The Mohammad Cartoons and N+V

toward mutual understanding

Recently a Danish newspaper published a series of cartoons depicting Mohammad the Prophet in a variety of negative ways. This has made many people in the Muslim world angry, and it seems to be a cause of considerable misunderstanding between those who are offended and those who laugh. Mismatch of humor perception calls for the N+V Humor Theory, which says specific differences of subjective interpretation can be expected when one laughs and another does not.

The cartoons came from a contest by the newspaper which was intended to "end self-censorship regarding Muslim issues", the argument being that if newspaper cartoons make fun of everybody else, why not make fun of Mohammad and Islam also, in order to be fair.

It seems not everyone is laughing.

Veatch's theory of humor (1998) claims that when a person laughs, that person percieves the situation both as constituting a subjective moral violation (V) AND as being normal (N). This theory is useful in that it can help those who are laughing and those who are not laughing to understand each other better.

What are the N and V interpretations here? It is not hard to adduce many.


Those who believe Islam itself is a religion of violence and terrorism interpret the image as normal, because the portrayal of Mohammad as a bomber is consistent with their view of Islam. If they believe that is the truth, then they will see Mohammad with the bomb as normal, because that is part of their view of the way things actually are in this world. If the world really is that way, then it is a normal thing. Also, this perspective gives them an affirmation of their own moral vision and brings a sense of self-righteousness. N, N, N.


V is obvious. There are clearly moral violations in these cartoons. For the revered founder of a major world religion to be a bomber, a terrorist, is a terrible moral violation. Anyone who doesn't hate Islam is emotionally committed to the view that the world is not supposed to be that way, and even those who laugh at the cartoons evidently recognize this as a moral violation and themselves are attached to the moral principles which are violated. The N+V Theory of Humor asserts that laughter requires a V interpretation. Even those who laugh see a moral violation.

On Graven Images

Surely, the greater one's reverence for the Prophet, PBUH, the more one's attachment to views of Mohammad the Prophet as loving, gentle, kind, forgiving, the opposite of a terrorist who brings death and suffering to the innocent.

But the Islamic perspective includes an additional moral violation. The Ten Commandments include the law, "Thou shalt not make any graven image", and although Christianity draws lots of pictures of its founders, Islam takes this particular commandment very seriously.

How can we understand this commandment? Why not have pictures? Here we are in the Media Age, surrounded by endless images, drawn or otherwise, of everyone and everything. Are we a depraved generation simply by having pictures all around us all the time? Perhaps, but I think the issue is a spiritual one. Let me explain what I think, and you can judge for yourself.

I myself am an atheist. That is, I believe that God does not exist. "Existence" has a clear and well-defined, socially accepted meaning, as in "This keyboard exists", etc., and that meaning does not apply to any thing that can be referred to as God. There is no person named God; there is no Entity out there which we refer to when we use the word God; God simply isn't there; God does not exist. At least, that's my opinion.

It seems to me that the Islamic position might be somewhat close to my atheist view. If it is forbidden to draw pictures of the prophet or indeed pictures of anything associated with the divine, that might come from the view that the spiritual connection one may experience through Islamic religious practice and traditions is a connection with asomething that is not of this world, that is not to be identified with the things of this world like people and other things that one finds in pictures, in short, with something that does not exist in this world at all. The commandment tells us to focus on the spiritual, inner essence, the inner attitude of submission and prayerfulness, the humility that allows us to abandon our egotism and arrogance in favor of a lighter, purer, liberated experience of life. The point is that if we can't make graven images, then we can't be fooled by graven images into thinking our spiritual and religious focus is in this world of existing reality, which we can see, and know, and control.

Indeed as an atheist who has a spiritual side, I believe that one's spiritual and religious focus should not be in the world and on reality, but in one's inner experience, and on humbling ourselves. If God exists then religious people may be correct in their arrogance about their special connection with Him. But God doesn't exist, and we, simply all, should try to be more humble, more and more humble. Humility means we stop acting like we know. And humility is the path to grace.

So "No Images" tells us to insist on being connected in the essential, direct way, the inner way, not the outer way that images represent.

N+V helps us understand each other

N+V Humor Theory does not reconcile differences of opinion, but it clarifies what the differences might be by pointing our attention to what moral principles may be held differently by those who laugh and do not laugh. If you are able to see another's perspective, not by mere confusion at their failure to laugh when you laugh or vice versa, but by thinking about what moral commitments they might hold differently from yourself, then the possibility of reconciliation arises. That is my point.

N+V says if one sincerely laughs, the laugher holds BOTH N and V interpretations. On the other hand, if someone else fails to laugh, there are two options, either N is missing, or V is missing (or simultaneity is missing). When V is missing, the perceiver is unable to see the point of the humor. When N is missing, the perceiver sees and feels the point but doesn't think it's okay, doesn't think it's funny.

In the present case, offended Muslims don't think it's funny not because they fail to see the point or any point (any Violation), but because the point is incompatible with a persuasive N perspective on it (says N+V Theory). They may be oblivious to, or unable to see, any actual terroristic characteristics of their own religion, as some have argued. Or they may be so very offended by the denigration of their religion that after further thought they can see it ONLY as a violation, and NOT as being positive or even neutral, whether this is based on their overriding, settled, more rationalized interpretation that the view is (simply) a violation (supported even by accepted and traditional theological arguments), or whether it is based on an emotionally intense V interpretation such as the feeling of re-awakened colonialist subjection and emasculation, of impotence in demanding respect or understanding by powerful others. When V is very strong it can drive out a competing N interpretation, in this logic of emotion.

Can we understand each other? Some communications from both sides seem called for.

Those who laugh but see the offended other, might with some understanding say, We didn't mean to hurt your feelings, to reawaken the feelings of historical impotence under colonial subjugation, to reject that which you love, despite our belief that your religion gives positive value to terrorizing innocents; our civilization has historically, itself, given positive value to terrorizing, as in colonializing, innocents, and we are sorry for our part.

Those who don't laugh, encountering the laughers, might with some understanding say, We understand you think our religion is a religion of terror, given the hundreds of bombings of innocents carried out by self-avowedly Islamic political organizations and given the at least ambiguous significance and meaning of Jihad in wider Islam. It is our duty to make our religion compatible with a cosmopolitan world society in which each must live in peace with each other, lest war consume us all. We are sorry for our part, allowing extremists to control the debate, or to go unchallenged, within Islam.

A constructive mutual engagement seems like the wisest of paths forward. I personally hope that Bliss Theory succeeds in its goal of capturing the valid insights of previous thinkers, including the valid insights of Islam and its Prophet (PBUH) which give it meaning and give joy to its adherents. I hope to make these insights understood within universal human psychology rather than sectarian political conflict -- within that which we all share rather than that which divides us and puts us at war with each other.

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Copyright © 2005 2021, Thomas C. Veatch. All rights reserved.
Modified: Deember 31, 2021.