Monday, February 16, 2015

Is humour the bane of civility?

A very belated happy new year to all my readers. It is shameful for how long I have been away from the blog. I have been suffering from a heavy bout of writer’s block, and maybe an even heavier bout of sheer laziness. Anyway, I am back now, and hopefully I will be more regular with my writing this year than I have been in the previous few years.

Though I have not written in very many months, I have been thinking a great deal all this time. A lot of issues and ideas have swirled around inside my head, clogging me up at times. I will talk about some of them as I write throughout the year, hopefully. Right now, I have something in mind which is, I think, very pertinent in every human life. I am talking about humour.

Humour is an integral part, a basic necessity even, of life. Nobody likes being around a person who is a grumpy old bore. One reason why Percy Weasley was such an irritating character was that he could not recognize a joke even if it danced in front of him wearing only Dobby’s tea cozy. A sense of humour quickly establishes a person’s goodwill. The lack of it, especially in people working in public relations of various kinds (in my personal experience, teachers are common offenders of this kind), can make life miserable for not only oneself, but even more so for people one deals with. It also comes in handy while going through the rough patches of life. The man who can laugh at himself and the troubles he faces is a happy man indeed.

What is it that makes people laugh? This question is universal in nature, and yet it will elicit vastly different answers from different people. What one finds funny and enjoyable, though seemingly a very personal choice, is actually influenced by a lot of external factors: which country and which time in history one is born in, the religion one follows, the tastes and preferences of one’s parents, relatives, and not to forget, one’s peer group, are some such factors. These factors are much more powerful that they are generally credited to be; they colour a person’s character and form his personality to a large extent. And that is precisely why there is cause for worry when a large section of the population starts “enjoying” themselves at the cost of another very important social need – namely, good manners.

To a person born in Roman times, gladiator fights and no-holds-barred chariot racing were sources of entertainment. The 21st century man shrinks in horror at the thought of it. How barbarous, he thinks! We have advanced so much now than those poor savages, he says proudly. We live in the age of human rights! Of free speech and expression! And then out he goes, and spends thousands of rupees to buy a ticket to a “roast” by AIB. Now this is what you call civilized entertainment. Right?

For those of you who don’t know – I was one of them till a few weeks ago, and not much of a loser for that – a “roast” is a “comedy show” where celebrities are subjected to insults of all sorts for the entertainment of the wider audience. Wikipedia tells me that this type of event was created as a mock counter to a toast. Originally, this was supposed to be an event where a guest of honour was subjected to good-humoured jokes – good humoured, mark you – at his own expense. This was supposed to be a unique way to honour a famous person. The idea was born in America (small surprise there) and was made famous by the channel Comedy Central. Now let’s come to AIB’s recent attempt at organizing an Indian version of the same featuring actors Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh with director Karan Johar as the roastmaster. Oh and I forgot to mention, AIB (look up the full form if you care) is an Indian channel on Youtube which specializes in sarcastic comedy videos. They do have some interesting videos up there. Again, look them up if interested.

I did not watch the roast. As soon as I looked up the meaning of “roasts”, I was pretty revolted and decided to give the video a miss. But after a while, what with all the hype on the internet about the controversy over the video, my curiosity got the better of me, and last evening I skimmed through some parts of the video (it has been taken off from Youtube after complaints, but is still available on other sites). I was sorry that I did. The show, which is nearly an hour long (I did not watch for longer than ten minutes, all taken), is a splendid display of all that is crass and vulgar and disgusting about human beings. The so-called jokes are mean and dirty, and do not have a trace of humour in them. Or so I thought. It is evident that thousands of people disagree vehemently with me. The audience roared with laughter as the hosts and participants carried on their game. To watch some people get nastily humiliated in public seemed to have become the most entertaining thing ever!

Generally, I would have ignored the video as something irrelevant to my life and therefore not worth my time. But then, is it really irrelevant? A great number of people are finding this sort of thing funny and enjoyable. The concept is being lauded as the sign of the “open-mindedness” and “tolerance” of Indian society. People are talking about the freedom of speech and that sort of thing in this context. Similar arguments have been used in the context of the Charlie Hebdo incident: after all, the magazine did not criticize only Islam, it was even-handed in meting out insults to all religions. So, what is basically being said is that in both cases, it is their right to be rude and vulgar and deliberately insult and cause hurt to others. Since people who are in the limelight seem to have by and large accepted and even welcomed this idea of humour, it is hardly surprising that a great number of the common folk have started emulating them already. I have classmates who take pride in calling themselves rude (I know someone who openly boasts about that, not kidding), and are often invited to be hosts in school programs where their natural affinity towards causing offence comes in useful. Just before school ended, such a program was organized by the class twelve students for themselves. In this “award ceremony”, titles were given out to their friends, people they have grown up with. Some of the titles were “Dumbelina” and “I always cheat” – you get the idea. These were friends complimenting friends, apparently. This is what entertainment and laughter has come down to. In a world where teachers are being heavily penalized for reprimanding erring students, it is considered smart and cool to be crass. To protest against such dumb spitefulness is to display “narrow mindedness” and “backwardness”. Why are all the rights and freedom meant for the perpetrators of hurt and abuse, and nobody talks about the rights of the victim of such verbal abuse? Because abuse it is, nothing can convince me to the contrary. Has our world become quite so soulless that physical pain is all important, and emotional hurt makes no difference at all? How long, then, before physical abuse too is considered to be okay, and it becomes all about survival of the fittest, where people start moving about once again with weapons and killing and maiming human beings become a form of entertainment once more?

The world is becoming an increasingly more violent and uncouth place, and nothing shows that more than such comedy shows and other forms of entertainment. We have managed to get rid of all considerations of good manners and refined tastes in the name of freedom and equality. In the many comments and discussions I read in support of the AIB’s event, one common argument that has come up in their favour is that condemning the group for showcasing in a public event the sort of language and entertainment that people use all the time in their daily lives is hypocritical. True, but I have two things to say about this: in everyday life expletives are often just used in moments of great exasperation to convey irritation and displeasure. But when dirty language is used purely for the purpose of so-called “entertainment”, surely that cannot be equated with the aforementioned circumstances and condoned in the same spirit? Also, just because something has become a norm nowadays does not necessarily mean that it is a good thing that is worth conserving. Most people swear (I must admit that I myself am guilty of it occasionally, but I do try to guard against it), but when you come to think of it, does using abusive language really make one “cool” and “smart”? Does it not show an inability to express one’s thoughts adequately through polite vocabulary? How on earth can this sort of inability make a person any more suave and sophisticated than somebody who can and does express himself only through refined, polite language? In To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus says that bad language is a stage that all children go through; it becomes a cause for worry only when it doesn't pass with time. It seems today’s society has made a concerted decision to not get past that stage of juvenility.

Speaking of laughter, I was reading P G Wodehouse the other day, and almost fell out of my bed laughing. And guess what, there was not one unpleasant or abusive word in the entire book! Think about Gerald Durrell’s writings and the Don Camilo books. For my fellow Bengalis, bring to mind Narayan Gangopadhyay’s Tenida and his ridiculous adventures, and Ghonada’s preposterous stories. Tell me, then, is dirty language really necessary to evoke laughter and joy? Or will the modern champions of free speech and rights of creativity call such works too hopelessly prosaic and restrictive to match today’s expectations of entertainment?

It is highly telling, how the politest people we meet nowadays are salesmen and hotel managers and waiters – people who are try to sell us something. Is that what politeness has come down to? Merely a means to an end, to be employed only for monetary gains? I have seen my father and some others like him who try their utmost to be polite and considerate and even bend over backwards in their efforts to ensure that the people they are dealing with are not harassed and hurt, only to be exploited for all their gentleness. Will the world really be a better place if all such instinctively nice and polite men and women decide to give up on civility and take to exploitation and gross misbehavior wherever they can get away with it?

So where do people like us go from here? People who object to coarseness, who have an affinity for gentle, subtle humour and dignified conversations, who value politeness and decency, and try to act accordingly in their day-to-day lives? The world will call us prudish and backdated, but how exactly do we change our approach without giving up on what we believe to be good and valuable? Maybe it is best for us to keep to ourselves and not get too involved in what happens in the outside world. The life of the recluse seems to be the only one for the likes of us.