It is possible for something to be comic and tragic at the same time
In the subsequent fallout from the Miss World Bangladesh 2018 fracas, where two women’s answers (or lack thereof) came under much scrutiny and ridicule, Bangladesh (a broad brushstroke) was divided into two kinds of people (two more broad brushstrokes).
In one camp, which one can only assume to be the majority based on the number of memes, videos, and other internet content flooding the newsfeed, were the ones who believed that either these were two really stupid women or that these were two women who had responded rather stupidly, or both.
On the other side of the fence, populated mostly by (from what I have witnessed) the liberal elite (how many brushstrokes will I need?), are the ones who have decried the rather vehement and mean response to these two incidents as, in no particular order, bullying, ignorant, and misogynistic, amongst others.
It was bullying because the general population had been cruel in their treatment of the women in question. They had debased them, made fun of them, had ridiculed their apparent lack of knowledge.
It was ignorant because the response lacked any sort of awareness of the circumstances of these women, whose backgrounds were multifarious and far-reaching, whose respective geo-political contexts had denied them the education necessary to know that the formula for water was H20, or to understand what it means to “wish” for something.
This sort of a response ignores the fact that Bangladesh has a broken education system, and as a result, it is the system’s fault for being unable to imbue these very respectable ladies with the knowledge required to answer these questions.
And, finally, it was misogynistic because … they were women?
While Bangladesh, as a nation, as a whole, is misogynistic and sexist in many, many aspects of its day-to-day existence and systematic bias against the “weaker sex,” from the way women are treated on the streets to their homes, to the amount of sexual harassment, assault, and rape faced by them on a daily basis, in this regard it is difficult to see what has recently happened as being a product of such a mind-set.
If people who had found the incident to be funny would not have found it funny if a man had said the same thing, and if the people responsible for the “vile” attacks gave in to similar levels of hypocrisy, one could perhaps make a claim that misogyny was present in the ensuing outcome. This was obviously not the case.
We have made fun of “stupidity” since time immemorial, from satirical cartoons to the memes we see nowadays. From “Tk 1 lakh in the bank means rich” to “challenging times.”
And while the people of Bangladesh may remain ignorant on various issues, from climate change to women’s rights to even our faulty education system, the response had nothing to do with this ignorance. In fact, it is presumptuous and condescending to assume that people in Bangladesh, from both sides of the spectrum, are unaware of the fact that Bangladesh’s education system is a testament to decrepitude, despite the widespread existence of social media content which addresses issues of question paper leaks, ridiculous textbook material, and experiences within this education system itself.
Furthermore, it is possible to find something funny and amusing while being completely aware of its tragic implications. As Woody Allen famously said, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” And sometimes, it doesn’t take a lot of time either. (Though using Woody Allen might hurt my argument, it also shows how ad hominem attacks can in general derail us from the truth).
When it comes to the issue of bullying, however, we find ourselves on more subjective grounds. Was the subsequent response (which continues, but has pretty much died down) extravagant and mean-spirited in nature? If we were to find ourselves in these contestants’ shoes, would we find the continuous flood of memes and viral advertising cruel and unkind? Would we be able to hand the scrutiny?
Most of us, perhaps, would find it distasteful. But that is the nature of a celebrity culture which is an inevitable by-product of being in the public spotlight. To be in show business, and expect that people will be kind and supportive, in spite of the fact that you’ve provided them with fodder which is invariably humorous to a significant portion of the population, is unreasonable.
It is how things are. What we can argue for, if there is an argument to be made, is that the kind of scrutiny that people face when under the public spotlight is distasteful much of the time, as we saw with members of the Bangladeshi cricket team, but that is a different set of problems, which require a different set of arguments.
One thing we cannot dictate is what is and is not funny. This is not something that people can decide, no matter how sensitive the subject, or how offensive the content. But to argue that those who were responsible for humorous content derived from the Miss World Bangladesh contents, or who, just in general, found their answers funny, are unaware, misogynistic, or ignorant of Bangladesh’s current socio-economic and educational climate, is simply wrong.
Almost all of us “wish” for Bangladesh, because almost all of us want to see Bangladesh improve, and all of us want to live in a country that is better. There’s no reason we can’t laugh hopelessly and wish hopefully at the same time.
SN Rasul is an Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune. Follow him @snrasul.