Friday, February 03, 2006

One of the qualities I like most in the American and British people, is their ability to laugh at themselves. I believe this is a very important quality, as it helps to bring even the most contentious issues out in the open. This ability, if not manifested early enough, becomes useless and even dangerous later. For example, can we dare to openly make jokes about Hindu Muslim riots in India, or about the Prime Minister? Sure, there is a difference of culture, and many jokes which would be quite acceptable in the US would be rightly considered derogatory in India. But I think the question is not just one of appraisal of the humour itself.

Jokes are not only a way of poking fun at someone or something, but their greater long-term function is to basically make the contentious issue an acceptable part of public dialogue. Also, the more you joke about something, the more of a cliche it becomes, and the more its exclusive, special, forbidden nature is rendered redundant. Most importantly, the cliche can signify that the event is a thing of the past, and through the joke, you express this sentiment. Just as you may joke about the Inquisition, which was a very serious matter, so you can joke about Bill Clinton or about Ronald Reagan. Rather than get enraged about these characters or events, the people who make the joke choose to vent out their anger through humour, sarcastic or otherwise, and not keep it seething inside until it becomes a red hot instrument of vituperation and violence. I believe that this is what has not happened in India and many other countries, unlike the US and the UK. I was quite exasperated at some of the outrageous jokes that Americans crack about 'respectable' personalities. But then, it is their way, and a good one at that, of saying that one should take it easy, and through the joke, make the discussion of the event or person water under the bridge. If you are to err, then better err on the side of humour. At least it pokes the dark, brooding issue into the open. As the joke becomes more and more prevelant, it also becomes more public, and one can identify with other people in expressing the humour. This fact again prevents the building up of resentment that would make the matter a personal insult. Laughing at yourself is one of the most salutary activities which you can engage in.

The jokes about the prophet Mohammad illustrates the case in a sad way. I completely sympathize with the people whose religious sensibilities it offended. But is it really worth spending all that time on it? Isn't it appalling that so many people took out to the streets and show no sign of stopping? Can we imagine the terror that must be going through the Danish newspaper's editor's and the cartoon illustrato's hearts? Is religion so important that it should completely disrupt the workings of the world? Then, if anything, this will make people respect religion and its edifice even less. What next? Another 'fatwah' on the editor and the illustrator? Is this how a legitimate snapshot of the world in the 21st century should be? Sorry! But if this is how it is, then it only makes a more and more convincing case in my opinion, for how religion is fraught with more evil than good, how it seizes people away from rational sentiment and hurtles them back to the middle ages. Can we say that Islam, or right wing extreme Hinduism, would have started their path towards modern progress, when they can start to joke about their Gods and Prophets? If not, these gods and prophets are going to continue to remain devils in disguise.


Blogger SN said...

I completely agree with you on the inability of eastern cultures to joke about things that are sensitive to them. Atanu Dey has a great post on freedom of expression in context of the Danish newpaper cartoons of Muhammed. I think that even before one can joke about a sensitive issue, one should be able to accept (if not understand) the fact that the same issue may be of no consequence to others.
Here is the link to his post

12:20 PM  
Blogger Hirak said...

I think we do joke about politicians especially Laloo. Most discussion in the Indian media centers on relations between religions. What about religion itself? Even a hint of a discussion on the merits or demerits of religion itself?

7:04 PM  
Anonymous Anirudh said...

I don't know if I agree with you on this one. Yes, some people do react strongly. Organizations like the Shiv Sena etc. But the so-called common man probably doesn't get enraged by jokes about religion or other "sensitive" issues.

9:35 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

SHarvari: Thanks for the link...and I completely agree; before we raise an issue on a pedestal, we should try to explore its generality (or the lack thereof)

Hirak: Yes! What about a discussion of the merits and demerits of religion itself? We need that for sure

Anirudh: I am not sure it's always the politicians, although largely it is. What about the sensibilities of the populace? Should we always give them the benefit of doubt?

10:57 AM  
Blogger Hirak said...

In my opinion the merits of religion can easily be replaced by other activities more grounded in reality.
Of the demerits of religion refer to Danish cartooons.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Sumedha said...

What did you think about the decision to reprint the cartoons that many newspapers took (in France, especially)?
At first, I was glad that they had done it; but I now wonder if principles are more important than people. Men are dying because of that editor's decision.
From another point of view; maybe this conflagration was waiting to happen sooner or later, and the trigger was just incidental?

11:51 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

I think there was no need to do that, not because it is wrong per se, but because they should always know better that it would fuel the rage of these bigots...which it will. The bottom line is; people don't have anything better to do with their life...and certainyl not with others'

And yes, given the mentality, I too think that it would have taken but a splinter of incitement to bring about such an outrage.

7:11 AM  

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