The Art of Dissent

Let me tell you a joke. Its only a joke. Don’t take it in any other sense.
Ready?
Here goes then-
//Q: What is the best part of an Ethiopian blowjob?
A: You know she will swallow.//
Well? Did you like that one?
You didn’t?
Okay, I know, I know.
It is tasteless. It is racist. It is misogynist. It tries to be funny about the often desperate situation of the poor in third world countries.
It can be amusing only to a perverted mind. It is sick.
And yet I find it funny. I saw this first in a joke book called Tasteless Jokes. There are other books in the genre called Truly Tasteless Jokes, The Big Book of Truly Tasteless Jokes and so on. I like them.
I know what is in your mind now-
Guy is a pervert. Perhaps a psychopath.
What do you plan to do now that you don’t like what I just said? Do you make a call to boycott the joke? Do you unfollow me, block me? File a complaint in the local police station? Reach for the kitchen knife and sharpen it?
Do you feel like doing all that but don’t, and instead just smile and move on saying, to hell with it, its a fucking joke?
The issue is relevant to our times. We recently had people call for beheading a movie director and actor. We also in recent memory saw the hullabaloo surrounding Perumal Murugan’s book, the fatwa against Rushdie, the banishment of MF Hussain, the Charlie Hebdoe shootings and, closer home, Professor Joseph’s dismemberment. We were all properly outraged at these primitive reactions. Freedom of expression is not negotiable in a democracy.
But freedom of expression is a double-edged sword. We cannot be selective about it. We are either for it or against it. There is no halfway stand. I’ll describe the halfway stand with an interesting example.
Recently the poet Satchidanandan’s wrote a Facebook post calling for a boycott of the Times of India. Here is the link:

He wrote that there was a deliberate move by the TOI to tarnish Kerala’s image because a character in a comic strip run by the paper whose hometown was Kochi was an agent of the Islamic State.
I thought it an odd reaction, coming as it did from someone who had protested against many of the primitive reactions I mentioned earlier. I pointed this out in a comment on his post and he replied that he didn’t believe in fatwas- this was a peaceful show of dissent.
Satchidanandan is being intellectually dishonest- his call for a boycott in an issue which has hurt his sensitivity is mere dissent, but other people should learn to tolerate issues which hurt theirs. It is an error which many liberals are guilty of, deliberately or otherwise.
Dissent is fine. You read a novel and dislike it intensely. It is not well written; you do not agree with its politics. It is rubbish. You throw it off and walk away. You swear you will never read another of the author’s books again. You write a review analyzing and pointing out its many flaws. This is dissent. Or you watch Mammootty in Kasaba not behaving like the proper gentleman you would like your heroes to be and walk out of the movie and write a Facebook post about your terrible experience. Dissent again.
But if you call out to your friends and admirers to boycott the book, if you ask the publisher to ban it, or ask the Women’s Commission to move legally against the actor or director, your reaction is not a simple show of dissent, it has entered those exalted realms where fatwas live, and dismemberments. For the book has hurt your sensitivity and hence you want people to boycott it without reading, just as the Ayatollah wanted the Satanic Verses withdrawn when his feelings were hurt. And who are we to judge the Ayatollah wrong and us right? Who judges which sensitivities can be righteously hurt and which cannot? It is either all or none. There is no Buddhist middle path for freedom of expression.
Every work of art is political in nature. One senses it at the moment of viewing the work. One can disagree with the politics while appreciating its aesthetics. Many religious works are surpassingly beautiful. They also contain codes and guidelines for appropriate behavior and hence are also deeply political. One can read the King James Bible and appreciate its literary grandeur without agreeing to what it stands for. The same holds true for the Hindu religious books I have read and, I’m told, for the Koran which I have not.
But even when a work of art is aesthetically displeasing, and speaks a disagreeable politics, is a call for action justified? The Charlie Hebdoe cartoons which led to the shootings were crude and designed to insult. They were aesthetically unappealing as well as politically incorrect to a large number of believers. Does that justify the killings? Most Malayalam movies reflect the patriarchal misogyny that is present in our society. Do we then ask for a ban on such movies?
The question stripped down to its essence is this: should art be moral? The right answer is that art does not need to fall in line with the mores of a time and place. The artist should not be restricted to creating moral treatises. She needs only to be true to herself. To force an artist to be moral in her work, or liberal, fascist, communist, nationalist, to fall in any line but one of her own choice, is essentially nothing but moral policing.
A call to boycott a newspaper is not a peaceful statement of dissent. It is a cry for action. The boycott is a stunningly effective weapon which has been used to great effect by many political leaders. It was employed effectively against the apartheid state of South Africa. The sports embargo against apartheid was particularly effective. But to say that it was a democratic show of dissent is untrue. It was imposed and enforced under the full might of the law, as many foreign sportsmen who violated the boycott learnt to their cost when they returned home.
The key concept is that a work of art belongs to the artist. The artist creates her characters. She defines their moral stands and their behaviour at critical junctures. Such a thing, she affirms, happened at such a time. This is a given, the reader has no choice but to accept it. I remember once a doctor who wrote a review of the movie Thanmathra. The character played by Mohanlal develops Alzheimer’s disease at a relatively young age. The doctor in his critique wrote that such an occurrence was extremely rare and that the movie should not have been made as it served only to alarm its viewers.
The criticism is invalid, not the movie. The artist needs to be logical only within the framework of his creation. The framework itself belongs to him. In that framework the protagonist developed Alzheimers at forty five. Such a thing occurred at such a time.
This is something we all understand but often choose to forget. We have no problem with the framework of a science fiction novel or a Harry Potter movie. Finding Nemo is a beautiful animated movie in which fish talk a lot and send their children to school. I have yet to see someone say that the vocal cords of fish are unsuitable for speaking English and that in any case it is difficult to speak underwater.
Satchidanadan’s support of Rushdie, of Perumal Murugan and the rest are convenient political support statements and not an endorsement of freedom of expression. He agrees with freedom of expression only when what is expressed matches his views. When the politics do not match he calls for action, he seeks to repress freedom with all his might. This call stands at the lower end of the extremist spectrum but is a definite statement against freedom of expression.
Comics and jokes are litmus tests to detect the Stalins who lurk behind liberal facades. The cartoonist Gopikrishnan is either a Hindu extremist or a communist extremist depending on what he has drawn each week. Gary Larson who drew the superb cartoon The Far Side reported that he received many offended letters every week. He couldn’t draw a cartoon without someone or the other getting offended and writing a threatening letter. It was only recently that we made the New York Times apologize for a cartoon which offended our national pride.
It is everywhere, this potential for taking offence. Glance through comic strips like The Phantom or Tarzan- loads of racism, the White Man’s Burden. Blondie? Misogyny. Watch any classic Malayalam movie. Misogyny again, and racism.
How then should dissent be expressed against a work of art? The politics buried within must be dissected and described, but the work should stand. That space for the work to exist is sacrosanct. All art is disturbing precisely because art is politics. If one is so put off that one cannot appreciate the art for its disturbance then perhaps one is not fit for anything beyond fairy tales. And while we are at it fairy tales are often political, some gruesomely so.
The true liberal mind is one who can enjoy artistry- the writer’s wordsmithery, the painter’s dash, the movie’s subtlety- even while disagreeing vehemently to what it stands for. The ability to hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind- like the art, hate the politics, or even hate both the art and the politics but still recognize the work’s right to exist- is the hallmark of liberation.
Read a collection of Truly Tasteless Jokes. See if you can read and laugh through the racism and the misogyny. If you are too offended to laugh, and I cannot either sometimes, don’t worry. Its only a joke. We move on. But if you reach for the kitchen knife, call for a ban, call the police, you are in elite company. You have with you the Ayatollahs, the Sanghis, the ultra-nationalists and the ever increasing tribe of all those who cannot tolerate ambiguity, cannot hold an idea in mind while simultaneously rejecting it.
It is a hard, hard task, learning to tolerate ambiguity within ourselves. But that is where we must all aspire to be, if we wish to keep ourselves afloat.

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