Letters from the Editors Column

Jailed for (Not) Making a Joke: My Two Cents on Cancel Culture

by Mallika Goel

The first day of a new year should always be a day  of hope, especially  when the previous year was 2020. However, for countless Indians, the day ended up being a harsh reality check about the precarious  position of freedom of speech in India, when stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui was jailed for a joke he did not make.

On a seemingly regular evening, Faruqui was set  to perform at a café in the city of Indore, in India. According to reports, before he could even begin his set, a man forced himself onto the stage and accused him of offending  Hindu sentiments. The man  was referring to a Youtube video that Faruqui  had uploaded on his channel in April 2020 which featured a joke that referenced Ram, a widely-worshipped Hindu deity.

Faruqui attempted to reason with the heckler, emphasising that as a Muslim, he had made many more jokes about his own community than he ever had about Hindus. He also expressed regret over that particular video, which he had long since taken down following a barrage of online trolls – some of whom had sent him death threats.

Gradually, it seemed like the intruder was placated and he made his way down from the stage. There were cries of “We are with you, Munawar!” from the audience. The situation seemed under control. Then, the police showed up and arrested Faruqui.

It turned out that the intruder, who was later identified as the son of a politician from the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), had reported him to the police. Faruqui was charged, among other things, with ‘making indecent remarks and outraging religious feelings’.  He faced up to four years in prison.

A few days later, a police officer admitted that there was no evidence of Faruqui making any religiously pointed remarks during the show, a statement which  was further corroborated by multiple eye witness testimonies. However, the superintendent of police simply stated that “it doesn’t matter” and that Faruqui had an “intent to offend” based on his previous videos.

After just over a month, Faruqui was finally released from jail, on order of the Supreme Court, which described the allegations against him as ‘vague’ and asserted that the police had not followed due procedure.

For a lot of people reading this, especially those from more ‘developed’ countries, this whole circumstance may not seem very relatable. However, I invite you to reflect on whether  this is an extreme manifestation of a phenomenon that you are probably familiar with, or perhaps have even partaken in – ‘cancel culture’. In recent years, especially with the rise of social media, the idea that a person can be ‘canceled’ or culturally ostracised has become increasingly prevalent. A public figure does something perceived to be offensive, public backlash ensues, and there are calls for that person to be ‘cancelled’.  

In Faruqui’s case, the people who decided to ‘cancel’ him had the political clout to bring about very real consequences on both his  career and his personal life. However, the underlying principle of blocking out voices one does not agree with, instead of engaging in a respectful conversation, remains the same. In fact, upon Faruqui’s release, he put out a video, expressing his belief that he spent over a month in jail because the world today is driven by internet-fuelled hate and not because he allegedly cracked indecent jokes.

With a haste to ‘cancel’, it is often easy to forget that there is a real person behind the persona. Is it fair to reduce the entirety of someone’s being to one questionable thing they’ve said? Granted, public figures need to use their voice responsibly as they have a wide reach and significant influence. But is it reasonable to first put them on a pedestal, only to subsequently discard them as soon as they reveal an imperfection? With everyone coming from different backgrounds, and having lived different experiences, there are bound to be differences in perspectives. It’s true that in some cases, these individuals can cross lines and cause harm to others. Even then, what do we actually achieve by cancelling them? Are we actually bringing about change, or just making ourselves feel better in the complacency that we have at least done something about it?

There has to be a better way of bringing about change than naming and shaming others. If that is indeed our aim, then instead of punishing others, the focus should be on understanding where they are coming from and trying to have a rational discussion with them. This would take a lot more effort than tweeting #cancelxyz, but I think it is worth it. Maybe they’ll change their mind, maybe they won’t. But if they do, it would be genuine, and not borne out of fear of social boycott. People deserve a chance to learn and grow, which is something that cancelling them won’t achieve.

The world is a really messy place, and I think it is important to resist the temptation to put people in neatly defined black-and-white boxes. With increasing polarisation, especially on social media, it is all the more important to engage in difficult conversations with people one does not agree with, in order to avoid being caught in an echo chamber of one’s own opinions, and mistaking that chamber for the whole world.

Photo by Brian J. Matis on Flickr

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