The Missing Mid Ground
Freedom of thought and expression is a permissible non-negotiable of democracy. The Internet is one of the most powerful manifestations of this freedom and has been used in ways movingly profound and alarmingly trivial. For the forceful defence of this right one need not go beyond J. S. Mill’s On Liberty, where he defends it with a simple argument that even crackpots might have some ideas. It is in the online space that this variety is outshouting considered points of view, and is the torchbearer of political thought and satire. Even if you agree with the position, the style and substance can make you cringe. Self-goals are frequent in the online playing field, the biggest irony being they don’t even realize it.
In social media in this country, leave alone ‘crackpots’ (many take it as a complement to be called so – the iconoclast syndrome) even ‘normal’ busybodies and status update fanatics are not offering any ideas – no satirical insights into our political understanding and no humorous contribution to our political debates.
For instance, in name of satirical political comment on Sonia Gandhi, we have her morphed pictures singing Munni Badnaam Huee. So much for the satirical creativity of the netizens! So much for tickling our funny political bone. Who does not know that Sonia Gandhi is not God?
This exposes the drying up of the streams of creative humour and it may also be pandering to the egoist facet of humour. Making an interesting observation about the relationship between human ego and humour, the seventeenth century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes remarked that laughter and humour are disguised ways of satisfying one’s ego. People draw vicarious pleasure in finding themselves at a secure distance, and imagining others as fools – caught in awkward situations and saying foolish things.
The escapist, easy way out. Irreverent? What about the large ground between irreverence and reverence?
Before we go back to social media, a general look at this brand of public humour in India – in cinema, TV shows, and the print world – suggests that it is very one-dimensional. It likes to call itself irreverent, as if nothing exists between reverence and irreverence. Actually, it is escapist because it takes the easy way out. Here thrills are a product of the public shock value or distortions, and not of the narrative core or craft of the humorist in offering satirical insights, rooted in observations and understanding. So what is on offer?
Toilet tourism, the turmoil in the stomach, actual act of gaseous and solid waste releases, sexual innuendos, abuses for all, naming or suggestive names for parts of the human body, comical parody of songs, regional stereotypes and accents, reinforcing below the belt jibes and factual distortions, are the staple diet for unimaginative practitioners of the genre today, and define their kewl quotient.
Another sign of creative bankruptcy is how satirical or comical TV shows are looking like poor imitations of western laughter shows, particularly American television shows. Even adaptations had some grace when BBC’s iconic series Yes Minister was made into Ji Mantriji (2001) and, more tangentially, earlier as Kaka Ji Kahin (1988). Grace or no grace, such foreign transplants reflect the failure of Indian television to have its own creative engagement with the political narrative and satirical culture in the country.
In the world of letters, the quality of satirical writings has taken a visible dip too and the disconnect with earthy realities of political milieu stands exposed. There is an apparent tendency to have satirical commentary on Indian politics from the cosmopolitan prism of metropolitan cities. No wonder we have not produced a single outstanding work of political satire – something that stands anywhere close to Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbaari (1969) – a brilliant satirical take on evolving values, or rather the lack of them in political and social life of post independent India.
Decoding the one-dimensional satire in social media and what it tells us about social mediapersons.
They may not be journalists, but they constitute, as islands adrift, an entity called ‘social media’. They have an exaggerated sense of importance and a poverty of ideas that has surfaced in the aftermath of supposedly social media led movements like Arab Spring. They manifest the serious problems that can emanate from hollow rhetorical trades and diatribe dealership.
In India, The Press Council of India Chairman Justice Katju very candidly exposed the feet of clay of mainstream journalists by rightly assessing that they lack basic understanding of politics, society and economy. And is not that even more true about social mediapersons?
Generally speaking, the one-dimensional humour that they offer and the limited range of satire that they can attempt shows their lack of understanding as well as awareness about the different aspects of an issue, the processes, the historical context, the evaluation of different sets of perspectives, etc.
The poverty of online satire is also rooted in the neglect of something that is essential to the craft of anyone associated with textual, visual or audio creativity – the intensity of observation. Having an eye for the mundane and banal of daily life, and articulating the dignity of such ordinariness is the stuff that enduring works of creativity are made of. Social media spaces do not offer even flashes of it; observation is a dying habit in an age, which places premium on being glued to computer screens.
Political humour and satire have never been a genre that is meant for laugh riots. It is not a – bring the roof down craft. For that, you need something you have personally experienced or observed or even imagined. A more private humour. So then, how will public humour be relevant for you? Only if it can accept the challenge of the vast ground for humour and satire that lies between being reverent and being irreverent, rooted in broad understanding and observed through the banalities of everyday life.