It’s No More a Laughing Matter

This article will trace the relationship between dissent and humour. Drawing from examples of stand-ups, cartoons and other mediums of humorous dissent, it will focus on why humour should be taken seriously.

“The world likes humour, but treats it patronizingly. It decorates its serious artists with laurel and its wags with Brussels sprouts. It feels that if a thing is funny it can be presumed to be something less than great because if it were truly great it would be wholly serious.”

Says American Writer E.B. White

Dissent today has been perceived as something serious, and sinister. The prototype dissenter is someone who sports a ‘jhola’, a worn-out kurta and jeans with a sombre look on their face, almost always carrying with them a copy of ‘Das Kapital’. However dissent may not only have a “serious function” perse, it does not always ride on protests or violent strikes but also in-jokes.

Humorous dissent has a kind of subversive power- it’s like a sword that hits home without actually drawing blood.

Image Caption: Cartoons and memes have become a widely accepted medium to criticise the establishment. Rachita Taneja’s Webcomic – Sanitary Panels- is a case in point.
Image Credits: Rachita Taneja

It is said that all humour challenges social or scientific norms at some level, and I don’t argue with this statement’s premise. In this article, I focus on how humour is used to supplement dissent, but also how it allows citizens to express disenchantment with those in power, create an alternative space of resistance, or even give people the courage to take up more concrete actions. Even though humour may not have a sure short chance to lead to a revolution, but it can begin a conversation about one. For instance, it does open up a discursive space within which it becomes possible to speak about matters that were otherwise unquestioned and/or silenced.

Humour has been an effective tool especially in times when the administration has brutally crushed the voices of the people.  It had even managed to cut through the iron curtain back when the USSR witnessed the reign of some authoritative regimes. One of my personal favourites is a joke that became extremely famous during the famine of 1932. It goes like this :

“Comrade Stalin, we have so many potatoes that, piled one on top of the other, they would reach all the way to God,” the farmer excitedly tells his leader.

“But God does not exist,” replies Stalin.

“Exactly,” says the farmer. “Neither do the potatoes.”

Similar to this, a smartly worded advertisement which critiqued the censorship of the press during the years of the Emergency featured in The Times of India. Little was its impact on the protagonists of the Emergency, but it still remains an important footnote in books written on the subject.

Image Caption: This advertisement featured in the TOI criticised the Emergency for crushing individual liberty and freedom. It says, “D’OCracy – D.E.M., beloved husband of T. Ruth, loving father of L.I. Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope, Justicia, expired on June 26.”
Image Credit: ScoopWhoop

Humour finds its traces buried deep in history, in its witty court jesters like Tenali Raman, wise courtiers like Birbal and the satirical Sufi Nasruddin Hoja. The Vidushak, as they are called in Indian folklore are famous for being the witty ones who often spoke truth to power unabashedly.

Humour manifests in the most unconventional forms when it comes to political dissent. It’s not only ‘The Late Show With Stephen Colbert’ and ‘The Week That Wasn’t’ that are famous for pushing politician’s buttons, but also initiatives like the rally to restore sanity and/or fear which was led by comedian  Stephen Colbert and John Stewart in 2010 in Washington DC. This rally was publicised as a light-hearted event with a profound intention of creating a middle ground between the far rights and leftists- a space for rational conversation – away from the polarisation of prime time debates.

Image Caption: The Rally To Restore Sanity was characterised by some funny signs – including one which said, “So many Grey areas, such less grey matter” which commented on the lack of nuance in political discourse
Image Credits: The Huffington Post

All said and done, It is equally important to take into account the fact humour is subjective. Thus, humorous dissent may start off with an intention to question authority but on the way may lose the plot. This leads to a deeper question – Where does a humourist draw the line between the two worlds of the funny and the offensive?  For instance, when the Charlie Hebdo satirical weekly decided to publish caricatures of Prophet Muhammed, it received unprecedented condemnation from some sections of Muslims. So much so that 12 people working in the magazine were shot dead by assailants.

A constant complaint with Indians is that they don’t seem to have a sense of humour. The piling sedition charges against comedians and cartoonists is a case in point. Those who have dared to take a dig at the establishment have been heavily trolled, threatened and/or even arrested. Such incidents prove that humour is no more just a laughing matter, it has tangible consequences and must be taken seriously.

Read also: https://dubeat.com/2020/04/humour-and-social-relevance-tvfs-panchayat-captures-it-all/

Feature Image Source: Twitter

Saanjh Shekhar