Thursday, May 31, 2012

In Defense of Humour


“A joke is a very serious thing.”
Winston Churchill

I come not to defend racism but in defense of humour. I fear that people, particularly in America today, are finding it harder and harder to make a distinction between laughing at ourselves and feeling offended; and there is a difference.

Firstly, I firmly believe that comedy should have no boundaries or restrictions, because it is meant to entertain, lighten our worldly burdens and be nothing more than a laughing matter. The only caveat is that the comedian dishing it out does so equally, and does not target a single racial stereotype. Also, I strongly suspect that there are not too many bitter, malicious, mean-spirited bigots who decide to pursue a career in comedy.

Let’s spend a minute discussing the elephant in the room – stereotypes. Frankly, I cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with me when I say that ALL cultural stereotypes are rooted in some reality and none are pure figments of our imagination. So the issue, to my mind, is not so much that someone is making fun at my expense using a racial stereotype, but whether or not the intent behind it is malicious, or if it is coming from a light hearted place. Think about it. There is a fundamental difference here, and a hugely important distinction that every person needs to make. It is imperative we all make this distinction. It is a distinction each of us, in our ever-shrinking global village, needs to make in order to progress and thrive. This is not about all of us hugging trees and getting along. It is simply about having a thicker skin when we require it.

The easiest way to explain the difference is to imagine Dave Chappelle (a famous American comic) putting on the Klu Klux Klan’s white robes and hood to tell off colour black jokes versus an actual Klansman telling the same jokes. Or Ashton Kutcher making fun of gay people (or Jews), versus Mahmoud Ahmadinejad doing it. There is a fundamental difference. One comes from a place of genuine hatred, bigotry and anger, while the other is in jest, and therefore should be considered par for the course and fair game since it is not intended to malign or incite hatred.
Consider the idea that if you cannot laugh at yourself, then you are the one who is insecure or clearly not comfortable in your own skin. Period. 

Ashton Kutcher recently did an advertisement for Pop chips where he played various different character stereotypes ranging from a American redneck to a gay German (who is clearly modeled on Karl Lagerfeld). One of his characters was a Bollywood producer named Raj, for which he put on makeup to make himself look brown, as us Indian’s tend to be (frankly, most being even darker than brown). What offended me about this whole thing was not Ashton Kutcher putting on brown face makeup but the fact that some self-aggrandizer called Anil Dash decided it was offensive to me, and my fellow countrymen; all one billion two hundred thousand of them.
A still of Mr. Kutcher as Raj, from the Popchips advertisement, which has since been removed by the company.
Firstly, Mr. Dash was born and grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (not Hariana, Punjab) which would make him about as Indian as Bobby Jindal. It matters less to me where he or anyone else was born, but much more with what shaped and influenced him; the culture and surroundings he imbibed. Growing up in America shaped his outlook and sensibilities in a vastly different way than it would have growing up in India. The reality is that American kids born to first generation Indian parents are often pushed and pulled between the realities of growing up in America, while being imprisoned by an alien Indian culture, and way of thinking that they know nothing off, at home. This is driven by their Indian parent's misplaced and misguided desire to stay in touch with their Indian roots - one that is totally alien to their children. These kids are not Indian in any manner or form, because India never had the opportunity to shape their first steps, their upbringing, their schooling or their adult outlook. America did. It is that simple. So how can a man who has never lived in India speak for more than one billion of us? Not one Indian I know felt in the least bit offended by Mr. Kutcher’s portrayal, in fact they found it hilarious and shared it with their friends on Facebook.

Secondly, after reading Mr. Dash’s blog post titled How To Fix Popchips' Racist Ad Campaign", I had the impression that it was less about taking offense than about seizing an opportunity for self-promotion through controversy. Mr. Dash comes across as someone who is uncomfortable in his own skin. I sensed he was more offended by the fact that Mr. Kutcher, a mere actor, has been far more successful in the same start-up business, presumably because of his celebrity, and possibly the colour of his skin. This, I suspect, is what offended Mr. Dash about this rather funny commercial. I don’t know Mr. Dash but reading his blog post and especially some of his responses to comments, he comes across as self-involved, and much less a defender of the helpless and downtrodden. At one point he responds to a reader comment by saying: “Believe me, I fight many different kinds of injustices (see my post last week about my old high school)…”  Frankly, if the Popchips affair counts as an injustice in Mr. Dash’s world, then he seriously needs to get out from behind his computer a little more often.

There is also a larger issue at play here, a worrying one: that the definition of racism in America seems to be have been hijacked by a political agenda, leading it to become so diluted and watered down over the years, that it has reached an almost comedic climax. The trivial and ludicrous things that people cry racism about, and at the drop of a hat, never cease to amaze. I guess it is not called the “race card” in America for nothing; and it seems to be played much like the Joker or Wild Card. Don’t get me wrong. There are many things worth fighting for, and yes, racism does exist, and it is nasty when you experience it first hand, as I have a few times in my life. However, I suspect that many Americans of this recent generation (Mr. Dash included) have never experienced real hatred. Otherwise, they would know that it is much more serious than having one’s delicate sensibility offended by a humuorous advertisement meant to sell a bag of potato chips...

2 comments:

  1. Great point, so many other things to worry about in this world than a harmless joke.

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  2. I'm curious as to Mr. Kutcher's response. Did he make a statement?

    ReplyDelete