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OPINION: Why you mad, though?

'Tswanas are stingy. Xhosas are duplicitous. Sothos swear too much. Zulus are violent…Indians are cunning and love the Golf GTi. Coloureds don't like school but love the bottle. Boers are thick…Jews are money grubbers…'

Thus begins Mondli Makhanya's piece, published in last week's City Press. A litany of stereotypes that he declares 'are the staple of jokes that we tell about and to each other'. Commenting on the response to last week's now infamous BIC advert, he remarks that 'humour is coming under attack from what some have labelled the tyranny of political correctness'.

The message is clear: "Why you mad, though?" It's just a joke. There is no harm done.

Many have pointed out why it was not just simply 'a pathetic advert' drawing on Steve Harvey's 'Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man' rhetoric, or mundane, and why anger is important and productive.

The greater point in this instance, is about the ways in which we tell people what to be outraged and offended by, and what to find funny, and how we decide that things are harmless. It is the way we let certain things slide when we deem them unworthy of critique or introspection, and prescribe how people should respond to them.

Makhanya goes on to state: 'The politically correct fascists in our midst had many other objections, though. They told us that the advert was sexist, condescending, patronising and demeaning towards women. In the age of social media, these fascists have gained a great deal of power. While the rest of us are getting on with life, they are busy looking for opportunities to kill the joy.'

But as Mvelase Peppeta comments in a brilliant rebuttal: '…from gay people being unnatural to women being unfit for the workforce, history is littered with countless stereotypes that society at one time saw as normal, but it today rejects. Where Makhanya failed is not realising that what he has always thought of as normal and acceptable may not be so.'

The point that Peppeta makes is key. What we deem 'normal and acceptable' are not just natural. They are informed by our worldviews, they are shaped by positions of power and privilege that allow us to determine and decide what passes and what is unacceptable to us.

Whether the BIC advert was meant to be funny or not (I would posit it was rather meant to be part of the 'inspirational' messaging aimed at Women's Month) is irrelevant to the point that what is funny is political, not neutral or unable to be a site and source of harm.

Some things are only funny or acceptable when they are not aimed directly at you, or when you occupy a position of privilege that enables you to simply brush these things off, not think about their implications and replication in the world, and laugh at those Othered by the joke. They become irrelevant to you, and are thus considered irrelevant to all.

But what makes something funny is important. The kind of thinking that is a conduit for that laughter matters. Certain dangerous, damaging and problematic ways of thinking reproduce themselves in these 'jokes'. To point these out, is not simply to attempt to kill the joy, but rather to interrogate their roots. As a society, we are grappling with what it means to be truly free, equal and just, and exploring how our ways of thinking and speaking reflects how we see people and what we reduce them to.

It is not about killing 'the joy' but questioning how such joy is rooted in the denigration of certain people, and aspects of their identity and experience.

To quote Sisonke Msimang's brilliant Ruth First Lecture, commenting on the incident of blackface at Pretoria University: "Why do fun and carefree moments of white youthfulness so often involve mocking and denigrating black people". The same applies to gender, and how masculinities operate in 'jokes' that denigrate different kinds of femininities, and many other instances where unequal power relations underpin our fun moments and jokes.

Often, we have to question 'who are we laughing at?' and 'why are we, specifically, laughing at them?'. Is that joy, at all, or rather simply an oppressive ideology that takes aim and fires at everything besides itself? And even when those in positions of power do and are able to laugh at themselves, the power dynamics at play are different - where privilege is not the position that enables and makes possible the laughter. We need to ask ourselves, at whose expense is this joy?

Comedy, like all things, does not happen in a vacuum, disconnected from the world that it is drawn from.

Comedy is also about power, it informs who we think is funny, who we laugh at, and who is above the fray. Some people are tired of being perpetual punchlines, the butt of endless jokes, and always meant to laugh at the violence being aimed directly at them.

Racially-rooted comedy has increasingly become our country's comedic centrepiece, sometimes used as a powerful tool of subversion, to explore and expose issues, and introspect about important social and political, speaking truth to power.

People like physical comedy specialist Andrew Buckland, Italian actor-playwright and comedian Dario Fo, Chris Rock, Loyiso Gola and numerous others, frequently use humour to shine a light on the world around us - often implicating themselves in this politics and being self-reflexive within this. Laughter and humour are beautiful and brilliant expressions and aspects of who we are - which does not mean that they don't sometimes have darker undersides.

We can and should interrogate the state and limits of political correctness, particularly in an internet age, but not from a place of dismissal and disregard of people's concerns and discontents.

Makhanya states, "A healthy society, we should allow ourselves to breathe easier". Some of us though, can't breathe as easily in this "healthy society", where sexism, racism, classism and other social-ills are pervasive - touching all things, and even what is perceived as a simply advert that should be laughed-off.

The presumption that we live in "healthy societies" needs to be challenged - societies with pervasive inequalities and where systems of power create predominant disparities are not simply healthy, as Gugulethu Mhlungu points out. Part of pointing these things out is an attempt to create a truly healthy society, in which structural imbalances do not affect and impact everything.

A healthy society, then, also invites critique and interrogates itself, and is unafraid of rooting out the things that it cannot contain. The back and forth involved in calling things out is what creates this healthy society and shapes it, what makes it possible and not what prevents or challenges it..

What is perceived as the "tyranny of political correctness" is often, rather, an attempt to take seriously the task of interrogating, investigating, introspecting and considering the things that challenge our freedom, equality and justice, and leave us wondering "who is this perceived healthy society, then, for, and who is it against?" Who, fundamentally, are we laughing at, and why?

Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler