How we joke about those in power and those who have been rendered powerless makes a lot of difference. While a comic sketch about those in power can be a form of dissent or critique. But jokes about a community or gender punch down on those who have been oppressed.

The internet has made it very easy to call out people on their behavior, views, or actions. One of the best and worst things about being online has become leaving a digital footprint. A tweet you posted a decade ago can resurface and within moments you might find yourself across stories and threads, being torn apart for what you said.

Similar things have happened to comedians. Jokes they made years ago have been brought to the forefront and dissected by netizens. That is probably one of the best things to happen on the internet - not the calling out, but the fact that you can learn more about people than just the façade that they might display to the world.

Earlier this year comedian Neville Shah was called out for his casteist joke in a program aired on Amazon Prime. A clip of his show surfaced online where he commented on his doctor’s incompetence owing to quota admission. Many people criticized the clip.

Demanding Accountability On The Internet

On the internet, you can hold people accountable and demand corrective action from them. Not only can you see what kind of a person they were years ago, but you can also connect with people who might have encountered something problematic they might have done. The #MeToo movement is a great example of this.

AIB boomed in popularity when it started. The group had a large fan following across multiple platforms due to their self-aware, quirky content. This was until the allegations of sexual harassment came up against member Gursimran Khamba. The group is now dissolved but at the same time, several people also called out the sexist and misogynistic jokes members had posted on social media years ago. In the garb of humor stands people’s perspective. An artist’s ideology is always at the center of their art. It is not just a joke, it is a mindset, and often it's a problem that needs to be confronted.

Why Bring Up A Person's Past?

A lot of people are on the other side of this ‘call-out’ culture and rightly so. They ask why should a comedian be called out on something they said years ago? The argument here is that people change and the person’s views might have changed too. Fair argument. But what we forget to talk about is the importance of knowing who a person was before they came to the limelight.

They got away with sexist and misogynistic jokes and are suddenly a clean person without facing any repercussions. Not to forget that the comedy scene in India is heavily dominated by upper caste and privileged people who have made casteist jokes on multiple occasions. People need to be held accountable for their actions and asked to make a conscious and sincere effort to correct those actions.

Demanding Better As An Audience

The audiences of these comedians are also privileged, many belonging to the upper layer that probably never had to even wonder about caste. And so often when they laugh at these problematic jokes, they are laughing because their bigotry is being validated by the comedian’s supposed ‘joke’.

What is important to note is that in an artform where audience reaction is crucial, the content is often made keeping the audience in mind. This means that if you are someone who believes reservation is wrong, you are likely to laugh along to a casteist joke. So the onus also falls on the audience’s shoulder. We must demand that comics be more responsible, which will result in better line-ups and even more representation in the comedy scene.

This is why it is important to have boundaries in comedy. And it is not too much to ask. How we joke about those in power and those who have been rendered powerless makes a lot of difference. When we make a comic sketch about those in power like politicians or the government, the aim of which is to question and criticize their governance, it is a form of dissent or critique. This is a healthy thing to do in a democracy. But when we make jokes about a community or a gender, banking on stereotypes to earn some laughs, what are we trying to do?

Why Punching Down On Marginalised Communities Is A Problem

What we are trying to do is generalize an already marginalized group or gender. Comedian Shubham Gaur was also called out for sexist jokes he posted a few years ago. The comedian had made derogatory comments on women’s bodies, as well as the Muslim community and caste-based reservation. People who sympathize with such jokes often say 'take it like a joke', but what they are saying is, “I want you to have the same oppressor perspective I have”. This is why we need to draw a line in comedy.

You do not get to oppress people as savarnas for centuries and then get to make jokes about it. You pick up the accountability and try to incorporate that into your work. The responsibility of rectifying this falls on upper castes and no, no one will come to teach you about caste in 2021.

Can Everything Be Offensive On The Internet?

Another common idea I have heard people say is, “Everything can be offensive today ya”. Pages post bigoted and misogynist jokes in the veil of “dark humor” and claim that people who can’t take them are sensitive. This is a major issue. Everything is offensive today because it has become easier to hold people accountable now thanks to the internet. The people who abuse their power to punch down on the oppressed are being called out. This isn’t being sensitive, it's change- it's asking the bare minimum of people who have access to so much, including learning about systematic oppression.

I am waiting for days to see mainstream comics making fun of regressive and oppressive structures in society. Humour is a very powerful tool to strip down those in power. Except what it is most often used for is to propagate our own biases. There is a lot of work to be done.

A savarna person cannot forget their privilege overnight. I am one too. But instead of laughing along to that rape joke, that casteist joke, that joke that makes all your friends laugh, stop and ask why you are laughing. A constant process of pausing and reflecting is required to be able to draw lines in humor. Both in the jokes we make and the jokes we laugh along to.

Art is a powerful tool and can bring in a lot of change. When our discourse and politics are trying to be more intersectional and inclusive, it cannot exist by itself, untouched and unscratched. Drawing lines is just scratching the surface, sticking with them will take constant feedback from marginalized communities and personal reflection. Just as a start, let’s try to understand these lines and stick to them.