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

Posted on March 25, 2015 in Campus Watch, Sexism And Patriarchy, Society, Taboos

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