Cross-Cultural Miscommunication: Jay Leno’s Joke & the Golden Temple

Jay Leno

by Gabby LaVerghetta

To make a generalization, Americans are pretty laid back when it comes to comedy. There are some lines that comedians know better than to cross, especially when it comes to race, but for the most part anything is fair game. The lines get blurrier as audiences span more countries, cultures and creeds. Jay Leno, the host of The Tonight Show, is learning this lesson in a very public way.

Last week, on his late-night talk show, Leno told a joke about the Republican presidential candidates. Nothing out of the ordinary there. On that particular occasion, he criticized their wealth by showing photographs of what their imaginary summer homes might look like. When he came to Mitt Romney, Leno showed a photo of the Golden Temple.

Outrage soon followed. The Harmandir Sahib, more famously known as the Golden Temple, is found at Amritsar in the state of Punjab, India. The temple is the most sacred site in the Sikh faith. The Sikh community in the U.S. and abroad expressed what they said were “hurt sentiments” about the joke.

In response to the backlash, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland stood up for Leno, saying he was exercising his constitutional right to free speech.   She’s right, of course. But that has not quieted the storm. Most recently, two members of the U.K. Parliament filed a motion that requests an apology and an official rebuke of Leno.

An Indian-American man even filed a lawsuit against Leno. Randeep Dhillon said The Tonight Show host’s joke “clearly exposes plaintiff, other Sikhs and their religion to hatred, contempt, ridicule and obloquy because it falsely portrays the holiest place in the Sikh religion as a vacation resort owned by a non-Sikh.”

No one seems to believe that Leno and his writers meant to insult the Sikh faith. Romney was clearly the butt of the joke. Negligence and perhaps ignorance are the only crimes that Leno is guilty of. Nonetheless, feelings were hurt. And in all likelihood, feelings will stay hurt unless something changes. An apology from Leno should go a long way in repairing relations between the U.S. and the Sikh community. Is that enough, or should more care be taken to prevent such mistakes from occurring in the future?

Many public diplomats would argue that all American citizens actually perform diplomatic functions at some point in their lives. Anyone who interacts with someone from another country is giving an impression of the United States.  But how many Americans have their individual public diplomacy efforts broadcast to international audiences?

Actors, television personalities, and other public members of the entertainment industry are in a rare position of power. Much in the same way that they unwittingly become role models for children, entertainment stars are constant representations of the countries they come from. As internationally recognized figures, do they have a responsibility to prevent situations like Leno’s current one?

I would say, “yes.” The globalization of media means that American programming is viewed across the world. In addition, new information communication technologies allow content to travel online almost instantly. Even if they do so purely for profit-driven reasons, media producers must be aware of their products’ potential reach and plan accordingly.

Obviously, not all feelings can be spared. Erring on the side of too much caution would approach censorship. But the Golden Temple situation could have been avoided with a little extra thought on the part of The Tonight Show staff.

(Note: This piece is cross-posted on Gabby LaVerghetta’s personal blog Un’occhiata.)

(The photo is by Lee Stranahan via Flickr using a Creative Commons license.  To see the U.S. State Department’s reaction to the controversy, please check below.)

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