Should the President stop making jokes?

Nick Mangwana
There is a question that is being discussed among President Mnangagwa’s legion of ardent supporters and loyalists; should the President abandon humour as a device for engaging his audience? Not everyone agrees with this sentiment.
The opposite group feels those that subscribe to this thinking are yielding to the whims of an uptight and tense clique of critics who will attack the President regardless of what he does or says. Even if he were to declare that God is good, this pack of detractors will find fault in it.
Therefore, this group of supporters doesn’t feel that it is right for President Mnangagwa to change his style of engaging just because some deliberately miss the essence of his jokes.
President Mnangagwa has been criticised for making a joke about vegetables. This was a joke replete with a serious message. But was he wrong? This writer does not believe that there was anything controversial about that joke. In fact, there was a very serious health message to the jocular delivery. Having heard and seen what’s trending about beef, today many are considering the options he was suggesting.
This is also in line with the worldwide dietary drift towards cutting down on the consumption of red meat. This writer has been on once a week red meat diet for the past seven years.
So in that vegetables and potato joke, there was an underlying serious dietary message.
Then there was the joke on hygiene enforcers/policemen which also had an underlying serious message about the need to exercise good domestic hygiene in order to get rid of disease-carrying domestic pests. If you go back a little bit one would find that President Mnangagwa employs levity as a device to engage his audience and sometimes to broach a difficult subject such as death. Levity is defined as the treatment of a serious matter with humour or lack of due respect.
It is a beautiful device. Sometimes he uses dark humour to drive a point home or even to debunk a hitherto taboo subject. Some define “dark humour” as a form of humour involving a twist or joke that is sometimes seen as offensive, harsh or even horrid. Yet the joke is still funny to those that get it.
Probably the most apt definition is the one that says dark humour is a more or less explicit and sacrilegious representation of humour that has its aim of making fun of situations usually regarded as tragic such as death, sickness or depression.
But some people take themselves too seriously for nothing to the extent that they choose pettiness on the outside but their insides are very ugly. They are a pretentious and sanctimonious lot whose favourite pastime is dissecting jokes instead of laughing. Sad gits. So we have the same activists pushing very hard for the freedom of speech on one hand and on another hand trying to curtail one of the artistic expressions of that freedom; humour.
Repressing laughter is dehumanising the human race. Laughter is one thing that separates us from animals in that most animals do all that human beings do except to laugh. Not even a hyena. It just makes a laughing sound but that is not a laugh. So those who want to repress the President’s humour, are you not trying to dehumanise him? If we followed your thinking, where will this end?
This will turn the whole world into a pensive order of monastic uptight monks. Thinkers like Descartes posited that laughter accompanies three of the six basic human emotions of wonder, love, (mild) hatred, desire, joy, and sadness. Should we then advocate for a wooden and scripted President with no sense of humour?
There are internal turmoil and psychological conflict within some in the Zimbabwean population of the model of the President they want.
On one hand, they want a President who is a figure of authority, one who is a mini-deity whose demeanour and approach is above reproach and well above the domains of mortals. A leader who acts in ways that are not easily understood. Ironically, they will still call this leader an authoritarian.
On the other hand, they want a President they can call “one of us” who shares human foibles with the people that he leads. This is a President that shares their own vulnerabilities, one who has human weaknesses and shows their own frailties and fallibilities. A President they call a “first among equals”. But when he behaves like one of them they recoil.
Now, this is the modest President that we have. A human being who will make mistakes, who laughs at jokes and is happy to make his own.
Now, for anyone who has made jokes, it can be a dicey territory even for the most experienced comedians. Some jokes can fall flat, whilst some can make an audience cringe and squirm and others are funny but they don’t make sense. Others make a lot of sense but aren’t actually funny. They are called jokes but in essence, they just deliver a message.
Then there are those dark jokes we have just defined. Strangely it is the dark ones that are known to be therapeutic and cathartic. These can be controversial by making fun of a taboo subject.
An example is when the President told his mortuary joke. He said that when he was a Member of Parliament for Kwekwe, he helped build a mortuary for his constituents. Now mortuaries occupy a special place in the perception of communities but for most Zimbabwean communities they are scary places.
But remember, this is just a place where the remains of departed members of the community are treated with dignity in terms of the standards and expectations of that community.
Now when the President was still a Member of Parliament for Kwekwe he recognised the reverence that should be accorded to the remains of the deceased hence his prioritisation of the building of the morgue. He says that he spearheaded the construction of a 12-body mortuary.
All good and modern mortuaries must have decent capacity so that each body may occupy its own space of the refrigerated cabinet. The room should be cool to freezing capacity and the environment must be safe and private enough for the bereaved families. This is what President Mnangagwa led in the construction of. Now imagine you are describing this to a mixed audience. How does one do it besides introducing levity and black humour? We have said that many Zimbabweans find the subject of mortuaries and the remains of the deceased very grim and morbid. The best way of discussing this subject is by introducing black humour.
This is what President Mnangagwa did and we saw a lot of manufactured outrage trending on social media. The President had just smashed a taboo and the hypocritical-politically-correct decided that it was time to deride him. Self-appointed moral policemen went on top of mountains to express feigned moral outrage.
They deliberately ignore that this joke was delivered in Gutu where he had also broken ground for the construction of a maternity wing and offered to fund the care and education of the first five babies delivered in the wing for their whole lives. So why are people obsessing that he once offered to give “chema” to the first family that would tragically have the first bereavement and make use of the new mortuary and yet ignore the offer of a lifetime adoption of the first five babies delivered in the maternity wing? People should just confront their own fears and exorcise their own demons and stop this self-righteousness.
The sheer level of dishonesty on display here is what led to some of the President’s own supporters suggesting that maybe it was a good idea for the President to stop joking. This writer does not buy the notion that we should have a repressed President and yet they are the very same people who scream night and day against censorship. None of the jokes made by President Mnangagwa was transgressive. The President tackles taboo subjects with humour, thought-provoking ideas and laughter.
If you are uptight you may not get dark humour, which has a tendency of taking pleasure in ridiculing even some the hitherto perceived as most sacred of society’s taboos. A study titled “Cognitive and Emotional Demands of Black Humour Processing: The Role of Intelligence, Aggressiveness and Mood” was carried out in Cognitive Processing.
This study concluded that dark humour appreciation and preference is associated with “higher verbal and non-verbal intelligence as well as higher levels of education. Emotional instability and higher aggressiveness lead to decreased levels of pleasure when dealing with dark humour”.
In short, if you are cognitively gifted, you won’t need to employ a lot of effort to get a dark joke. This is when you hear those less gifted using pejorative terms like “morbid, nasty, twisted, sick or grotesque”. But humour processing depends very much on one’s cognitive ability. This study clearly shows that those who cannot comprehend social satire are the ones with a problem and not those who employ it.
The ironic thing is that the superficial tend to wrongly think that it is those who appreciate dark humour who have something terribly wrong with them. But it is the opposite. Dark humour empowers people to speak about sensitive, serious and unsettling subjects by according oneself permission to be negative in a healthy way.
Some people have framed in their minds that the demeanour of a leader should be very serious and “business-like” all the time. They want to believe that jocularity is indulging in frivolity and inappropriateness.
But humour makes a leader appear folksy. Jocularity humanises those at the top making them approachable. It makes the “servant leadership” genre of leadership a reality. After all the word, “humour” itself is derived from the Latin word, which meant fluid and flexible. So to suggest that the President should stop joking is probably proffering fools’ wisdom. He should continue to enjoy the sagacity of humour even in the face of his phenomenal responsibility of turning this country around. If the President was to ask for my advice, I would suggest that he keeps dancing and keeps joking and if he feels like singing, by all means, sing.
That’s just what humans do and in Zimbabwe, he is the first among equals.
Someone once said, “dark humour is like food, not everyone gets it”.

Nick Mangwana is the Secretary for Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services