Saswat Pattanayak investigates what it means to be politically incorrect in contemporary times. Is it a ploy to maintain the status quo and further the capitalist cause or is it to give a voice to the truly marginalized?
– Kindle Magazine
If the concerns over free speech are due to AIB controversies, then there is a possibility that those are perhaps not valid concerns after all. The problem with free speech is that the freedom to espouse the contents belongs to those who own the means to circulate them. The question then would be if Bollywood celebrities ever lacked their platforms to express politically incorrect statements.
Whereas political incorrectness must be allowed to be expressed without reservations, the idea that it has somehow lacked platforms in India or elsewhere in the world today could be purely hogwash. In fact, the culture industry in capitalistic societies thrives on political incorrectness – both monetarily and spiritually. Usage of sexist slangs, rape jokes, fat-shaming or skin colorism are not exceptions to Bollywood; they are the mainstay. Although what AIB has aired was deliberately orchestrated to come off as controversial, a careful inspection of its content would reveal a mere continuation of dominant on-screen norms.
An enormously fat child as a reject is not an AIB discovery – it is evident in the industry’s obsession with “six-packs”. A dark-skin being the same as illegal money in Swiss banks is not a surprise statement – even male actors like Shah Rukh Khan endorse fairness as key to their successes. Jokes on how someone “ugly” does not deserve to be dated is not a shocking revelation for the majority – as the leading actors have to inevitably exceed the standards of beauty. Alia Bhatt may not take offense to being called ignorant and silly by her male co-stars – but women across the globe are anyway proclaimed as intellectually inferior by the male academic superstars. Deepika Padukone may be used to humors that reduce her to be a “good thing that Ranveer Singh was in” – but commodification of women is among the most profiteering industries today. Parineeti Chopra may have genuinely got scared of getting metaphored into a gang rape victim that night – and yet, rape as a funny metaphor is a constant that refuses to die – from usage by stand up comedians to supreme court judges. Raghu Ram being imagined as a wife-beater, Karan Johar imagined as a casting couch enabler, Ranveer Singh imagined as the pervert photographer of an actress who in her erstwhile feminist standpoint had pleaded the country to stop humiliating her – suddenly all this is good humor now, because the industry bigwigs are expecting us to get matured. Shouldn’t we have also matured into accepting Mulayam Singh Yadav’s “boys will be boys” statement regarding rape, if it is alright to laugh at the manly Ranveer Singh getting a hard-on from pepper spray by his next conquest?
What is amiss in the mature argument is that, none of these are objectionable because they are simply politically incorrect or because a society lacks a sense of humor. They are objectionable because a bunch of elitists continue to find these funny at the expense of those who are victimized by actual acts of domestic violence, sex discriminations and standards of beauty that effectively and unjustly exclude majority of people from the mainstream culture industry. AIB is no big deal though, only because it was not a breakthrough – it was just more of the same. It was just as objectionable as was Yo Yo Honey Singh’s poetry in his “Choot” volumes; little surprise that the rapper was instantly embraced by the industry that met its match in avowedly celebrating misogyny.
Roots of Roast:
Political correctness and political incorrectness are different shades of the same spectrum. They are not rigid, fixed unchangeable notions – indeed quite the contrary. Like culture itself, they form an unending line. What used to be politically incorrect a few decades ago is perhaps politically correct today, and vice versa. It is the content, the impact, and most importantly in the Marxist sense – the beneficiaries of certain consciousness that should determine what is to be considered politically correct or politically incorrect. It is upto the artists themselves to decide their directions, and to that extent raising hue and cry over AIB is redundant at one extreme and reactionary on the other. But to surmise that AIB discourse is in a victimized state crying out to be heard by the people, lest artistic freedoms will meet untimely deaths, is a ridiculous exaggeration.
Contents aside, the form also needs to be reexamined. Roasting might be a new phenomenon to hit Indian consciousness, but so has been rap. The tragedy is we perhaps have imported the worst of both forms while showcasing them to be the best we can be, that we need to the urge to defend what went for roasting on AIB. What was on display without anyone paying tribute to the roots of it (Bollywood surprise!) has been historically called “signifying”, “joining”, “snapping” and “playing the dozens” – deeply rooted in African-American heritage. Actively participated by the enslaved to amuse and distract themselves, they have accumulated political coinage and unique underground significance over the decades among the oppressed of America. Just like the use of N-word, some of the snaps may have derogatory feel to them, but the cultural usages by the specific groups of people lend them the context that needs to be respected, especially if the media are all agog over the novelty of this art form.
Consider rapper Biz Markie’s snap: “Your mother’s hair is so nappy, she has to take painkillers to comb her hair”. Or, actor Doug E. Doug’s snap: “Your family is so poor, they go to Kentucky Fried Chicken to lick other people’s fingers.” Or, comedian Nipsey Russell’s: “Your family is so poor, the roaches have to eat out or go hungry.” Not only are these legendary acts by the blacks, they are also reflective of a need to speak to the societal realities in the most cutting-edge manner.. For one “Your father is so poor, he can’t afford to pay attention,” a brilliant joining could be, “Your family is so poor, when I asked your mother if I could use the bathroom she said, ‘Sure, pick a corner’”.
Instead of exploring the historicity of this tradition, or of the underground political hip-hop that are emancipatory for a purpose, we have now started off on a wrong foot, with a bunch of narcissistic celebrities that are misappropriating a subculture to falsely portray themselves as victims of sorts. Strictly from the standpoint of a review (considering an important film reviewer was a panelist), what AIB came up with were just gross. One “roast” that met with laughter was that of a person being so black that a white cop got away with killing him. Another one caricatured Santa Claus giving away gifts to wrong kids only when he is Muslim. Nothing to laugh about racist justice system and Islamophobia unless one is actually a victim of those and chooses to make light of the situation. Sadly, the panelists were not. Certainly not enough to cry for their freedom to be politically incorrect.
It is not the politically incorrect that are tortured in a society like India. It is the political correctness that is still looking for outlets, amidst the prevailing platitudes of glorified incorrectnesses.
The core argument of free speech advocates that art must be allowed to exist for the sake of it – and not as a means to a certain social purpose. But is that really a concern, going by the trends? When was art not existing for the sake of it in India? Barring a few socialist filmmakers, when have the huge majority of directors and producers made anything other than art for the sake of art? Most of the blockbusters celebrate themes that sustain on the absolutely irrational, illogical and impossible. Same is true of the prevailing dominant Hindu festivities across the states, regardless of the political party in power. What is politically correct about Durga Puja celebrations in the land of the Party Line? For all its shocking disclosures, what AIB aired was hardly more than a religious rhetoric that knows quite a few things about the free flowing use of “choots” as a liberating phrase. Did they even utter a fraction of “roasting” that is done while pulling the carts of Lord Jagannath in Puri every year at Rath Yatra? Sexist slangs and rape jokes comprise mainstream religious India’s constant preoccupation – a major factor that contributes to success of Bollywood movies and to the prolonged marital success stories of decent majority Hindu households.
Majoritarian supremacist speeches are so taken for granted in everyday life that we often assume them to be struggling for representation when rarely they are even slightly choked – akin to the predicament of an upper caste student who occasionally does not get what is automatically due, because some new movements are demanding reservations in education and employment. To grasp its scope, we may just need to consider the religious cultural givens and the atmosphere permeated by them. For atheists or minorities in religious beliefs, that climate is neither conducive nor desirable. If one were to raise a child as an atheist, where would that option really be? And yet somehow that lack of possibility is not considered as a systematically stifled right to free speech and expression. Only when the religious folks are not allowed to perform a public ceremony that they have historically been doing, is there a major hue and cry about human freedom being throttled.
When was the last time objections were raised because indigenous peoples of the lands were not allowed to address to a global audience to express how the State has been exploiting them? Let alone that, we even do not let someone from among us – Priya Pillai – board a plane. It is not simply the freedom of speech that is at stake – the question that needs to be asked is, whose freedom? The Solzhenitsyns, Rands, and Nabakovs were perhaps politically incorrect, but the freedoms of those they were representing are what must guide the discourse as to which ideology is inherent in artists’ works. Are they the purveyors of an oppressive status quo, or are they the champions of the underrepresented and the despised. Standing up for the freedom of affluent kulaks, greedy individualists and child rapists are not about desirable ways to justify political incorrectness – they are indeed necessary components of feudal and capitalist societies.
Art for the sake of art is not some unfulfilled remote possibility worth a struggle – it is the status quo in our political economy. The demand to prolong it in the name of “free speech”, where freedom is a byproduct of plutocratic enterprises is a needless lamentation. Most artistic endeavors today are rewarded for gearing towards “entertainment, entertainment, entertainment”; what is perhaps needed is for the politically correct artists to emerge – the ones who according to Ritwik Ghatak have the nature to “bring forth collective feeling…to seek not only to utter the reality but also to learn the cause of it and the remedy of it.” Like Frida Kahlo and Picasso, Guthrie and Seeger, Zinn and Chomsky. Langston Hughes and Neruda. These politically correct figures rooted in struggles for social justice are the marginalized – without a need for corporations and industries to carry forward their works. Yet they are the organisers themselves who have as Robeson once stated, “taken their sides”.
Artists choose their sides through their works. Whether or not they are suppressed, by whom, and for how long – these are not the real questions. The real questions investigate what sides they have taken. Are they using a platform to end religious intolerance or to promote it? Are they using satire to condemn a misogynistic order or to encourage it? Are they glorifying individual liberty at the cost of social equality, or vice versa, in their quest for free speech? Are they refusing to articulate historical privileges of propertied class, or are they exposing the contradictions with a vision to end that culture, instead of perpetuating it in the name of good humor?
Political correctness did not evolve because artists wanted to submit to the whims of some oppressive ruling class; quite the contrary – it emerged out of a need felt by progressive artists to go beyond individualism. It emerged when the duties of an artist prevailed upon the rights. When the idealists turned realists in the face of the “proletarian culture”, which to Lenin was the “result of a natural development of the stores of knowledge which humanity has accumulated under the yoke of capitalist society, landlord society and bureaucratic society.”
Progressive artists are rightfully disdainful of bourgeois art. Even as Robeson and Picasso were themselves victims of censorship and travel restrictions, they were vocally unsympathetic towards reactionary works. The battle of ideologies is a constant where the ruling art form and historical narratives are representative of the ruling order. That point is lost in these times, when bourgeois art is suddenly celebrated as some sort of beacon for human freedom – where liberty and equality are not seen at odds. Thereafter, at the very least, this marketplace of free speech undermines the effects of hate speech and silencing of the religious, racial and sexual minorities.
The advocates of free speech principles employ “pressure valve” argument in justifying the status quo with the assertion that casteists, religious fanatics and misogynists are just blowing off steam that is harmless. It’s a paternalistic justification that overlooks the fact that hate speech indeed harms the minorities more. For instance, rape jokes are not going to make a victim of sexual violence feel empowered because she still has access to that same pool of free speech rights.
“Same pool” argument is also used to project free speech rights as especially beneficial to the minorities – conveniently forgetting that ruling powers do not employ the same set of rules when it comes to the dissenters. For instance, Maoist sympathizers do not enjoy the same level of freedom as do the sympathizers of corporate monopolies – even if it is erroneously assumed for a moment, that both these groups have similar vested interest in exploiting the natural resources of India.
Finally, the argument that more speech is better for democracy rather than regulated speech is also seriously flawed. It is presupposed at the peril of the oppressed that “talking back” will earn them rewards, while that is rarely the realistic scenario. Nonviolent protesters are routinely lathi-charged and imprisoned by the same system that prides itself on right to free speech and expression of the powerful elites.
The censorship argument just as the artistic expressions themselves needs to be politically correct – the position must spring from the point of raised consciousness where the needs of the times – taking into consideration various locations of exploitations and associated struggles for social justice – are well understood and articulated. For the freedom to be equally distributed, the downtrodden should be able to express dissent, while the rights of privileged need to be moderated. What needs to be a matter of concern is not the occasional inconveniences faced by celebrities for being just their usual selves, but what begs an answer is a probe in the Gandhian terms – whether a civilized society passes a test in the degree of protection it affords its most marginalized.