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Casteing your joke

A little controversy undulated online last week. It involved the web payment company PayPal and the Save Tamils Movement (STM), a group of IT professionals campaigning for the human rights of Tamils in Sri Lanka. It was reported in a Chennai-based, journalist-run website, The Weekend Leader.


Illustration/ Jishu Dev Malakar

PayPal's Chennai office decided the theme for their annual celebrations was 'wedding' -- emphasising the idea that employees are married to their work (whyever? Anyway). Six teams were created -- Bannerjees of Bengal, Iyers of Tamil Nadu, Patels of Gujarat, etc. This was in order to reflect the company's diversity.
This led to criticism and protest from the IT professionals of the STM.

I know several people reading this will be puzzled. Protest about what? Sounds like any other silly function.
As STM members pointed out, Bannerjees, Iyers and Patels are all upper castes. By using this team-theme, the company was celebrating the idea of caste, and trivialising the caste inequities and violence that persist in our society. So they should change this.

Some of those who didn't see the problem might also be dismissive. Come on, you'll say. It was obviously just for fun. It wasn't meant as a caste slur. Many who say this, will rarely have really experienced caste, because they're not from what are considered lower castes. That is, they will have experienced the privilege of caste identity and history but might put it down to merit, hard work or luck.

Sure, they don't mean to be upper caste. But they are. What reason would anyone have to doubt a system when they're its beneficiaries? They've every incentive to think that's just how the world is. But the world is made by a world view. When we see that view from the safe windows of our identity and experience -- we see the view but never the window that defines it. Someone outside that house sees that window which limits the view much more clearly.

When such assumptions are pointed out, most people act injured -- they are offended that nefarious meanings are ascribed when their intentions are so innocent! Ah, innocence. It's a fair explanation. But what excuse can we have for clinging to innocence in a world that allows us all the knowledge (and IT) we need to choose to be actively good instead of just passively innocent?

Fine, you didn't realise your joke or statements reflect values and assumptions that offend others, that somehow minimise their experience of our shared realities. It's embarrassing to be caught out. And it's also true that sometimes such critiques and protests are very censorious and self-righteous in tone, when they could try to separate intentions from assumptions from actions, which makes it hard to be open. But one can struggle a little, before giving in to the offense-is-best-defense position.

Some will impatiently exclaim, how can there be humour and fun in the world without some political incorrectness? They are right. Political correctness can be its own kind of Brahminism, turning all humour bland, all observations predictable, and all criticism into tighta**ed scolding. But are clich �d stereotypes the only other option? Both these approaches reveal only a dead imagination. And humour, fun, art, relationships -- these represent the tricks and treats and triumphs of the imagination; of being able to see differently and so, be different.

You know what? Soon after the matter was raised, PayPal issued a statement: they'd wanted to represent the idea of diversity. The criticism made them realise they'd inadvertently done the opposite. So, they're sorry and they'll change the theme. Sometimes it really can be that simple.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction.

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.

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