Obscenity is Contextual


My headline writer and I got into an argument about the headline for this article. He wanted something like “Canadian Comedian Insults the Philippines!” I argued that our audience is not a bunch of shallow sensationalists. They want something worthwhile to think about. He argued that Filipinos are passionate and like getting riled up about insults.

Artisans are like that some times, I agreed. But I want higher standards.

Well, we went round and round until I explained that simply having “Obscenity” in the headline would attract readers like flies to the casserole. He paused, nodded, and we went with my headline.

This blog is occasioned by two recent episodes of comedy gone wrong. One, Filipino comedian Vice Ganda did an unkind rape joke, then a Canadian stand-up lady did an insulting Filipino joke on a BBC show. I’m sure you’ve read the details. The two jokes have been plastered in the headlines for several weeks now.

Well, conservative liberal JoeAm is required to make a stand on these jokes. Are they okay, within the rights of free speech? Or are they not okay, to be banned by common standards of decency? Are rape and race jokes obscene?

The Philippines has several laws dealing with obscenity and its cousin pornography.  The Revised Penal Code Article 201 as amended way back in 1976 under President Marcos says obscenity applies to:

  • (1) Those who shall publicly expound or proclaim doctrines openly contrary to public morals;
  • (2) (a) the authors of obscene literature, published with their knowledge in any form; the editors publishing such literature; and the owners/operators of the establishment selling the same;
  • (b) Those who, in theaters, fairs, cinematographs or any other place, exhibit, indecent or immoral plays, scenes, acts or shows, whether live or in film, which are prescribed by virtue hereof, shall include those which (1) glorify criminals or condone crimes; (2) serve no other purpose but to satisfy the market for violence, lust or pornography; (3) offend any race or religion; (4) tend to abet traffic in and use of prohibited drugs; and (5) are contrary to law, public order, morals, and good customs, established policies, lawful orders, decrees and edicts;

Note (2) (b) (3): “offend any race or religion”. Ms. Ryan’s schtick, if uttered in the Philippines, could easily be considered a crime.

The Penal Code is both strict and rather ill-defined because what constitutes “public morals” can be defined as any autocrat would care to define it. Fortunately, there are no autocrats about and the Philippines handles law enforcement on obscenity pretty much the way other laws are handled. Fundamentally ignored. The “F word” comes blaring out of my radio all day long and lascivious scenes and dialogue infest television shows like so many tse tse flies on a rhino.

In 2008, Republic Act 9775 was passed to explicitly and strictly define pornography as it pertains to acts or images pertaining to children. And the ill-fated Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, put on hold by Supreme Court temporary restraining order, bans on-line explicit sex and child pornography. Cybersex is defined as:

  • The willful engagement, maintenance, control, or operation, directly or indirectly, of any lascivious exhibition of sexual organs or sexual activity, with the aid of a computer system, for favor or consideration.

I suppose a repressive government could define both of our case-study jokes as obscene if they set aside the legal footnote that satire is generally held to be a permissible form of speech.

Let’s consider “extraordinarily tasteless satire” to be a “near obscenity”, the way “near-beer” has no alcohol but looks like beer and is close to tasting like it, too.

Why is obscenity bad? Why is it given more importance than free speech? Because it is morally damaging to the fabric of the community, or nation. It undermines the state of “dignity, safety and kindness for all” that laws protect as a societal safeguard. blah blah blah

So back to our headline, that obscenity is contextual. U.S. laws seem to be more evolved than Philippine laws. In the U.S., obscenity is a variable, defined by time and place and circumstance.

  • Frontal nudity is obscene at 7 in the evening on public television when the kids are watching.
  • Frontal nudity is fine in the movie house or club where “The Full Monte” is showing.
  • George Carlin’s “100 words that can never be said on television” are fine on HBO cable television after 10 in the evening.
  • George’s words are not appropriate on the afternoon kiddie show on public TV.
  • A swearing rant is obscene if you are a school teacher who has dropped a book on her toe.
  • A swearing rant is perfectly fine if you are a soldier and some NPA extortionist gangster is shooting his M-16 your direction.

So time, place and circumstance are important elements of the definition of obscenity. That is patently clear.

Then what about the rape and race jokes? What is our judgement of them?

Satire is permitted. Tasteless is not illegal.

That’s where a third element of our examination comes in. The joke and the joke’s context are the first two.

Element Three is what happens outside the natural context of the joke. In our cases, the natural context for the Ganda joke is an arena full of fans who are there because they appreciate his off-beat sense of humor. The natural context for the Ryan joke is a satiral TV skit surrounded by other outrageous one-liners.

In context, the jokes are not very offensive at all.

But then there is Element Three.

Element Three would include the “agents of information” including the press and, in the modern technological framework, You Tube or Facebook or other media by which the joke is transported beyond its immediate intended audience.

  • So the question is, was Vice Ganda’s joke intended only for his live audience? Or was it intended for a broad, public audience, where it ended up? It ended up on You Tube. How did it get there?
  • And was the Canadian comedian’s joke intended for the front pages of Philippine newspapers, where it would be sure to stir up great animosity. It was a part of a BBC program known for its raunchy comedy. How did it get to the headlines of Philippine newspapers?

YouTube postings of Vice Ganda came from several sources. One was “MartinKNPB’s channel”. There is no information in the “about” section, but this poster seems to specialize on Filipino entertainers. Another was from Anthony Channelable which provides “daily updates of all the latest breaking news & entertainment” from the Philippines. A third came from andre958, a link which connects to “Red Silver outdoor sports”, which has videos of motorcycles and the like, from the Philippines. So it came from ordinary people who recognized the titillation value of the videos. Ganda did not promote the joke outside his intended audience.

The comedy skit involving Canadian Katherin Ryan was run on “Mock the Week” which is a popular BBC show that brags it has “stormed through British politics, the Vatican and Manchester United [football team]” and that “There’ll be the traditional array of hilarious games, running jokes and topical barbs . . .” It was posted directly to YouTube by the BBC. So the BBC was in fact accountable for a creating much broader context for the joke.

The Ryan remark was one one-liner among perhaps 20 from different comedians dealing with what cosmetic companies are likely not to say in promoting their works. The other one-liners were also risque. The humor was clearly intended to be irreverent, funny for being a “slap upside the head” of convention.

The BBC video was met with several postings from Filipinos objecting to the “racist” portrayal. The objections raised the level of awareness of the skit to a scream.

JoeAm’s Read-Out.

What is interesting is the role of YouTube and subsequently the popular press in expanding the audience for the two skits. Visibility of the offenses soared, and were actually promoted, by attention given to them by those who found them objectionable.

YouTube is a popular video medium. Viewing a YouTube clip is a choice, but children can click in. You can search on “naked women” and get naked women. You can search on “sex” and get sex. The presumption is obviously that parents are minding their kids’ computer prowling. YouTube is socially acceptable.

A newspaper headline on the offensive jokes is superbly titillating journalism. It sells newspapers, for sure. Ups television viewership. Can you imagine an editor, becoming aware of such a story, NOT giving it a good blare, with photographs?

So YouTube and the press cannot be held responsible for the flare-up. They are just doing what they do.

Our news these days is quick and lively, modern, as it happens. Electronically plugged in. Incidents such as the these jokes create a phenomenon that might be called the “amplification syndrome”.

This syndrome takes an act that, in its primary setting, may have been modestly tasteless, and modestly offensive, and magnifies the audience that finds it abhorrent. And, of course, both comedians benefit from the notoriety. They are now “edgier”. People want to know what tasteless, titillating surprises are next.

And do you want to know what else is amplified? The disgust, dismay and condemnation of the vile jokes.

People’s concerns about rape victims, and child victims, and race discrimination victims are amplified. Our conscience is amplified. Made a little more sensitive, perhaps.

One can imagine, in the extreme, that if Vice Ganda did not learn from the episode, or if the BBC dids not learn from the episode, people could turn on them. Ganda would become “dirty” like Wowwow Willie is to many. Bookings would drop. Sponsors would drop out.

The overriding trend in modern media is toward more enlightenment and more concern about the well-being of others.

So JoeAm’s conclusion is, “no worries”. Our free society works.

Titillating acts are amplified, but fully checked and balanced by amplified rebuttal.

Enlightenment grows.

28 Responses to “Obscenity is Contextual”
  1. edgar lores says:

    1. My views on obscenity were formed in my teen years when I read D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”. I could not understand why such a literary – albeit titillating – book could be banned.

    1.1. Of course, at that time, the naughty bits were more to my liking than the elegant prose in which they were couched, but I recall that the landmark 1959 decision that lifted the ban on the book established the standard of “redeeming social or literary value” as a defense against obscenity.

    1.2. At that particular time, the standard was that of the community. These were the elements of time and place. To these two, you have added circumstance or context.

    1.3. You interpret context to be in situ, but allow that amplification occurs because of the wonders of technology.

    1.4. Indeed with the Internet, the global village has become the community. With YouTube and other social media, the context is literally taken out of local time and place and stored in virtual space which can be accessed by one and all at any time – providing they have a proper device. Mobile phone, tablet, computer, internet TV, gaming console, Google glass.

    2. Is there redeeming social value in the two events that triggered this post?

    2.1. I was not much interested in either events and did not bother to go into the details. My reaction was “Meh”.

    2.2. As I see it now, both episodes might have been – in your words – “tasteless”.

    2.3. The function of comedy is to make us laugh. It uses several devices to do this trick, but whatever device is used, the ‘trick’ lies in the sudden shift of perspective.

    2.4. The shift of perspective may prick a prejudice or enforce one.

    2.5. I would argue that the shift, irrespective of direction, is ultimately redemptive.

    2.6. How can a joke that enforces a prejudice be redemptive? Very easily, I would say. Whatever extremes of belief you hold, the world will test you. If you fail a test, a bigger test will come your way. Be rest assured. It’s God’s way of joking to bring you to enlightenment.

    • Joe America says:

      Nice bounce off the blog.

      I recall that my whole perspective on the flexibility of social mores was influenced by my very straight-laced Germanic parents on the day that my father sent my brother and I, in our early teens, off to soda bar so that he could go peruse the Playboy magazine.

      Much humor relies on tastelessness to establish the humor, for it is the offense that provides the shock and sometimes the embarrassment that generates the noise and twitching we call laughter. The audience for Ganda’s skit was positively writhing in their chairs, while trying to stifle laughter. Once they left, they may have thought about it, and not liked the joke, but it seemed damn funny at the time.

      From Ian Rankin, “Trip Trap” short story, where Inspector Rebus, who reminds me a lot of you, was investigating a crime.:

      ‘Terrible crash it was. What was the name of the town again?’

      ‘Methil. He’d been working on building a rig there.’

      ‘That’s right,’ said the guide knowledgeably. ‘Pay night it was. They’d been out for a few drinks, like. On their way to the dancing. Next thing . . .’

      ‘Aye, terrible smash it was. The lad in the back seat had to have both legs taken off.’

      Well, thought Rebus. I bet he didn’t go to any more hops. Then he winced, trying to forgive himself for thinking such a thing.

  2. Mariano Renato Pacifico says:

    All people are immoral. We wouldn’t be here in this earth if couples did not do immoral, absolutely dirty, clinically unsanitary, totally not hygeinic acts; 2ndly, 4-letter words and expletives are confined behind closed doors when they come out they wag their tongue on their children for spewing bleeping words; 3rdly nakedness is a sign of purity absence of malice, yet, when I go out naked I get arrested, theefore, Jesus Christ or someone higher than him that made us should also be arrested for indencency; Finally, WE ALL DO IT! STOP THE HYPOCRISY! WE ARE ALL INDESCENT. WE ARE ALL HYPOCRITES WHEN IT COMES TO SEXUALITY.

    When we stand before San Pedro, he will definitely ask about sex. And, absolutely, THEY will all fail. IN THE END, I will end up in heaven by myself and my nemesis, GOD.

    • Mariano Renato Pacifico says:

      Miami won! By a miracle! Their “Filipino” coach must have prayed and prayed to Allah & Jesus Christ and all the God thereabouts like Manny Pacquiao.

    • Joe America says:

      Yes, fallible preachers get a double dose of God’s wrath, I believe. One, because they think or do lurid things. Two, because they preach with such unrelenting piety. The rest of us are just busy being lurid now and then, in complete innocence.

  3. manuel buencamino says:

    Obscenity and humor are contextual. Vice Ganda’s joke was funny. The context was fat people and bold movies. Why rape? Because rape is a traditional ingredient of bold movies. So if a fat woman would become a bold star then it would take a gang to rape her. So it’s not only a fat joke, it’s also lampoons a basic ingredient of bold movies. The Filipino babies joke was also funny. The premise was UNLIKELY lines. Although she could have dropped the Filipino and just said babies without sacrificing the humor in the joke. What made that joke offensive is its racist overtones. Imagine the uproar if she had said nigger babies. Race jokes unless it comes from a member of the minority are not considered funny anymore. Race jokes are considered a form of bullying if coming from a member of the majority. Anyway, both jokes were funny, except to anal retentives

    • Joe America says:

      I am a rehabilitated anal retentive who objected to the rape joke when I thought it was on public television, but retreated from that when I understood it was delivered to a “captured audience” whose attendees had volunteered to hear the outrageous Vice Ganda. I read your comment on it elsewhere that the context was “fat” not rape, which was an element in my rehabilitation. Because I thought a little about context, and taking a joke out of it is just not right. 🙂

      • J says:

        I agree with MB on the Vice Ganda joke. It was funny, since the context was fat and it lampooned common, if not boring, Pinoy movie scenes. At first, when I found that many were offensive, I felt guilty that I found it funny. Then I said, meh! It IS funny. It makes me wonder if the outrage was on the joke’s “rape element”, or on the fact that it involved Jessica Soho, a respected media personality.

        As for the Filipino joke, I didn’t find it funny. Race jokes are not funny; they are offensive precisely for reasons MB enumerated. Having said that, however, Pinoys should also be mindful of their racism. Chinese and Indians, for instance, are always a target of race jokes that nobody seems to mind.

        Finally, I agree with your conclusion that, at the end of the day, free society works. The discourse we have provides checks and balance.

    • Mariano Renato Pacifico says:

      I am against fat joke if I am abroad in 1st world country.

      I am for fat joke if I am in the Philippines. Fat in the Philippines means more food on the table, means more money, therefore, wealthy. In America, fat joke is bad taste because majority of fatsos in America are poor because they cannot afford veggies, goat meat, non-fat milk, and other dietary produce. Fat is poor. Anorexic malnourished skinny look is wealthy.

      As to rape thingie? I am not so sure. Women fantasize about being raped when having intimate carnal activities. Whereas, men prefer women not to succumb to their animal advances.

      Race jokes are common in the Philippines. They cannot know racist jokes until they land their feet in America. Filipinos love white skin, frown on dark skin. Dark skin means hard labor under the sun like construction workers, kargadores and mostly manual labor. Color of the skin is dead giveaway that a person is minimum-wage working proletariat class.

      Filipino jokes are naturally fit for toilet and insensitive.

      • Joe America says:

        I rather think that as the middle class expands, so will waistlines. Mall sit-down restaurants are not exactly stocked with thin people.

        Race jokes are easy, funny and dangerous because they preserve unfortunate stereotypes.

        Filipinos do ridicule very very well, I might add.

      • Attila says:

        In the US jokes about short people is accepted. Some of hat would be very insulting to many Filipinos. This song become an international hit and it is on YouTube:

        • Mariano Renato Pacifico says:

          Nice tune, Atilla. Heard it before. It is a mockery to short people. One saving grace of short people is they are half-off sometimes free on buffet restaurants 🙂

        • Mariano Renato Pacifico says:

          This is a true story. 1st person account. I went to Ralph’s grocery store. Grabbed Jack Daniels Straight Bourbon. One cute little check out girl asked for my Identification. I told her I am old enough to be her father. She said, “it is not that, Sir, I just wanted to know if you qualify for senior citizen discount!” 🙂

      • The Mouse says:

        As regards to skin color, I think the Philippines is like this:

        The whiter, the more fitting for showbiz
        The darker, the more fitting for the PBA or sports….


        • Joe America says:

          I remember some time back writing about “whitening”, that it seems racist to me, where people discriminate against their own color. I was informed that it is merely a “cosmetics” choice. And who am I to argue against rouge or eyeliner or hair coloring or facial scrubs or hair straighteners? Not taking that on, no way, although it is all so SUPERFICIAL. Not to mention expensive. I’d guess vanity is a primary drive of the human kind and it’s best to leave it lie.

  4. cha says:

    If you turn up the volume on the Mock the Week video, you will notice the audience’ mixed reaction to the “Filipino children” line. There was some laughter but also some substabtial oooohs and woooohhs that may convey either shock or disapproval from the Brits who were there.

    It’s the kind of joke that gets mixed reactions, some may find it funny while it can also make others uncomfortable, at the very least.

    I haven’t seen a video of the Vice Ganda comedy show so I don’t really know how the live audience actually reacted on that one, I’ve only really read about it online. What I do know is that I would not want to be the subject of anyone’s fat or rape joke, whatever the context may be. So I’m with Jessica Soho on this one.

    • Joe America says:

      Yes, leveraging someone’s personal pain to get a laugh is pretty low. Not illegal. Just low.

    • edgar lores says:

      1. Something does not quite gel. Why is it okay to tell certain jokes but not rape jokes or fat jokes or racist jokes?

      2. To a certain extent, all jokes about people target a ‘class’ of people or the ‘type’ of an individual. The class/type may be race, gender, creed, or a certain attribute. People jokes are by nature discriminatory, even the so-called clean ones.

      3. To say that people jokes are permissible in context would be to reason that black people jokes, white people jokes, Jew people jokes, blonde jokes, etc. are permissible in a certain context of time, place, teller and audience. A fat man telling a fat joke is funny, perhaps doubly so because he his laughing at himself. A Negro telling a Negro joke is funny when he is among friends – or even before an all-white audience – because of the awareness that he part of the butt.

      4. But if you concede that discrimination is acceptable within certain circumstances, you justify that discrimination – which is prejudice – firstly within yourself and secondly within a select group of like-minded people.

      4.1. Discrimination has far-reaching effects. It divides people and violates the first rule of ethics which is not to cause harm.

      4.1. The moment you tell a people joke or the moment you hear a people joke and laugh is a moment of discrimination, of ethical impurity.

      5. To a certain extent, motivation or intention comes into it. A fat man telling a fat joke is funny because he is not being discriminatory. Well, he is, but he is not being truly hurtful.

      5.1. Perhaps the reason people look askance at racist and sexist jokes is because of the weight of history. Irish jokes are okay, but not anti-Semitic or black people jokes. Blonde jokes are okay, but not “women as sex objects” jokes.

      6. Therefore, the preliminary conclusion is that for mankind to be ethically pure all discriminatory jokes must be banned. They do not constitute Right Speech.

      6.1. Yes, even animal jokes. No more “why did the chicken cross the road” jokes. From the Buddhist viewpoint, these would be discriminatory of fellow life forms as well, and all life is sacred. Man is not superior to the chicken. If anyone argues he is, then it is perfectly defensible to say that sharks and crocodiles are superior to man.

      6.2. This would leave only ‘play on word” jokes as acceptable(?)

      7. But a world with jokes, without laughter, is a sad world. Repeat: sad, sad world. And laughter is healing.

      7.1. And which has greater value – freedom of speech or freedom from discrimination?

      7.2. Therefore, final conclusion, if one discriminatory joke is permissible then all jokes must be permissible. Whether in or out of context because demonstrably context cannot be controlled. And because you cannot be certain about motivation. And because, as I said before, jokes are ultimately enlightening.

      8. NB. I’m just analyzing our thought processes and trying to point out inconsistencies. All conclusions are tentative. My Buddhist leanings lean towards Right Speech, but my libertarian leanings lean to Freedom of Speech. I am a man divided by and among my many selves.

      • Joe America says:

        If you shoot one or two of your selves, maybe you will find everlasting peace. (That’s a joke.)

        Very interesting circular analysis, and it was amusing to see you run into yourself at the end. I hold to the “principle of grays”, that for every black, there is a white, and for every white, there is a black, and we need to individually and societally find the least harmful, but most fun, shading. I hope Cha responds to your analysis.

  5. Mariano Renato Pacifico says:

    Here are FAMOUS FILIPINOS that do not look like FILIPINO. The dude that post these amalgam of famous Filpinos prefers, obviously, non-Filipino indigenous looks.

    • Mariano Renato Pacifico says:

      DEFINITELY ABSOLUTELY NOT FILIPINO LOOKERS. My face can never end up in this clip. Filipinos DISCRIMINATE THEIR OWN!!!!

      • Mariano Renato Pacifico says:

        So, people! Do not blame me for not being proud pinoy. Because these are the looks being promoted by la Salle, Ateneo and U.P. journalists claiming to be “nationalist” and “patriotic”.

        • Joe America says:

          It is amusing. Filipinos of mixed blood, from Jose Rizal to Jessica Sanchez, probably look like what Americans will look like 200 years from now. I have stopped noticing how people look unless they are gorgeous, which seems to not depend on color or even shape, but how they are aesthetically put together. And to that point, some artists like cubes and others haystacks, so it is all worth a big shrug to me.

      • Attila says:

        I relied that on the first day on my very first trip to the Philippines. It was surreal. I thought I was in the wrong country: people were shorter, darker and more Malay looking than in the movies and Filipinos general in New York.

  6. Mariano Renato Pacifico says:

    Cebu, Philippines is the WORLD’s most affordable city to retire. Bisdak ought to be proud.


    • Joe America says:

      What the article says applies to just about anywhere in the Philippines, outside of Manila.

      “Cebu, a developed province in the Philippines, has some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world: narrow coastlines with bright blue waters and limestone plateaus offset by rolling hills and rugged mountains.

      Cebu is home to Mactan-Cebu International Airport, from which it is easy for retirees to fly back to U.S. And Mactan-Cebu makes it just as easy for family and friends to fly in for a visit. The cost of living here is extremely low, so your dollar goes four times as far. To top it off, the Philippines offers generous residency visas for retirees.”

      Actually, an American retiree who is drawing social security can fund his living by having kids because the kids get benefits, too. 18 years worth. I could live off my kid’s SS benefits if I were a scurrilous rat who did not care about Junior’s education.

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