“And again, they must not be lovers of laughter either, for when someone abandons himself to violent laughter a violent change is apt to follow.”
In Plato’s Republic, thus spake Socrates on laughter. The Socratic suspicion of laughter is rearing its head yet again. We, however, want to locate laughter only at the graph paper of free speech.
The debate on what can or cannot be ridiculed at and laughed about sits at the heart of such a discourse. Laughter, then, becomes both a tool and a manifestation of subversion.
Gendered Discourse on Laughter
From Aristophanes to Rabelais to Mikhail Bakhtin to Michel Foucault to Dario Fo to Arunabh Kumar, we have zealous knights of laughter, who aimed at challenging the rubrics of our daily lives or ideated on this primal physical expression. (Kumar, though, does not belong to this league of extraordinary gentlemen even if he survives the recent sexual harassment charges.)
A gendered discourse on laughter, however, follows another trajectory altogether. Here, even Medusa, “an awful monster's grisly head” chooses to laugh. Her rage transforms into laughter which is as potent as her gaze that turns men into stone. But what is the price for that laughter?
“If he isn’t drop dead gorgeous, he better be funny.”
“Hansi toh phansi!”
“Laughing all the way to the bedroom.”
From theory to praxis, men’s laughter is sublime, women’s sexual. Whether the woman is a site or sight of laughter, the price is often hers to pay.
When it’s Not So Funny
Going through the testimonies of women accusing Arunabh Kumar, the founder of a comic start-up called The Viral Fever, what disturbs one the most is the possibility of someone coming up and saying, “Oh but it was a joke, you know!” Adults crack adult jokes. Those in the business of jokes even crack practical jokes with a straight face. Fair game. Or maybe not.
The inequities of gender relations permeate the laughing space as well. The number of times women are told to “take a joke” is exactly the same they are told to be quiet about sexual harassment.
We make role models out of women who can spout gendered expletives and laugh at sexual jokes. Being a prude is being unpopular and in all fairness, this applies to men too in some measure. What complicates the matter for women is the C-word. Consent.
Assuming, not just gauging, consent through laughter is a popular practice, which insulates men against loss of face and even charges. When men like Arunabh Kumar “allegedly” say “it’s time we do a ‘quicky’” to one of his female colleagues, in all likelihood they can get away with a laugh should things go awry.
Don’t You Get It? ‘NO Means NO’
Internal sexual harassment committees, in those rare organisations where they exist in compliance with the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, often deal with cases where “I was joking” is a legitimate explanation.
The TVF harassment case is a bigger eyesore than many other similar instances because the high priests of subversion, the champions of laughter, who lay huge currency on freedom of speech and expression, forgot the basics.
No culture of subversion, no irreverence towards staid moral values is an access card to a person, man or woman, who does not consent.
Violence of Laughter Shouldn’t Lead to Laughter on Violence
It is cases like these that lay bare the faultiness of our liberalism. When the perpetrator of sexual demeanours is “one of our own”, we often turn blind and deaf. A journalist, an academic, an artist, or a radical start-up founder on the right side of the socio-political spectrum continues to enjoy a great degree of immunity. Because we are ready to laugh it off, sometimes in mirth and sometimes in disgust.
The impunity and self-righteousness with which one’s own sexual morality is imposed upon the other is not a preserve of the conservatives. Prudery and libertinism are the two faces of the same coin. Thrusting either down a non-conforming individual is an act of violence, when coupled with physical or mental harassment. ‘He said she said’ is a good trope for stand-up comedy. In real life it is often built on an unequal plane.
When the urge is to defend the laughing man because the woman “didn’t take the joke,” it is not a laughing matter anymore. Abandoning oneself to violence of laughter may pave the way for laughter on violence. Perhaps that’s what Socrates was sceptical about.
(The writer is Associate Fellow (Gender) at Observer Research Foundation. She can be reached @TedhiLakeer. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)