Crossing the laugh line

Why are we not amused when the joke is on us?


One thing we’ll miss about the Trump presidency is the limitless supply of jokes. A dose of POTUS before breakfast had become an essential wake-up routine for many. Perhaps no US president has been such a social media sock-puppet of his own caprices, inspiring satirists of all stripes from stand-up comics and rappers, comedians and talk-show hosts, to cartoonists and sculptors.

Closer home, we seem to be better at making jokes than taking them. Objectification is our singular trope that comes in a variety of flavours — Madrasi, Sardar, Gorkha, generic Chinki, wife jokes, mother-in-law jokes, Pappu jokes, Italian jokes... we’re incredibly accomplished at stereotyping the other. But when the joke’s on us, the smiles wear thin. 

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The right to laugh, more so the right to laugh at and be laughed at, is a fundamental component of the freedom of expression. But like all freedoms, it lives under a pernicious shadow, threatened by so-called reasonable restrictions. As the sand slips away from under the feet of democracy, we find ourselves being talked down to by a paternalistic state as it prescribes what we ought to eat and wear, whom we ought to love and worship, what we ought to read and watch, where we can or cannot go… and now, how we ought to laugh and whom we ought to laugh at.

The laugh line has always been a tenuous one, and satirists who cross it live dangerously. Trump’s shenanigans have provided plenty of grist to John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight, as it has to Sacha Baron Cohen’s sequel to Borat. On his show Who Is America? Cohen pranked former vice president Dick Cheney and US senator Roy Moore among many others. Despite the barrage of lawsuits against them, both satirists have not suffered harm. That’s the almost unfair advantage of speaking up to power in a noisy democracy.

How the state views and responds to satire is a critical indicator of the health of free speech. When cartoonists at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo paid with their lives for lampooning Islam, France dug its heels in deeper to defend its liberties, though it didn’t extend the same protection to people who spoke up in defense of the terrorists. In Pakistan, a nation we love to typecast as backward and regressive, politicians are roasted on TV shows, while religion and the army are off-limits. In Iran, satire against the state survives the threat of punishment. 

Elsewhere in the world, satirists fight a lonely, desperate, and often doomed battle. In Syria, political cartoonist Ali Farzat was brutally beaten and had his hands broken for satirising president Bashar al-Assad. Ironically, Assad had praised Farzat’s work earlier but couldn’t stomach it when the joke was on him. 

In our own Atma Nirbhar Bharat, Kunal Kamra earned the state’s ire for his remarks on certain Supreme Court judges, raising many uncomfortable questions: While the nation’s custodian of justice doubtlessly deserves respect, must it be accorded a deific sanctity? Did Kamra insult the institution, or the functionaries serving in it? Are they, too, beyond reproach?

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In a true democracy, no organ of state is exempt from scrutiny. And often, this questioning takes the form of satire. Kamra’s testing of the waters exposed the gulf between what is just and what is law in our democracy. Our defamation laws are hand-me-down pajamas from the British Raj — silly, oversized and sourpuss for the most part, and they are maliciously overused by the officious and the powerful to muzzle free speech. And when the privileged flex their muscle to silence the outspoken (but not spoken-for) common citizen, there is more than an insidious one-sidedness of opinion at play. There is inequality and, consequently, injustice.

The much-quoted American jurist Oliver Wendell-Holmes Jr observed: “Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law, and sweep away all opposition.” 

The irony in that statement cannot be lost on our own keepers of the law.

We were not always like this. Thicker-skinned political leaders of yore appear to have welcomed jokes at their own expense. Nehru, whom the far-right in India loves to vilify, encouraged the cartoonist Shankar with the instruction not to spare him. “It is good to have the veil of our conceit torn occasionally,” India’s first prime minister was quoted as saying. 

We don’t have to love Kunal Kamra’s humour, but as watchdogs of democracy we must defend his right to speak out. Our keepers of law might want to worry about the blindfold loosening with increasing privilege, and the consequent erosion of their humanity. Before the scales tilt, they might want to question why it is so important to defend the powerful against the weak.

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