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On the Loose: Cross Purposes

By January 30, 2019No Comments

Source : The Indian Express

Lessons in etiquette from those in the limelight


It was the ideal, provocative statement to stir up some excitement at the Jaipur Literature Festival on day one itself, when Australian academic and writer Germaine Greer announced, “The penis is the only part of the man I know what to do with.” It was retweeted and talked about, probably, exactly what Greer, who has a history of making incendiary, badly-timed remarks, intended. If an Indian woman had said this, it’s possible there would have been hooligans of the likes of the Karni Sena chucking stones at the gates of Diggi Palace (the venue of the festival) and she would have received rape or nose-chopping threats online. It is worth noting that a few years back, Salman Rushdie had to exit Jaipur hurriedly because the organisers of JLF were concerned his presence could derail the event.

On Twitter, typically, the only thing anybody remembered of her speech was the word “penis”. A smattering of others drew from it the most obvious conclusion; that when men have power they lord it over women and when women do, they use it over men. It is an international pastime to complain about the lack of decorum, courtesy and kindness in modern discourse, exacerbated by Twitter. Yet, speaking one’s mind is considered admirable, even if the adjectives one is applying are, by etiquette standards at least, not fit for public consumption.

There is so much confusion in modern social mores and also a sense of disillusionment, that listening to this kind of crudeness is inescapable, and a way of life. Yet, at another level, it also feels like there is a shift happening. For example, jokes around sex have been a staple in stand-up comedy. Every comic could attest getting a laugh out of an audience is fastest achieved by referencing an awkward sexual situation. An entire generation of American sitcoms like Two and a Half Men or closer home, stand-up artist Radhika Vaz and the erstwhile All India’s Bakchod’s shows have milked this, and with sly innuendo, always flip the script back to sex. Post the MeToo movement there has been a deliberate shift — or maybe comedians will always reflect what they feel people want to hear — but suddenly these jokes no longer resonate. Charlie Sheen now, tragically, makes one cringe. While the world is redefining what it is to be funny, gimmicky statements like Greer’s, made with the single-minded intention of lighting up Google trends, need to be called out too.

Greer was going for shock and awe and relying on the wisdom that the most effective public speakers of our time go by: if you speak with enough panache, nobody can possibly mind what you say. It’s a time-tested clever formula by a seasoned professional who knows Twitter is like an entertaining spectator sport. Throw in a sharp arrow, sit back and watch the conversation explode.

The question is whether the stylised brashness of Greer plays into what a majority of people in India think of the stereotypical feminist, as angry, bitter and marginalised. Like in comedy, it’s time to evolve a dialogue that doesn’t jeer at body parts, not even those of men.

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