In a recent speech, Turkish deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc advised women not to laugh in public since it denoted morally decrepit behaviour. In response, Turkish women took to Twitter, posting pictures of themselves smiling and laughing quite flagrantly. Laughter, in its supposed lack of decorum and its riotous physicality, has always had the power to unsettle the establishment. The Greek philosophers restricted it, the early church condemned it. The gloomy apparatchiks of Soviet Union who came under a hail of jokes during the Brezhnev era felt the power of humour. In the 1990s, social activist M D Nanjundaswamy invented the laugh-in, gathering some 50,000 farmers around the Karnataka state secretariat in order to “laugh the government out”.
The protests by Turkish women show that one of the oldest forms of dissent is still alive and well. That the laughing photos have caught fire not only in Turkey but in many other parts of the world show that women and men both recognise that it takes more to corrupt morality than to dress in a certain way or laugh at a certain pitch. In fact, bigotry, hypocrisy and oppression are what contribute to a society’s corruption and degradation and not a joyous expression of happiness.
Little wonder that it has been said that laughter is the best medicine. Doctors and nurses, therefore, always wear a smiling face when visiting patients. Obviously, a pensive face will have a depressing effect, worsening the patient’s condition. It is difficult, thus, to understand why a sunny disposition runs afoul of curmudgeons like Lord Chesterfield, who said “there is nothing so illiberal and so ill-bred as audible laughter”. Although he made no distinction between the genders, it’s obvious the 18th century British peer was of the same mind as the 21st century Turkish politician. What both do not seem to realise is that, as the essayist Joseph Addison said, “man is distinguished from all other creatures by the faculty of laughter”.