Can laughter change the world? I’d like to think so. That seems to be the basic motivation behind an increasingly popular form of activism known as laughtivism. According to Foreign Policy magazine, “Today’s non-violent activists are inciting a global shift in protest tactics away from anger, resentment, and rage towards a new, more incisive form of activism rooted in fun.”
Plato, of course, banished humor and laughter from The Republic. He thought humor would distract the populace from the more serious issues of the day. Today’s laughtivists turn that logic on its head. The world is malign and malevolent; laughter is the only cure.
The phenomenon (I hesitate to call it a movement) is widespread. Beppe Grillo is one of the most popular and incisive politicians in Italy. Srdja Popovic used humor in opposition to a man who never seemed to smile, Slobodan Milosevic. Bassem Youssef in Egypt is widely known as the Arab Jon Stewart. The Yes Men have now made two films aimed at raising awareness of “problematic social issues.” And, of course, Jon Stewart is widely known as the American Bassem Youssef.
Laughtivism aims at political enlightenment and activism by undermining the legitimacy of ruling elites, especially those that scowl. I mean, really, how hard is it to make fun of Dick Cheney?
It’s also spiritually akin to culture jamming, which aims more broadly at undermining the established culture and mainstream media. As Wikipedia notes, culture jamming “purports to ‘expose the methods of domination’ of mass society to foster progressive change.” As such, laughtivism harks back to Abby Hoffman, the Yippies (with their nude radio show), Dr. Strangelove, and, perhaps, even to Marshall McLuhan.
Laughtivism aims to speak truth to power. That’s all well and good, but as Kei Hiruta points out in Practical Ethics, laughter “can also be used to conceal truth and reinforce cynicism.” We’ve all heard racist or sexist or homophobic jokes that aim to do exactly that.
While I enjoy laughtivism, I wonder how effective it is in changing the social order. For instance Yes! Magazine identified “Five Protests That Shook The World (With Laughter)”. Here’s how it describes the protest it ranks as number one:
In 1967, Abbie Hoffman and members of the Yippies, a radical activist group, threw 300 one-dollar bills from the New York Stock Exchange balcony onto the trading floor. According to Hoffman, as brokers grabbed for petty cash, trading ground to a halt. The famous stunt mocked the unregulated greed that still pervades Wall Street.
I happen to remember that protest. I laughed very hard and admired Abby Hoffman very much. But did it really change anything? I’m sure that it inspired some people and enraged others, but I didn’t see the pillars of society waver even a tiny bit.
Aristotle and other Greek rhetoricians taught that humor can help us learn and remember but that it doesn’t motivate us to take action. Humor can inspire and educate and even go viral but it doesn’t get us off the couch. Anger is the emotion that motivates action, which is precisely why our political rhetoric is so filled with anger.
I admire laughtivism because it can open a crack in the social facade. But I don’t think it has the force to drive the wedge home. As Hiruta says, “Mockery, jokes and satire are powerful tools to destabilise the existing order, but they are ill-suited to the different tasks of ending chaos, filling a power vacuum and installing a new order.”