by Mike Ekunno
In the aftermath of Muhammad Ali’s passing there’s bound to be a blast of emissions that befits the passage of the comet that he was. One of the pieces of debris from his remarkable life that interests me for its contrast with present day conditions is his penchant for verbal abuse of his opponents.
The late “Smoking” Joe Frazier was a major recipient of these slurs. Ali pointedly called him a gorilla and promised to donate him back to the zoo after beating him in the ring. He further formed a catchy alliteration when they both fought in The Philippines – Gorilla in Manila.
In contrast to the indulging of Mohammad Ali’s slurs, today, the world is experiencing a peculiar over-sensitivity and self-consciousness with jibes be they racial, sexist, or homophobic. These have joined the age-old default slur – the anti-Semitic. Today, virtually every challenged group can claim feeling verbally abused just by your making any reference to them whether complimentary or critical.
These include the laterally-challenged or fat, transgender, homosexual and black. Serena Williams would whine over an umpire’s banter suggesting she was thick-set, but goes ahead to twerk seductively on Instagram. Western society has managed to develop very low tolerance for these otherwise lighthearted banters and exacts full vengeance for them by way of sacking the culprits, social ostracism, stigmatisation, loss of sponsorship and loud media censures.
In this process of smashing an ant with a sledgehammer, it is people of mettle that have borne the brunt. Geniuses have been forced to become social outcasts and abandon valuable works just because of so-called sexist or racist quips.
Sir Richard Timothy Hunt, a Nobel Laureate in Science has been one of the recent casualties. In 2015, he spoke in South Korea about his “trouble with girls.” “Three things happen in the lab,” he said, “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry.” This harmless jibe unleashed a feminist backlash leading the respected scientist to resign from the University College, London and the Award Committee of the Royal Society.
Before Tim Hunt, another Nobel Laureate whose work unraveled the DNA, Dr James Watson, was forced in 2007 to retire from his position into penury for saying that Africans were mentally inferior to the White race. According to him, “All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.”
The world that bayed for Dr Watson’s blood for his “racist” comments would be shocked to know that among African ethnic groups, the same sentiments hold sway with the Igbo of Nigeria being regarded in admiration or resentment as smart. How is it that the same race whom the rest of the world is so concerned about not offending by the science of Eugenics manages to apply the same sentiments internally?
Also, if it is offensive to affirm that the Caucasian race is mentally superior, why is it not offensive to affirm that speed is black? The starting line-up in the sprints at most global athletic meets is an all-black affair just as the Nobel in Science is mostly a Caucasian affair.
Set against Ali’s, what the two Nobel laureates said would sound like flatteries. This makes you wonder why he got away with the verbal equivalent of treason. Was it that the world then hadn’t woken up to offensive speech? Or it had not become “civilised”? Or the world could not care less about Black-on-Black slur? Not that one would wish for jesting to cause outrage, but if Ali’s jibes were transposed to 2016, there would have been calls for his title to be stripped a second time. At best, he’d get away with heavy fines.
What has made the world lose its sense of humor? Without doubt, this mirthlessness is mostly a western world disease. Back home here, stand-up comedians and MCs make fun of Nigeria’s different ethnic groups and their idiosyncrasies.
Even when it is clear that these groups are being profiled and stereotyped thereby, we all laugh at the jokes. There are memes on social media about the ways of women and nobody screams sexism. But given our copycat ways with western ideologies and trends, it wouldn’t be long before their intolerance will catch on too.
America’s over-exposure to Psychology and the Humanities may have something to do with her over-sensitivity. Today, these disciplines spew forth the message of self and libertarianism.
They also seek to proffer explanations for everything under the sun. Are you finding it hard to keep down a steady job – it must be the spanking you received as a kid from your parents. And if you’ve become an outlaw in adulthood, it must be to counter The Lord’s Prayer you were forced to recite at grade school.
We may have unwittingly allowed western values to define us so that today if you say your lady friend is fat, it is taken as rude. In my cultural milieu, that would be a compliment for which you’d receive an appreciative smile.
There must be something about geniuses and candour that makes them continually touch the raw nerve of edgy western societies. Not that Third World geniuses are not given to the same proclivities. But here, the society is fairly laid back and only governments worry about their acerbic commentaries.
Our own Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, gave Gen. Gowon a Ben Bruce-like riposte when the General said the federal onslaught against Biafra will be a swift surgical operation. Soyinka clapped back that the surgery is being done with blunt scalpels.
True, he suffered for his candour, but only official circles felt riled thereby. Much the same fate was late Fela Kuti’s.
The rest of the society was indulgent of his “yabis” while the authorities were self-conscious. Now that Mohammad Ali is gone, the world would miss his good-natured jibes and one great tribute the world should pay to his memory is to become more tolerant and less sensitive about the political incorrectnesses of public figures.
Mike is an award-winning creative writer and book editor.
Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija