Billionaires protest

Use Humor to Open Minds

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Civil resistance actions can have many different purposes. But one goal is often to persuade the general public to change their opinions and support your cause. You might try to do this directly or through media coverage.

In either case, this is a tough task because many in your “audience” will have pre-formed opinions. Entrenched beliefs and attitudes are the lens through which they perceive the world. Even more importantly, these opinions may be an integral part of their identities—how they perceive themselves.

Consequently, forceful arguments may do nothing more than harden the defenses of people you are trying to persuade. So how can you overcome this resistance?

Indirect Approach

Most of the books I’ve read about public opinion and propaganda make a common point: to persuade people, never directly attack their strongly held beliefs. Anyone who has engaged in public protest has seen this principle at work. Earnest declarations are easy for people to stereotype and dismiss without challenging their habitual thought patterns. Worse yet, strident, angry protests may even alienate anyone not already in agreement with your principles. Direct confrontation makes it easy for them to activate their automatic blocking mechanisms: “Oh, that idea again. That’s not what I believe. That’s not who I am.”

Some interesting commentary on this point comes from an unexpected source. Sir Basil Liddell Hart was a British military strategist famous for his emphasis on the indirect approach to engaging in battle. He argued that by attacking at the point of least expectation (and least resistance), the enemy could be surprised and psychologically thrown off balance.

In the preface to his most famous book, Strategy, Hart reflected on how his indirect approach to military strategy was also applicable to influencing ossified public opinion:

In all such cases, the direct assault of new ideas provokes a stubborn resistance, thus intensifying the difficulty of producing a change of outlook. Conversion is achieved more easily and rapidly by unsuspected infiltration of a different idea or by an argument that turns the flank of instinctive opposition.1

But in practical terms, how does one use the indirect approach to challenge strongly held beliefs?

Humor

One possible way is through humor. Humorous actions may have the potential to jolt people out of their comfort zone by taking them by surprise and insinuating new ideas before they are able to put up their defenses. This is because, according to something called “incongruity theory,” some types of humor operate by the sudden juxtaposition of cognitive frames. Let me explain.2

To create satire, you seemingly embrace the idea you wish to delegitimize. This is one cognitive frame. Then you present that idea in a way that exaggerates and twists the premise to make it appear absurd, which creates another frame of reference. It is the juxtaposition of these two frames that both reveals the falsity of the original idea and makes us laugh.

Parody works in a similar way. The original frame of reference is the target person or institution that claims to be legitimate. To parody that entity, you pretend to imitate it but in fact exaggerate its image in a way that illuminates the fallacy of its claims. Janjira Sombatpoonsiri explains it this way:

…parody is subversive because while mimicking the original object, it twists characteristics of the object which have hitherto enabled claims that it is a “genuine” reflection of reality. Fundamentally, parody suspends the truth claim of its imitated object. It does so by distorting elements that consolidate the truth claim in the first place.3

This distorted image of the object is the second frame of reference. As in satire, it is the juxtaposition of these frames—the super-serious person or institution that is the target of your parody, and the ridiculous distortion of that target—that provides mocking humor and insight into the true nature of the person or institution.

What I’m describing is obviously a gross oversimplification of the complex ways in which humor operates. But the basic principle is simple—putting commonly accepted ideas into a new context can catch people off guard and generate a moment of disorientation or uncertainty. Some argue that this flash of confusion creates a gap in the consciousness of the audience that might allow alternative points of view to penetrate. Here Majken Jul Sørensen summarizes the potential advantage of indirect attacks through humorous stunts:

When political arguments are presented rationally by using traditional ways of disseminating information such as leaflets, posters and speeches, most people meet the arguments with an already-formed opinion. However, humour might provide a cognitive “detour” or a “psychological circuit breaker” creating this moment of openness. Whether that moment will really change a person’s view and deepen the insight depends on a number of factors, but at least there appears to be a possibility for getting the audience to re-examine its assumptions.4

Let’s look at some examples of how this works.

T-shirts

Otpor t-shirtOtpor, the youth group that helped overthrow the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, made good use of humor to challenge the public’s blind acceptance of the regime’s propaganda. When Milosevic attacked the group by labeling them “terrorists,” Otpor started wearing t-shirts with the slogan “Otpor Terrorist.”5 The absurd admission by young, innocent neighborhood kids that they were terrorists created a juxtaposition that brought to light just how silly the government charges were.

During food shortages, Otpor members stood in the long lines for sugar and cooking oil while wearing t-shirts that read “Everything in Serbia is OK,” echoing the regime’s farcical claim of normalcy.6 The shirts illuminated the contrast between Milosevic’s sunny propaganda and the real-life experiences of the people waiting in lines for basic necessities, perhaps instilling moments of doubt in the public mind about the regime’s legitimacy.

Billionaires

Billionaires protest
Billionaires’ Support Our Mercenaries rally

One group in the US that perfected the art of juxtaposing cognitive frames was the Billionaires, who tried to raise awareness about increasing wealth inequality. Over the years this group went through a number of iterations as Billionaires for Bush, Billionaires for Wealthcare, Billionaires for Plutocracy and so on. But they always used the same ironic device—create incongruity by posing as wealthy supporters of causes or people they actually opposed.

For example, when wealthy publishing tycoon Steve Forbes announced his candidacy for US president in 1999, the Billionaires for Forbes were in the crowd, conservatively dressed and looking like clean-cut Young Republicans. They cheered enthusiastically as he spoke, chanting “Run, Steve, run.”

But the vibe suddenly changed when the Billionaires began holding up signs with ironic slogans like “INEQUALITY IS NOT GROWING FAST ENOUGH” and “TAX CUTS FOR ME, NOT MY MAID.” The Forbes campaign was not happy with the prank, but it got the attention of bored reporters who were covering the event, and it received several mentions in the national media.7

On other occasions, Billionaires for Bush would appear in front of post offices on April 15 (tax day) dressed like caricatures of the super wealthy—the women wearing evening gowns and tiaras, the men attired in tuxedos and chomping on giant cigars. They would hold signs like “THANKS FOR PAYING OUR FAIR SHARE” and “TAXES ARE NOT FOR EVERYONE.”8 Passersby were at first confused before suddenly grasping the irony (although some never did get it):

“Is it a joke? I can’t figure out if it’s a joke,” said a woman encountering the Billionaires for the first time at their 2004 tax day event outside New York City’s central post office. A man who was a bystander at the same event at first wondered, “But are they for or against Bush?” As passersby linger and watch, they usually realize that the “campy, spoofy” (as one observer put it) Billionaire impersonations are meant to be ironic.9

By constructing moments of doubt and incongruity, the Billionaires used humor to indirectly attack received ideas about wealth and privilege.

Risks

Yet staging a humorous action can be fraught with difficulties. For one thing, humor is not the appropriate tool in every situation, and needs to be used prudently or it may do more harm than good.

If you don’t plan your protest or prank carefully and execute it skillfully, you risk losing credibility or just looking stupid. People may not get the joke or they may not get the point you’re trying to make. Especially when using irony, it’s important to take into account the cultural context and shared social assumptions of your intended audience.10 If the humor is too subtle, or references something your audience is unfamiliar with, people may take your ironic statement at face value. But if you make the incongruity too obvious, your action will just seem dumb instead of funny.11

It’s probably best to keep it simple at first until you gain experience.12 Most professional comedians were not funny when they started out. They had to learn their craft. Being funny is hard.

More research is needed on how effective humor can be at opening the public’s consciousness to new ideas. But direct attacks on people’s closely held beliefs are rarely effective, and well-planned creative actions may have the potential to disrupt habitual thought patterns and suggest new possibilities. Intuitively it seems to make sense and anecdotally it seems to work.

So it might be worth trying to lighten things up with a little guerrilla humor. Besides, there a lot of other benefits to using laughter to energize those boring old protests (more on this in future posts). And, not insignificantly, being funny is a lot more fun.

Creative Commons License
Text by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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Footnotes

  1. B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy: The Indirect Approach (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1954), 18
  2. The ideas in this section are mostly derived from the following books: Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, Humor and Nonviolent Struggle in Serbia (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2015); Majken Jul Sørensen, Humour in Political Activism: Creative Nonviolent Resistance (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); Angelique Haugerud, No Billionaire Left Behind: Satirical Activism in America (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013)
  3. Sombatpoonsiri, Humor and Nonviolent Struggle in Serbia, 9.
  4. Sørensen, Humour in Political Activism, 64.
  5. “The Year Life Won in Serbia,” Tavaana, accessed October 12, 2017, https://tavaana.org/en/content/year-life-won-serbia-otpor-movement-against-milosevic-0.
  6. Timothy Garton Ash, “The Last Revolution,” The New York Review of Books, November 16, 2000, accessed October 14, 2012, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2000/11/16/the-last-revolution/
  7. Haugerud, No Billionaire Left Behind, 113–16.
  8. Haugerud, No Billionaire Left Behind, 6.
  9. Haugerud, No Billionaire Left Behind, 142.
  10. Sørensen, Humour in Political Activism, 89.
  11. Sørensen, Humour in Political Activism, 143.
  12. There are several organizations that provide training and advice for activists trying to design creative actions or pranks. For example: The Yes Lab or Beautiful Trouble or The Center for Artistic Activism.