloody newspaper’. The last question in the interview – the question of whether he ever felt that the cartoon went too far – and the answer to this question was, however, the most telling. The cartoonist felt deeply offended and was quite upset when some of his colleagues took him as a target! Some boundaries need to be placed, he said, and making fun of him should be out of bounds!  

Being a cartoonist, he made this last point in a funny way but still this is where a fundamental guidelines, some sort of a moral compass perhaps lies. As summarised brilliantly by Will Rogers (quoted in Loomans and Kolberg, p. 14) “everything is funny as long as it is happening to somebody else”. Adams and Newell would agree. They warn about entering the pages of Australian Jokes at own peril, as this will be done with a “knowing that every time you split your sides you’re having a laugh at someone else’s expense…” (ibid. back cover). 

Furthermore, 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 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.  

If on the other hand, the underlying worldview is to ‘get back’ at the other – you publish cartoons. Or you torch embassies. Or you bash people of ‘Middle Eastern appearance’. Or you assault an Aussie lifeguard at Cronulla beach. Or, you engage in wars and insurgences. While certainly waging wars and publishing offensive cartoons should not be put at the same line of responsibility for eliciting violence – offensive jokes are indeed a relatively minor form of expressing ‘true feelings’ of dislike and lack of respect towards the other – there is also no doubt that they too are informed by a nationalistic, ethnocentric worldview. It is true that it is counter productive to ban such jokes. As long as the nationalistic, ethnocentric and ‘getting back at them’ discourse predominates such externally imposed measure will not be very successful. Without some sort of inner moral compass, the externally imposed ban would have the directly opposite effect to what it tries to achieve.  

It is only by the changing of the underlying worldview that a different taste for what is seen as funny develops. If still in doubt, contrast cartoons by, for example, Horacek and Polyp (from New Internationalist) with cartoons published in conservative western media. Or with a tsunami joke about sharks stricken with diarrhoea (from eating Thai food all week). Obviously, such a joke is only funny if you haven’t deeply sympathised with people that were killed and injured and/or if none of your friends and family members died in this disaster. Otherwise, and rightfully so, is the appropriate question: ‘How can people be so cruel!?’.   

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, agist 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? 

I believe that in such a global peaceful, transcultural, “independent and sustainable but yet interconnected, interdependent and interrelated world” (Elise Boulding, 1990) communication would probably be based on the following principles: 

1. People own up their own ‘stuff’. There is an awareness of one’s own agenda, underlying worldview, assumptions, perceptions, fears, beliefs about self and others. 

2. There is an awareness and an understanding of what kind of actions may have certain (violence promoting) consequences. Thus, by choosing to engage in actions that may be offensive, you also accept the risk that such offence may cause you and ‘your own’ group distress further down the track, through the retaliatory actions of ‘the other’. 

3. 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’. 

4. There is an acknowledging that absolute freedom does not exist, and that each right to __ has carries also the responsibility for __. 

5. 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.

6. 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. Or, at the very least, you practice how not to exaggerate events out of proportion. You certainly don’t over-generalise – making ‘all of them’ accountable for the actions of some of their members. You don’t buy into the paranoid worldview in which ‘all of them’ are inherently against you and everything you stand for and hold dear. You become honest about what type of grievances you are really expressing, at any given moment. 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). 

7. 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 the intense escalation of violence and still enable expression of the ‘freedom to speak’, to express true feelings. “A better education for a Danish cultural editor …, and the spiral of violence would not have been unleashed” (Galtung, 2006). 

8. There is a consultation with local groups, and various minorities (ethnic, religious, gender) in terms of the boundaries of free speech. Many Australian academics these days have come to accept research with Indigenous people as far superior than research about Indigenous people. Many projects do not take of the ground until local Indigenous communities are consulted. Certainly, Australian society is nowhere near a preferred vision wherein non-Indigenous and Indigenous people or ‘ethnic’ and mainstream Anglo-Celtic communities work in partnerships and wherein racism is the thing of the past. Still, such examples – relatively newly formed cultural ‘sensitivities’ show that there are other ways of doing things, there always are alternative ways of communicating non-violently. So instead of being “long on general principles [such as freedom of speech] and short on human sensitivity [not to insult and offend]” (Galtung, 2006) you do your best to learn from the other:

“Imagine you question the norm against the visual depiction of the Prophet. Something new stimulates curiosity, not animosity. So you ask a Muslim, tell me more, I want to know why. You learn. And understand that freedom of speech is not a license to insult.” (ibid.) 

9. 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.). 

10. There is an awareness that ‘humour brings insight and tolerance’ while irony (as well as sarcasm, stereotyping, ridiculing, etc.) brings a ‘deep and less friendly understanding’ (Agnes Repplier, quoted in Loomans and Kolberg, p. 13). 

11.  Principles of non-violent communication are practiced in general, through the interrelation between empathic listening and honest expression, both inclusive of observations, awareness of feelings, and non-violent expression of needs and requests (The Center for Nonviolent Communication, 2006). 

12. There is an understanding of the fundamental difference between multicultural humour (e.g. Goodness Gracious Me series) and racist and orientalist bigotry and stereotyping that tries to pass as funny. 

13. Most importantly, non-violent humour creators and users consciously choose not to portray/see any form of violence as funny nor to use violence as a form of public mass entertainment. 

Whatever the societal principles, the main issue is what is the spirit behind humour? As argued by Roy:

“…for European Muslims, the affair is not so much a matter of what is permissible in Islam as it is about discrimination. Representing the prophet’s face, per se, antagonized them far less than his portrayal as a terrorist. …If the cartoons had portrayed the prophet doing good works, the proscription against representation would have been muted – if noted at all.” (ibid. p.16-17) 

So the important question is whether humour is used to put down others and get back at them, in one way or another, or to create new depths of mutual understanding and compassion? We are all in this – life, world – together and the emerging non-violent communication methods need to reflect that. Saying that something is ‘just a joke’ if it offends and hurts is no longer good enough, if it ever was.  

Our shared human condition, on the other hand, and the difficulties we all face as we go about our daily lives, provides us with endless material for laughing at all of us, at all of ours expense. Through humour conceived in such a way we could use it to ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, as Monty Python’s ironic take on British culture and life in general reminds us. 

Thus, 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. Unfortunately, in this global drama of negotiating the funny and the permissible dozens of people have already been killed. And that – by any indicators and within any context – isn’t funny at all.



Adams, Phillip and Newell, Patrice (1995) The Penguin Book of Australian Jokes, Penguin (place missing).

Boulding, Elise (1990) Building a Global Civic Culture: Education for an interdependent world, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY, USA.

Eisler, Riane (1996) Creating Partnership Futures, Futures 28 (6-7) 563-566. Also Center for Partnership Studies,

Galtung, Johan (2006) The Host Country/Immigrant Relation: A Proposal For a Contract- With Some Implications for Denmark-Norway vs Islam, speech given at the Aula de Cultura, CAM, Benidorm 30 de enero de 2006 (in Spanish). English version received through email listserv of

Loomans, Diana and Kolberg, Karen (1993) The Laughing Classroom: Everyone’s Guide to Teaching with Humor and Play, H J Kramer, Tiburon, California, USA. 

Roy, Olivier (2006) Holy War, Newsweek, 13th February, 2006, pp. 16-17.

Said, Edward (1978) Orientalism, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London,UK 

Sydney Morning Herald, 5th February, 2006,

The Centre for Nonviolent Communication,  

Wikipedia, online encyclopedia, 2006,

Zakaria, Fareed (2006) Islam and Power, Newsweek, 13th February, 2006, pp. 13-15.


Adapted from: Milojević, I. (2006) Reconciling Funny and Permissible: Can We Develop Non-violent Humour? Social Alternatives, 25(1), 67-70.