When we think of activists, we rush to a caricature of the unified, of people together in their sign-holding and marching and speech-making. Angry, frustrated, spent — they share a perplexity, a fire, that marks their cause and their dedication to it. We think of the economy of style and compactness of form that run through their speeches and poster boards; “We demand change,” we can hear them chant, fists in the air. “Action now!”
But, when it comes to attracting people to a cause, the method matters. Several researchers agree that a tempered approach — a nonviolent, humorous one — engages people just as much, if not more, than more austere means of protest.
“Even today,” argues Janet Bing, an English professor at Old Dominion University, “feminist messages too often go unheard, and feminist issues are too often dismissed by mainstream audiences, partly because feminists continue to be stereotyped as angry and humorless.” And activists’ anger and humorlessness makes sense. The causes they advocate for often appear to demand a fierceness and a stern handling of the issue at stake to convince people of their gravity.
Marjolein t’Hart, a senior researcher at the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands, relates to us why people facing a situation that requires immediate addressing might lean toward a serious portrayal of the issue; she says, “Indeed much social protest is fueled by anger and fear, which leave little room for frivolous thoughts.” If we consider a family facing the deportation of a loved one, for example, they might not stop to think about how to frame the issue when they speak out about it, and understandably so; the immediate consequences of deportation might make the message feel more important than the way they convey it. Activists appear austere because, out of respect for their cause, they feel like they have to. That is, unless they use humor wisely.
People want to be entertained — “to be” functioning as the operative words in the sentence. It makes them listen. People like things spoon-fed, honeyed and digestible, and humor is the ultimate sweetener. With a careful consideration for style, activists can put the content on the still-hot back burner to focus on the delivery.
Think about professional comedians — aren’t some of them activists in disguise? Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert each have platforms where they make their beliefs very clear to their audiences. Their roles as professional comedians can even grant them a valuable (and perhaps unexpected) immunity from the veracity of their claims. Comparing royal jesters to modern day comedians, t’Hart says, “In royal courts, a jester could express critical thoughts about policies without fearing punishment by the ruler. His peculiar, ritualized position carried immunity.” The “peculiar” position of a professional comedian makes them an effective advocate — one who advocates without necessarily appearing to. Just as the jester is a “professional comedian” with a job to entertain, the job of a modern day comedian is just as institutionalized and ritualized — they get paid to make people laugh. Because any joke they make is them simply “doing their job,” they can get away with most of what they say.
As such, t’Hart contends that modern day comedians “can present harsh and undesirable political truths through laughter: Their position as official joke-makers makes them different from other political critics.” They dodge any real opposition because “‘fools’ should not be taken seriously, and replying in a serious manner to a joke is generally ‘not done.’” Activists who make a smart use of humor temper their scorching indictments with a lightness, with a promise to their audience that they are “only joking,” and that they only intend to entertain. These comedians forego a didactic relationship with their audience and instead deliver a cinematic performance that lacks an immediate connection to the cause itself. As such, they can get away with labeling their convictions that err on the side of activism as a necessary part of their aesthetic project.
But does it work?
It is worth mentioning that the metric used to gauge the effectiveness of humor as an approach is still up for debate; do we measure its effectiveness by actual change accomplished or by the amount of awareness brought to the issue (such as the number of “likes” or “retweets” it receives online)?
t’Hart pointed something out that I had not considered before: that humor may even inhibit action. The feeling of solidarity and comfort in knowing that the oppression is shared may halt the movement; to an extent, people may feel appeased enough to refrain from pursuing the cause as ardently as they had before. t’Hart even goes as far as saying that humor “in and of itself never changes circumstances,” labeling it as a “weapon of the weak.” Additionally, she says that humor can divide just as much as it binds, especially if people perceive the joke as unjust or rude.
However, convictions made jokingly are more difficult to counter. The nonviolent and engaging veins that run through humor activism make similar approaches effective. Jokes have a certain unifying power — one that does not necessarily have to inhibit action but can help persuade people on the fence about the issue. It also does the necessary work of portraying the activists themselves as a group people would like to associate with — funny and “everyday” sorts of people who nonetheless dedicate themselves to the issue at stake.
Contact Amanda Rizkalla at amariz ‘at’ stanford.edu.