Denying people their jokes

When I was in Bangalore earlier this year, I was talking to a “US returned” friend about moving back to India, and he mentioned that one of the reasons he moved back is that he didn’t find very good “culture fit” in the US. “The thing that got to me”, he said, “was that I couldn’t even connect with their jokes”.

Living in the UK, that is not that much of a problem for us, since British humour is pretty good, but this anecdote illustrates how important jokes can be for people.

Regular readers of this blog might know that I get damn irritated by the new-found culture of political correctness. While it is not my intention to hurt anybody or their feelings, I feel that political correctness is being overdone nowadays, and that severely restricts what you can say. And that is a problem for people like me who like to say things without thinking.

Reading the odd news report from the US – about the Trump campaign, for example – it’s clear that I’m not alone in having a problem with this newfound political correctness (oh – I can now expect people to attack me for having views similar to Trump’s voters). In some ways the left-right battle in the US can be described as a battle of political correctness, where the “left” likes to be all correct, and expects that everyone else is also always politically correct and not offensive, while the “right” wants to say things as they are.

Anyway, putting together my friend’s anecdote about not getting American jokes, and the culture of political correctness, I can think of one other, possibly major, reason why people are pissed off about the culture of political correctness – it denies people their jokes.

Most popular jokes – may not be the best ones, mind you, but ones that have high memetic fitness – are cracked at the expense of an “other”. This “other” can sometimes be another person – even a public figure, but at other times, it defines a particular community (though not necessarily a certain community). And the joke consists of laughing at this particular other community (broadly speaking).

So you have short people jokes, and black jokes, and Jewish jokes, and Pakistani jokes, and Muslim jokes, and so on. And then you have sexist jokes.

Now put this in the context of political correctness – most jokes that most people have grown up on are now taboo, because they are offensive to one or the other community, and it is not polite to make fun of these communities. So a whole truckload of jokes that people are grown up on can now not be cracked in polite company. And as even the Soviet Union discovered, that can be oppressive.

I recently read this book called Hammer and Tickle – a History of Communism through Communist Jokes (you can find an extract here). This sub-heading accompanying the extract summarises the Soviet attitude towards jokes:

Communism is the only political system to have created its own international brand of comedy. The standard interpretation is that communist jokes were a form of resistance. But they were also a safety valve for the regimes and jokes were told by the rulers as well as the ruled—even Stalin told some good ones

Now if only the “modern Soviets” were to get this!

9/13: UnPC

I have often cribbed on my blog in recent times that there is too much outrage out there, and there is too heightened a sense of political correctness nowadays. If you were to say something even remotely politically incorrect, the social media hordes will be upon you. This has implications in terms of public policy, in that a lot of people don’t say what they’re going to do, and they act (in terms of voting for Trump, for example) the whole world is surprised.

Anyway, leaving the larger world aside, I sometimes delight in the fact that Pinky and I first made our connection in the realms of political incorrectness. She has told me that when she first stumbled upon this blog (its predecessor, rather) in 2006, there were two posts that she liked.

The first one was a two-liner. I’m reproducing it in its entirety here.

noticed a funny thing at the loo in office today. a number of people tie their janavaaras (sacred thread) around their ears while peeing or crapping!!

The second was about what one looked for in a wife. It has all the ingredients to raise the heckles of politically correct social media hecklers nowadays.

It was a year and a half later that we reconnected (we’d initially connected after I’d written the above two posts). This time, a challenge that Pinky set me resulted in me reaching her blog. This is the post that I landed up at. Again has all the ingredients of generating outrage. Also check the comment that I’ve left there (that was my way of telling Pinky I’d “won” a challenge she’d set for me).

Anyway, a decade has gone by and we’re both older and wiser, so we wouldn’t talk about outright politically incorrect things. Yet, given the way we started off, I guess the sense we got is that nothing is taboo between us, and we can talk about just about anything. And that’s an awesome feeling to have because there is now no reason for us to hide anything from each other.

One thing marriage does to you is that you become each other’s closest confidantes. So if there is something that you think you cannot talk to your partner about, then it automatically means that you either keep that thing to yourself or look elsewhere to talk about it. Either way, it is a problem, and in attempts to cover up, the part of your lives that you don’t share with each other simply grows.

If nothing is taboo, on the other hand, it means that you can talk your way out of every disagreement, discuss about everything, and basically find a graceful solution to any fights. And life this way is so much better than a situation where you have to constantly be wary of offending the person you are closest to!

So in this sense again, I’m damn happy to have found Pinky, whom I can tell just about anything to. She might get occasionally pissed off (in case I’m cribbing about her, or someone else close to her), but we always end up having a conversation. And that makes both of us feel better, and each time we have this kind of a conversation, we come a little bit closer!

One downside of this approach, of course, is that if there are times when I put NED to some conversation, she thinks I’m being evasive, and the fact that I’m not being open ends up bringing friction! But then we know very well how to gracefully resolve fights!

1/13: Leaving home

2/13: Motherhood statements

3/13: Stockings

4/13: HM

5/13: Cookers

6/13: Fashion

7/13: Dashing

8/13: Dabba

Mob courts and social media

The withdrawal of the invitation to former Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal from the Times of India Lit Fest (to be held later this week) has been held up as a stellar example of “victory of social media over traditional media”. Tejpal, who has been accused of rape and is out on bail, was invited to be part of a panel discussion at the lit fest. However, following vehement protests in the social media, the invitation was withdrawn.

Tejpal’s rape case is sub-judice and this blog does not have an opinion on that. This blog also does not at the moment have an opinion on whether it is appropriate for on-bail undertrials to appear at public functions. What this blog is concerned about, though, is about how social media is helping give voice to large collectives of people to outrage and effect change in public life.

A couple of other examples are of relevance here. Last week, Nobel laureate and co-inventor of the double helix structure of the DNA James Watson announced that he was going to auction his Nobel prize medal to raise funds, for most of his sources of income had dried up following a politically incorrect comment he made in 2007 about the intelligence of black people. Then, about a year back, PR executive Justine Sacco lost her job after a tweet which was intended to be a joke went viral and she was accused of racism.

It has long been touted as a good thing that social media gives a vehicle for the “small”, whose voice was hitherto unheard, to come together with other similar “small” people and make enough noise that their opinion be heard. While the merits of such “democratisation of public airing of opinion” are undoubted (for example I’ve made most of my reputation thanks to blogging, a means unavailable to me say fifteen years ago), the concern is that too much importance given to comments on the social media can alter discourse and end up muffling voices (whether “small” or “large”) that have occasionally said something unparliamentary.

The big downside of such outrage and muffling is that it can lead people to stop taking risks in terms of what they say, for saying something even remotely unpopular or politically incorrect might suffice to be branded a villain, which can have crippling impacts on professional (and sometimes even personal) lives. I can actually imagine this leading to a dystopian world where every sentence you say is judged by “the people” for political correctness, where the utterance of a a single politically incorrect statement can result in instant death (of course I’m severely extrapolating here, and constructing a hypothetical dystopian world, so don’t let this blog post become an example of what it’s warning against!). In such a world, as one could imagine, people would only say things that they are absolutely sure that a majority of other people will agree with. People will talk less (not necessarily a bad thing in itself), but creativity itself will be stifled (Copernicus and Galileo come to mind) and there is a good chance that in such a world growth and development might come to a standstill.

I’m in no way proposing that the voice of the “small” be gagged (this blog is also one such voice), or to go unheeded. All I’m asking for is that we do not go the way of being ruled by the mob, in terms of making decisions that receive the highest shouts in favour. For one, the mob is not always right. Secondly, it might only be people on one side of the debate who are loud and vocal, and the other side might, for whatever reason, not be able to make its voice heard. The world simply cannot progress without some people making unpopular decisions or unpopular statements.

So the Times of India, if it didn’t see merit in calls for withdrawal of Tejpal’s withdrawal, might have argued that while the matter was sub-judice, the matter of discussion had nothing to do with Tejpal’s case and that he had enough to offer to make his presence a positive. Magazines could have given Watson writing assignments arguing that he has much to offer in terms of science writing and that one politically incorrect column doesn’t make him a “persona non grata”. Sacco’s employer might have argued that she was entitled to have a bad sense of humour (though given that she worked in PR this (bad sense of humour) is not a useful skill to have). Listening to the most vocal voices is not always good policy.

 

 

Twitter, outrage and political correctness

So I continue to be off twitter. The only tweets you see from me are the automated tweets that go out (which i customise a bit) every time I write a blog post, which has been fairly often in the last one month or so.

I gave up on my efforts to curate a twitter feed and get the links to pocket. I simply use the Flipboard app on my iPad, which I log on to once a day to see if there are interesting links. For a few days it worked. I collected lots of nice links. I still collect some nice links.

But then the thing with flipboard is that along with the links you end up seeing the twitter commentary that accompanied the links. And I see a lot of outrage. People don’t seem to have patience for a civil discussion on twitter any more. Everyone takes sides, every little topic is dissected like crazy and it’s almost like people have this pathological need to outrage and twitter is their vehicle for that. If this means that this might decrease their outrage in the rest of the world it’s a good thing, but I’m not sure if that is actually happening – it might even be that the constant outrage on twitter is keeping people’s outrage knives sharp and they are outraging more outside too.

Sometimes I like to crack a joke. More often than not it is likely to be offensive and politically incorrect. There is a friend who says he uses twitter exclusively as an outlet for the jokes that build up within his head -to let off steam in some sort of way. But then the extreme outrage and political correctness that twitter imposes on you means that you can never crack a nice harmless politically incorrect joke – people will descend upon you like a pack of wolves, and you get called names and all such.

And so you hold back. And you become a little less of what you were. And you regress. And then you find that you simply can’t function the way you used to a long time back.

Last night I was going through some of my blog posts from 2008 – I go on these trips sometimes. There will be some trigger that will remind me of a particular blog post, and from there I’ll read 20 other adjacent ones. Looking back at the blog posts, they were profound. They were the products of a clean and unfettered mind, who liked to put things out and who didn’t really mind any adverse reactions.

But over the last six years that mind has been dulled, sullied, bullied, into writing possibly only politically correct stuff, which might be flat and hardly profound. So the last month and a half when I’ve been out of twitter has also been an exercise to reclaim myself from @karthiks. And become back closer to skthewimp.livejournal.com – for that is the mode in which I think I function best!

Anyway.. My current thinking is that my facebook and twitter sabbatical will last until the end of October. Going by my brief intrusions into twitter via flipboard, though, it seems like I might stay away for much longer. But you know where to find me!