I’ve recently asked to unsubscribe myself from a mailing list that was meant to be a forum for discussion about photography. This has saddened me, so let me explain myself.

When it began, I had great hopes that it would be a free-wheeling discussion about things like composition, shutter speeds, exposure, camera kit, comparisons between the various competitive models increasingly on offer on the market, a place where one could buy second-hand stuff, be able to share tips on how to get one’s work sold or exhibited. You get the picture (pardon the pun).

Although very little of the above did happen, at first it began innocently enough, with the “sharing” of great photographs, of the wild, of the deep sea, beautiful canyon gorges, rainbows, etc. Fair enough, I thought; although there rarely if ever was a discussion about the technicalities or aesthetics of picture-taking. Perhaps I was mistaken, but this is what I thought the mailing list was all about.

Then, gradually, insidiously, the “sharing” of jokes began, to the whole mailing list, where the content had not even a tenuous link with photography. There was, I recall, at least one protest about this, but he was quickly silenced for being a spoilsport. In fact, the chronic joke-sender was even complimented by another person on the list, for brightening everyone’s day. I still thought it was inconsiderate to be clogging people’s inboxes in this manner, but I did nothing, in the hope that eventually the forum would veer back towards its raison  d’être.

The jokes continued, in torrents, so I spammed the prolific offender. Still they came, and only recently have they been relegated to my spam folder.

I then dashed off an “unsubscribe” email, but to no avail. I thought, perhaps the moderator was busy, and gave it no further thought.

Then a joke appeared in my inbox. In its actual, original form, it’s pretty tame, harmless and quite funny. Let me reproduce the joke in the form that most of us know it. I’m sure you’ve heard it before: 

A woman was taking a bath when she heard her doorbell ring. 

Who is it?" she said. "Blind man," was the answer.

"I’ll be right there," she said.

Without putting clothes on, she went to the door.

A surprised man said,

"Where do you want these venetian blinds?"

Pretty funny, isn’t it? An unsuspecting woman misunderstands the usage of the word “blind” and gets herself into a rather embarrassing situation as a result.

No allusion here to what faith or persuasion the woman followed. It isn’t central to the joke, or to the punchline.

But the joke sent to the mailing list had a naughty twist. The lone woman taking a bath morphs into four nubile, raunchy Christian nuns! Just in case you didn’t get the picture (this is a photography mailing list, remember?), there were four colour pictures of young Caucasian women in nun’s headdress, but with suggestive come-hither poses, complete with crucifix dangling between widely exposed cleavage while the “nun” helpfully bent over to let the viewer/voyeur cop an even better eyeful.

And the storyline of the joke morphs into the four nuns not just taking a bath, but deciding to do some redecorating of a church, in the raw! In case you didn’t get even this picture (this is a photography mailing list, remember?) there was an additional picture of a nude woman sprawled provocatively over sheets, to clarify the matter beyond any doubt.

What’s the big deal, you might well ask? Surely there have been far raunchier jokes about nuns and priests and bishops; am I such a prude that I cannot take a joke?

So I’ll tell you what the big deal is.

1. It has no relevance to a forum like this in the first place.

2. The pictures do not embellish the joke, but rather work hard to portray nuns and the Christian faith in a poor light.

When I pointed this out, ironically my comment was found to have been in “bad taste”, rather than the “joke” itself. And I got a terse response from the moderator as well,  saying my comment had hurt HER “sentiment”! Doubly ironic that the moderator, herself a woman, should not find pictures of four women (let us for a moment put aside the fact that they are being depicted as nuns) in various states of undress, on a public forum (there are children on this mailing list too) objectionable, but should find my comment unacceptable.

3. No-one dares post jokes such as these about any of the majority faiths either for fear of reprisal, or because they themselves happen to be of that faith. Is it a mere coincidence that the poster of this malicious travesty of an innocent joke, and the one who thought it was a “good one”, and the one who found my comment in “bad taste”, or the moderator who allowed the original “Blind Man and 4 Nuns” post to get onto the mailing list in the first place, were not Christian?

If it’s OK to poke fun at emblems of a religion merely because there’s no fear of a backlash, then that’s cowardice, not humour.  

4. It brings again into focus the whole freedom of expression debate. Yes, everyone should be free to express themselves. It’s a free country. But is it, really? Why then, is this “freedom” selective? Why was M. F. Hussain not given this freedom?

This quasi-pornographic “joke” appeared in my inbox just days after Hussain died and was buried, in exile from the country he loved so much, and whose sanskriti he had so much respect and love for (despite whatever his violent detractors may say). If we are so prickly about nude depictions of deities even though this has been the traditional depiction down the centuries, in temple art and frescos, (the nudity here actually signifying purity, with nothing remotely raunchy about it), why then is a joke about four nuns stripping naked (with pictures “helpfully” added) permissible? Is it because the fear of reprisal is non-existent? No-one is likely to be banished from India for posting a lascivious joke about Christian nuns, are they?

What’s sauce for the goose, ought to be sauce for the gander. Or let’s just do without the sauce. It is the hypocrisy of it all that infuriates me so. The implication that minorities are somehow lesser beings, with fewer rights and sensibilities at worst, and better “sports” who can take a joke, at best.

Yes, I can take a joke. But let humour, and freedom of expression, not be a one-way street.

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