Laughter in cyberspace

By Irfan Husain

(Dawn 01/08/09)

One of the job requirements of a politician is sharp elbows. Another is a thick skin. So I suppose a sense of humour would be asking for too much.

The recent — and I hope stillborn — attempt to curb text messages and emails mocking our president is yet another reminder of our inability to take a joke when it is directed at us. Indeed, as a people, we Pakistanis lack the ability to laugh at ourselves. So wishing for a presidential sense of humour in our solemn environment is expecting a lot.

And yet I can sympathise with Mr Asif Zardari. Long before he moved into the presidency, he was the subject of scores of emails in which he was both villain and buffoon. After his elevation, these barbs became crueller and more numerous. Even when he succeeded in stabilising the situation to a large degree, he was still lampooned by his many detractors.

If it’s any comfort to Mr Zardari, he should know that the attacks he faces are pinpricks compared to the vicious barrage of criticism Gordon Brown has to put up with. Cartoons ranging from the grotesque to the vulgar feature in dailies across the political spectrum. Stand-up comics make him the butt of their jokes as a routine part of their acts. Recently, it was reported that Jeremy Clarkson, the TV presenter, used a four-letter obscenity (not the one beginning with ‘f’) to describe the prime minister while on a BBC set.

A fact of life politicians in developed democracies have to put up with every day is that mockery is something that cannot be avoided. Skilled politicians like Barack Obama often use humour to deflect criticism. Revealingly, the legislation Interior Minister Rehman Malik wished to introduce was aimed at text messages and emails. The traditional media like newspapers, TV and radio can be controlled by various regulatory bodies — to say nothing about a squeeze on advertising. But the new media is less amenable to traditional arm-twisting.

However, as the Iranian authorities are discovering, curbing what is said in cyberspace is technically quite difficult. Even where filters are placed, it is easy to circumvent them. And given the millions of SMS messages bouncing around in the ether at any given time, the medium is impossible to regulate short of shutting down cellphones altogether.

Some 30 years ago, Zia exercised total censorship over the press, and the electronic media was owned by the state. Of course, the Internet and mobile telephony did not exist in those benighted days. To vent their anger against the hated dictator, people passed on the latest anti-Zia joke by word of mouth. One I recall clearly went like this.

Wanting to find out how ordinary Pakistanis felt, Zia went out in an unmarked car without the usual escort. On seeing a long queue, he got out and joined it. The man ahead of him looked back, saw Zia, and left the queue. This happened again and again until he had reached the window where people had been queuing.

Leaning forward, he asked the official at the counter what the people had been waiting for, and why they had all left on seeing him. The man replied that he was collecting applications for passports, and when those ahead of him saw Zia, they assumed he wanted to leave the country too, so there was no longer any need for them to go abroad.

Needless to say, far more scabrous jokes did the rounds, but the point is that they were not particularly Pakistani: many of them had been adapted from other dictatorships. A French book of political jokes (Le communisme est-il soluble dans l’alcool?) about East Europe contained many of the anti-Zia jokes I heard in those repressive days.

While these jokes may have allowed us to vent our spleen against an evil dictator, he was totally unaffected by them. Had he not been abruptly recalled by his Maker through a fortuitous and mysterious plane crash, he might still have been around. As the childhood chant goes: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.’ No matter how vicious, at the end of the day, jokes are just that: words. Their power lies in their ability to wound, but if their target seems immune, they cease having any effect. This is where a thick skin comes in handy.

Sensitive people who reveal they have been hurt attract even more attacks. The best defence against barbs is to ignore them. I know this is not always easy, especially when the criticism is unfair, but as the old saying goes: ‘If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.’ Valid and unfair attacks go hand in hand with political power.

A couple of years ago, Musharraf expelled three Daily Telegraph correspondents from Pakistan because of a less than respectful reference to the general in an editorial the newspaper had published. Had Musharraf’s media team understood the context of the reference in the Telegraph, they might have avoided looking foolish.

Whenever politicians try to clamp down on criticism, they end up looking silly. As Mark Lawson wrote recently in the Guardian: ‘By taking offence at jests, President Zardari has made himself a laughing stock. A man who tried to weaken political humour has demonstrated its strength. As the touchy John Major said, in a different context, if it’s hurting, it’s working. Skilled politicians know that the smart move is to join in the jokes, no matter how much they sting.’

In Pakistan’s feudal and tribal culture, any loss of face demands instant retribution. But the dictates of democracy call for tolerance of other, diametrically opposite, points of view. Often, opposition takes the form of laughter and dissent assumes the shape of jokes. These are the signs of a vibrant democracy. Mr Zardari would be better off learning to laugh at the jokes, even when directed at him, rather than try and legislate them away.

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