Making sense of offence

Women in Los Angeles march behind a banner to mark International Women's Day

The absence of ill will does not turn a joke made in bad taste palatable.

WHILE there is much to celebrate this International Women’s Day – for one, Malaysia came ahead of Hong Kong and Singapore with regard to the number of women in senior level management – I found little delight in some gaffes that flooded my Facebook timeline.

One incident involved a local private university, which earned the ire of netizens after posting a short-sighted greeting on their Facebook page on the day.

It told women to “look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, work like a boss.”

The resulting firestorm was a sight to behold, and the social media manager’s attempt to explain that the words came from a book by American comedian Steve Harvey did little to quell it.

While the institution later removed the post and apologised for the move – going so far as to donate RM10,000 to the UNHCR Refugee Welfare Fund in aid of women refugees in Malaysia – the damage had already been done.

Still, one public personality could take a leaf from their book when it comes to damage control.

Singer Vince Chong raised many an eyebrow when he posted a cartoon of two people in a car.

It pictured a smug-faced man behind the wheel, while a woman in the passenger seat is silenced with a seatbelt strapped across her mouth.

The punchline?  “New seatbelt design – 45% less accidents!”

In his caption, Chong wrote: “Not sure where my aunt found this T-shirt but … LOL … Happy women's day... Hahah #lol #9gag”.

That did not sit well with many Instagram users, and the first to call him out was one @nanawrote who posted: “Seriously? A sexist joke that perpetuates the stereotype on Women’s Day?”.

As one friend said, the move is akin to posting a picture mocking Indians while issuing a Deepavali greeting in the same breath.

Careless, thoughtless and tactless.

The post drew even more criticism when it came to light that Chong was involved as a director in Ikal Mayang, a series of short films celebrating women.

The brouhaha also turned into a family affair when his kin jumped into the fray, with his mother stating her sorrow that “some people can not have a laugh”, while his sister, Vanessa Chong, said the truly empowered would not “be so sensitive”.

Another vocal supporter was his brother, Sean Chong, who resorted to name-calling to defend the entertainer.

He termed user @amuse_guele a thick-skulled “ding dong”, and those who pointed out the sexist post as “morons”. The word “feminist” was also lobbied against some others, as if it were a tag to be borne in shame.

Chong replied to commenters several times, partly to iterate his role as a loving husband, son, and brother in the lives of many women, and mostly to lambast his critics.

He has since admitted that the post was “bad timing”, and shared that he never meant to offend or belittle women.

Chong, however, said nothing to suggest that the joke was also in bad taste.

But given the average netizen’s attention span, this issue might have died down quickly enough, once everyone had said their piece on the matter.

Unfortunately, the public personality seemed unrepentant and served to further fuel the flames by sharing a captioned image via his Instagram page on Thursday.

In the picture, he pulled a displeased face while two women gossiped behind him: “I can sense women talking behind my back. #9gag #pun #literally #learntolaugh #lame”.

The post was odd considering the backlash he’d received hadn’t come from women alone, a fact pointed out by user @dreghren.

Performing arts centre @kakiseni said: “Perhaps if #learntolaugh is more a demand than an invitation, the joke fell flat.”

User @nanawrote urged Chong to distance himself from thinking he’s a defender of women’s rights, and congratulated him on proving that the first controversial post was not unintentionally sexist: “A joke punches up, not down.”

To me, it is clear that Chong’s intent was to simply share a joke that he found funny.

However, a lack of ill will does not necessarily make something a joke.

While no one can doubt that his loved ones find him a positive presence, Chong is a public figure, and he does not operate in a vacuum.

Though he is not short of defenders, their acceptance of the stereotype perpetuated by the image does not negate or nullify the offence that others feel.

Jokes are not just jokes. What he endorses as humorous is an actual lived experience for any number of women who continue to be silenced in their daily lives.

Similarly, it does not matter what one’s intent is – it is the result.

No matter how surprised Chong may be at the negative feedback his post has received, it is clear that he cannot dictate how others choose to react to his jape.

If many have taken offence and have articulated why it rubs them wrong, it is Chong’s responsibility to examine how his actions have caused them grief and execute the necessary remedial measures.

One thing’s for sure – it certainly should not be in the form of any more poorly made jokes hashtagged #learntolaugh.

>The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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International Women's Day


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