The joke is on who? You!

The human condition has several things that cause it discomfort. One of these is embarrassment. When people are the subject for that, they react in many ways. Some show anger. Others show a contrite spirit. Some take a chance to laugh at themselves for being sensitive. Some are so hurt that they withdraw from public sight for a while. Other reactions exist.

The person who caused the embarrassment also has a set of reactions. He or she may feel that the objective has been met, and have a sense of satisfaction that someone or something has been ‘brought down a notch’. The person may feel embarrassment, too, if causing embarrassment had not been the intended result; so, we have two sets of embarrassed people, maybe, each saying “I’m sorry…No, I’m sorry.” A range of emotions sits between these two positions.

Mix the two sides of the embarrassment and you have enough emotional roller coastering to keep you busy for months. The cause of the embarrassment might have been a joke. Was it as intended? Did it go wrong?

A few days ago, we had an instance of a senior government minister trying to make a joke about rape, and it did not work. Many people were incensed, and not just women. The ‘joker’ did not see the problem, so dug in his heels. A lady senator was offended and, possibly, embarrassed. Within a day, the minister issued an apology for any offence caused–not for the joke, note.

The public seemed to accept that embarrassment was not in the minister’s nature, so it got the best it could have expected. Is there any remnant of embarrassment with either party? We may have to await their memoirs.

Over the weekend, a prominent academic used her literary skills to throw out an article that was something likely to embarrass those associated with a prominent Jamaican all boys school. She mixed the words ‘old boys desire male sex’. She hit her target on many levels.

I read the article and thought of the Lynne Truss book ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’, and how it made punctuation powerful. It’s an old trick, and word play is great for allowing the writer to have her cake and eat it, too.

Many Jamaicans can only read ‘boys desire male sex’ one way: it must mean homosexuality. Except, it doesn’t have to. Desire is a wonderful word for creating ambiguity: is it lust, or want, or wish? Without explanation, we guess. Right or wrong. Sex, too, is ambiguous in English. Does it mean simply gender–a noun, or is it a verb for a sexual act? Mix them together and watch the pot boil.

I got the impression that the professor of literature was sitting at home, comfortably, on Sunday, giggling as wrath began to pour out towards her. Like playing with fireworks, she had lit the touch paper and the chemicals would explode.

I read the piece early on Sunday morning and thought ‘she went there’. How gullible would people be? Who would take the bait? Well, lots of people, it seemed. The new meter of social commentary, Twitter, was reportedly lighting up. Some had unbridled anger, to the point that they threatened bodily harm. Others saw the joke; some laughed heartily, others tittered, some thought it wasn’t that good as humour. But, who cares about the quality of the joke?

If the professor were a professional comedian I’d imagine she would care that some criticism was centered on the quality of the humour. That’s like people ignoring a rock thrown through a window because it was all jagged not a nice smooth stone. Really!

Even the pros have a bad day. Rory McIlroy won a huge golf tournament thanks to a mishit shot. But, he won. If Roger Federer wins a Grand Slam with the help of a few net cords, he’s still the champion. Cha-Ching! Comedians bomb. Writers have books that flop. Great athletes fail. Life goes on.

I know the professor is no stranger to unpopularity. She may not feel like Dave Chappelle who was heckled off stage last year. She may not feel like an enraged Kanye West, when some in the audience did not want to stand up when he requested that. One was a disabled person. Oops!

I can’t see her getting huffy about the words of the rankled. They can write, too, if they’re so bothered. Inhale. Exhale.

I wondered how people deal with the daily assaults in the papers at the hands of the cartoonists. Do we have a nation of bruised egos, wailing and gnashing their teeth at every slight? Maybe, that’s why our productivity is low.

Dr. Michael Abrahams is making a name for himself as a poker of fun at the high and mighty, and the huffy and puffy. Is he getting away with it because he’s a gynecologist? Keiran King tried to stir up the body languid by hitting cherished subjects where it hurt most–sexual preferences, religion, and more.

I feel for those who fell for the bait. I can sense embarrassment in the outrage. That’s life. The reason the outrage and embarrassment came about was also because of some degree of insensitivity by the school in question. It claims to want to stay true to its constitution and keep its reunion dinner all-male. That seemed to be forgotten when it wanted the then-PM to be its guest speaker in the 1970s. He was such a prize. He wanted his wife to come, too. Deal. Then, in the past two years the school reverted to let women attend. Some felt outrage, and up came the constitutional argument. Up, too, comes the ‘stick with tradition’ argument.

When you don’t want something to happen, pulling up old rules often seems to be a refuge of choice. Jamaica’s full of it, when it wants to be.

Times have changed. Some want to be part of it, some don’t.

How wi fi chat?

I am not going to make any deep analysis, just a few assertions. Most Jamaicans are most comfortable speaking in Patois. It is well understood by most people living in Jamaica, or of Jamaican heritage living abroad. Patois should not be regarded as a second-class citizen to standard English.

Professor Carolyn Cooper is one of the great proponents of Jamaican Patois. I am not going to cite any of her works, because I have not read them, apart from her Gleaner articles. I am a great lover of the works of Louise Bennett, and I have read her works.

If we believe that formal situations (some, at least) demand that we speak English in a way that we think will make it easier for other English-speakers to understand, then we had better become proficient with standard English, in both written and spoken forms.

However, we should not deny the fact that most Jamaicans do not learn standard English at home and cannot have it reinforced by their surroundings. In that sense, it can seem ‘foreign’.

Trying to teach children standard English at school is right, but we need to find a way of not penalizing those who do not succeed in mastering it. By all means, reward those who do master it.

I left Jamaica as a young boy–six years old. I learned standard English at home and at school, and seemed to master it. Everyone around me in Jamaica spoke Patois and I mastered that too. I went to England and had to learn that my ‘funny speech’ was not too different from ‘Cockney’, and I managed to master the latter, too. I can speak well and write well in standard English. I can slide into one or other non-standard forms of English. I enjoy the linguistic gymnastics.

When I meet people in Jamaica, few of them address me in standard English, except in banks, some private firms (like Lime stores) and some government agencies. Everyone else, speaks to me in Patois. I am happy with that.

Some people who speak standard English, speak it very badly in terms of their own understanding of the language. Some cannot form full sentences in standard English; it’s clear, but incomplete. I never have trouble understanding what Jamaicans say to me in Patois.

I think Jamaica needs to take a serious look at other countries where Patois or Creole are spoken and written widely by the natives in those countries and see what lessons can be learned from elevating, not supressing such expression.