Post Mortem

Freedom of speech is a joke

By Nagaland Post | Publish Date: 3/1/2021 1:26:02 PM IST

 Now that the intolerance debate is over and it has been established beyond reasonable doubt that we are a tolerant nation, we can safely discuss the limits of freedom of speech. Back in the bad old days when there was presumed intolerance, people had to be silenced by mob lynching or guns. Not such uncivilised behaviour anymore. We can take revenge in a nonviolent civilised way by filing FIRs and slapping defamation cases. That is a massive upgrade.

Had it not been for those in the bad habit of speaking out about anything, including their elected Government, it wouldn’t be required. Earlier it was journalists, writers, authors and thespians. Now, another breed of the so-called champions of free speech, comedians, have joined the gang, especially the stand-up comedians.

The freedom to speak, laugh or breathe has to be balanced with the other person’s right to get offended. Sure thing. If you are breathing air reserved for someone else, you are choking him. If your deafening laughter hurts and jokes make me throw up, you had better watch out. Now that is a joke but no laughing matter.

Indeed, offending anyone is not a good idea, especially when you laugh at someone’s looks or body size. The person has indeed the right to get offended. Ironically, that is often tolerated by the society. Kapil Sharma’s blatant humour at the expense of his co-stars is ignored. No one files an FIR against him. The problem starts when the jokes, laced with truth, blast the hypocrisy of those in power. The jokes cracked by the stand-up are rarely personal. Her/his jokes are about the hypocrisy in the system, religion and society, and that offends people. In fact, the two most offended sets of people are religious gurus and politicians.

To say you belong to a religion is one thing but to presume that the religion belongs to you, quite another. In 2015, the self-appointed defenders of Islam shot Charlie Hebdo employees in Paris. For what? For a few lines they had used to depict the Prophet! But the Quran does not explicitly forbid images of the Prophet. Back home, Munawar Faruqui spent a few nights in the Indore Jail for allegedly cracking anti-Hindu jokes. Now, who gave these people – Hindus and Muslims – the proprietary of the religion they were accidentally born into? When did the gods ask you to defend them?

Be offended if a priest of your shrine rapes. Be outraged when your co-religionist kills in the name of your religion. But that doesn’t happen. You prove your bravado by heckling and harassing a comic whose words were too offending for you. Religion is not someone’s personal turf that he ought to defend. A person has the right to get offended if he is body shamed. A guy may take offence to being called fat but it would be rather absurd that he becomes the spokesperson for all fat people on the planet. A self-appointed policeman to protect all people overweight!

The other group of most offended types is the politicians. These are the people who make a joke of the system but, when ridiculed, act sacrosanct. They must not be laughed at. That is the exaggerated sense of entitlement. Napoleon Bonaparte once said: “In politics, absurdity is not a handicap.” Exactly, they are kind of necessary evil but don’t risk telling them that. You could end up in jail.

Indian politicians are known for many things but humour isn’t one of them, though we have had a few exceptions. Mahatma Gandhi was never offended when Sarojini Naidu called him Mickey Mouse. Piloo Mody often took jibes at Indira Gandhi. Laloo’s humour is infectious. The incumbent Prime Minister, too, has a good sense of humour. He pokes fun at his opponents with élan, though how much he enjoys jokes on himself is not clear. We have had the tradition of court jesters, or vidushaks. Haasya kavis kept the joke alive and roasted the politicians to their face. Today, the mantle has passed on to stand-up comics.

Political humour and satire are well established in the US. At the President’s dinner, people roast the very President who hosts them. The fearless stand-up, George Carlin, never compromised his right to free speech. Today’s comedians in the US owe much to Carlin. In India, stand-up comedy started rather late, but the comedians have caught up with the rest. Their fearless rendering has made many people uncomfortable but, at the same time, won them the respect and following they well deserve.

In the US, comics can get away with a lot. It’s different here. Cases of sedition have been filed against cartoonists, satirists and artists. That is the price for calling the Government’s bluff. We live in a country where the political system itself is a big joke. In the House, you have a Speaker who won’t let you speak. We have lawbreakers making laws for us. The judiciary judges everything except itself. It is a system in which the Treasury benches become rich and the Opposition gives walkovers to the opponent by walking out. Is this not a joke worth laughing at?

Comic relief is what the people in power need. It is a safety valve. So here is my unsolicited advice to those politicians who don’t laugh at jokes. Join a laughter yoga club in your vicinity. It is good for your health. It lowers blood pressure and increases your longevity. It might also increase the longevity of your political career.

Gyaneshwar Dayal

(The writer is a columnist and documentary film-maker. The views expressed are personal.)


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