Cringe, appreciate and cringe some more

While travelling with my family through the United States, we decided to watch Bruno, a film with rave reviews that opened to packed audiences. Needless to say, watching the film was not a very pleasant experience for my mother, who was raised in a strictly orthodox Hindu home and witnessed all the horrors of religious pogroms when she was young. Her inability to understand irony merely added fuel to the fire. The ability to divorce subject matter from its artistic expression in a humourous form is culturally subjective, but one should not assume that this is purely symptomatic of cultural upbringing. While it may be obvious to most that it is not Bruno’s political insensitivity but rather its stupidity that is humourous, the line between the two is often blurred. In fact, a large part of why Bruno and Borat have been so popular is their suppression of obvious irony.

“The problem is that an audience may confuse the irony with political insensitivity itself”

Borat is a classic example of where this divorce between the subject and its portrayal has been most successful. For instance, when Borat makes fun of Jews, this is not intended to support anti-Semitic views but rather portray the narrow minded, racist nature of these views. The problem is that an audience may confuse the irony with political insensitivity itself. The success of these films, may in fact result in desensitizing us to racism by making racism funny. Today, political insensitivity has become a fad and young people often take pride in justifying mild forms of racism.

On more than one occasion, I have come across individuals who seem to think that making Holocaust or ‘dead-baby’ jokes is acceptable. While I am not making any value judgments as to whether these jokes can ever be made, I can say with a degree of certainty that in most cases the individuals telling these jokes would never have dared exercise the same degree of insensitivity had there been Jews or pregnant women around at the time. While the intention of these jokes may have been to display, in a self-deprecating manner, the idiocy of these ideas, often conversations may take a defensive turn and efforts are made to justify racist or bigoted ideals. Mix that with the absence of irony, or its ineffective portrayal, and you have a classic recipe for unpleasant jokes.

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“Nowadays, politically insensitive humour is analagous to cigarette smoking amongst teenagers; the allure of the taboo”

Earlier this year, during a regular gathering of friends in a local pub, a friend of mine decided that it would be appropriate to pretend to be racist. To be honest, it made for loud laughs and a good time. However, as the night wore on, the pretence seemed to wear off, and a strange form of the forbidden fruit effect seemed to take over. Nowadays, politically insensitive humour is analagous to cigarette smoking amongst teenagers; the allure of the taboo. The attraction to the forbidden is fertile ground for attention-seeking teenagers who want to be provocative. This can be dangerous when they convince others that their ideas are reasonable. While the comedian may know at the back of his mind that he is not racist, he may encourage it in others or be seen as racist himself.

I am not sure that the risks involved in such interpretations justify censorship, but they are risks nonetheless; a risk that is present with most activities from bungee jumping to drawing cartoons. The question is, how far should these risks go? The line should be drawn at some stage, but where?