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.  


Ankita Sarkar said...

Long time no see, Urbi. What I am about to say is a role reversal from our childhood when, I remember, you were the rebellious one.
I did watch the roast on YouTube, and while it was cringe-worthy, it was (moderately) funny in parts. Granted, it wasn't all the cleverness it was touted to be: but it was a closed, ticketed event, and even the YouTube video came with ample warnings to stay away if it wasn't your thing. Which is why, while agreeing with your aesthetic revulsion, I must disagree with your sociological standpoint. I swear (pun unintended) by, and even prefer, the subtle and sophisticated humour that you speak of (big fan of Wodehouse!); but I also believe that the entire spectrum of humour has a place in society -- 'to each their own', so to speak. Moreover, though AIB's verbal abuse (and their nomenclature) is most probably a publicity stunt, they have done good social commentary. Too many swear words? Yes, probably. But their regular videos have loads of substance; and the roast, despite having unnecessary excesses and being much poorer in content than their regular work, had some reasonable satire. Those parts were probably the ones you didn't watch -- because the clips available now are mostly the sections involving misguidedly populist expletive rants. Also, the purpose of the roast was to raise money for charity: which it did. So, perhaps you will consider being a bit kinder to them -- please consider the possibility that, while they were coarse, they meant well; and given that our reactions, both positive and negative, to them were never gagged or taken otherwise, perhaps their jokes shouldn't be gagged either (which is what the powers that be are attempting).
That being said, civility is something that I attach a lot of importance to. Therefore, I sympathize with your worries for the future of the civil kind, but if I were you I wouldn't be worried -- because civility, while not considered 'cool', will never be criminally out of fashion as long as people appreciate nice behaviour: because everyone knows that nice begets nice! I'm sure even AIB can't afford to be rude outside their performances: something that their young admirers will realize if they attempt to emulate AIB in daily life, or worse still, in professional life. So I think civility will live: have hope! As for the girls in your school, I think they are in the profanity 'phase'. There are the likes of them in my school as well, and while they win cheap popularity, I've never seen them gain respect of the mature variety: and I gather that your award presenters will also find that to be popular in adult life, they will have to offer the world maturity and substance.
Reactions to the roast aside, I sense that you are leaving Class XII nearly as grumpy about your school and schoolmates as you did at the end of Class X two years ago. I wish you better classmates in college life, but I also suggest understanding that even there, you and your ideas will be a minority. That's not the ideal set-up and you should always strive to change it as you hitherto have: but there is no point in making yourself unhappy at an important milestone in life. Besides, you must have met at least a few people you liked, and stocked up on irreplaceably valuable experience. So smile!
Also, may I please suggest that, since you write long posts, you make your post section a bit wider? It's just that I always feel like I scroll too much whenever I read your blog. :)
Good luck for your exams, Urbi. Keep well.

Urbi Chatterjee said...

Hello Ankita,

Thank you for your comment. I'm glad to hear that you agree with me on some points. Your comment is well balanced, which is something that I appreciate. Certainly, AIB does have some good stuff (I have mentioned that in passing in the post). Where I stand in stark disagreement with you is when you say that this roast is actually a part of a wider spectrum of humour. To my mind, humour is something that brings happiness. Even satire as a genre of humour is not meant to cause hurt just for the sake of it. "To each his own" is not a dictum that can or should be allowed to go ahead without restraint: men who harass girls on the roads could very well claim that that is their preferred mode of entertainment. What sort of society would ours be if such behaviour were to be condone by the same logic of to each his own? Some things are acceptable and polite and some are not. If this makes me sound orthodox, then so be it. AIB's intentions - raising money for charity - was commendable. What is lamentable and alarming is that it was through this sort of event, which was the 'thing', as you put it, for many people, that they chose to proceed with it.

I have nothing against AIB as an individual organisation. As I said, I do applaud their intentions. And I most certainly do not support the sort of legal maelstrom that their event provoked. Really, there are dozens of much more important and immediate issues that need to be looked into by our politicians and lawyers and judges for them to have wasted so much time and energy on AIB.

Thank you for your kind wishes. Yes, school hasn't been a smooth ride, but I definitely have acquired a truckload of experiences. Maybe I'll write about them some time! All the best for your examinations as well. I'm sure you'll do just fine. Also, about your suggestion about the blog layout, I must confess that I'm technologically challenged, and barely get by with my quite primitive skills on the computer. But I will look into it, and see what I can do!


Ankita Sarkar said...


First, a clarification: 'to each their own', yes, but without harming others. The roast was, as I said, always restricted to people who willingly partook or participated, hence I feel that the constraint of 'no harm done' is maintained.
I suggest watching the following video that a rival, predominantly non-swear-using YouTube comedy channel made in response to the AIB Knockout ruckus:
By the way, your views don't make you orthodox. They make you old-fashioned -- there is a marked difference, which I think you can appreciate without explanation. I'm old-fashioned about a lot of things and have been resented for it... anyway, to address the second topic at hand, I look forward to more 'slice-of-life' posts on your blog, about school (or college soon, I suppose) and books and things like that -- innocuously, mundanely happy things that do your happily silly blog title some justice!

Good luck,

Nishant said...

Hi Pupu,

This was a very well-written article. I also enjoyed reading the comments that followed. Since the Charlie Hebdo incident, I have had numerous discussions about the whole issue of the Freedom of Expression with colleagues here. After the AIB roast and a recent incident in a university in the US, where a bunch of under-grads were chanting something racially offensive, we had some more debates.

I completely agree with a lot of what you have said. The 'humour' was in poor taste for the most part. I love books by P.G. Wodehouse, specially those starring Jeeves and Wooster and it's not just because of the amazing humour, but the beautiful prose, as well as the description of the facial expressions of people, among other things. But then coming back to the AIBR, it was a private event, the roasters and the roasted were willing participants, and they seemed to be fine with it. That is the reason I have no problem with it. I do not condone it, but I wouldn't condemn it: I simply wouldn't care. There were newspaper articles which mentioned people being offended by the fact that their children's 'role models' behaved grotesquely. No offence to the partcipants, but if they are role models for the youth today, then we have a more serious problem.

I have heard people use expletives as fillers or even, as I used to think of it, as punctuation. I used to be really bothered by it in the early part of my college-days, on hearing people swear left and right and include generations of family members. After a while though, I learnt to ignore them or filter them out. Now, I feel that I would just think less of people who have a coarse sense of humour or feel the need to use words that are socially frowned upon.

Just today, during lunch, we were talking about the freedom issue and the US seems to be one of the (few or only?) countries where there really is absolute freedom of speech. There aren't any books banned, one cannot be arrested for hate speech or racial slurs or anything like that. There are countries in Europe where things like Holocaust Denial or denial of genocide can land one up in jail. But not in the US. I am not saying it's right or wrong, but they do seem to take the First Amendment quite seriously here. Honestly, I think I am fine with this. Tim Sebastien, a BBC reporter had mentioned in an interview he gave while in India: "People will always abuse freedom. That's not a reason not to have it." I thought that was quite an insightful comment.

I kind of understand your lament in the last paragraph. But you should probably take solace or even pride in the fact that people like you constitute a minority. I am quite sure that group will never die out. As long as there are people like P.G. Wodehouse, E.M. Forster, Joseph Heller, to name a few, who can write humour and satire that would make people burst out laughing in a crowded train (resulting in bewildered stares from other commuters), we'll survive.


Urbi Chatterjee said...

Dear Nishant da,

Welcome back to the blog. It's been some time since you last commented, and I was beginning to wonder whether you read the posts anymore!

I completely agree with you about the freedom of AIB to organise an event like the roast. As I said in my previous comment, I certainly do not support the legal actions taken against them in an effort to take away their freedom of expression. I fear I've not been able to put across my chief concern clearly enough: what worries me is the number of people who found the roast to be highly entertaining rather than cringe-worthy. It is not the significance of the roast to morality but in the matter of good tastes that I think is a matter of concern. And yes, it is a sad world where entertainers the ilks of who participated in the roast become role-models for today's youth.

Live and let live is my philosophy in life, and I can say the same regarding the content/thought behind the roast. Having said that, I also maintain that while democracy gives AIB and like-minded people to come up with events of this sort, it also gives people like me the right to despise their creation and be vocal about it, as long as we are not trying to curb their freedom altogether. Wouldn't you agree?


Nishant said...

Hi Pupu,

Completely agree with your points here. Most of the 'humour' wasn't in good taste. We absolutely have the right to criticize the content of a movie (or a show or anything for that matter). And I have no problem if one does so in a civil manner, as you have done. Of all the articles I read in (the Indian) printed media on this issue and the whole thing about freedom of expression, there was just one other post in The Hindu (apart from your blog post) that I found balanced and well-written.