I need to thank Armchair Guy, because if he hadn’t asked his question in the comments to the last post, I wouldn’t have got an opportunity for this one. So thank you, sir.
Armchair Guy’s query:
How is Stein’s article related to Sardarji jokes (which do not indicate any anti-Sikhism) or to Pakistani terrorism (which is a fact of life)?
The fact that the phrase “everyone-in-Pakistan-is-a-terrorist jokes” equals “Pakistani terrorism” to you suggests that I’m about to hit my head against the brick wall of your opinion but when has that ever got in the way of a blog post?
Pakistani terrorism is indeed a fact of life. It is, however, not a fact that everyone in Pakistan is a terrorist. Sardarji-jokes, similarly, put across the hypothesis that everyone in the community is a dimwit. If the stereotypes depicted in such jokes are to be considered without making allowances for humour, then they vilify the community. As you yourself say, Sardarji-jokes might not indicate any anti-Sikhism (I suspect many Sardarjis may disagree) but if they’re considered to be true along with being funny, then there isn’t much respect being shown to the Sardarji. In fact, generalisations tend to be offensive and we’re full of them here in India: the Chinese are cruel, the Marwaris are money-minded, the South Indians are sly, women from the North East are easy, Goans are lazy, Bengalis are intellectuals with their heads up their own derrieres, and so on.
Stein’s piece works on the same principle as a Sardarji joke. It relies upon certain stereotypes, generalisation and exaggerations in an effort to be funny. For those who have read the piece without frothing at the mouth might notice that he’s equally OTT in his depiction of the white population of Edison, New Jersey. You may argue you don’t find it funny, which would be fair enough but that is your personal opinion and Stein could dismiss you saying you didn’t get the joke. The general reaction to Stein’s article shows that not only did most Indians and Indian-origin people not get the obvious jokes, but they are also sanctimonious idiots with about as much maturity and sense of priority as the chaps who thought the fitting response to a cartoon is a death threat. We have the army entering Kashmir after 15 years and all I saw on the Indian news channels were fools thumping their desks saying TIME’s apology for Stein’s piece was a) not an apology, apparently, and b) not enough. Not that the foreign channels were any better. If I hear one more newscaster try to crack an octopus joke… but I digress.
The worst thing to do with humour is to dissect it as though it’s a frog in a biology experiment but here’s the bottom line: humour hinges upon a power imbalance. Almost every joke in the world relies on something or someone being taken advantage of. Sometimes the subject of the joke gives the upper hand to the the audience for a laugh — like the chap who slips on a banana peel. There’s nothing inherently funny about a man potentially hurting his lower back and it’s only humorous to someone who is standing securely and hasn’t slipped on anything. On other occasions, the teller takes on the role of superiority and someone else is made fun of. Whatever the joke, chances are it’s putting someone down. Whether you find it funny or not depends upon how close you are to the thing that is under attack in a joke. The sense of superiority is critical and, as many of us who have survived high school will appreciate, it isn’t fun being the butt of a joke. A few weeks ago, the Huffington Post had a ludicrous foreigner’s guide to dating Indian men. No furore about that one because the writer said Indian men are wonderful. Instead, there was general disbelief, giggles at how silly this white woman is and this response by Neel Shah. Did the American establishment and consortiums of white women react by saying, Shah is misogynist and that his article smacks of reverse racism and gross generalisations? No. Because, whether or not they found it funny, they got the fact that it’s a joke.