Free Speech is a tough road to take. Particularly when sensibilities are hurt. And this question is arising more and more frequently and with increasing intensity these days.
As someone who writes on the bleeding edge of touchy sensibilities routinely (though not well enough for satire, which is a very difficult art form), I know how easy it is to make one point only to kill another. A recent example is when I was of the opinion that the faces of rape victims must not be hidden, because it is not their shame, and in hiding their faces, we are in essence saying “if people knew this was you, they wouldn’t respect you” and in saying that, we call her someone who can’t be openly accepted because of what she went through. We also protect ourselves from watching her face, from facing our own fears and frustrations come true on her face. I stand by this opinion, and many found a new way of thinking with the article I wrote. However, there was a sizeable group of people who did not appreciate this view. In their view, exhibiting the humiliation of a person was an insult. Which is also an important point.
It did not matter to them that I had said that it is important to empower the victim and ask them if they wanted their face blurred. To give them the choice of standing defiantly in front of the world or reserving their identity from a bigoted world – to choose whether they considered this a fight worth fighting at all. The other side of the argument was equally vital. The victim might change her mind. Fighting need not happen while she was traumatized. The response she got may be impossible to reverse if she can’t cope. And more. All serious. Both sides.
I don’t believe I was wrong in making that point. However, I cannot say the ones who objected were wrong either. And it was impossible to predict the outrage I caused. And I would have still said it if I knew. Because there is no one right thought from all views. Sensitivity is being aware of the various ways it could be seen.
Recently, Daniel Tosh made some rape jokes at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood and a woman in the audience spoke up that “rape jokes are never funny,” in retribution Tosh said it would be hilarious if she were gang-raped right there in the club. So pandemonium reigned. A superb article on Jezebel explores this: How to make a rape joke. Technically the idea was ridiculous that a gang rape could just start happening, but the joke pointed the wrong way. A joke is like a sword. The pointy end has to either go into the bad guy, or a target that can take the mock threat it suggests with composure. A rape victim is neither. Now, if it were a joke impaled the rape culture, you’d have that spontaneous laugh that comes from relief of a threat demolished (a lot of humor is about things that should alarm being destroyed). You only have to see JayHind’s episodes lampooning censorship.
Sometimes, we don’t pay attention to where the joke is pointing or could be perceived as pointing, like my article – unintended targets being hit. In a serious article, you can debate the point. In satire, it goes rapidly into being perceived as an insult. It is a mistake. I refuse to believe any comedian has an ambition to see jokes fall flat. There is nothing worse than a joke that is not funny, because it leaves the joker vulnerable. Every joke is about sticking your neck out, and no sane person knowingly risks it. This needs to be understood clearly.
So in the recent controversy over a JayHind video offending Sikh sensibilities, I can say with confidence that offending absolutely anyone they didn’t intend to offend was unintentional, and if they wanted to offend Sikhs, the show would look very different. I do not believe there was any insult or offense intended.
That said, as someone very interested in minority rights, I don’t find it funny at all for a Sikh to say he’s been running since 1984 for example. The pointy end goes into the wrong guy. Now it was Tytler saying he was running since 1984, that would definitely be good satire. Same genocide, but the pointy end in the bad guy. This joke fell flat. And that is where it should remain. It is most definitely appropriate to point out that uh… this didn’t work. That it was insensitive. Particularly since the issue has not even been denounced the way it should be in real life. So it is an open wound. That said, it is ridiculous to imagine it insults Fauja Singh at all. A centenarian running mocks not him, but us couch potatoes watching. No matter how exaggerated the running is.
We could analyze this till the world ends, but the fact remains that explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. It can be done, but the frog will die. Now, this humor would really be offensive to frogs, because while they aren’t the bad guys, they end up dying. Luckily, frogs don’t hear it, and the joke not being pointed at them, doesn’t make people hate frogs.
I think the failure of this joke, or worse some actually finding it funny, if anyone did reflects more on our insensitivity as a Nation where our awareness doesn’t register the hurt of the Sikhs (though we do talk of it to score political points) and like the guy who made the rape joke, we simply don’t realize that it can hurt. This lack of acknowledgment that a grave wrong happened also makes Sikhs lash out over their grief not mattering to people at large. We can say the insensitivity was JayHind’s alone and escape our culpability if we want, but what is funny is a social construct or there is no joke potential in a comment. So I totally understand the outrage and the importance of making that outrage heard, because it is their right that their history be a part of National awareness. So, while I disagree with imposed censorship in principle, I do see the marginalization they experienced.
Comedy exists for an audience. If a joke hurts the intended audience of which Sikhs are a part, the purpose is lost. JayHind have been superb at delivering Comedy with a capital C for quite a while, and it would not be possible if they had malicious intent. They occupy an important space in a world getting increasingly intolerant. The space to speak freely, spare no holy cows, and continue to speak and fight our increasing intolerance that seeks to wipe out anything that offends. I would appreciate anyone thinking of this issue to see the vast collection of often excellent comedy that strikes at political and social bigotry that is doing a lot of damage to our country and see the larger reason we need them to exist. Why we need them to survive attempts of silencing in a country bent on censorship.
I would hope that the Sikhs with their famed sense of humor and large hearts, seasoned with being the brunt of far more awful and purposeless Sikh jokes for years can find the generosity in them to accept that JayHind meant no malice. I realize this is a difficult request and also possibly unfair seeing as how both Hindus and Muslims merrily persecute insult with disproportionate force. But perhaps when two major religions have cascaded into intolerance, somewhere, other strong faiths need to arrest that slide and make a strong stand to provide the country with an alternative way of thinking. Wiping out of existence the cause of outrage is an answer that will destroy us as a country the more we do it.
Of course, it would help if JayHind acknowledged the hurt that resulted without their intention. While they shouldn’t apologize for something they didn’t intend, it goes a long way to accept that there were unintended consequences and they did hurt people without meaning to. A laugh makes some words a joke.
The suggestions that come to mind are:
- That video could be removed
- That video could contain an acknowledgment in its description that it was perceived by some as communally demeaning and that is not the intent.
In either case, I disagree with attempts to take JayHind off-air completely or absolutely every comedy show would end up trashed over something or the other or worse, become conformist. We would strike a blow against a fundamental right for us as a country over a few minutes of problematic video in thousands of hours of vital footage.
To my knowledge, JayHind has taken the video off air, but it was uploaded by those protesting. Here it is. Do listen to the lyrics of the song that follows.
In the end, I want to address a question I got asked on Twitter what I would do if I or the community I belong to got joked about. Well, it happens. I am atheist, so not many religious jokes bother me, but I am a feminist, and there is a vast number of rape jokes, sexist jokes, sexist stereotypes and more that do bother me. Sometimes insult me deeply. I am a victim of domestic violence, and I have a dedicated anti-fan club on Twitter who joke on and off about how I should be beaten up by my husband and my problem is that the violence I face is verbal, so I feel incomplete, which is why I tweet about it. There are other jokes, or rather insults from where I’m looking which talk about my son who has special needs. They are not as many currently, but a few months back, there was a veritable epidemic.
You can talk about “Bijli Aunty” on Twitter and a vast number of people know who you are talking about. I have taken offense, I have engaged in tweet wars, I have argued and fought people in real life. I have been angry, hurt, sarcastic or simply dismissive. But so far, I have not silenced anyone. The closest I came was mock conversation with a follower who asked if I wanted a man who made a rape threat about me picked up and taken to the police station. He deleted his tweet and apologized. Perhaps, over a direct tweet like that, I’d have filed a complaint, but he apologized and it sounded sincere, and that was the end of the matter. Will this continue? I hope so. I hope I never lose touch with important values enough to lose them in a haze of anger.
So yes, while I ask of the Sikhs to do what most religions are not doing it, I am not asking for something I am not willing to do myself.