Comedians, caste, and social responsibility

Unless you have been living under a rock, you must know that a bunch of Indian comedians have been called out for making casteist remarks, insulting Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi figures, and generally being offensive towards marginalised communities. The outrage has been on its way for quite some time and it is heartening to see it land with this much of a splash. But what has been equally interesting to watch is reactions from some comedians. Particularly, the refrain that their job is to make people laugh and that nothing else matters.

Over the last few days, I have had some enlightening conversations with comedians and one theme that has come across over and over again is this - "I am just a comic. It is never my intention to insult anyone. The only thing I think about when writing / making a joke is making people laugh. If I start worrying about everyone's offence, I will start self-censoring."

And the most interesting of all: "If you don't like my jokes, don't watch them."

Let us break this down as I think this argument offers a great insight into the casteist blind spots that many of us have. Because literally none of those statements are actually true. Let us go through them one by one.

"I'm just a comic"

No, you are not just a comic. You have chosen a profession like everyone else. But nobody stops belonging to their gender or their caste after they become an engineer or a painter. Those things don't melt away into thin air because you have acquired a professional identity. To suggest that being a comic means you cannot be held accountable for your behaviour as a savarna person is silly at best and dangerous at worst.

A lot of people who disagree with visible fascism declare themselves liberals and continue to practise and perpetrate invisible fascist practices. One comedian was recently hauled up for making a joke in which he implied that people who get jobs or education because of Reservation are not meritorious or even competent. Can you imagine what will happen to a White comedian if they made jokes implying Black people didn't deserve things because they were recipients of Affirmative Action? In India on the other hand, taking a dump on people who have been marginalised for centuries (and are protected by law, at least on paper), is justified in the name of free expression by comedians from privileged backgrounds.

Your position in the power structure of your society does not change simply because you declare it to be so. As a comedian, you still enjoy all the privileges your caste bestows on you. There is no reason you should not be named as someone who belongs to your caste. Comedians, as a class of people, are not removed from the context of everyday existence. They too are people and subject to all the positives and negative aspects of being someone who exists on the spectrum of power.

"It is never my intention to hurt anyone"

This too is false. Because it is your intention to get laughs at someone's expense. And by the way, there isn't anything wrong with that. The history of comedy, and indeed all art, is full of projects which were designed to offend. There is nothing wrong with offending people as long as there is a need to call out their power and privilege. And as a comedian, you do offend. You make memes laughing at powerful people all the time. Don't deny it, because you shouldn't. It's okay to offend those who need to be offended so that they may snap out of their privileged stupors and understand their place in the cultural order of things.

But things change when you make fun of the poor and the marginalised. Now, instead of speaking truth to power, you are joining the powerful classes and aiding their oppression of those whose oppression has been a festering wound in our civilisational body for millennia.

Accept that what you do necessitates giving offence. Your words are weapons - point them in the right direction. To not do so is akin to being a drunk with a machine gun who refuses to take responsibility for his actions.

"The only thing I think about when writing / making a joke is making people laugh"

No. I am sorry but that too is false. No mind works like that. No human being has motivations as simple as that.

As a comedian, you are someone who is writing and telling jokes. But as a human being, you are doing much more every time you write or tell a joke. You are drawing from your own life experience. You are making judgements about what is funny and what is not. And most importantly, you are doing your best to determine what your audience will find funny. You are essentially writing jokes for people who are like you. You don't always succeed of course. Some jokes don't land, some jokes make people angry, some jokes are just plain incomprehensible. It's life as a creative.

But you can't remain blind to the fact that the jokes you heard growing up in an upper caste middle class family have affected your ideas about what's funny and what isn't. You have heard jokes about the lack of "merit" in people who find employment because of Reservation. You have heard jokes about those who do your laundry, dishes, and about how the little money your family pays them is too much. You have heard jokes about how drivers and domestic helps are a pain. All these things have made you who you are. All these things run in the back of your mind when you try to determine what will be funny and what won't be.

The jokes you decide to tell are not simply a result of your wanting to make people laugh. They are also a result of your ideas about what is funny and what is not. So it is disingenuous to claim that your status, your upbringing, your privileged life, plays no part in determining the content you perform and publish.

"If I start worrying about everyone's offence, I will start self-censoring"

Let me tell you a story about a story that you have very probably already heard of. Fantasy author Neil Gaiman wrote a graphic novel series called Sandman. Among the many stories in the Sandman series, Gaiman wrote one about the dreams of an unborn baby. In it, the reader sees through the eyes of an unborn child all the dreams it has about what it may one day become. But none of that comes to pass because the child is aborted.

However, you will not find this story in any of the Sandman comic books. This is because Gaiman scrapped it. And the reason he scrapped it was because he didn't want the story to be used as anti-abortion propaganda. He didn't want a 15-year-old girl somewhere in America to be shown this emotional story and be guilted into keeping a baby that she was not ready for.

Was Gaiman engaging in self-censorship?

There is a difference between self-censorship out of fear from the powerful and not telling a story because you care about what its consequences might be for those without power. The former is fear, the latter is morally virtuous. The former is an exercise of caution, the latter is an exercise of responsibility. They are not the same.

Besides, this self-censoring is something you actually already do. You try to avoid telling sexist jokes, right? You try to not make fun of people with disabilities, right? These things are clear no-go areas for most (but not all) comedians. The blind spot regarding caste and Reservation jokes only exists because of one reason - you don't think it is important.

You don't want to put these jokes in the same no-go folder as sexist and ableist jokes because your own caste privilege has so far allowed you to get away with these jokes and because you think it will take too much effort to learn about the dynamics of caste. I have heard the "I can't read so many books now" refrain from at least one comic. It's lazy yes, but it is also a refusal to acknowledge that casteism in comedy is a matter of importance.

And since many comedians criticise Right wing politics and call themselves liberal because of that, let me make one last analogy to hammer home the point: Saying that you are not responsible for the consequences of your "jokes" is a lot like a certain sanghi "news" anchor saying he is not responsible for the consequences of the hate he peddles every night from the TV studio. I repeat - words are weapons. They can cause people to die. There is an epidemic of suicides among the young of the DBA community that is fuelled by "jokes" about Reservation.

"If you don't like my jokes, don't watch them"

First of all, how is one supposed to know whether they like your jokes if they don't watch them. Second, the brunt of the suffering caused by Reservation jokes is not because of a direct hearing of the jokes. It is because of the kind of culture they allow and encourage. Your "joke" didn't only offend an individual. It also emboldened a whole lot of people in the casteist crowd. It gave them something to bully with, something to dehumanise with, something that they might use to high-five each other with.

So rest assured, even if those offended by your casteist jokes don't hear you live in a studio filled with people like you, the joke will find them somewhere out there, and it will probably kill them.

Art devoid of social responsibility fails to be all that it can be. It is mediocre and dangerous. Words (all words) are weapons. If someone is skilled enough to wield them, they should also be moral enough to wield them in service of the right causes.

Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. - Banksy

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