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Pinoy Kasi

Joke only?

I’ve lost count of the times I was contacted by TV and radio people wanting to interview me for my views on the joke cracked by Vice Ganda about rape, which he used as well to make fun of a TV personality.

I’ve declined to be interviewed because I felt a short sound bite would not be adequate to tackle the broader issues around the joke. I would have said the joke was in very bad taste but more than that, it was unethical, it was wrong.

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I’ve been following discussions on the Internet and while most people seem to agree the joke was a bad one, there are others who argue that this is a free country and jokes are part of our freedom of speech. Such comments reflect our narrow interpretations of what’s right and wrong, with heavy dependence on religion and the law. If religious leaders don’t say something’s a sin, then it’s OK. If it’s not illegal, then it’s OK, too. And of course even if it’s a sin, or even if it’s illegal, we’ll find ways around the rules.

Vice Ganda’s gaffe is too serious to allow to pass, so I thought I’d use a column to discuss that controversy using a broader perspective of ethics and culture, which is one of the courses I teach at the university of the Philippines. What I try to do in the course, and what I’ve been doing in many of my columns, is to look at the ethical dilemmas posed by cultural differences. Many accepted cultural norms can in fact be unethical, and should be challenged.

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Norms on teasing

The term “norms” refers to what society defines as “normal.” All cultures include norms on teasing and joking, which are ways to defuse social tensions, and also to help people become more humble about themselves. The cultural cues are powerful, creating a “sense of humor”—what is funny and what is not—with differences from one culture to another.

In the Philippines we can be merciless with the teasing.  Notice how it starts even with nicknames, from fairly mild ones like “Totoy Taba” (Fat Totoy) to questionable ones like “Nognog” (sunog na sunog or “seriously burnt,” to refer to someone’s who dark) and all kinds of other nicknames that single out a physical problem.

People will claim these nicknames are not meant to hurt people; some even argue they are terms of endearment. But norms sometimes have to be challenged when they begin to do harm. When nicknames begin to stigmatize and affect people’s self-esteem, they need to be changed. Sometimes the initiative will have to come from the very ones thus named, telling people, “I don’t like that nickname.”

I can imagine how a statement like that can lead to even more teasing. We have another questionable norm on everyone being fair play (fair prey?) when it comes to jokes, with everyone having to be a good sport about it. Because of another norm, that of pakikisama or trying to maintain smooth interpersonal relationships, we are quick to hurl the term “pikon” (bad sport) at someone who takes offense at a joke or stunt directed against them.

As has been pointed out in many social science studies, pakikisama can be problematic, especially when it allows unethical behavior to continue, all in the name of getting along. What we need is a stronger sense of pakikipagkapwa, a much more difficult term than pakikisama in the way it revolves around a sense of kapwa or mutuality. Pakikisama emphasizes group norms, right or wrong, while  kapwa  focuses on caring for each other’s material and emotional needs.

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Pakikisama spills over into joking. Our comedy bars are notorious for that: When you walk into one, it’s tantamount to signing an agreement to be fair prey for the comedians on stage, who can comment on what you’re wearing, your hairstyle, your name, and just about everything else about you.  Part of pakikisama is for the victim to take the jokes in stride and laugh. Part, too, of pakikisama is for the members of the audience to laugh out loud, even if they feel the joke has gone too far.

It’s sad that so many stand-up comedians are gay men, themselves often the victims of merciless teasing, and yet outdoing everyone else in viciousness about other people’s physical differences… and more. Rape jokes, sometimes with simulations on the stage, have become a staple in the repertoire, and this is very problematic for three reasons. First, it trivializes rape, an act that is actually second only to murder when it comes to heinous brutality. Second, the rape jokes often suggest that people get raped because they “deserved” it or were asking for it. It’s usually women who are objects of the joke, so there is a strong misogynist (antiwomen) element to the bad humor. Finally, many of the rape jokes use rape only as an opening line (pasakalye in Filipino), the real target being individuals with a horrible subtext: You should be grateful if someone rapes you.

Ethical considerations can be quite complicated, as we try to answer questions like “What potential harm will come out of what I do?” and “What good comes out of the action?”  There are other issues like fairness—i.e., can the object of the joke defend himself or herself?

There are also contextual issues: Vice Ganda cracked his joke in front of a huge audience, so the harm is much greater. That is why we have to be careful as well with what we post in the social media and the Internet.

Finally, there are issues of individual rights—for example, the right to privacy, which jokes often violate. Note that even young children will protest when we tell people about something funny they had done, and so I’ve learned to ask them first, “Is it OK if I tell Tita about…?”  Most times, they’ll even reply, “Oh, let me be the one to tell the story,” but there are also other times when they’ll protest and say no. The fancy term for getting people’s permission is “informed consent.”

 

Changing culture

Culture can propagate many negative values, but it can also be a weapon for change, and for promoting ethical behavior. If we were to invoke the value of Joke only?

Pinoy Kasi

By Michael L. Tan

June 7, 2013

Page A15

I’VE LOST count of the times I was contacted by TV and radio people wanting to interview me for my views on the joke cracked by Vice Ganda about rape, which he used as well to make fun of a TV personality.

I’ve declined to be interviewed because I felt a short sound bite would not be adequate to tackle the broader issues around the joke. I would have said the joke was in very bad taste but more than that, it was unethical, it was wrong.

I’ve been following discussions on the Internet and while most people seem to agree the joke was a bad one, there are others who argue that this is a free country and jokes are part of our freedom of speech. Such comments reflect our narrow interpretations of what’s right and wrong, with heavy dependence on religion and the law. If religious leaders don’t say something’s a sin, then it’s OK. If it’s not illegal, then it’s OK, too. And of course even if it’s a sin, or even if it’s illegal, we’ll find ways around the rules.

Vice Ganda’s gaffe is too serious to allow to pass, so I thought I’d use a column to discuss that controversy using a broader perspective of ethics and culture, which is one of the courses I teach at the university of the Philippines. What I try to do in the course, and what I’ve been doing in many of my columns, is to look at the ethical dilemmas posed by cultural differences. Many accepted cultural norms can in fact be unethical, and should be challenged.

Norms on teasing

The term “norms” refers to what society defines as “normal.” All cultures include norms on teasing and joking, which are ways to defuse social tensions, and also to help people become more humble about themselves. The cultural cues are powerful, creating a “sense of humor”—what is funny and what is not—with differences from one culture to another.

In the Philippines we can be merciless with the teasing.  Notice how it starts even with nicknames, from fairly mild ones like “Totoy Taba” (Fat Totoy) to questionable ones like  “Nognog” (sunog  na  sunog  or “seriously burnt,” to refer to someone’s who dark) and all kinds of other nicknames that single out a physical problem.

People will claim these nicknames are not meant to hurt people; some even argue they are terms of endearment. But norms sometimes have to be challenged when they begin to do harm. When nicknames begin to stigmatize and affect people’s self-esteem, they need to be changed. Sometimes the initiative will have to come from the very ones thus named, telling people, “I don’t like that nickname.”

I can imagine how a statement like that can lead to even more teasing. We have another questionable norm on everyone being fair play (fair prey?) when it comes to jokes, with everyone having to be a good sport about it. Because of another norm, that of  pakikisama  or trying to maintain smooth interpersonal relationships, we are quick to hurl the term “pikon” (bad sport) at someone who takes offense at a joke or stunt directed against them.

As has been pointed out in many social science studies,  pakikisama  can be problematic, especially when it allows unethical behavior to continue, all in the name of getting along. What we need is a stronger sense of  pakikipagkapwa, a much more difficult term than  pakikisama  in the way it revolves around a sense of  kapwa  or mutuality.   Pakikisama  emphasizes group norms, right or wrong, while  kapwa  focuses on caring for each other’s material and emotional needs.

Pakikisama  spills over into joking. Our comedy bars are notorious for that: When you walk into one, it’s tantamount to signing an agreement to be fair prey for the comedians on stage, who can comment on what you’re wearing, your hairstyle, your name, and just about everything else about you.  Part of  pakikisama  is for the victim to take the jokes in stride and laugh. Part, too, of  pakikisama  is for the members of the audience to laugh out loud, even if they feel the joke has gone too far.

It’s sad that so many stand-up comedians are gay men, themselves often the victims of merciless teasing, and yet outdoing everyone else in viciousness about other people’s physical differences… and more. Rape jokes, sometimes with simulations on the stage, have become a staple in the repertoire, and this is very problematic for three reasons. First, it trivializes rape, an act that is actually second only to murder when it comes to heinous brutality. Second, the rape jokes often suggest that people get raped because they “deserved” it or were asking for it. It’s usually women who are objects of the joke, so there is a strong misogynist (antiwomen) element to the bad humor. Finally, many of the rape jokes use rape only as an opening line (pasakalye  in Filipino), the real target being individuals with a horrible subtext: You should be grateful if someone rapes you.

Ethical considerations can be quite complicated, as we try to answer questions like “What potential harm will come out of what I do?” and “What good comes out of the action?”  There are other issues like fairness—i.e., can the object of the joke defend himself or herself?

There are also contextual issues: Vice Ganda cracked his joke in front of a huge audience, so the harm is much greater. That is why we have to be careful as well with what we post in the social media and the Internet.

Finally, there are issues of individual rights—for example, the right to privacy, which jokes often violate. Note that even young children will protest when we tell people about something funny they had done, and so I’ve learned to ask them first, “Is it OK if I tell Tita about…?”  Most times, they’ll even reply, “Oh, let me be the one to tell the story,” but there are also other times when they’ll protest and say no. The fancy term for getting people’s permission is “informed consent.”

Changing culture

Culture can propagate many negative values, but it can also be a weapon for change, and for promoting ethical behavior. If we were to invoke the value of  pakikipagkapwa  in relation to rape jokes, we would have to ask, How would you feel if the joke was directed specifically at your mother, sister, wife, or daughter? Think hard about it: Rape jokes are really directed against women in general.

It’s tough fighting the norms, and I sense that it has become worse now with TV shows involving practical jokes. Little practical stunts are somewhat acceptable, but there are other TV shows that actually inflict physical and emotional harm on people. Again the question that we should ask, one which is found in all religious traditions is this: How would we feel if someone did that to us?

Ethics isn’t something you can just teach in classrooms. It’s something we have to weave into our lives. Vice Ganda’s bad joke should be discussed in homes, not to generate more laughter, not merely to condemn Vice Ganda, but to help everyone—young and old—to become more discerning. It’s simple: Bad jokes are bad because they hurt people.

Culture change comes about only if we speak up. If we feel a joke or stunt was hurtful and harmful, speak up about it. We don’t have to be moralistic about it. Appeal instead to people’s sense of compassion, and  pakikipagkapwa-tao.

* * *

E-mail: [email protected]

pakikipagkapwa  in relation to rape jokes, we would have to ask, How would you feel if the joke was directed specifically at your mother, sister, wife, or daughter? Think hard about it: Rape jokes are really directed against women in general.

It’s tough fighting the norms, and I sense that it has become worse now with TV shows involving practical jokes. Little practical stunts are somewhat acceptable, but there are other TV shows that actually inflict physical and emotional harm on people. Again the question that we should ask, one which is found in all religious traditions is this: How would we feel if someone did that to us?

Ethics isn’t something you can just teach in classrooms. It’s something we have to weave into our lives. Vice Ganda’s bad joke should be discussed in homes, not to generate more laughter, not merely to condemn Vice Ganda, but to help everyone—young and old—to become more discerning. It’s simple: Bad jokes are bad because they hurt people.

Culture change comes about only if we speak up. If we feel a joke or stunt was hurtful and harmful, speak up about it. We don’t have to be moralistic about it. Appeal instead to people’s sense of compassion, and pakikipagkapwa-tao.

* * *

E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: Jessica Soho, Rape, sense of humor, vice ganda
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