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December 11, 2017

From humour to humiliation


December 11, 2017

What’s worse than being buried alive? Being born a woman. What is worse than making fun of Pathans? Not making fun of Pathans.

Don’t feel bad if reading these prejudiced one-liners has induced a smirk or two. After all, laughter is the best medicine and aficionados of laughter therapy keep honking at this expression in order to give people who are stressed a vent in these stressful times.

Theoretically, this notion aligns well with the pathos of the relief theory in which Robert Spencer, the earliest humour sociologist, defines laughter as “the discharge of arrested feelings into the muscular system in the absence of other adequate channels”. For the most part of the 20th century, the relief theory ruled the roost in explaining the sociology of humour. Although Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud developed it into a coherent social narrative, its explanatory prowess remains limited, especially when we use it to envision our society.

Like any good old wine, the wise words of Socrates have become better with time as he theorised that scorn underlies comedy and “taken generally, the ridiculous is a certain kind of vice and that vice is self-ignorance”. Building on the words of the Greek master, Thomas Hobbes furthered the superiority theory by highlighting the Socratic self-ignorance and the associated sense of eminency over the infirmity of others that triggers laughter as it is “nothing… but a sudden glory arising from a sudden conception of superiority”.

As is the case in most parts of the world, the dynamics of humour in Pakistan society display a strict hierarchical order that cascades into different taxonomic units that are based on any perceived sense of superiority, be it economic, racial or sexist. These ‘stressed’ segments of the population use humour as a release valve to vent the stresses in their lives through jokes. Humour in Pakistan is not only filled with the usual inter-racial and inter-sex jokes, but also has a despicable layer of ableism.

In the Pakistani context, disability means every physical attribute that is non-conformist to what makes an ideal human being. Whether it is someone with a different sexual orientation, someone who is obese or anorexic or even a person who is either too tanned or too fair, we always have something vicious and supposedly funny to say about them.

Amusing oneself by degrading a social group fits within the bracket of disparagement humour. This form of humour is, in fact, paradoxical because, while it has a prejudiced and hostile message to convey, it can’t be dubbed as hostile because it is meant as a joke. Even though such humour is cloaked in frivolity, it has the potential to propagate discrimination against vulnerable groups, as the scholarship on psychology suggests.

Such crass forms of humour in Pakistani society can be largely attributed to wandering slapstick comedians during the Mughal era who entertained people through a crass verbal repartee that is commonly known as juggat bazi. As the centuries passed, the elements of this culture were seeded into the once-blossoming Pakistani theatre and wrecked an art form into a tacky parade of indecent juggat bazi and a chauvinistic mujra culture.

This phenomenon thrived on making fun of the vulnerable groups in society. Even the crackdown against the mujra culture couldn’t do away with this trend. In fact, juggat bazi became far more mainstream as stage artists joined hands with the electronic media. Today, it runs with unprecedented reach and glory.

During the weekends, we can simply surf through our TV channels and experience firsthand how people voluntarily agree to become objects of humiliation for what is a pathetic excuse for some ‘medicinal humour’. Many would argue that having sense of humour about oneself is an extremely valuable attribute to have. But it is difficult to accept this approach because the vulnerabilities and weaknesses that we are born with form the core of our insecurities. Nobody likes to be humiliated for something they cannot change about themselves.

The electronic media has given people a chance to earn some moolah in exchange for humiliating people. Yes, that’s a plus point, if one can call it that. But what does this say about society as a whole? Does it mean that we are ready to pounce on the vulnerabilities of certain social groups for our own entertainment? The answer is in the affirmative.

This is not a rant against having a good laugh. In fact, it is merely a reminder that we have reduced our humour to a level of crassness. We don’t seem to get a good laugh without poking fun at someone else’s integrity. Just close your eyes and try to imagine the last time you had an unprejudiced laugh. Now try to not keep them closed.

The writer is a freelance contributor Email: [email protected]

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