The past few days saw a couple of Jay-Joe humorous swipes that met with two distinct reactions: WTF and WTF. The potent acronym is, however, about duelling ideologies.
1. “WTF! How can anyone be so insensitive?”
2. “WTF! Can’t we just chill and grow up? It’s a joke.”
I think I know a few mean jokes; I am told I do possess a dry wit. I swear by a good satire, and not at it. And that’s the point. If we have to laugh at something, we put ourselves in a superior position. It may not be deliberated upon. Yet such jokes that make someone or something an object of derision automatically imbue us with the power of looking down on them. You might ask, don’t opinions and indignation do the same? In a sense, yes, they do. But one has the time to at least attempt an argument. It may be implausible to others, but that’s what pushing the envelope is about. Flat humour is more like licking a postage stamp and showing tongue. Beyond the juvenile aspect is a not-so-innocent narrative.
In the age of connectivity, we can see some snide personal comments being leavened by the clever use of emoticons and a heavy dose of exclamation marks. This seems to often suggest that the comment made is all in good fun. It often is, though not always.
When Jay Leno put up a picture of the Golden Temple on a show with Mitt Romney and suggested it could be his summer home, there were the two reactions I mentioned. I am afraid I did not find it funny. It is perhaps the most visible religious symbol of worship for the Sikhs in India. My argument is that a place where people pray is not something to be messed with. There are other glittering glorious monuments. Would Leno have sold the idea of the Vatican to Romney, or is it not summery enough? Besides that, my squabble is about reference to the context: Had Romney talked about conversion, for example, then a subtle mention would seem legitimate. A good parody is not something you pull out of a hat. Heck, when the brilliant Chaplin pulled something out of a hat it ended up as rather profound humour. There will be jeers over the term profound prefixed to humour. It reveals the paucity of the humour discourse that is so slapstick even our minds need to fall on banana peels to get tickled.
So, is Joe Biden, who is supposed to be full of gaffes, imitating an Indian accent offensive? We again get the “WTF! It’s just a joke” reaction. In this case, as I have said so often, we get into the veracity dispute. What is an Indian accent? If you live in India you would realise that there is variety, as there is in the United States, in UK, and I am sticking to the English language. The slightly worrying aspect is that his target was the call centres. We know just how bad the employment situation is in America; this sort of draws attention to the outsourcing.
I read a report that talked about how the people in Delaware are cool about it. They would be. They have to keep their little stores open, and quite a few do indeed use their ethnic background as a calling card. It is amusing to see how they market this, in their mode of dress, deportment and speech while they are abroad. When they return on visits home it is as Americans or Britons – foreign accents laying on the slang, ill-fitting western clothes, and the mandatory shrug of shoulders.
This is great material to lampoon, and the ‘Mind your language’ series did a pretty nifty job of it. However, Peter Sellers enacting an Indian was a bit off simply because he remained on the periphery of stereotypes. Stereotypes are often comical.
There cannot be straitjacket rules for humour. That would defeat the purpose. A lot of stand-up comedy by the diaspora in the West is a defence mechanism; it is a nervous laugh. It is the desperation to be seen as ‘nice’, as ‘belonging’ that results in most of the jokes that cater to the mainstream. Leno was informed that Sikhs are the butt of jokes, so why the issue over the Golden Temple reference. Indeed, Sikhs are the subject of many jokes, but it is about them and their foibles. I’d say even the priesthood makes for a great subject across the board. These are people who need to be outed with jokes, if not in a more serious manner.
If Joe Biden finds Hinduism weird and someone else finds Islam weird in another manner and somewhere else Catholicism is seen as weird, then we are talking about a whole lot of weird atheists who are obsessed with how the ‘opponents’ behave. There really is nothing to take jibes at atheism. There has to be something when we hit out.
Where does one draw the line about that something? It really depends on where we are. It is culture specific. I do not believe religion should be out of bounds, but certainly leave gods and places of worship alone. There are jokes about Jews, many of them, but one leaves Judaism alone. I read that Liam Neeson “may become a Muslim”. I was amused by the announcement of a possibility. You do not declare that you may fall in love, or you may change your gender. But if Leno may interview him on the subject, I’d think it would be quite apt if he asked the Irish Catholic if he would give up his Guinness and settle for a pint of camel milk. Personally, I would have no problem if even zam-zam were mentioned, but it is holy water from Mecca and it has history and flows with the devotion of millions. The reason I would not mind is that I know there is a whole ancillary industry that markets this holy water by adulterating it, so its holiness is quite diluted. But not many think of these pragmatic details, and faith is not about pragmatism, even less about scepticism.
The problem with the broad professional liberal attitude is that freethinkers recoil when the joke’s on them or their favoured icons. This openness allows for a faith to be caricatured, but dare we not make a farce of the person who does so. Now, this is funny. It might have been a joke, too, except that I prefer mine sharp.
This quote by Anon exposes the wooziness best: “Liberals are very broadminded: they are always willing to give careful consideration to both sides of the same side”
For someone who does not believe in political correctness, I’d like to ask a question: Would these people look kindly on humour about obesity, anorexia, women, homosexuality, men, the body, physical and mental deformity? No. If the reason is sensitivity – though I can assure you that privately these are subjects of humour in these same liberal bastions – then the belief of people is also not a joke. We can, and must for clarity, split hairs and nitpick and fight over every aspect of what is right and wrong with all of these. It is called debate and discussion.
A one-liner, a rolling on the floor laughter is a kneejerk reaction. A spasm does not a satire make.
(c) Farzana Versey