“Oh, I know a great joke. But, before I start, let me just say – please don’t be offended”. Before even waiting for an answer, someone goes on to narrate a crude joke about say, your country, your language, your culture, your beliefs or anything else that you may hold dear. If you have lived in multicultural societies, chances are the above mentioned scenario may not sound all that unfamiliar. “Its just a joke” – does that prefix really absolve the “joker” of all sin?
I genuinely believe that most people who indulge in such culturally insensitive jokes do not have any malicious intentions. Very many of them even heartily believe in the power of the above disclaimer. But what exactly do you expect me to do? If I am in a group where I am the sole representative of the population that you will be laughing your head off in about five minutes, do you really expect me to laugh with you? But then rebutting it wouldn’t be polite, because you of course had the holy disclaimer. I may not question the factual accuracy or the humor in your jokes – in fact, in my free time, I might even laugh at them myself. But while laughing at oneself as an individual is often easy, laughing at yourself as a member of a community or country is hard. I have listened to my fair share of Indian jokes and as much as I would like to think I am immune to them, I am not. And its not just me – I have the opportunity to meet and interact with people from different countries around here, and its common to hear jokes about the different cultures. As much as everything seems hunky-dory, if you would bother with subtleties (and sometimes not so subtle tones), the undercurrents are not as still as the surface seems to be. People are usually just polite to say anything about it. But mostly they are uncomfortable with such jokes, even when not directly made at them.
The funny thing is that most of the people who make culturally insensitive jokes are incapable of handling it, if the tables are turned. I am very bad at rebuttals in such situations – blame it on my upbringing, the fact that I am against them in principle or maybe just that I am not sharp tongued enough to respond in time with a caustic retort – but through the years, my response has been silence. But in my last job, I had a fellow Indian in my team who wasted no time listening to such jokes – whether they were served with disclaimers or not. To pick a mild example, when my Chinese colleagues would bring up people running around trees in Indian movies, he would have something to say about the flying counterparts in Chinese movies. 9 times out of 10, it would achieve its intended effect of shutting them up – but also, it would have considerably dulled the mood at the table.
To me, the disclaimer or intent has no relevance in this context. Its like placing a trampoline next to a building and pushing me out of a third floor window, for everyone else’s amusement. Sure, you placed the trampoline – you intended no harm. And you even told me that I am going to be pushed down – you preempted your joke with a “No offence intended”, didn’t you? Maybe I am not physically hurt from the fall – but the push is humiliating. And I had no choice but to be pushed. If I protested or pushed you back or even, just did not laugh with everyone else – I am the wrong-doer – the person who took the joke in the wrong spirit.
I believed that lie all these years. When people told me that it was meant in good faith, I thought it was really my fault that I was feeling bad. After all, I should be able to laugh at myself too. But that is just bullshit. “Society” conditions us into thinking that we should accept insensitive jokes and laugh with people who laugh at us – only because such people don’t want to take responsibility for their actions. They just push the blame around. But you know what, its not going anywhere. In an awkward situation created by an insensitive joke, only the person who said the joke it is to blame – and perhaps, the people who laughed with him. Though, sometimes the onlookers are just confused about what to do and choose the path of least resistance.
Its about time that people who make culturally insensitive jokes realise that it ain’t all that funny after all – offence intended or not.