As the dialogue on gender inequality gets more strident and less nuanced, there are many holy cows and dirty pigs, where communication happens as though through a word parsing software. What is abuse and what isn’t abused gets declared by the presence or absence of certain words and whether they are on the green list or red list.
This, in my view is a very primitive and undifferentiated judgment and any issues related with vulnerable people become tombs of conversation where cracking a joke is like Sushma Swaraj dancing at Raj Ghat. Insulting because it breaks a certain code, rather than offends.
So, for example you can speak of politicians raping India’s forests. and compare it with the injustice of a rape, but god forbid if you crack a joke that humiliates a rape. The non-nuanced measures bring us to a point where feminists object to rape being ridiculed – not rape victim, note.
A good example is what a few people brought up on Twitter today as an example of trivializing rape. The “samudahik balatkaar” scene in 3 idiots, where a college prank sees some words change in a speech learned by rote and leads to hilarious insults. Some of them implying that the college students instead of going out in the world and performing miracles (chamatkar) will be famous for rapes (balaatkaar). The joke is on traditional methods of learning that stress memorization over meaning and sees a “bright” student insulting his college principal (and doting mentor) by unknowingly saying his students will make his college famous for rape instead of miracles. Rape is clearly used as a metaphor for inferior action. Is this offensive? Why? Rape should not have been spoken of with such rudeness? Rape deserves better respect? Not really. It just triggered the alarm in the word parser. If the word rape occurred followed by people laughing, it is somehow demeaning to women.
The film goes on to a scene where the protagonists are laughing at the stupidity of the supposed students and use the term “samudahik balaatkar” – communal rape (oh dear, another trigger word for the outrage ready, this “communal”). But the sentence is talking of that boy devastated by the humiliation of the whole community in splits with his offensive memorized speech he didn’t know the meaning of. It expresses the character’s trauma, but while it depicts a juvenile college mentality, it speaks of a “threat” passed – the person is not actually at risk of a community rape.
This goes for a lot of uses of the word “rape” like the insulting invented term “Great Indian Rape Trick” that was used by many on Twitter in the aftermath of the Delhi Gang Rape to express frustration with the unchanging scenario on preventing rape, regardless of outrage – almost like it is our identifier. Another one is “don’t rape my mind” – which is again used in the metaphorical sense of violation – like for the forests.
In each of the “jokes”, there is no rape victim whose trauma gets ridiculed. The metaphorical uses express the exploitation and harm implied by rape. It is the act of rape that is being spoken of with disrespect. In my view, this is great. There is nothing like ridicule to advertize disapproval and given the abundance of rape apologists in the country, I do think jokes that manage to humiliate rape and rapists are important. I also think the more the word rape gets used to describe harm and exploitation – whether someone’s minds or forests – the more the colloquial use of the word “rape” as “cool” will die out, because of the larger meaning attached to it being completely uncool. I’d take a “dimaag rape mat kar yaar” any day over a “She’s such a snob, I totally want to rape her.” because the second uses the word “rape” as a justified and “cool” action, while the first uses it to express violation, even if exaggerated.
But how to know which usage does not humiliate the victims of rape, and which does?
For this, we need to think about laughter. What does your body feel when you laugh? Why is laughter a stress buster? Laughter is a sudden release of tension. Something that would be a threat if it really happened, however mild or ridiculous or improbable, that gets defeated or otherwise escaped. Laughter is also an expression of victory or surviving that threat. Which is why laughing at people offends, because it expresses their defeat at your hands. It puts the laugher above the laughee, so to say. It is also why laughing at self is seen as the mark of a self-secure and sporting person. These are subtle perceptions, which you can verify with a lot of observation of self and others, or I can write a separate post – it is a huge subject – for now, leaving it at this.
This works brilliantly against real threats and powerful targets that won’t come to any real harm from the laughs. As an article I once read spoke of it, humor is like a sword. The pointy end must go in the bad guy. Killing the good guys or those who were wronged or those deserving sympathy will not be funny.
So, jokes about Kejriwal spending a night on the street will be funny, but not jokes about the homeless on the street, because for them, the “threat” is too real to laugh about. Jokes about an irritating person raping people’s ears will be funny, because it is physically not possible, but an irritating person raping an actual woman will not. For the laugh to happen, the threat must END at the punch line.
This is how the rape of forets by politicians and corporations can be an outrage, but never a joke, because there is no punch line after which the rape ends. This is also why Palash Sen’s humor about the lack of beautiful women in IIT made so many angry, because the stereotyping of women as eye candy for men is not something that ended with the humor.
This thinking takes nuance. A sensitivity that refuses to laugh at the plight of someone, but is fine laughing at a target that can take it. It is not about what words are used. It is about who the pointy end of that humor sword skewers. This is why there are so many people thrilled when news of rape victims bobbitizing their rapists happen. I’d heard one that went something like (I forget the exact words) “He went to put his dick in her. He couldn’t put it in her, but she kept it with her – without him.” As a joke goes, it wasn’t a Taj Mahal of humor, but it wasn’t offensive, because the underdog triumphed.
Here is a Sardarji joke I love:
Every few months, a sardarji used to cross over from India to Pakistan on a motorcycle with rocks loaded on it. The guys checking for smuggled goods and such were very suspicious about him. He just lit their buttons honed from years of experience, but no matter how much they inspected his luggage, they never found anything. One day, the sardarji was traveling back from Pakistan to India by bus, and he went to meet them saying this was his last trip, and to say “bye”. They were straight with him. “We know you were smuggling something, but we never could find it. Can you tell us at least, what you were smuggling? We promise not to prosecute you.” The Sardarji answered “motorcycles”.
This joke is a counter-joke, where the sardarji – typically the butt of jokes portraying him as stupid triumphs. For those who respect sardarjis and are angry over their humiliation as stupid, this joke will get the laugh.
And so on.
There is a need to see that abuse or ridicule doesn’t reside in the words, but in the intent. An inarticulate victim may be reduced to horrendous abuse in the face of overwhelming frustration, but is not necessarily the “abuser”. Similarly, it is possible to be devastatingly humiliating without using a single bad word.
There is a need for us to refine our public outrages so that they target the wrong, rather than simply censor some words out of our vocabularies for some kinds of use.