Using Humor to Expose the Ridiculous

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Monday, January 14, 2013 to Friday, January 18, 2013
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Summary available

Thank you for joining Tactical Tech and the New Tactics online community for an online conversation on Using Humor to Expose the Ridiculous from January 14 to 18. All over the world, activists use humour, irony, satire, parody and lampooning to express dissent and challenge the absurdities of institutional power. Through culture jamming, which embodies all these tactics and more, they interrupt the flow of information controlled by governments, corporations, the advertising industry, media corporations, fundamental religious leaders and other powerful people in society. In doing so, they expose the lies, deceptions and sheer absurdities in their speech.

Tactics shared:

Why do activists choose to use humor as a way to expose the absurdities of institutional power and uncover human rights abuses?

Activists use humor in their work to expose contradictions and hypocrisy in their societies, build electoral, economic, and cultural power, and ultimately undermine the dominance of corrupt and oppressive institutions and elites. Participants agreed that satire can also serve as a coping mechanism or stress relief by highlighting and expressing frustration with problems out of their direct control in an entertaining fashion. As one participant added, humor helps preserve sanity in the midst of a chaotic or corrupt socio-political environment. Furthermore, by eliciting laughter, humor can frame human rights issues in a more emotional and human context. Activist-humor generally stems from “the underdog” and aims at those who exploit their social, political, economic, and racial privileges at the expense of the wider population.

Several participants shared differing opinions on issues of political correctness when engaging in humor-activism, but most agreed that the identity of the joke-teller can determine whether or not a joke is funny or offensive. While privileged people cannot make fun of vulnerable, oppressed populations without being hateful or abusing their power, satire employed by “underdog” activists at corrupt institutions interferes with the societal expectation of respecting and obeying authority figures, therefore initiating small but strategic ripples of change.

How do activists apply humorous tactics in their work to address human rights issues?

Human rights activists support their movements by employing humorous strategies such as creating irony, discrediting hate groups to divert attention from their agendas, and using pop culture, choreography, hoaxes, and parodies. While some organizers ridicule hate speech to minimize its effect, others create hoaxes to gain mass media attention that can expose institutional biases to a wide audience of viewers. One participant shared the effectiveness of using social media and “caping” to commend politicians that supported their movement. Political satire and social commentary have become widespread on the internet, especially in countries where dissent and criticism of the government has harsh consequences. Russian satirists have used comics, cartoons, puppets, and street art surrounding potholes to connect problems to responsible authorities.

In applying humorous tactics, participants emphasized the importance of creativity, intentionality, courage and commitment, and, of course, the success of a joke. One participant warned that jokes cannot be simply “copied and pasted,” but instead must be appropriate for the given context.

What are the challenges, risks and opportunities associated with using humor as a way to shed light on human rights violations?

Major challenges and risks of using humor in activism include discrepancies in respect and disrespect, the effects of globalization on cultural traditions, and limitations on establishing tangible change. While some argue that some institutions and officials are undeserving of respect, others worry that humor can sometimes offend and ridicule traditional or religious values. However, some participants concluded that those who respond to satire aimed at them by demanding respect merely do so to limit or censor the humourous activism and distract attention from their own faults. Most participants agreed that comedic activism revolves around exposing hypocrisy and injustice carried out by powerful elites and not bullying vulnerable and oppressed populations. When hateful portrayals or mockery of minority people does occur, activists have dealt with the situations by writing open letters to the aggressor and raising awareness of the issue online.

Although humor cannot directly change laws or physically prevent human rights issues, it can contribute to a movement, serve as a political act, and confront and change problematic attitudes and prejudices. Satire and humor in activism can also promote resistance, express taboo or controversial opinions, and hold advantage over corporations or politicians. One participant referred to satirists as “shape-shifters” for their ability to deliver shocking material and adopt personas that highlight the absurd realities of injustice and corrupt institutions. The internet has allowed humorous tactics to flourish, as anonymity online allows more freedom for testing limits, challenging authority, and circulating material to a limitless number of people. Meanwhile, the corporations and politicians targeted by humor in activism usually cannot engage in the satirical discourse or defend themselves -- especially on the internet -- due to their professional image; as one participant stated, “you can’t win an argument against a joker.”

Resources shared:

Conversation Leaders

joelle's picture
Joelle Hatem
Tactical Technology Collective
karlsharro's picture
Karl Sharro
Karl reMarks
Hzohny's picture
Hazem Zohny
El Koshary Today
Steve Lambert's picture
Steve Lambert
The Center for Artistic Activism
Holly Hammond's picture
Holly Hammond
Plan to Win
BAOtto's picture
Barbara Otto
Health & Disability Advocates