A few years ago Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then president of Iran, spoke at Columbia University. I heard a clip from that speech on the radio that stuck in my mind. The authoritarian leader was answering a question about the treatment of gay people in his country. This is what he said:
In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. (Laughter.) We don’t have that in our country. (Booing.) In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you that we have it. (Laughter.)1
The first burst of laughter seemed completely spontaneous. I remember thinking how that must have stung. I imagine this was not guy accustomed to being laughed at. Somehow the booing that followed seemed much less impactful. After all, he might have expected that US college students would have logical disagreements with his ideas and express their dissent. But their laughter was not a rational argument. It was an authentic, emotional expression of disrespect.
The aura of authority can be one of the main pillars that support a ruler, a regime or an institution. But authority isn’t a thing—it’s just a perception, and perceptions can change. When deference is replaced by ridicule, authority vanishes. Hannah Arendt wrote about this in her essay On Violence:
To remain in authority requires respect for the person or the office. The greatest enemy of authority, therefore, is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter.2
One of the resistance groups that used humor as part of its campaign strategy was Otpor, the Serbian youth group instrumental in the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Milosevic had skillfully used propaganda to manufacture his image as the only leader who could defend the Serbs from their enemies.3
Seeing implicit legitimacy as one of the main pillars of support that kept Milosevic in power, Otpor used parody and satire to puncture that perception. In his book The Dictator’s Learning Curve, William J. Dobson writes about Otpor’s strategy to challenge Milosevic’s legitimacy:
One of the key sources of power for any regime is authority. The perception of authority alone—and the fear of defying it—are the causes of most people’s obedience. So if a movement wants to encourage people to withdraw their consent, to interrupt their obedience to the regime, then undermining the regime’s authority is a key objective. For Otpor, the answer was laughter.4
Laughing at Politicians
In its campaign to oust Milosevic, Otpor endeavored to use humorous stunts right from the start. A few months after Milosevic had been indicted for war crimes by the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal, Otpor staged birthday parties for him in a couple cities. Thousands of Serb citizens showed up for the mock parties to express their derision and have a laugh at their dictator’s expense. Unfortunately, he wasn’t there to receive his birthday gifts—a prison outfit, handcuffs and a one-way ticket to The Hague.5
In Ukraine, the activist group Pora (It’s Time) used a similar tactic to undermine the image of Viktor Yanukovych, the authoritarian presidential candidate backed by Russia and wealthy Ukrainian oligarchs. Pora seized on the fact that, in an earlier life, Yanukovych had done time in jail for robbery and assault. Their ironic stunt, staged in the run-up to the 2004 election, is described by Matthew Collin in his book The Time of the Rebels:
They marched around the centre of Kiev, wearing striped prison uniforms and chained together in a long, straggling column, urging people to vote for a criminal future and praising the virtues of life behind the bars of a renegade state where the top dog in the jailhouse could make up his own rules.6
Laughing at Institutions
Humor can operate to challenge the authority of institutions as well as individuals. In 2011, an outfit called the “Yes Lab”7 teamed up with an activist group called “Coal is Killing Kids” to lampoon Peabody Energy, a major coal producer.
During National Asthma Awareness Month the activists launched an ironic promotion called “Coal Cares.”8 Impersonating Peabody, they sent out press releases and set up social media accounts and a fake website9 publicizing their campaign to “make asthma cool.”
The “Coal Cares” website offered free novelty-themed inhalers to kids living within 200 miles of a coal power plant. To overcome the stigma of being an asthmatic child, the inhalers featured themes such as “My Little Pony” and “SpongeBob SquarePants,” all designed “to help asthmatic children show others who’s cool at school.” The ersatz website also featured asthma trivia, a “Kidz Koal Korner” with games and puzzles, and a page explaining the virtues of coal while exaggerating the dangers of wind and solar energy.
Needless to say, Peabody Energy was not amused. Recognizing the hoax as a public relations nightmare, they reacted angrily, demanding their name be removed from the website and threatening to sue.10
Laughing in Repressive Environments
In highly repressive societies, of course, making fun of the authorities can be dangerous. But there are ways to minimize the risk. Humorous actions can be calibrated depending on the amount of risk activists are willing to take. The trick is to disguise the joke in the form of some perfectly acceptable action.
Otpor was the master of encrypted mockery. In some Serbian cities, Milosevic’s party was firmly in control and tolerated no dissent. To avoid arrests, beatings and worse, humorous protests had to be extremely subtle. One such action was staged in Leskovac, where activists targeted Milosevic’s wife, Mirjana Markovic, simply by handing out free candy on the street.
Markovic was head of the powerful Yugoslav United Left Party (JUL), which made her fair game in the struggle to oust the regime. Her fashion trademark was wearing a white flower in her hair. The chocolate bars Otpor activists handed out were called “Julka,” which recalled Markovic’s JUL party, and the wrapper featured a picture of a cow wearing a flower on its head.11
Everyone got the association, but the police chose not to interfere since, technically, the protesters were not breaking any laws. But even if they had made arrests, Otpor would have gotten press coverage and the police would have looked foolish jailing kids for simply giving out free candy.
In authoritarian environments almost any public action can be subversive, no matter how seemingly innocuous. And using humor can multiply the impact.
Some activists are willing to take big risks even in highly repressive societies. In such situations, where organizing large campaigns is not yet feasible, laughing at authority can begin to break the magic spell of obedience and fear that enthralls the populace. While humorous stunts can’t overthrow dictators, they can encourage people to imagine alternatives to the dominant culture perpetrated by the authoritarian state. Mocking the regime can help create a cognitive crisis where habitual conformity is no longer perceived as the norm and where resistance to domination is thinkable.
In 2010 the Russian guerrilla art group Voina evaded security guards and painted a 200-foot penis on a drawbridge12 right in front of the Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters in St. Petersburg.13 As the bridge slowly rose to its erect position, amused tourists and city residents snapped photos and posted them on social media.14 Voina intended the daring stunt to send a message to the hated FSB—a brazen “fuck you.”15
For the Russian people, the prank perhaps demonstrated the regime was not so all-powerful as it appeared; that there were cracks in the monolith where defiant moments of authentic freedom could be lived. Bold actions that “give the finger” to powerful institutions can begin to loosen the psychological bonds of fear and impotence that keep the public compliant.
The Power of Laughter
In her book No Billionaire Left Behind Angelique Haugerud points out that humor can be more powerful than animosity:
Even commissars in an authoritarian regime may accept citizens’ hatred but fear their laughter since it dramatizes the limits of propaganda and repression.16
The high and mighty—political leaders, governments, big corporations—hate being laughed at. That’s because the perception of authority they work so hard to foster is fragile and easily undermined by humor. And when authority dissipates, so does power, opening the floodgates to more ridicule and increased resistance. Laughter can be powerful.
- “Full transcript of Ahmadinejad Speech at Columbia University,” Global Research, accessed August 31, 2017, http://www.globalresearch.ca/full-transcript-of-ahmadinejad-speech-at-columbia-university/6889.
- Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co. 1970), 45.
- Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, Humor and Nonviolent Struggle in Serbia (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2015), 20, 37.
- William J. Dobson, The Dictator’s Learning Curve (New York: Anchor Books, 2013) 248.
- Sombatpoonsiri, Humor and Nonviolent Struggle in Serbia, 107.
- Matthew Collin, The Time of the Rebels (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2007), 116.
- The Yes Lab (http://yeslab.org/) is dedicated to training and assisting activist groups who want to carry out creative actions that get media attention.
- “Coal Cares,” Yes Lab, accessed August 31, 2017, http://yeslab.org/project/coal-cares.
- “Coal Cares.”
- Sombatpoonsiri, Humor and Nonviolent Struggle in Serbia, 108.
- Like most of Voina’s stunts, this one was carried out with precision, the result of careful planning. They practiced for two weeks in an empty parking lot to ensure their guerrilla attack went off without a hitch. Once the security guards stopped traffic on the bridge, the small band had less than 30 seconds to execute their “artwork” (while evading the police) before the drawbridge began to open. One member of the group was apparently caught in the act and detained for a couple days.
- “Don’t raise the bridge: Voina, Russia’s art terrorists,” The Guardian, accessed September 1, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/apr/12/voina-art-terrorism.
- “Towering penis graffiti startles St. Petersburg residents,” The Observers, accessed September 1, 2017, http://observers.france24.com/en/20100622-giant-penis-towers-over-st-petersburg-skyline-russia-liteiny-bridge-art-voina.
- Majken Jul Sørensen, Humour in Political Activism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 179.
- Angelique Haugerud, No Billionaire Left Behind (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 30.