Comedian Michele Wolf’s scathing set at the 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner will live in infamy.
It’s also reminder of how formidable a weapon laughter is to the resistance.Anger can be useful. The stories of ordinary people who dared to change the world often get moving when someone—some insurance salesman, shopkeeper, Baptist preacher, or struggling lawyer—gets fed up.
But anger is also a fire. It can eat you. And rage, even when its legitimate, can be used to undermine a movement.
In his book Blueprint for Revolution, activist Srdja Popovich explains why anger so easily backfires. I’ll paraphrase:
You’re at a rally where hundreds passionately oppose the absurdly high price of chocolate milk or whatever. No one is being violent, except for one genius throws a glass bottle at the police. Guess who will make the front page of CNN’s website? Not the hundreds maintaining non-violent discipline.
The powers that be will use your anger to vilify you, make you look threatening to the general populace, so that the resistance looks too dangerous and intimidating to join. They’ll use it to steal public sentiment and to justify the brutality they’ll use to shut you down.
The powers know exactly what to do with a raging mob. Roll in the tanks. Launch the tear gas. Bring out the handcuffs.
All of that is harder to do when the resistance is having fun.
Laughter Opens the Imagination In a Dangerous Way.
The powers want to be feared and worshipped. This is why dictators (and aspiring despots) throw military parades, assume grandiose titles (e.g. ‘supreme leader’), and broadcast their faces on public television all day. They want to control the way that people see them.
They want to be taken with the utmost seriousness. So they bomb and imprison and grandstand to instill fear into the people. But laughter cracks their ferocious facade.
Banksy uses this tool well. When he paints pictures of the police picking daisies or pillow fighting, he subverts the intimidating icons that are meant to communicate the indomitable might of the state. It’s funny…and subversive.
Laughter crams a foot in the door of our imagination, helping us to at least consider that maybe the opposition isn’t so tough. After all, they can’t even withstand a joke.And if that is truly the case, perhaps the odds are beatable.
Laughter Creates a Dilemma for the Powers
Popovich was a founding leader in the Serbian activist group that took down dictator Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s. One of their protests was to paint the dictator’s face on the side of a barrel and place it on the street. Next to the barrel was a baseball bat and a sign that read “Smash his face for just [two cents].” Next thing you know, there was a long line of kids, parents, and students waiting participate.
When the cops showed up, they had a conundrum. These were average citizens, not doing anything technically illegal. They weren’t rioting or destroying property. Should they be arrested for having a little fun with a barrel?
The powers know that cracking down on artists for painting funny pictures or writing sarcastic songs or comedians for writing punchy humor is much different from tasering an angry rioter. Both may be abuses of power, but one will obviously make them lose points in the court of public opinion. And once they’ve lost the support of the people, they have truly lost.
The cops, says Popovich, arrested the barrel and took it away.
Laughter Is Attractive
People generally don’t like being angry, even if for a noble cause. Most people aren’t moved by ideals but by their felt needs and interests. There’s a specific kind of person that responds to the call “Something terrible happened! Let’s go be mad about it in public together!” I am that kind of person and I’m also one of the strangest people I know.
Normal people, on the other hand, are more likely to respond to a call to be a part of something fun—maybe something meaningful, but definitely something fun. Most don’t want to risk their lives or go to jail, and shaming people for their lack of outrage or altruism isn’t inspiring.
But if you can show them a good time—and fighting the power can be a good time—they might be more open to joining.
This doesn’t mean that justice work needs to be all fun and games or that there’s no room for grief. My friends and I spent a year at the doors of a local police station in Pasadena, CA to protest the police-involved death of my mentally ill neighbor. We also went to happy hour every Thursday and threw dance parties every other month.
Those times of laughter kept me going when the struggle was most difficult. So, it’s not an either-or proposition. The key is to make doing good as fun as you can.
Laughter Keeps Us Sane and Strong
One of my favorite stories Nelson Mandela tells in his autobiography is just after he’s arrested on charges of treason for his anti-apartheid work. He is sitting in the front seat with the arresting officer and asks what the man would do if he tried to overpower him. “You’re playing with fire,” the officer says. “Playing with fire is my game,” Mandela replies.
Throughout the literature of the tradition of non-violent social change, from Thoreau down to Popovich, I find stories like that heartening. Activists cracking jokes, singing songs, and making games out of fighting the power. They convey an unassailable spirit amidst their struggles. It’s not blind optimism because they’re staring society’s problems in the face. But their sense of hope, of certainty in the nobility of their cause, and their sense of humor seem to keeps them grounded—keeps them alive amidst oppressive circumstances.
All of this is why the resistance needs to keep a sense of humor. It’s the only way it will last.
Here’s Michelle’s speech: