It was not very long ago that Jim Norton, a stand up comedian himself, who spoke to a radio show about the idea of liberal censorship. A passage from what Norton told his interviewer seems particularly apt:
“Liberals have succeeded in becoming what they hated. Liberalism was once thought to be an oasis of free thought, an unpopular thought. Today, many liberals will not fight for free speech if it does not comform to a specific set of political beliefs”
Sounds familiar? Perhaps because the malaise Jim talks about can be seen in the recent debacle at Kairos. In my mind, the root of this sort of aggressive mentality is an obsession with thinking in binary. The creation of an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ is an inherently divisive exercise, apart from being lamentably oversimplistic. Seeing in black and white makes us reactive, irrational, and reluctant to engage in a healthy manner.
One cannot deny that both parties in the incident, Abish Mathew as well as the protestors had certain rights which they exercised. Abish, an artist giving a performance, was practising his right to freedom of expression, and the students who disrupted the show subsequently, their own right to protest, a subset of the aforementioned right. It is my firm belief that Abish had the right to offend, so to speak, and the students, just as much, had the right to be offended. However, the way that the disagreement of the offended parties manifested itself was destructive, divisive, and damaging. By yelling at Abish to ‘get out’ followed by abusive gestures as well as language, the protestors attempted to use aggressive force as a weapon to curb his freedom to say something that they did not like. This, in my humble opinion, was just as problematic as a saffron outfit vandalising an art exhibition or shutting down a play which they deem offensive to their sentiments. While engagement was required, the wrong sort came to be – instead of engaging in dialogue or discourse with the artist, the students decided to engage in combat.
It is telling that they used the words ‘Get Out Sexist Pig’ on their signboards, not just expressing their disapproval of his jokes and branding him sexist (which they had the right to do as dissenters) but coercively demanding that he leave without finishing his performance. It was the sensational thing to have done, and unfortunately, the sensationalism has thrived since.
The protestors went on to give a number of interviews stating that they had faced persecution at the hands of the student body for their brave stand, talking about how a ‘mob of 200 students’ subjected them to verbal and physical abuse in some sort of barbaric kangaroo court. However, to those of us back on campus who were actually there while all of this was allegedly going on, this came as a shock. While the audience had numbered 200, most had left, grumbling, after the show was cut short. The idea of a pitchfork wielding mob punishing these brave women for taking a stand is a ludicrous one. At the same time, it is a powerful idea, a moving image of tragic martyrdom which sounds pretty cool in a headline. One of the girls told the papers that she feared for her physical safety on campus, implying that one of the ignorant, intolerant brutes at law school would stab her in the back for having slightly different views. Apart from being completely ridiculous, such claims were extremely derisive to a student body that has united in the past to stand for issues of gender and sexual equality (https://glasnostnludelhi.wordpress.com/2014/09/22/shifting-laser-the-infamous-laser-incident/)
All of this is forgotten, unreported, as the entire college is suddenly a pit of misogyny and sexism where our protagonists find themselves trapped, threatened and in grave peril. As you can see, the worst one of us ‘monsters’ can do is just some terrible sarcasm.
I, for one, resent the appropriation of feminism by a small group of individuals on my campus. I resent the fact that they deign to speak ‘for’ feminism, like missionaries spreading enlightenment amidst a bunch of savages. I resent the ‘if you aren’t with us, on every issue, every time, you are against us’ mentality. This self-established monopoly on feminism means that every opponent is deemed to be a misogynist, and the possibility of rational engagement, something they say they love dearly, is near zero.
I believe, as does almost everyone I go to college with, in equality. We all stand convinced that human beings, individuals irrespective of race, caste, sex, orientation, colour, conviction or religion are equal, and deserve to be treated equally. It injures me to see Sify publish an article saying I, as a student of this college ‘loved’ the ‘verbal rape of women’ in the form of the comedy show. I have not read the tomes of feminism written by scholars of note, but I firmly believe in the principles of equality, and I think that making any ideology, feminism being just one, a personal fiefdom is regressive.
A little about comedy. Comedy as an art form juxtaposes the mundane with the absurd, often hitting at issues that we do not normally talk about in regular life. Jokes often deal with taboo subjects, things that might not be socially acceptable if said outside the confines of the comedy club. Comics can do this because they’re afforded a higher threshold of free speech, as their art requires them to have the flexibility to mock, comment, and offend. A joke, while mentioning a terrible incident or event, might also educate me about the happening of this incident. Eddie Izzard, while joking about genocide and dictators, educates his listeners about the sheer number of murders a number of them got away with it, commenting simultaneously on the sort of society that allows them to get away with it.
Are jokes sexist then? Yes, they definitely can be. Whether or not that is alright depends on subjective opinion: every person has the right to take offence at a joke, and make their displeasure heard. However, the idea that an artist’s expression must be stopped, be it through state apparatus or a planned, disruptive protest, is problematic. One cannot claim their own right to protest when the protest involves clamping down on someone else’s freedom of expression. Nothing is sacrosanct enough to require the taking away of an individual’s right to free, lawful speech.
Perhaps most importantly, there has to be dialogue between the disagreeing parties – and there was in this incident. What went unreported by most sources was that one of the protestors actually met Abish backstage after his show, and spoke to him. Abish, after this conversation, decided to drop the offending joke from his future acts. Despite the fact that this was buried under the vitriol and outrage surrounding the fictional persecution of the students who protested, it remains what we should take away from the entire episode.
Engaging is important, but engaging the right way is perhaps even more important.