Contemporary

I am rather astounded at the analysis on ‘Free Speech & Sardarji Jokes’ by Vir Sanghvi in today’s Hindustan Times. He seems to have built a case for saving the freedom of speech in a liberal society – an objective that most right thinking people will not dispute. His examples and line of argument unfortunately are not only fallacious, ill-founded but may also tend to display an underlying malicious intent.

Civil societies enjoy and encourage humor and conversations in good humor. Humor indeed is an elixir to life. At the same time civil societies are becoming increasingly aware that to preserve their social fabric the citizenry must learn to become sensitive to the need to voluntarily moderate use of several terms and innuendos that had over time come to be seen as giving offence to a segment of the society by promoting or reinforcing a negative or hurtful stereotype; conveying a sense of pejorative; tending to cause a slur; or to associate a group with a stigma.

I will give a few examples. Americans no more refer to Blacks as ‘niggers’; nor are head coverings referred to as rags or towels. Instead the terms used are skullcap, yalmuca, hijab, turban etc. and are not made fun of. Kids are taught in schools and workers are given sensitivity in work places to learn and respect diversity, which is characterized, by not only cultural, religious or linguistic differential features but also differential responses to many words and phrases.

For Vir Sanghvi to suggest that those who do not like what anybody says or does even though it may be a slur or pejorative should not see or read it is not only thoughtless but also even dangerous. Unspoken resentments will breed deep grouses, continued sense of hurt and reinforce negative historical memories already strongly influencing our received attitudes or impressions of the other.

Where is the joke in shabd? I want to hear it and enjoy it. I have included jokes about Sikhs in my writing. I think being able to laugh at ourselves shows strength and maturity of a community as also of an individual. What Pritish Nandy has done is to imply very effectively that the mere mention of the word ‘sardar ji’ inspires instant uncontrolled mirth. Obviously what is being conveyed is that the word has the power to conjure some very funny images in the mind of the listener through a communally shared associative process. It is not a joke but clear creation and reinforcing of a negative, buffoonish stereotype. It is stigmatic. It adds another dimension to negatively profile the intended target group. It is possible that Pritish was only daft and did not mean any ill will but I certainly view Sanghvi’s moralizing misinformed, devoid of serious deliberation and hopefully not motivated.

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