At STRIKE! we know humour is a powerful weapon in the fight for change, that there’s a big difference – as John Cleese famously pointed out – between sombre and serious. Humour has a unique way of cutting across all sorts of bullshit.

So after we saw Sdrja Popvic’s TedTalk on the subject, we asked him and Marcella Alvarez from CANVAS (The Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies) to take us through ‘doing it with the lolz’. World leaders better learn to take a joke…

Illustration: Kasia Fijalkowska

Laughtervism by Marcella Alvarez and Srdja Popovic

Using humour as a means for political commentary is an idea nearly as old as democracy itself: from the plays of Aristophanes in ancient Greece that poked fun at ruling Athenian elites; to Moliere’s satires, which incited people to take to the streets demanding “Liberty, Egalite, Fraternite”; to the present day political cartoons of Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat, whose depictions of Arab ruling families have had him beaten and banned in countries all through the Middle East. Clearly, the use of humour as a means of political dissent has been an important avenue of inciting civil debate, if not full on revolution. Now more than ever, though, we are seeing how humour is used not just as a subversive tool by writers, artists and cartoonists, but instead as a weapon for building support for mass social movements by the people directly involved – activists.

The term ‘laughtivism’ is one of many different coinages that have arisen in recent years to describe the increasingly diverse avenues for civil resistance that new media and technologies have given rise to. Much has been covered on the work of “hacktivists” such as Julian Assange and Bradley Manning of Wikileaks fame, as well as the advent of “clicktivism”, which describes real-field issues that become oversimplified when people think resistance is tantamount to ‘liking’ it on facebook or posting about it on youtube. However, “laughtivism” is still a relatively new coinage that nonetheless has useful lessons to teach those looking to improve their political landscape.

Laughtivism refers specifically to the use of humour in nonviolent political campaigns to bolster social movements, unite opposing constituencies and decrease the negative effects of fear for resistors who risk oppression. Instead of drawing from the political landscape in the name of entertainment or art, as has been done for literally thousands of years, the goal with ‘laughtivist’ techniques is to bring awareness to a political or social issue using humour as a means for delivering that message.

A few defining characteristics of ‘laughtivist” techniques: they are funny; they are political; they are demonstrative in nature and bring awareness to an issue through the use of creative, real-field campaigns.

The 1990’s were a difficult time in Serbia. Autocrat Slobodan Milosevic had tried an unequivocal power-grab, after a succession of bloody wars, in his attempt to retain power in the Balkans. Out of these struggles grew the student movement Otpor! (Resistance!), which sought to unite the Serbian people against Milosevic. One of Otpor’s most effective tactics was the humourous dilemma action – pranks that put the opposing forces in a lose/lose situation and were conducted in a decidedly humourous manner. One of the most famous actions was entitled “A Dime for Change”, whereby two Otpor members painted Slobodan Milosevic’s face on a barrel and set it up in a main pedestrian walking area. The members offered passersby the chance to pay a dime to hit the Milosevic barrel in the head with a baseball bat. The Otpor members managed to slip away and go unnoticed after the event gathered a crowd. Eventually police arrived, and were forced to respond in a no-win situation – they were required either to allow the action to continue, or risk appearing as though the regime was afraid to take a joke. So, instead, they arrested the barrel. Media outlets got wind of the story and the next day it was plastered across the newspapers, giving the small Otpor movement much needed media attention. Instead of paying big fees to create a large PR event – something that Otpor members had neither the human nor material resources to do – they simply used a little bit of creativity, which garnered a high media payoff.

Utilising humour in activism helps to dissipate fear. Just as in militarised conflict where people need to keep up their morale as they are preparing to face brutal conflict, nonviolent civil resistors must also build unity so that they are able to face the threat of police brutality, arrest or other forms of violent oppression. The Serbian struggle again provides a good example of using humour to create unity. During the 1999 NATO airstrikes, many students painted giant targets on their backs as a way of showing each other that they were not afraid of the NATO forces flying overhead. Of course, it goes without saying that people did not actually wish to be harmed during the US-lead campaign, but doing so strengthened the bonds of Serbian protestors who were otherwise helpless in the midst of large scale airstrikes. The humour in this situation helped to shift the narrative from one about victimhood to one of activism. This culture of solidarity that Otpor cultivated with members helped to carry the Serbian struggle to the national stage. Today Otpor is widley credited with being an instrumental force behind the 2000 non-violent revolution that finally saw Milosevic – the ‘butcher of the Balkans’ – ousted from power.

It is easy to see how laughtivism may be written off as a stopgap solution that does not weigh in on the serious and difficult task of nation-building. As Kei Hiruta put astutely in her essay Two Cheers for Laughtivsm: “Once strongmen depart or make sufficient concessions, laughtivists must stop laughing and start deliberating and negotiating with their former enemies; they must turn their righteous anger into an enduring sense of justice.”i Public actions like Dime for Change are just one step towards gaining attention for a movement that should have concrete demands and highly considered future plans. Social movements still take considerable time and consideration; however, the grassroots nature of laughtivist actions means that now more than ever before there is the opportunity for activists to at least begin that process of civil society building, and have a say in how it moves forward.

An initial step towards a robust civil society that is emerging from the heavy handed rule of an autocratic regime must include unity of constituencies. This is something that humour aids greatly to clarify, particularly on the grassroots level and in the early stages of campaigns. Often when planning a mass social movement, getting people to laugh about similar issues clarifies exactly where participants stand, which can help to lay the groundwork for more specific demands as the movement makes the transition from rallying people on the streets into the negotiation phase, with or in government.

In the past five years alone the world has witnessed an unprecedented rise in global civil resistance movements: Brazilians protesting hikes in bus fares, Turkish citizens taking to the streets over Gezi park, Bahraini’s gathering around their Pearl monument, and Bosnians protesting against the lack of identification numbers for infants. The reasons for civil resistance are as varied as the political landscapes and cultures they come from. One thing that unifies and makes them stand out is clear: the carnival atmosphere pervading the movements and the fun, relatively speaking, the protestors are having.

Watch out dictators: you’d better learn to take a joke. The people under you certainly have.

Srdja Popovic and Marcella Alvarez work for CANVAS (Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies), an international network of trainers and consultants engaged in the transfer of knowledge about nonviolent democratic change around the world.

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