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

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

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

  • Why use humor? Why is it a powerful medium to communicate your message?
  • Who is the audience?
  • How does humor reduce fear and provide a space for citizens to make change?
  • What do we mean by ‘exposing the ridiculous and absurdities’ of institutional power? What kind of power are we talking about?

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Using humor to expose the illogical nature of authoritarianism


There's something peculiar about authoritarian regimes that isn't immediately obvious. They often manage to consolidate their power on the back of a sequence of compromises that become more extreme with time. This insidious pattern of concentrating power and excluding citizens from decision making happens gradually which helps it overcome popular resistance. This gradual process often works because it hides its contradictions and therefore revealing its true nature. 

The power of humour is that it allows us to expose those contradictions and the illogical nature of authoritarian rule. Satire is particularly powerful because it works as a tool to magnify those excesses of power and take them to their (illogical) extreme. Satire resonates with people because it works with familiar situations and assumptions that power portrays as temporary and necessary and then exposes as inherently authoritarian and illogical.

This is particularly useful because authoritarianism often masquerades as a benign paternalism. Along the process it justifies its decisions as if they were intended for the common good. It relies on respectability and portraying itself almost as a caring parent (an image much beloved by many dictators). Humour and satire can help undermine this sense of undeserved respectability.

But this is always about context, and require subtlety. Humour is more effective when power is trying to consolidate its rule, not after the fact. In long-standing regimes, humour can often become escapist and fatalistic. There’s a sense of resignation that aims only at placating people’s sense of grievance rather than challenging those in power. The warning signs appear when humour becomes formulaic. For humour to be effective it needs to be inventive and creative.

Lastly, something which is often forgotten: humour needs to be funny. Sounds obvious, but in practice it’s often not. In other words, humour needs to be judged on its qualities not what its political significance is. In my opinion, this is where a lot of contemporary satire goes wrong.     

When you're not funny, are you offensive? Or just not funny?

Thanks, Karl! Great points. I am curious to learn more about the last point you made:

Lastly, something which is often forgotten: humour needs to be funny. Sounds obvious, but in practice it’s often not. In other words, humour needs to be judged on its qualities not what its political significance is. In my opinion, this is where a lot of contemporary satire goes wrong.  

Does this relate to Hazem's comment on 'respect'? He writes:

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.

Are the satirists that you refer to trying to make jokes that just aren't funny, or are they actually offensive and therefore undermines their goal? I won't ask you to share examples since that might be a bit awkward (but examples would be nice!), but it would be great to learn more about the ways in which contemporary satire goes wrong - so that we can be sure to not do it that way! Thanks.

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Funny or right on?


What I was really trying to say there is that some people assume the political intentions of their humour can make them get away with not being funny. They rely too much on the message to bother getting the humour right. And I think that quickly becomes tedious. This wasn't specifically about offensive humour, more broadly about not using humour in an instrumental way and forgetting what it should really be about: making us laugh. 

Far from being offensive, this type of humour tends to be lame and doesn't really engage people. It's kind of preaching to the converted who might like it because of what it's saying politically but not because it's good satire or humour. 

This is where I think going outside our comfort zone is necessary. Good humour works when it defeats expectations, not play up to them. I worry that in our enthusiasm to adopt humorous tactics, some might forget about that and feed into the culture of mediocrity. I guess the best way to make sure this doesn't happen is that we shouldn't take our audience for granted. 

Thanks, Karl. That's good

Thanks, Karl. That's good advice. And we shouldn't be too shy to ask our peers for feedback on our ideas.



People, for the most part, can be well aware of the pervasiveness of tyranny and oppression. The problem is that this awareness tends to function at a non-emotional level -- the abuse and injustice is registered as abstract information carried around in isolated bubbles in people’s minds.

Humour can change that. It can translate this awareness from the abstract to the emotional. The fact that humour can do this by eliciting a positive response – laughter – means that people will actively seek it out (as opposed to, say, some gut-wrenching documentary about others’ misfortune).

In that sense and in this context, humour can act like bait, luring in people with the promise of chuckles while also highlighting the starkness of an abuse or injustice.

More than anything, it can push people to disrespect that which is unworthy of respect. This is often the first step to losing fear. You can see an attempted illustration of that here: http://www.elkoshary.com/features/where-would-we-be-without-police

I posted this article exactly one year before Egypt’s 25 January revolution, during a national holiday to celebrate our police forces. I think it highlights just how humour can be used to transform a detached awareness of abuse to outrage – even if that outrage is accompanied by amusement of some sort. 

Humour and Power

What role can humour play in building community power and undermining the power of targets like politicians or corporate bosses?

People power can take many forms – there are different ways we can work towards getting what we want. For example:

  • Electoral power – the ability to vote leaders out
  • Economic power – as consumers or as workers/producers
  • Cultural power – the ability to communicate meaning and have those beliefs/values/ideas adopted.

It stands to reason that if opportunities to exercise some types of power are limited, others become more valuable.

Cultural tactics can include undermining the public standing or reputation of power-holders. The consent theory of power is useful to consider here. This assumes that the functioning of a society, and the place of elites, depends on our consent. We agree to follow the rules, play our part as workers, consumers, voters etc, and generally go about things in an orderly way. If we withdraw consent through nonviolent direct action the system can be undermined and potentially topple over.

(For more information about consent theory of power see The Role of Power in Nonviolent Struggle by Gene Sharp & Brian Martin’s summary of Sharp’s approach)

One aspect of consent is recognising the authority of elected leaders, public institutions, the police etc. Put simply, we take them seriously. Humour can play a very useful role in disrupting this. Humour, like political scandal, can cut through the veneer of public relations with an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ effect.

What are some of the ways you have used humour to challenge authority?

Examples I’ve noticed include political cartoons, caricatures, impersonation, street theatre, direct action which makes police or powerholders look ridiculous, and amplifying mistakes or scandals involving powerholders. 

Saul Alinsky on Humour

I dipped into Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals to see what he had to say about humour. He writes:

“Humour is essential to a successful tactician, for the most potent weapons known to mankind are satire and ridicule.”

Alinsky viewed a sense of humour as a key quality of a successful organiser, to ‘maintain sanity’ and to identify and make sense of contradictions.

Humor as a coping mechanism or foundation of resistance?

Humor as a coping mechanism should probably be acknowledged. When reading Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany (which I mentioned over here) I couldn't help but consider comedy as a release valve for the horrors happening around around people.

Reudolph Herzog, the author looks at this rather harshly in this interview, "It was a way of venting these frustrations, and in a way, you could argue, that it stabilized the regime. Once you've shrugged it off with a joke, you didn't have to pick up a gun and go after Hitler."

But the pascifist in my sees this differently.

Herzog is basically presenting two options when faced with injustice (and perhaps I'm being unfair here):

  1. Make a joke, relieve the tension, shrug it off and move on – stabilizing the regime.
  2. Pick up a gun and go after the leader – destabilizing the regime

The second option is certainly more honorable. However, I don't know that everyone feels such agency in that type of situation. And when your country is being overrun by the Nazis, a little release valve truly might keep you from becoming despondent and killing yourself.

I'm more on the side of how Stuart Hall reads culture – I could also just be incredibly optimistic – I think these jokes reinforce and build a culture of resistance. It starts with jokes that undermine power, but that has the potential to be more politicized, organized and transformed into a movement.

As activists, I think this perspective is the most useful.

Comedy favors the blow from below

Jokes are more than jokes, they are vehicles for transmitting cultural ideas. They don't transmit the whole idea – it's not a treatise on the topic – just a piece. A joke can't hold all the history and nuance and the how and why of a topic. They don't work that way. But they can pass along a sentiment of injustice, a feeling, or simply provide an introduction to an issue. Anything more is cumbersome and doesn't travel as well as that small sentiment, which can be picked up and carried through a culture.

Jokes also can be looked at like blows. A metaphorical "jab." This is one way of dealing with bullies: strike back by making them laugh. It undermines aggression. When someone more powerful or threatening is being countered with humor, usually the public favors the joker. Remember how Cyrano wins over the crowd with his wit?

In the United States these blows from below are part of the myth of our cultural history and identity. There are so many diverse points with which to relate to this idea of the underdog; the story of Jesus of Nazareth, revolution overthrowing British rule, the US welcoming immigrants and refugees, the Civil Rights Movement, and so on. (And yes, admittedly these are very much mythical and problematic, but they are undeniably part of the idealized cultural fabric of the US.)

When someone strikes back at a more powerful opponent with a great joke, we love it.

In contrast, blows from above against someone disadvantaged are not seen favorably. Because it's bullying or attacking, rather than striking back against injustice. For example, a boundary pushing joke can be seen as offensive or insightful, depending on who's telling it. The joke teller and the power they're perceived to have in that context changes the way the jokes is read – whether the joke is attacking, self-deprecating, building camaraderie, or fighting back.

Basically, if it's a white male telling a joke about a minority group, it better be pretty insightful and self-deprecating. Otherwise it's probably offensive.

When I talk about the idea that racist/mysoginistic/homophobic and otherwise attacking jokes are not seen favorably, many people say "that's not right, racist and misogynistic jokes are seen as funny, told all the time, and laughed at."

It's true, these kinds of jokes are a common part of our culture, and there are zones where these jokes go unchecked: unhealthy workplaces, sports bars, or among racists, mysoginists, homophobes, and other jerks. But these are the same places bullying, sexism, and racism go unchecked. It's not the jokes, it's the cultural space where being offensive isn't offensive. Out in the open, these kinds of jokes are not respected. Comics who work this cheap material are not appreciated within the art form. For us amateurs, these kind of jokes can't be told in the light of day, or in newspaper, or by media personalities, by public officials, by executives, or anyone with power who needs to maintain an image of respectability.

Which brings me back to my point. We're in a unique position to strike back with humor, a freedom not enjoyed by those in positions of power.

Comedy, as a language, favors the underdog.

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