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‘Are Sexist Jokes Acceptable?’ – Lessons From A Comedy Show At A College Fest

By Vandana Sudha Venkatesh:

After the incident at Kairos, many students chose to disassociate themselves further from the feminist cause. There was an outpour of unfunny, harmful and sexist jokes by certain students – even to the lines of “does this rag smell like chloroform” and “let us not turn this rape to a murder, shall we?”

Someone had publicly informed the Kairos protestors, “You’ll end up alienating more people than you influence positively”. And that is probably what happened.

Source: Facebook

For the uninitiated, at the annual inter-collegiate cultural fest Kairos, of National Law University, Delhi, Abish Mathew – Mumbai based comedian who has often collaborated with AIB, was invited to perform. He started the performance with some unoriginal regional jokes which were well received by the audience. This included a joke to the effect of a Mallu man, who in five minutes can force his daughters to become nurses and ship them to Dubai, drink two bottles of ‘toddy’, beat his wife and bury her, and still have two minutes left. At this point, two women walked out, showing him the finger.

While he carried on with his jokes which included a “Yo Mayawati so ugly” joke; jokes about how women cannot drive (except drive men crazy and up the wall); how women only Facebook at work and flirt with the boss; and how Punjabi women who are so beautiful to ride, balloon after marriage. At some point in the show, where around 30 minutes of it was left, a lot more girls walked into the auditorium with the placards which said “Get out, you sexist pig”, and asked him to “fucking stop”.

Abish acknowledged their right to be there while the rest of the audience began to turn on them. He said that as an artist he was used to this, and that they have a right to be there. The girls did stand on one side as the audience yelled at them to not block their right to witness the rest of the show. Meanwhile, Abish was given a standing ovation for acknowledging their right to dissent – which a lot of people who witnessed it, still don’t believe the protestors had.

The protestors then heckled Abish to stop, telling him he was sexist and that he should get out. Abish told the audience that he had “clearly overstayed his welcome”. He asked for the permission to share “one last joke – the most non-sexist one – a cricket joke”, which he did and left to a standing ovation.

The audience expressed their dissent of the heckling by heckling in return. “Dissent against the dissent is our freedom”. The protestors later requested for an audience with Abish, which was granted after a while. There was a calm, rational discussion, and he accepted how certain jokes were harmful and sexist, agreeing to take them out from his upcoming shows.

The things up for debate here, are – the form, the content and whether the form of protest must take away from the content.

Addressing them individually –

1. Freedom of expression includes the right to dissent

They had the right to stand there with the placards. The placards could have said “get out” – that is as legitimate as someone saying “you suck” at concerts all the way till “encore”. They are not the authorities or the government. They can’t censor. They are expressing dissent. They can show him the finger and walk away as well; when someone can show a thumbs up, why suppress dissent? The entire, “if you don’t like it stop watching it and stay away” debate suppresses the freedom to dissent, and thus this argument is very problematic.

Further, things will end up remaining at status quo, and we might be a static society not being able to achieve any change or progression. That too is detrimental.

Now, the major cause of concern is that the protestors vocally argued for the show to stop, and succeeded. Did these actions essentially amount to a heckler’s veto, where you try to suppress performances where you don’t agree with? Was this a disruption? The protestors say no. I would say yes. It would have been close to impossible for him to continue a stand up act, when around 6 people were yelling at him to shut up – especially after he had acknowledged their right to be there and dissent. Thus, he could not have asked them to leave. He could have continued of course, theoretically. But it would have been hard to, despite a lack of physical threat. So yes, I do believe it was a heckler’s veto. Maybe not in scale and definition, but was tantamount to it.

2. Whether the content of the protest was fine?

It is not merely about these jokes being offensive, they are also harmful. Harmful jokes should not be acceptable. Making fun of African-Americans, of women, LGBT community, of Dalits, of SC/STs, are all not done. Why? These are communities which have been struggling for formative equality for years, and have still not achieved it. Until then, jokes which promote a harmful stereotype of the socially disadvantaged are detrimental to their achieving any kind of equality. We cannot view these jokes in isolation of the social-political structure needed. So when someone asks, “but jokes about Brahmins are alright?” – sure they are tasteless, they are offensive, but they are not harmful. And these women were protesting against such harmful content.

To those who think these jokes are never harmful? Ever heard of the “black jokes”? Let me give you a sample.

Q: What does a black man do after sex?
A: Fifteen years to life.

Why is this harmful? In the US, black men in the neighbourhood of a crime scene are often rounded up as suspects. Such jokes in popular culture distance us from getting rid of these harmful stereotypes.

I have heard people in law colleges say “Ah, you have a pretty girl in your moot team – you’ll do fine”. These are harmful jokes, not just offensive, because these communities are yet to achieve formal and normative equality. Given the historical, social and political construct surrounding inequality, these jokes push the fight for feminism further away.

3. Should the form of the protest sideline the content?

It is not a stand up comedian’s duty to be socially-responsible and ensure that jokes are non-sexist, non racist and non-homophobic. He *can* say whatever he wants, he legally can. And the audience can legally exercise dissent; which they did. We are trying to build a culture where people do not tolerate sexism – men, women, transpeople, queers, cross-dressers – everyone have equal rights, and the oppressed are able to have equal opportunities. We are trying to build a culture where we have people of all genders willing to acknowledge that they are feminists irrespective of sexual orientation. We are trying to build a culture where artists don’t have to engage in sexism as the audience does not appreciate it anymore. As a socially progressive society, we are trying to move towards equality. And telling someone “everyone is equal, deserving equal rights and opportunities”, is not imposing one’s morality on the other. That is an attitude we need to change.

Yes, we can all debate on the form. We can offer our opinions on whether they could have adopted “less-disruptive” modes of protests. But us saying that “this is the way to conduct a protest”, is imposing our morality on them. Sure, we can state it was disrespectful. We can say they could have protested earlier. But that still does not take away their right to dissent. We can express our disappointment on how this protest was orchestrated, but we actually have to see the substance. The substance here is that we should not tolerate harmful and sexist jokes.

And this event, if anything, brought out the much needed debate on whether sexist jokes are acceptable and enjoyable. We can all strategise on better forms of protesting. While there is no one acceptable form, we can still look for more effective and efficient means. But the bigger take away is the debate on sexist jokes. I for one have been contemplating on that. Point made there, protestors!

Also read: Why The Protest Against Abish Mathew’s Sexist Jokes – Open Letter From Protesters

You must be to comment.
  1. TempleTwins

    People should understand the meaning of ‘Sexism’, it is discrimination based on sex. Most of these jokes may be stereotypical, offensive may be, but they are not sexist in anyway. Can we joke about rape or murder in a stand-up, you damn well can,. Many of my favorite comedians will argue that you can joke about anything(George Carlin). You have the right to call them out if it offends you but you have no right to stop their performance which other people tend to enjoy, that is a form of censorship.

    Q: What does a black man do after sex?
    A: Fifteen years to life.

    Why is this harmful? In the US, black men in the neighbourhood of a crime scene are often rounded up as suspects. Such jokes in popular culture distance us from getting rid of these harmful stereotypes.

    I think you got it backwards, the police often round up black men as suspects and hence we tend to laugh at our social ills through a joke, while also stressing the matter in the public consciousness. Police in US are not rounding up black people as suspects just because some comedian joked about it. It is no way harmful, the only harm is that it may offend your feels.

    To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are allowed to criticize. – Voltaire.

  2. MasterOfPuppets

    “Everything is this world is about sex, except sex itself. Sex is about power.” – Some wise dude whose name I don’t remember.

    Wow, what asinine politically correct libtardery. Classic case of overeducated fools without wisdom. You are a true scholar of the highest order, especially since you use profound hackneyed phrases such ‘formative equality’ and then, ‘normative equality’. Lets add ‘somethingelsetive equality’, shall we? Does that make you seem more intelligent? Give me a minute, I’ll need to look the meaning up of these phrases before I continue my rant.

    What sort of a utopia do you wish to create? Life and humanity are driven by ego, greed and fear. Go read some Nietzsche, Carl Jung and Charles Murray to understand how societies and humans operate in real life, not your make believe utopia. One the one hand, you have siblings killing each other because they are unequal. And on the other, there are naive idealists such as you who aspire to create a world with equality. No such thing as equality exists. It has been proven empirically that Intelligence and IQ are better predictors of many factors including financial income, job performance, unwed pregnancy, and crime than one’s parents’ socio-economic status or education level. Because idiots such as you make policy, some poor kid who would be better off pursuing a vocational career as an electrician or a plumber ends up pursuing gender studies at JNU. Needless to say, electricians and plumbers probably have better job prospects.

    The ancients were right. Knowledge and education was not for everybody. It was only for the ones who were ready for it. People like you are a classic example of what education does to fools.

    If you truly believe in equality, how about donating your wealth to whoever you feel for to an extent where you both will have equal resources? That’s the litmus test, my dear lady. Not elaborate diatribes on a third grade website run by low IQ college students.

    Now that I am kinda done with my rant, here’s some food for thought.

    Osho on Equality:
    “They say that every human being is equal. And of course it satisfies the ego of every human being – nobody objects. It is one of the most dangerous lies to tell human beings.

    I say to you, equality is a myth.

    There are not even two human beings who are equal – in any way, in any dimension. I don´t mean that they are unequal, I mean that they are unique, incomparable, so the question of equality or inequality does not arise. Are you equal to these pillars in the hall? The pillars may be beautiful, but you are not equal to them. But does that mean you are inferior to the pillars? It simply means you are not a pillar – pillars are pillars, you are you.

    Every human being is a category unto himself.

    And unless we recognize the uniqueness of each individual, there are not going to be any human rights, and there is not going to be a civilized world – human, loving, rejoicing.”

    1. Himalay Singh

      Excellent my dear freind, I would also like add the few more examples such as Comedy Night of Kapil, Porn.
      People have issued dissent majorly on above mentioned modes of entertainment; taking women oppression as the basis of issue.
      What is instigiating is lack of sense of humor and lack of understanding, as women themselves enjoy the joke when it is against someone else but when it comes to themselves they take it to falsified form of diginty and honour. And hence rape the hardwork of individual as sexist. Even the whole world is sexist. Women say they were subjected to various oppression of societies. But they forget men have always fought for women honour and well being. You can see the example of titanic, mahabharat, ramayana.It is only the technology that has liberated the whole humanity.
      It is an understanding among men to save women, which is also sexist.
      So next time titanic happens and if men deny to help, I think it would be perfect equality.
      I’m sure women would say then men are not much manly anymore. And would perfectly justify sexism then.
      Paradox of life. Women have have one greatest sword under which whole humanity is there to serve i.e is their tongue.
      I t was tongue of Sita that had created the mayhem of Ramyana, why did’nt she listen to laxman on Ram and subsequnetly on Laxman Rekha. And suffered the consequences of it.

  3. D A

    @D Gill
    “As abrasive as some of Russel Peters jokes are, he would never joke about killing and raping.”
    Thanks for deciding for Russel Peters as to what kind of jokes he can and can’t make. Pretty sure jokes about `molesting kids` is right up his alley. How about this? Can you tell me where you work, so I can come to your office and tell you how to do *your* job.
    Anyway, I think I posted my last comment in the middle of a correction I was making. Here’s my point.
    Abish, Russell Peters, Jimmy Carr, Carlin, CK, Aziz aren’t recounting their or anyone’s life experiences, and nor are they distribution wisdom as a take-home exercise. If you don’t get it, that’s fine. If you find it offensive, that’s fine too. But there is a growing population that is more open-minded, and we have finally understood the meaning of `consent`, which we have given these artists, and we actually get their message. No one is forcing you to be a part of this. Please understand and respect our `consent`.

    1. ItsJustMe

      Amen to that my friend

  4. O23

    I think walking out on a comedian is a huge statement. Comedians do notice it, they notice all the reactions, big laughs, people whispering. The reaction of the audience is what the comedian takes home.

    So a walk out is serious and a very strong statement. Everything else in some way infringes on his speech I feel. Showing him the finger, protesting, heckling. Let him speak, whatever he wants, however bad or harmful it is. But make your opinion known. When this happens to him enough number of times he may introspect.

    So if you are upset about why such sexist, racist commentary is so popular? well that is the challenge, our society is accepting of jokes at the expense of the oppressed. Its not an easy fight, but we have to keep at it. More people will join us. Peace

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