(Published in Business Standard on January 10, 2015)
Q: Where do Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, and Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva go to try to forget about their stupidest followers?
The above is an increasingly endangered form of speech known as “a joke”, which is based on pricking some kind of balloon with an element of subversion. I made it up, so it’s kind of lame, but still. The sad epilogue to this joke is that the only thing the gods are going to achieve is a horrible hangover, because no amount of ambrosia can obliterate the tragic embarrassment of having followers who kill other people in the name of imaginary friends.
Jokes are based on varying degrees of offence, and in order to find them funny, you have to be aware of what is being sent up, and agree that it’s worthy of ridicule. This is often premised on the ability to laugh at oneself. But you don’t have to find jokes or satire funny for them to be perfectly valid ways of expressing opinion.
I’m explaining all this at tedious length because people keep complaining about ‘unnecessarily provocative’ humour, which suggests that they either don’t know or have forgotten that humour is based on irreverence, offence, and provocation.
I don’t think my joke is particularly offensive, but someone, somewhere might, because the number of people who roam the world with a cork up their arse is really just mind-boggling. But that’s okay. One of the great misconceptions about free speech is that the needlessly provocative jerks practicing it think they shouldn’t be criticised. This is, to use a technical term, balls. Those needlessly provocative jerks know that the right to criticise and offend is the basis of free speech, humorous or not, and cuts both ways. Any spoken or written criticism and rebuttal is fine. Peaceful protest is fine. If you really, really have a problem, you can take each other to court, or attempt to expand—or contract, depending on your views—the laws that regulate free speech in your country.
At no point does physical violence enter the picture.
Satire is only one form of provocative free speech. There’s also straight up provocative, artistically provocative, and crudely provocative. This is where people typically ask the question: Why be unnecessarily provocative? What’s the need?
Here is why provocation, and peaceful tolerance of it, is not just needless, but necessary: anything that lies outside a society’s comfort zone—rudeness, irreverence, provocation, heresy, blasphemy, all considered needless and dangerous—is a point of potential social and intellectual innovation and progress. Not all of it bears out that potential—some of it really is stupid, we decide, and move quickly on; but to borrow a scientific analogy, medical breakthroughs come out of a lot of wasteful experimental duds. We don’t scrap the whole endeavour because some of it sucked.
It was once considered ‘needlessly provocative’ to say that the earth moves around the sun, or that human evolved from apes. It was once considered needlessly provocative for women to demand the vote. It was once needlessly provocative to reject caste, or to show a kiss on film. It is only by risking offence, by risking discomfort, hostility, and dismissal, that ideas evolve and generate other ideas.
Social consensus in India, supported by laws like 295A, encourages an attitude of infantile docility when it comes to religious sentiment, placing a premium on coddling personal belief even at the cost of other individual and human rights and social progress. We do ourselves a social and intellectual disservice with this attitude, because all we have accomplished is to say: comply, or accept violent reprisal.
The Charlie Hebdo journalists who were murdered this week poked at every social taboo they could think of. If that is needlessly provocative, then we desperately need some needless provocation in this country.