Cartoon Violence

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

Cartoon violence —talk about an oxymoron!  Violence over cartoons!  Aren’t we getting a little too serious?  Violence and riots and even death over sketches!  Sketches —maps about a territory and not the territory.

Yet that’s what has been dominating so much of the news in the first two weeks of February (2006).  When I first heard about the cartoons of the prophet Mohammad which portrayed him as a terrorist and some of the uproar about it from those who didn’t like it, I remembered that there had been controversy over some insulting and degrading images of the virgin Mary and images of the Cross a few years back.  But hardly riots and certainly nobody died because of it.

At one level all of this certainly highlights the power of humor and cartoons.  Positively, cartoons, jokes, and humor enable us to lighten up and laugh at ourselves.  When I present APG, I use a lot of the Peanuts cartoons as a way of exposing the silly ways we humans have of getting into states and meta-stating ourselves.

Of course, anything powerful can be mis-used and so it is with humor.  So negatively, we can “hurt” each other’s feelings by mocking and teasing and laughing at each other.  We only need to watch children to see both how much fun they can have with cartoons and jokes and how much it can “hurt” them if they are laughed at and mocked.  They don’t like it.  It is this kind of aggressive humor which seeks to make fun at another’s expense and portrays something or someone that we value and appreciate in an insulting way.

And yet if we rise above and beyond the specifics of the current insults and all the debate over which value is most important, freedom of speech or honor of religious sentiments, western societies and Arab societies, the current controversy certainly highlights the role that meaning and its performance in human affairs.

First of all we have meaning.   This is the inner game that we play inside our heads as we make representations and then frame those representations layer upon layer.

What does the cartoons mean?  What did the creators of the cartoons mean by their portrays of Mohammed?  What did it mean to the people who published them in newspapers and televisions?  What did it mean to the clerics who rallied people to riot?  What did it mean to the Danish government?  To various European governments?  To various Arab governments?

Then we have performance.  We have the actions and behaviors and responses of everybody involved in the drama expressing their meanings externally.  This is the outer game.

Is it just a cartoon?  Is it insult?  Or perhaps it is blasphemy that deserves death?  Or perhaps it is just freedom of speech?  Is it the right of people to hold and communicate their beliefs and opinions?  Is it the right of people to riot and destroy?

In Neuro-Semantics these go together.  Meaning describes the inner game, our semantics.  Performance describes the outer game, our neurology, physiology, emotions, expressions, and actions.  That leads us to ask many more questions:

What are the neuro-semantics of the situation?  What inner games are some people playing?  What outer games does that create and generate?  How productive, empowering, useful, ecological, empowering, etc. are these games?

Wherever there is a performance of human expressions (emotions, actions, reactions, behaviors, speech, etc.) there is meaning being performed.  And wherever there is meaning being created and computed in a human being’s head, there will eventually be the performance of it as a game.

We can provide analysis of such events at various levels.  We can stay at the primary level and simply look at what’s  This seems to be what most analysts do.  It’s easier, it’s more black-and-white.  Or we can move up a level and explore what’s the first level of meaning that’s occurring.  Or, we could move up several levels or many levels and seek to understand more fully the world of meaning that people are coming from.

What can Neuro-Semantics offer to this whole fiasco?  Several things.

First, we can highlight the difference between map and territory.  No matter what representation we create about someone else or something that another values, it is in the end a representation.  A cartoon isn’t real.  A representation, even a mis-representation is just someone’s opinion and no matter how much we dislike it, they have the right to think, feel, speak, and behave to express themselves.

Second, we can recognize the power of representations to convey meaning and be more respectful of other people’s understandings, beliefs, and values.  We don’t have to agree with another person in order to be respectful and considerate.  We can still value persons without needing to validate everything they think and believe.

Third, when we disagree and want to use humor, we can make sure the fun-making, jokes, and teasing is tasteful and appropriate rather than disrespectful and insulting.  There’s plenty of humor to be had that’s healthy and fun without being obnoxious and nasty.  And in fact, if we can inject some good playful humor perhaps we can all lighten up.  After all, as we say in Neuro-Semantics, when we get serious, we get stupid.