Africa / Women

Just Joking

Did you hear the one about the Zulu president of Russia? Well, there were three beautiful women who decided to …

Well, first let me tell you about this article I read the past Monday in the Cape Times newspaper, a regional daily published in Cape Town, South Africa.

The article stuck in my head from the moment I finished reading. But since I had just had a wonderful glass of Spier Shiraz, I settled on caution, in case it was the effects of the fermented grape that rendered it easy on the brain.

Well, I have been thinking of it off and on since; so, no, it had nothing to do with the red, red wine. Among the resonant arguments the articles makes is this:

…those whose prejudices, irrational beliefs, interests and assumptions form the basis for how the world is structured and how knowledge is produced and legitimated, often hold immense sway in society. Because of this dominance they often manage to control the discourse and to make their own prejudices, irrational beliefs, interests and assumptions appear normal and inevitable.

I could have written that, s’true. But, no, it wasn’t me. And maybe that’s the reason I agreed with the author because there is no doubt in mind that might, even if it is totally mad and idiotic, is always right. Until it decides that it was mad to believe what it said in the first place. I work in the knowledge business, I should know. What goes for science – physical, medical, social or any other kind – is often a big joke. That’s why we built the ivory tower so that the rest of the barbarians down at the gates will never know the truth.

The joke-knowledge can be played on all of us for a hundred years before someone comes along and says, ‘uhm, excuse me, what you have been calling knowledge for a hundred is rubbish: the world is not flat’.

And yet, it isn’t just anyone who comes along and says the world is round that is going to be believed. For that, you need power or powerful supporters. You need a voice that can be heard. You need to be inside power already. Michel Foucault, the famous French philosopher known for such unreadable books as The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge, called it ‘power-knowledge’, or something. Do you remember the one about incontrovertible evidence weapons of mass destruction?  What about black human-like creatures occupying the interior of Afrique who had smaller brains and big penises? And of the great scientists who said women had travelling uteruses? How funny is that!

But it turns out Pierre de Vos’ article was first published on his blog, Constitutionally Speaking. The article was not on power per se. It was on some of the unhappy, indeed sexist, or racist, or homophobic, or other jingoistic uses of jokes. It was, that is, the power to make jokes. The power to decide what is and what isn’t a joke.

Professor de Vos was responding to something that the Cape Times had published some days earlier. I did not see the original article to which his article was responding. And I guess one should commend the Cape Time for giving space to an article first published elsewhere that was critical of the newspaper itself.

And yet, all the above said, it wasn’t any one particular thing that the blogger said. Or maybe it was more than one thing, and among these are sentiments such as this one he concludes with:

A first step in challenge (sic) this insidious working of patriarchal power is to unmask it, even at the risk of being called humourless by those who wish to protect their own power.

I have said quite a bit already. I should let you read the article yourself.

But here are a few of questions. Is a sexist joke really funny? Is it a joke if camouflages racial bigotry? Is it humour if its hurts?

I think I have a great a sense of humour. I like horsing around. But maybe, maybe I am just an insider. Makes you think.


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