Quote of the week

Universal adult suffrage on a common voters roll is one of the foundational values of our entire constitutional order. The achievement of the franchise has historically been important both for the acquisition of the rights of full and effective citizenship by all South Africans regardless of race, and for the accomplishment of an all-embracing nationhood. The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and of personhood. Quite literally, it says that everybody counts. In a country of great disparities of wealth and power it declares that whoever we are, whether rich or poor, exalted or disgraced, we all belong to the same democratic South African nation; that our destinies are intertwined in a single interactive polity.

Justice Albie Sachs
August and Another v Electoral Commission and Others (CCT8/99) [1999] ZACC 3
13 January 2011

On “Spud”, laughter and “political correctness”

Imagine the following scenario. Two decades from now an author writes a book taking an affectionate look at life during the wonderful but crazy days of farm invasions in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. The book, set at a boys boarding school, is then made into a movie and many people — especially supporters of Robert Mugabe and those who yearn for the good old days when whites who stole the land were put in their place — find the movie hilarious. The main character — a young sensitive black pupil entering puberty — is a bit timid, but he gets the (black) girl in the end and everyone can cheer.

There is a scene in the movie where a kind hearted Zanu-PF supporting teacher (played perhaps by an older, slightly washed up, Denzel Washington) chuckles fondly about these crazy whites who cling on to their farms so stubbornly. Why did they not all go back to Britain or Somerset West where they come from? Then he states that he has absolutely nothing against white farm owners or their wives. In fact, he says, he would like to give all those farmer’s wives a good “rogering”. The vast majority of the people in the Harare cinema laughs hysterically at this “joke”.

Let us assume in two decades Zimbabwe is a slightly more sane country, yet the few white farmers and their wives who remain in the country live in fear because every year a few white farmers are killed and a few of their wives are raped by Zanu-PF supporters who yearn for the days when land invasions were officially supported and when good people could still laugh at the stupid whites without the politically correct thought police making a fuss about it.

Of course, neither the book nor the movie would make similar jokes about MDC supporters who used to be tortured and murdered, because now twenty years later the MDC is the majority party in the government.

The same scenario could be imagined about a book and a movie fondly recalling the nineteen seventies in apartheid South Africa, but only, of course, with the white schoolmaster making jokes about “rogering” black domestic workers.

Now I wonder how many of the people who have dismissed the letter of Justice Edwin Cameron in which he objects to the casual homophobia in the movie “Spud”, would have argued that white Zimbabweans (or black South Africans in the other scenario) should get over themselves? How many would have argued that this complaint about the racism in the movie was “politically correctness gone mad”? Maybe there are many principled people out there who would have exactly the same reaction.

But I suspect not.

And why would those who might have complained abut the racism in the movie scenario sketched above be more upset about the racism in my imaginary movies than about the homophobia in “Spud”? One answer would be that they would not find the scenes in my movie funny because they would argue that the movie is racist, that instead of leaving open the possibility of us laughing at racism, the movie actually depicts and endorses that racism by laughing with the racists at the victims of the racism.

But why would they then be perfectly happy to laugh at the homophobia in “Spud”?

In other words, why are so many South Africans prepared to laugh at depictions of homophobia in which the “joke” consists of merely repeating long held and tired beliefs, prejudices and assumptions about the group who forms the but of the “joke” in question? Could it be because the joke is funny to them, not because it is daring, surprising or subversive, but because it is comforting. It reaffirms that their world view — in which lesbians can be “rogered” to make them straight and effeminate gay men can be ridiculed — is still alive and well and that this world view is the dominant one. It comforts them and assures them that they are ok and that they are not prejudiced. It is a kind of comforting and nostalgic laugh about how some things in the world have at least not changed. At least we can still laugh at the moffies.

Does this knee-jerk rejection to Justice Cameron’s letter not reflect an attempt at protecting and safeguarding the prejudices and hatreds of the majority from the so called “politically correct” thought police? And is this reaction to “political correctness” not an attempt to avoid being reminded that being cruel and demeaning to people whom one have always been cruel and demeaning to and who are still raped and murdered in South Africa because they are gay or lesbian is only funny if one endorses the hatred and prejudice which is the cause of so much of the suffering of gays and lesbians who are not as lucky as somebody like myself who are relatively safe from attack and of sufficient status to be mostly left alone?

Now some would argue that this is ridiculous because if we cannot make jokes about someone who happens to be gay or straight, a man or a woman, black or white, what would we laugh about. This is not a good argument. Of course one can make very funny jokes about a gay man or a lesbian. But such a joke will have to surprise or shock or challenge our preconceived ideas or prejudices. Such a joke will at least allow the possibility that we are not merely laughing at the gay man or lesbian, but also, perhaps, at the absurdity of the whole discourse of sexual orientation or the absurdity of the stereotypes that are still so deeply entrenched in our society. Such a joke need not be “kind” to the gay man or lesbian, but it cannot merely describe and endorse the prejudices which every year still lead to the assault, rape and murder of gay men and lesbians.

Now, does this mean that we should ban such jokes? Personally, I would be vehemently opposed to such an approach. This is also not what Justice Cameron had in mind. He did not request that the movie be censored or banned. Unlike a certain City of Cape Town councillor who requested me to delete certain sections of my Blog because it hurt his ego, neither Justice Cameron in his letter, nor myself has ever advocated censorship — even when the feelings or ego’s of a whole group of marginalised and vilified people are deeply affected. If someone wants to make a movie with racist, homophobic or sexist jokes, let them do that.

But let us have a conversation about it. Let those of use who bear the brunt of the racism and homophobia perpetuated in such movies point out our discomfort. Let us hear how the writer of the book or the producer of the movie justifies these scenes. Let us debate the issue and let us not dismiss concerns with heartless and bullying phrases like: “Get over it!” (It is a bit like someone telling a Holocaust survivor reflecting on anti-semitism to: “Just to get over it”. It might shut the other person up but it is not honest and it does not embrace the principle of free speech and robust debate.)

Let us reflect on our own knee-jerk reactions which dismiss as ridiculous any objection to a scene in a book or a movie that makes others uncomfortable or upset them – which we do in an attempt to delegitimise the person and the views he or she is expressing so as never having to confront the easy certainty of your own world view and whatever prejudices might lurk there. And let us — if we feel strongly about it — engage each other and have a real debate.

Why not have a discussion about what makes something funny and what not? Why not ask questions about when a joke can be funny even if it relies on some kind of hurtful or even dangerous stereotype? Why is “The Producers” — a play about a Jewish mogul putting on a musical about Hitler (Springtime for Hitler and Germany / U-boats are sailing once more) — funny, but why would a movie depicting life in Germany during the second World War in which we are invited to laugh at the Jews in Auschwitz who are terrorised by their German guards probably not be funny?

Why do many white and black people laugh at Leon Schuster movies, while they would probably not laugh at a movie in which Nelson Mandela is depicted at a gardener in the household of a rich Afrikaner family?

Laughter can be healing and cathartic. Sometimes it is just mindless fun. Sometimes we squirm with laughter because we are uncomfortable at how shocking or subversive the joke is. But sometimes laughter is dangerously soothing and reassuring (boring mother in law jokes; jokes about how men hate their wives who nag them all day long to mow the lawn; jokes about effeminate gay men) because it tells us that all our prejudices, fears and hatreds are justified and fine, that we are ok, that we never have to reflect on the way we live, what kind of people we are and what our sad and sorry lives have come to.

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