It’s Not Funny

In December 2015, law enforcement agencies arrested the administrator of an online satire site called ‘Moja Losss?’ The charge was variously mentioned as ‘anti-state propaganda’ and ‘sedition’. Immediately, thousands of followers of the satire site raised their objections, saying no one had ever seen anything mildly subversive on the site. In fact, it had been widely lauded on multiple occasions for combating sexual harassment and shaping public opinion on social issues. 

One day, the town’s new conqueror asked Nasiruddin Hodja, “If I were a slave, how much would I cost?” “Five hundred tomans,” Hodja responded.

“What!” the conqueror shouted in great anger. “Just the clothes I’m wearing right now are worth five hundred dollars!”
“Yes,” replied Nasiruddin, “I factored the clothes into my price.”

Entire generations in Bangladesh grew up on the humour of Hodja and our very own Gopal Bhar. Their stories, while funny, go beyond situational comedy. They do not merely make fun of people or things. Like any good satire, they make important (and often inconvenient) statements about societies, empires and rulers. The stories ask citizens to reflect, reconsider and recalibrate. That is why serious satirists were/are, so hounded by authorities: they are not mere ‘entertainers’; they are ‘thinkers’, ‘artists’ and ‘revolutionaries’ in their own right. They are reformer-activists armed with irony and comedy.

In every age, in every land, citizens have used satire as a flanking tactic to circumvent restrictions placed upon them. In Athenian democracy, satirical performances by comic poets – alongside town criers – were the mainstay of public awareness. Roman Hipponax’s attacks are thought to have driven their targets to self-harm. The ninth-century Arab poet Al-Jahiz once implied that if dimensions of reproductive organs had anything to do with ‘honour’, the mule would be a Quraysh tribesman. A millennium later, in The Emperor’s New Clothes, Hans Christian Andersen was not only mocking the vain emperor, but also taking a jab at the stupefied community, which dared not believe that the emperor was naked.

Our times have been illuminated by works of fiction like Orwell’s Animal Farm, which gave rise to the phrase, “all animals are equal; but some animals are more equal.” Slogans from the other Orwellian masterpiece 1984 – ‘Freedom is Slavery’ and ‘War is Peace’ – still ring true in the 21st century. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was a paradoxical government policy: it stipulated that mentally-ill pilots could apply for leave from the war, but such an application would also demonstrate rationality and thus void his claim of mental illness. In reality, there would be no reprieve from war. The state of war was indefinitely definite.

In the subcontinent, works like Satyajit Roy’s Hirok Rajar Deshe (1980) stood out as seminal. In Bangladesh, Unmad the satirical magazine brought into Bangladeshi homes Tk 15 doses of social and political humour. Television presenters, columnists and authors employed political satire too. Globally, The Simpsons and Southpark gained fame as masterful adaptations of the satirical plot-devices. The work of elusive street-artist Banksy, or digital illustrator Steve Cutts for example, contain strong elements of satire.

An online satire site jokes about a political leader (photo: Tumblr)

This year, the Columbia Journalism Review named entertainer-comedian John Oliver’s ‘Last Week Tonight’ in its highlights of global journalistic endeavors. CJR said, “Oliver is no journalist, but he consistently commits acts of journalism.” Today, the names of Nasiruddin Hodja and Gopal Bhar have waned. But in their place, new jesters have popped up, to coat in callous and witty irony, the bitter pill of truth.

Of course, not everyone finds satire palatable. Some think it an unnecessary trivialisation of grave matters. Others think it a silver bullet to defeat all the evils of organised religion. Some are merely entertained. But satire is not always funny. Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ discussed the prospect of feeding poor children to the rich for a price, thereby attaining redistribution of wealth. It was a merciless jab at the Irish apathy towards the underprivileged. So, satire can be embarrassing, irksome and even hurtful for its targets. That is because satire holds up a mirror to societies and governments, who seldom like what they see. Satire renders its targets and their actions absurd; hilarious even.

Satire often fails in spectacular ways. In 2013, Pakistani journalist Nadeem Paracha got into trouble when his piece “exposing” Malala Yousufzai as Jane, the daughter of Polish Christian missionaries went viral. Sadly, no one got the joke. The article, meant to satirise Malala-conspiracists, became a weapon in their hands. Malala doubters clocked up 30,000 shares within the first 24 hours, causing outlets in Lahore and Tehran to pick up the story.

Around the same time, a news item on ‘Assam’s Rape Festival’ started making the social media rounds, spreading into Asia, Europe, Middle-East and Africa. It contained a description of a made-up village and horrific accounts of casual rape, accompanied by images of the naked Sadhus during the ‘Kumbh Mela’ festival. First when the news was transmitted as factual, there was a lot of anger in Assam. However, many subsequently saw that it was India’s track record with women’s security and rising rape culture that made people believe the piece of satire.

Done right, satire packs a powerful punch. But it is entirely possible for it to lose sight of the ‘impetus to improve’ and start resembling smear campaigns and/or hate speech. It was this fear that led Brazil to ban satire during its 2010 elections (and reverse it weeks later). During the Arab Spring, Egyptian Bassem Youssef’s satire news-show ‘Bernameg’ became so popular that this Icarus-of-a-host was promptly jailed by the authorities. Youssef later made it into the Time’s Top 100 list of influential people.

Satire is the use of irony and ridicule with the intent of shaming a person, corporation, government or society into improvement. Note that last word: improvement. Shaming and ridiculing are mere tactics. Collective improvement is satire’s raison d’être; which explains why political themes occupy such a central spot in the literary genre of satire. And if we consider that every attempt to improve our communities, our laws and our institutions is political in nature, then we will see that satire too is, first and foremost, a political act. So, satire is an intent; an attack. Behind its surface is a political objective. Therefore, intention of a satirist is the most logical metric to judge the merit of his work.

The developments of the past three to four days are not funny. They have the potential to delineate what can (or cannot) be said, questioned, trivialised or propagated. Those, dear readers, are the very boundaries of free speech. Defending these boundaries would be neither subversive nor traitorous. Sure, contents that threaten to slander innocents, jeopardise lives or compromise the State, must be evaluated for their merit and utility. But this must not become a way of suppressing dissent and criticism.

The modern democratic nation is designed to be balanced by the channeling of power to citizens. In this design, media, civil society, thinkers and artists are expected to ask difficult questions and challenge policies and actions taken by public servants. Otherwise, democracy does not work. Therefore, it is important that Bangladesh retains the conditions for healthy, constructive criticism and nonviolent opposition based on rationality.

It is not funny that we have to reiterate in 2015 the checks and balances inherent in democracy. It has been nearly 25 years since the last autocratic regime was toppled and democracy was finally reestablished. And as a country that has progressed by leaps and bounds in economic growth, social and infrastructure development and digital connectivity, Bangladesh must not fail to embrace the foundational tenets of democracy and freedom. Let me leave you with this story:

One day, the village mayor wrote a poem and read it to Nasiruddin. “Did you like the poem?” he asked.

“No, not really,” Nasiruddin replied, “it wasn’t very good.”

The mayor was furious, and immediately sentenced Hodja to three days in jail.

The next week, the mayor called Nasiruddin in his office to read him another poem. Again the mayor asked, “Well, what do you think of this one?”
Nasiruddin stood up in silence and began to walk away. The mayor called out from behind, “Where are you going?”

“To jail!” Nasiruddin replied.

Originally published on The Daily Star.

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