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.
- A group of Australian activists tricked two national news outlets into believing they were a “network of welfare recipients” living in the underground drains of Melbourne. The goal of the hoax was to highlight the media’s bias on the unemployed.
- Clowns calls for “Wife Power” and “White Flour” minimize and ridicule the hate speech of a Neo-Nazi demonstration in North Carolina, U.S.A.
- Egypt’s satirical news website El Koshary published an article “Where would we be without the police?” that sarcastically honors the police force for their “dedication” to their “duties.”
- From the website 10 Tactics Remixed - Exposing the Ridiculous, Noy Aloosh creates a remix of Gaddafi's speech as a dance tune. Another example from the web page includes Mamnou3: A serialized mockumentary against censorship in Lebanon.
- In Australia, Fremantle Anti Nuclear Group activists delivered an outstanding parking ticket to a United States warship parked in a local harbor to give Australian citizens a voice.
- In Cambodia, land rights activists adopt the Youtube sensation “Gangam Style” dance and tune to protest unlawful evictions.
- In Florida, U.S.A., an activist from Orlando CopWatch protests in support of the Orlando Police Department to highlight the absurdity of their actions.
- Russian artist-activists painted portraits of politicians around the potholes they failed to fix in their districts to hold these elected representatives accountable for their lack of action.
- The Middle Eastern political satire website Karl reMarks has games such as Dictator Tetris and Lebanese Politics: The Board Game to highlight the absurdity of day-to-day life in oppressive societies.
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.”
- 10 Tactics Remixed - Exposing the Ridiculous, a project of the Tactical Technology Collective, provides information about campaigns that utilize humorous tactics from around the world. On 10 Tactics Remixed - Exposing the Ridiculous, you can find some of the key campaigns, debates, and politics that have emerged in relation to the use of this tactic. You can also find more examples of the use satire, spoofs and other culture jamming techniques on 10 Tactics Unstitched, a sortable online repository that is available in English and Arabic.
- American community organizer Saul Alinsky touches on the use of humor in activism in Rules for Radicals.
- How To Make Trouble and Influence People, a book about Australian hoaxes and “political mischief-making” from 1788-2009
- Interview in Arabic with Jadaliyya, Mamdouh Hmadeh, one of the most prominent Syrian screenwriters, about the power and challenges of using humor in dark times.
- TED talk by political cartoonist Patrick Chappatte about the power of cartoons in social movements and raising awareness.
- The Dilemma Demonstration: Using nonviolent civil disobedience to put the government between a rock and a hard place, a 2004 New Tactics case study available in English and Russian. Also check out this New Tactics conversation on Tactical that Tickle: Laughing all the way to the win
- The media game has changed, an article by Adrian Dodd from international website Plan to Win about opportunities created by the evolving media cycle.
- The Role of Power in Nonviolent Struggle, a 1990 publication on consent theory of power by Gene Sharp. The Journal of Peace Research also published a summary and review of the article written by Brian Martin.
- The Whitehaven Hoax: Ratbag act or legitimate protest? by Sarah Joseph of Australia’s Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, which looks at ethical considerations around hoaxes
- Writer and filmmaker Reudolph Herzog discusses satirical activism in an interview with the public radio show Bullseye.