“If we can make a critic laugh, that is the first step towards subverting their homophobia.” (Peter Tatchell, 2016)
In class we have talked about contention, grievance, injustice, emotion, but very little about humour. This may be because most academics studying movements and mobilisation stress the more negative feelings and undisputed emotions of anger, fear and shock (’t Hart, 2007). Yet Alinsky (1989) believes that humour is essential and sees satire and ridicule as the most powerful tools we have.
Peter Tatchell, long-time LGBT rights campaigner, despite being subject to violent assaults and attacks on his property, never failed to see the power of humour in bringing about social change, emphasising recently that if you want to bring about social change then imagination and wit are important tools.
“Our protests were designed to inform and educate, and wherever possible to entertain. We often used humour and theatricality as a way of breaking through hostility.” Peter Tatchell (2016)
Comedians have never shied away from difficult topics such as inequality, democracy and human rights, and have been instrumental in crystallising issues around climate change. John Oliver used his sharp wit on his US show to quickly and effectively make a point about the media’s false balance on climate science in four minutes what scientists, academics and other experts had been failing to do for years.
But given the issues at stake and that much social protest is powered by injustice, I can understand why it is often absent in campaigns. Protest is about people’s lives, livelihoods and rights. As ’T Hart (2007: 2) observes: “In strongly polarized settings, humour is one of the first victims.”
As Tatchell notes humour is disarming and it can also bring together, but it can equally divide. Context is important, as is culture. ‘T Hart (2007) advises collective identity – an important component of social movements – needs to be established before humour can be used in social protest. Yes, sensitivity to a situation is paramount, although I would argue that humour can be an important part of building that collective identity, a way to find common ground amongst diverse and disparate groups.
Humour maintains sanity even when politics become stranger than satire. Funny can’t be forced, it mainly needs to be appropriate, and it can fail, but does anyone need reminding of the healing power of a good belly laugh? Here’s to more in 2017.
Alinsky, S.D.D., 1989. Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals. Vintage Books: New York.
’T Hart, M., 2007. Humour and Social Protest: An Introduction. International Review of Social History, 52(S15), pp.175–194. [Available at: http://www.journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0020859007003094\].
Tatchell, P., 2016. From the Margin to the Mainstream. RSA Events. [Available at: https://soundcloud.com/the_rsa/from-the-margin-to-the-mainstream].