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

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

To help start the conversation and keep the focus of this discussion thread, please consider and respond to the following questions:

  • What are some of the common challenges that practitioners face in applying these tactics? How were these challenges addressed? For example, has this approach ever backfired for you? What lessons did you learn from this experience?
  • What risks do practitioners face in working in this space? How are these risks addressed? For example, how do you address the censorship that often happens in reaction to your work? How do you ensure the safety of these practitioners?
  • What new opportunities exist for practitioners working in this space? Share your ideas.

Share your experiences, thoughts, ideas and questions by adding a comment below or replying to existing comments!

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Cultural traditions and humour

In Australia we have a cultural tradition of ‘larrikinism’ , a kind of humour, irreverence and anti-authoritarianism. An example is the fact that one of the cultural heroes of white Australia is Ned Kelly, a 19th Century bushranger (outlaw thief) who defied the police. Another cultural tradition is the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ where people who excel or think themselves superior are exposed to derision.

These traditions seem to be losing their influence with globalisation, generational change, and greater diversity in the community. However they do still represent an opportunity for Australian activists to tap into a readiness to mock and distrust elites or political leaders.

In recent times the conservative side of politics seems to have been more effective in this regard with its sexist attacks on female Prime Minister Julia Gillard. One example is the meme ‘Juliar’. This play on the PM’s name has been used to reinforce a conservative frame around the illegitimacy of the minority government.

I’m interested to hear experiences from other countries. What kind of cultural traditions do you have around humour – or around political leaders and elites? What opportunities do they present? What about risks, taboos or lines that shouldn't be crossed?

The challenge of "respect"


I think a common challenge for satirists relates to the issues of “respect”. A repeated criticism we get at El Koshary Today is that our content is “disrespectful” – whether of certain individual’s or of people’s values or religious views.

To respect something entails having some attitude of admiration or esteem towards it. Clearly, if you strongly disagree with a point of view (e.g. you find it harmful or stupid), it makes absolutely no sense to then respect it.

However, not respecting a different point of view doesn’t mean not respecting an individual’s right or entitlement to that view. The two are completely different things, and some readers can often conflate them.

To my mind, one of the prime objectives of a satirist in this context is to express disrespect to institutions that promote human rights violations. While those institutions are often state-based, they are just as often based on tradition and religion (e.g. FGM, enforced wearing of the niqab etc.). Actively disrespecting aspects of tradition and religion that lead to harm in a conservative culture is tricky. And it can get tedious wanting to remind people that expressing disrespect to these beliefs does not mean not respecting people’s right to believe in these ideas or dogmas.


Egyptian satirist prosecuted for "offending" the president

Thank you Hazem for sharing this with us. I have been reading El Koshary Today for two years now :-) The idea of using  "respect" as a way to limit criticism of institutions is widely common in the Middle East. Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef, who I just shared a bit about in a different thread of this conversation is set to prosecuted for allegedly undermining president Morsi through political show, according to this The Telegraph article.

Mohammad Azraq - MENA Research and Online Outreach Officer at New Tactics in Human Rights

If you weren't sure comedy was threatening...

There are always the examples of the occasional comic or satirist who's persecuted and/or prosecuted for their work.

The Moustache Brothers are three brothers from Burma. Two of them served seven years for their comedy show. Here's a New York Times story on it.

Rudolph Herzog write a book called Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany looking at the different jokes told during that era by jewish people, resisters, and the Nazis themselves. Jokes were used for multiple purposes – sometimes as a release valve for frustration, or a subtle way to express resistance. When and how the Nazis decided to acknowledge resistance comedy and entertainment and react or respond was interesting. If I remember correctly, they cracked down more on comics when things became more desperate. When the Nazis were ascending, they didn't care. So perhaps that's a silver lining for your story. (You can listen to an interview with the author here.)

The Power of Personas

One of the great overlooked strengths of using comedy (and art) is that it allows us to be shape-shifters. We can take on roles and characters to say things that couldn't otherwise be said. This is the historical role of the Trixter, Joker, Coyote, etc. (see the book "Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art" by Lewis Hyde or watch this video with Joseph Campbell)

Here's an example of an activist from Orlando CopWatch protesting in support of the Orlando Police Department.

He's taking on the character of the villain – a very dumb villain – in a very smart way. On the surface, everything he's saying is way off the cop-watch message, but he respects the audience enough to understand that. And of course he's so funny the news cameras can't help but interview him and try to draw him into other stories.

One of my favorite examples of the power of persona is how within 8 minutes the band GWAR flipped their appearance on the Joan Rivers Show from attack piece to love-fest.

The real strength here is not in the attention it gets (which is always helpful in activism) but in the ability to speak in different ways and be different people. When using humor and play, we can employ personas. Again, no one who listens to the "I HEART OPD" man would mistake him for a supporter of the Orlando Police Department, and no one believes GWAR is from the planet Cholestorol (or Scumdogia), because we understand it as a persona. And these people are far more interesting in their personas – find me another interview with an activist talking about police brutality that has half a million views.

Comedy allows the latitude to be different people. However it can go further and allow us to ape and parody, to actually become those we're criticizing. We can speak in their voice.

Here's an example of Chris Cobb being "the Fake Fox News Guy" at Occupy Wall Street.

It's fun and funny, and helps change the tone and response from the occupy encampment, and generates a different kind of story.

There's the "classic" examples of the Billionaires For Bush and the Yes Men (who have 2 documentary films out and a third on the way). I just rediscovered "The McCain Girls" who were so well crafted people believed they were sincere. They were actually the brainchild of comic H. Jon Benjamin.

As popular as some of these characters and performances become, they often make organizations nervous because they are so incredibly and overtly "off message." However it's critical to understand shape-shifting is predominantly a terrain only we can operate on. Representatives of large multi-nationals or governments don't have the freedom to use different voices. They have one voice (and it's usually not even their personal voice, it's the voice of the institution that they must communicate within very strict bounds). While the institutional voice is bound to a script, the joker is free to change forms, messages, and tone.

This brings me to a theory I have been operating with for a few years: you can't win an argument against a joker.

The go-to examples here are the best known political comics in the US; Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Think of any interview you've seen given by Stephen Colbert – he is clearly speaking in a voice and no one wins an argument with him. It's impossible. He'll change gears or extrapolate an argument to an absurd degree until everyone looks foolish. He's too slippery to pin down and basically will not engage in a direct debate – and good on him for that because he still, somehow, makes his point.

Jon Stewart has been criticized for not clearly choosing a distinct persona – famously on the show Crossfire. (it backfired terribly) Stewart's strength, as with anyone who engages in a mix of politics and humor, is the ability to shift back and forth: to say something difficult and confrontational, and then relieve the tension with a joke. Or more so, back away from the idea that you should be taken seriously at all, even though it's too late because the point has been made. It also helps to be able to make jokes about yourself and embarrass yourself better than anyone else so that you're innoculated against those kinds of attacks.

Again, to use an apt metaphor, the terrain of comic personas is the underdog's briar patch. Corporations and politicians can make gestures, but comic personas are a cultural territory only we can traverse. While they may make our institutions uncomfortable – imagine pitching your funders the creation of a fake drug called "cake" to parody the war on drugs – comic personas allow us to use popular culture, laughter, and characters to effectively broach difficult subjects with everyday audiences.


Looks like my last link got lost, but the "made up drug" called Cake was used by the BBC show Brasseye in a satire on the war on drugs. They had media and politicians speaking out against it, using a Brass Eye supplied fact sheet, and eventually had the drug introduced in Parliament. You can read about it on wikipedia and watch it here.

On the issue of respect


The issue of respect often comes up in the context of humour and satire. I'm often asked where do I draw the line when I'm writing satire and should we limit ourselves to avoid offending people? Increasingly there's an argument taking hold that offending cultural sensibilities should be perceived as a form of harm that we should avoid. I disagree. 

I believe people are inherently capable of distinguishing between speech intended to denigrate for malignant purposes, and one that is used to expose hypocrisy, double standards and injustice. Thus, people using the pretext of free speech to denigrate others cynically would in effect expose themselves. Far from repressing that we should allow to remain in the public domain where it can debated, opposed, mocked and defeated. Pushing malicious speech underground is counter-productive. 

Do we need to overstep the limits ourselves? In many instance, I think that's necessary. I personally believe that self-censorship is more insidious than external censorship. The need for overstepping limits is a necessary part of challenging dogmas and misconceptions, if we respected all the limits imposed on us we would hardly be able to make any change in the world. In humour and satire in particular, it is understood that this happens within a specific context that we engage with understanding the rules. 

There is a sense that too much deference can become stifling as well. To assume that all cultural norms are inherently worthy of respect is ridiculous. Many injustices in the world continue to be perpetuated under the guise of preserving culture. Humour allows to test the limits and expose such practices that sometimes hide agendas of control. 

I prefer to turn this idea of respect around. If you respect your audience's judgement and ability to discern then you won't be afraid to test the limits. It's true, you will get things wrong, but that's where others will set you straight. That's part and parcel of what healthy exchange and debate are about. 

We Want Transgression!

Here here!

A part of comedy is being offensive. Shock can be very funny, or at least make a funny thing funnier. The daring to say what shouldn't be said or just isn't said, from someone who's won our trust, increases the intensity of laughter. It also enables everyone to move into territory we may not be comfortable with – which is a healthy thing to excercise in a realtively safe place, like through comedy.

As a fan of comedy, I've noticed a different thread of this idea. Some see being offensive in any way as in defiance to opressive "political correctness." Paul Provenza brings this up frequently in his interviews with fellow comics in his (otherwise really great) book Satiristas, unaware that the term became common through manipulation by the right in a backlash to progressive cultural movement.

But that tone of transgression, there is something there. If someone is being offensive as a way to strike against a perceived power or orthodoxy or social control, however twisted and misdirected that perspective may be, we can work with that! It should be cultivated, not shamed and dismissed.

Besides, being offensive is a shared transgression. This is also something we can use. Isn't shared transgression what we want when we call for a march?

And now, some required viewing: comic Stewart Lee says this all so much better than I can.

Do your homework & have the courage to stick it thru

Barbara, in another discussion thread, shares her experiences working on the Think Beyond the Label campaign. Not all of the campaign's supporters agreed with their approach. She writes: "Using humor to tackle difficult, and sometimes uncomfortable subjects, requires courage and a strong belief in your approach."

Her advice for other practitoners? "If you're going to use humor, make sure you do your homework and have the courage to see it through."

Any other advice to share regarding these challenges and risks around using humor?

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

on 'Political Correctness'


I totally agree,  in fact the term Political Correctness has lost its meaning because of its constant manipulation. Nevertheless, one should make a distinction between right wing agendas and the frustration some people feel when confronted with irrational or excessive speech codes. The tendency to label that as 'political correctness' is a lazy shortcut, I think there's a much more insidious logic at play where authorities have co-opted those speech codes for their own agendas of control, in order to appear benign. 

There are several examples of comedians who fell foul of the laws introduced to regulate speech in the UK, when their intentions were to be critical rather than derogatory. The trouble with formalised speech codes is when they become law they can be wielded indiscriminately by authorities regardless of the intentions of those who asked for them. The big question here is do we trust the government of making those judgments? I personally don't, and I don't think anyone should. 

I think this a case of regulating speech that will become self-defeating inevitably. Why risk the freedom to transgress by increasing the state's power to regulate speech? I think we need to be more self-confident about our ability to challenge, mock and defeat bigoted ideas in open forums rather than flatter those behind them by making them think we need help to expose their bigotry. 

And I don't need the state on my side in this battle. 

Humor and "Isms"

For all it's power in the face of authority and forms of control, I'd say humor becomes offensive in the most horrible of ways when it targets minorities and vulnerable groups. This reflects various forms of discrimination, like racism and sexism. It also perpetuates homophobia, bigotry and gender-based violence. And the worst part about all of this is that the groups, who call the people behind these antics on their offensive humor (e.g. media conglomerates, TV shows, comedians, etc.), are quickly dismissed as not having a sense of humor. In many parts of the world, authorities are more likely to censor or attack satirists who take them on, instead of keeping an eye out for comedians or institutions that ridicule minorities or vulnerable groups for the sake of a laugh.

Here are two examples of offensive humor of the worst kind and how people dealt with it:

What do you think about this?

I wrote about this a bit yesterday. I think your point sheds a different perspective, and the issue is more who is seen as being attacked and who is defending. If the people calling out the racism are seen as the bully, as opposed to the person making the dengrating comments,  then the frame has been flipped upside down. That's a problem, but not an insurmountable one. It just has to be creatively flipped back.

Is "respect" antonymous to "free speech"?

Thank you Karl, Steve, Hazem and Joelle for raising and discussing this very important issue. This has certainly enriched the challenges thread of this conversation.  Often the ideas of "respect" or "offensiveness" get conflated with free speech and expression, but where do you draw the line between these issues and how can you maintain a balance between all of these seemingly conflicted elements of humor?

Looking forward to hearing more from you.


New Tactics MENA Research and Online Outreach Officer at New Tactics in Human Rights.

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