Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Brief Note on Humour and Politics of Humour

RECENTLY A friend was complaining that even innocuous humour was often being taken as racist slur. It is a question that requires some debate. There was one, and here are some of my notes on it:

What exactly is humour? Is there an innocuous humour which people misconstrue as racist? Then is it simply a problem of communication gap, that what one thinks as a piece of innocuous and humorous comment, hits the other person as arrogant and racist?

At the level of the individuals it might be so. A mere communication gap at times. But I feel, there can be something deeper at the level of the written word.

Even a casual comment can be so pregnant with meanings. When I was reading the biography of Frantz Fanon what struck me was the casual, indeed a childish, comment from a little girl in Paris as he went by: "Look mom, here goes a nigger..!"

Fanon remembered this till the end of his life and his first book on Black faces and White masks comes directly from these experiences. We know that this kid was unconsciously uttering something she had heard at home, which she thought was the universal truth, that black man is a nigger and he is someone quite different from ‘us’; a bit inferior; less than human.

Perhaps one reason why Fanon rejected France and took to armed struggle against France with the Muslim FLN fighters in Algeria might be this deep-seated racism in the French society. He discarded the white world, despised it and even upheld violence as a cleansing agent, arguing that it has a therapeutic value in oppressed societies. (Remember he was a great psychiatrist too.)

I have always felt there is something quite similar in our Malayali psyche too. As culture critic Dr T K Ramachandran argues, we Malayalis live a double life: A life that runs on parallel lines. We are progressive in public life, conservative in private life; we are secular in public life, we despise the other in private; we are socialist in public and we don't mind even the most cynical acts with a profit motive; we oppose dowry in public and we ask for the same when our sons get married...

So even a casual reference or an innocuous comment could mean a lot, could reveal much more than what it says.

When I say that we need to dissect work of art or a joke in its political and social context I do not do it to deny its artistic value or to say that a joke is per se vulgar. But the point is that a racial joke, when uttered on a specific context as derogation of a racial group, especially a minority, it can have other political meanings to it.

That does not mean that we can't laugh reading/listening to a joke. But a joke becomes a real enjoyable thing when everybody has a stake in it, I mean when everyone of us can heartily laugh when we hear one.

Or let me take another example, from writing. Joseph Conrad is a great writer and his works are some of the classics of modern times. I enjoy him and I value him very much. Most people do so.

But when Chinua Achebe read him, he saw the racial undertones in Conrad. His essay is very famous that critiques the Heart of Darkness. It portrays Africa as a dark place, a place where dark forces are lurking, whose people are mere shadows...Even the river becomes an image of the demonic. That is Achebe's reading of Conrads’s work because he happens to be an African who can see it from the inside, unlike others who look at Africa from outside including Conrad.

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