Facilitating Outreach and Mobilization
If you do something on a volunteer base, you need to motivate people. If you do something funny, people usually smile. If people smile they feel very well, and that was another way to raise motivation of the people.30
The first function of humor concerns issues about outreach and mobilization, in other words contact with people who are not part of the resistance movement. Humor can attract more members; it becomes more fun to be involved, and it brings energy, something that Otpor discovered. It especially worked to attract young people and students, although the increase in membership was an unexpected side-effect of the use of humor. Otpor's biggest growth came in 2000 after the movement became more serious, but many Otpor informants think that humor was crucial to making Otpor attractive in the beginning stages of organizing. However, many other things may have contributed to its popularity; for instance, Otpor differed from political parties because of its nonhierarchical structure where everybody was deemed important and no one was fighting for their own position.
Humor became part of the style and the branding which made it “cool” to be a part of Otpor. In relation to others, humor can make one stand out, and it may become easier to get attention from the media, something both the Norwegian total resisters and Otpor experienced. For Otpor, it was also a way to stand out from other political organizations and to highlight intelligence and wit as a contrast to the brute force of the regime.
The literature has little to say about this function of humor, but I consider it to be straightforward and unproblematic. What has been mentioned here are all important aspects of mobilizing for a nonviolent social movement, but mobilization can be achieved without any use of humor. Many social movements manage to attract new activists and to get attention, and most of them do not consider using humor to accomplish this.31
Facilitating a Culture of Resistance
The second function of humor concerns what is going on inside the resistance movement. What happens outside and inside are linked—for example, the number of new activists influence what is happening inside—but there is a fundamental difference in how humor works in relation to the outside and the inside. Differences exist both in the form and the content of the humor one uses to reach out and the humor one shares with his or her friends in the movement.32 Humor facilitates a culture of resistance both at the organizational and individual level. Again, this cannot be achieved solely through the use of humor, and many resistance movements have created a resistance mentality without using humor. But it does occur, and can play an important role, as discussed below; for Otpor, humor was one way of creating this culture of resistance. As one informant put it:
[because of the humor] we were functioning much better in the organization, we had better relations inside Otpor, we felt like a family.33
In addition to its relationship with the outside world, an organization also needs to work on its internal dynamics, creating a culture of resistance where members support each other and overcome political and individual apathy. That humor can be of help here is illustrated by jokes from occupied Norway (1940–1945):
A Nazi officer brushed past a little gray-haired, aristocratic looking old lady. She raised her cane and knocked off his hat, berating him loudly for showing so little respect toward his elders. Embarrassed, he apologized, but she continued her tirade until he fled. The little old lady went on about her business chuckling to herself, “well, we’ll all have to fight this war as best we can; that's the fourth hat I've knocked into the mud this morning.34
Kathleen Stokker notes that “quisling humor” (directed towards Vidkun Quisling, the leader of the Norwegian Nazi party) protected people's self-respect and gave the population some sort of control in an otherwise uncontrollable situation.35 The jokes also served to break down isolation and create a solidarity and group identity within the population. Because so many people shared the jokes, their very existence contradicted the Nazi propaganda that people who did not join them would stand alone.36 As Stokker writes, “The jokes also provided an image of nation-wide solidarity that vitally assisted the resistance effort.”37
Stokker's findings present a strong contrast to the statement of Gregor Benton quoted earlier that jokes will never create any social change. In Norway, this kind of humor helped create a resistance mentality,38 or a way of showing who was “in” with the resistance movement, and who was “out” with the Nazis.
Naturally, there are differences between cultures, and Stokker contrasts the Norwegian occupation humor with jokes from Eastern Europe during dictatorship, finding that in Norwegian humor “everyone” fights back, and support for the resistance movement is found in the most unusual places. By contrast, in Eastern Europe, the jokes show that you should trust no one,39 as this example illustrates:
Two Rumanians are on a bus. One is sitting down; the other is standing. The man sitting asks:
– Are you a member of the Communist party?
– Are you in the military?
– You mean you are not a government or party official of any kind?
– Then get the hell off my foot!40
But there is something else about the function of humor that Benton fails to notice. Even a joke that is not showing solidarity in its punch line still shows who is in with the resistance and who is not. One would only share this kind of joke with people one trusts or wants to know if one can trust.
The space for resistance can be more or less limited and it consists of many possible actions along a continuum, and should not be understood only as either open rebellion or absolute submission. A hidden transcript as opposed to the public transcript is the way subordinate groups act and talk about their oppressor behind his back. In the public transcript, the oppressed under a dictatorship say “Yes sir!” and show obedience and compliance, but when she can get away with it during the dark or together with a small group of trusted friends, the worker will work more slowly, the slave will steal his master's food, and the oppressed citizen will mock and ridicule the dictator.41 According to James Scott, who invented these terms, the hidden transcript has an important role in itself in giving people dignity in the eyes of themselves and their group, but it also serves as preparation for the day when the hidden transcript is declared in public and resistance is made open, if that day ever comes.42 Scott's nuanced understanding of resistance to domination, as opposed to traditional understandings of resistance as open rebellion, provides us with concepts for looking at all the space between complete compliance and openly declared rebellion, the space where things are not as they seem on the surface. This understanding of resistance and domination also means that “power” is not something one has or does not have, but is a relational concept that involves a dynamic interaction between opposing forces. This way of analyzing power differs from the traditional understanding of it as a constant where the person/group with “most power” is the group with most weapons at its disposal. Gene Sharp nuances this understanding of power by emphasizing that even the most brutal dictator is completely dependent on the cooperation of a large number of people, and withdrawal of cooperation from people in important positions will make the dictator's power crumble.43 Scott takes it one step further when he says that challenges the oppressor does not know about do still have an effect because they change the mind of the oppressed.
Jokes, satire, and ridicule are only one part of the hidden transcript, and Scott does not give humor particular attention. But humor, as part of the hidden transcript, becomes one way of developing the culture for further and openly declared resistance and thereby empowers the resistance movement.
This is a strong contrast to Benton, but links well with Stokker's understanding of how jokes can contribute to a resistance mentality. It also links to another aspect of humor important to a culture of resistance: how it can help overcome apathy. That humor can help individuals in stressful oppressive situations has been documented, from Jews in Nazi concentration camps44 to U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam.45 But it is one thing to help the individual preserve self-respect, dignity, and a wish to live, and another thing to overcome political apathy. Two Otpor activists commenting on apathy, describe their experience as follows:
[there was] an atmosphere of absolute fear, and everything was destroyed [in NATO bombing] ... (overall feeling that we could not do anything ... ) and this is really where humor came into the picture: You couldn't persuade anyone, in this kind of atmosphere in the country, you couldn't persuade anybody that something could be changed, that something should be changed ... with using different symbols, different narratives [Otpor succeeded]. And then there was the energy it was somewhere there, you could feel it, it was just to trigger it ... (people were really very, very eager to change things ... ) you just needed something to wake them up and make them active again.46
We wanted to show that however silly it can be, you can do something, although it may look silly, at least you do something, and that was the idea of Otpor. You don't support Otpor, you have to join Otpor, to live Otpor. And you have to take part in this kind of action, to do your own actions. Bite the system, live resistance [an early Otpor slogan].47
A culture of resistance builds upon some degree of an us/them divide. Although such kinds of divides are often considered problematic, in an oppressive situation there has to be a difference between those who are oppressing and those who are resisting. You need to name what it is you consider oppressive in order to be able to fight it. Many nonviolent resisters make an effort to separate between the oppressor as a person and the oppression he is committing, thus the humor will attack the oppressive system, but not the oppressor as a person.48
According to Berger, “Those who laugh together, belong together.”49 Sharing humor is built on shared knowledge of what we laugh at. For Mulkay, most humor is conservative and reinforces the status quo. Even political humor that at first seems to be radical and challenging, will in the long run serve to underline the already established political divisions. He thinks that political humor will only appeal to the already convinced, and does not change political opinions.50 Is this really true? In the sense of the us/them divide, Mulkay is right when he says that political humor underlines established political divisions, but it is not correct, at least not in oppressive situations, that it is conservative and reinforces the status quo. In the case of Otpor it helped create the feeling that something can and must be done about the status quo, and in order for this to happen, the difference between oppression and resistance has to be clear. Humor's play with duality and contradictions becomes one way of making this distinction obvious.
Turning Oppression Upside Down
Turning oppression upside down is the third function of humor as resistance, and here the humor deals directly with the relationship between oppression and resistance. This kind of humor has a new dimension and operates on a different level than the two previous functions. When it works, three things happen more or less simultaneously: (a) The humor used is confrontational; it provokes, mocks, or ridicules, which escalates the conflict and puts pressure on the oppressor. (b) Although an increased pressure raises the chances of repression, paradoxically the use of humor reduces fear within the resistance movement. (c) Humor reduces the oppressor's options for reacting in a way he can later justify.
Otpor was built as a nonhierarchical organization, with no individual leaders and where small independent groups organized their own actions.51 However, it still had an informal leadership and a core group that laid out the strategy, and part of that deliberate strategy was to use humor to provoke Milošević and reduce people's fear of him.
The thing is, that [humor] was something like the main thing that brought him [Milošević] down, because people were afraid, there was fear everywhere around and if we are going to change something, the main idea was to make fun of the things that make them afraid ... to make people less afraid by using humor.52
There is no doubt that humor was an important factor for reducing people's fear of the regime and of the police. Some of those interviewed for this piece stressed this element spontaneously, and everybody else supported this premise when asked directly. It is a very simple logic; it is more difficult to be afraid of someone when you laugh at him.
It is difficult to mock or ridicule those in power without some humorous elements, although the humor can be more or less “gentle” or more or less close to what is actually true. The closer one sticks to the truth about the oppressor, the better the humor works. An example of Otpor's more subtle irony can illustrate this: Mira Marković, the wife of Milošević and herself a politician in the Communist party, said in a statement that the Communists came to power with blood, so they would not leave power without blood. The Otpor activists then went to the hospital to donate blood and say “Here is our blood, now you can go.” This is humor that is not meant to make people laugh out loud, but to smile a little and provoke thought, and it turns the regime's own words against it. This humor is not very aggressive, but stuck to what Mira Marković had said. Satire twists the meaning of words, so that the person or case satirized finds her own force used against her. As Berger says about satire: “Like the martial arts, it always uses the adversary's strengths against himself and thus turns them into weaknesses.”53
Most of the humor Otpor used was not very aggressive, although some actions had aggressive elements. Let us examine an action that was also a clear provocation: To support agriculture, Milošević was placing boxes in shops and public places asking people to donate one dinar (Serbian currency) for sowing and planting crops. As a response, Otpor arranged its own collection called “Dinar za Smenu.”Smenu in Serbian is a word with many meanings; it can mean change, resignation, dismissal, pension, and purge. This action was repeated several times in different places in Serbia, and consisted of a big barrel with a photo of Milošević. People could donate one dinar, and would then get a stick they could use to hit the barrel. On one occasion, a sign suggested that if people did not have any money because of Milošević's politics, they should bang the barrel twice. When the police removed the barrel, Otpor said in a press release that the police had arrested the barrel, and that the action was a huge success. They claimed they had collected enough money for Milošević's retirement, and that the police would give the money to Milošević.
The power of humor is not in the level of aggression, at least not in an oppressive situation, but in the courage it takes and in the ambivalence between the innocence and the clear serious message. The provocation can be camouflaged behind the innocence that is part of the innocence–serious contrast explained earlier.
I have not investigated how the general public looked at Otpor's use of humor, but in order for the ridiculing of Milošević to work, it is likely that there has to be a perceived element of truth in the humor. Otpor's humor worked because they stayed within certain limits, and played with what was apparent, such as statements from the daily newspaper, or that Yugoslavia had fallen apart. If Otpor had tried to call the regime drug addicts or child abusers and made fun of that, people would have known that it was too far out. Instead they took what the regime did and twisted it and turned it against them, as in the leaflet with the cartoon of the boy painting graffiti and the statements about Otpor activists as terrorists and fascists. It was not necessary to invent new absurdities, because reality in itself was absurd enough.
As discussed above, humor used against oppression has a special twist to it because the humorous mode is connected to a perception of innocence, and contrasts so sharply with the serious issue of oppression. This contrast can take us even further, because it leads to another special advantage of using humor: How does one repress it?54
An example from Otpor illustrates this: In the beginning of September 2000, a few weeks before the presidential election, the police raided Otpor's central office in Belgrade. They took away everything—posters, stickers, office equipment like photocopiers and computers, and left only tables and chairs. Otpor called this police action “Unload 2000” and said that since the police had done the action this time, they were going to do the reaction “Load 2000.” Otpor planned for a time where the new equipment would arrive, and pretended that this was a secret action. However, because they knew who was informing on them to the secret police, they made sure that the secret police would know when all the new materials would arrive. A number of Otpor activists showed up outside the Otpor office in the main pedestrian street in Belgrade, apparently carrying heavy boxes that needed a lot of effort. The police arrived, and ordered the activists to put down all the boxes, which they reluctantly did. Some policemen were ordered to carry the boxes away. The policemen lifted the boxes with all their strength, since the boxes had looked heavy, but were in for a big surprise when the boxes flew into the air. The Otpor activists had managed to fool the police, and all the boxes were empty or full of old newspapers. Bystanders and Otpor activists were laughing, while the police were swearing at each other and the secret police's inability to provide reliable information.
The Norwegian total resisters in KMV made another spectacular action a few months after the “prosecutor,” which exposed the authorities in a different way: A number of activists climbed over the wall into the prison where one of their members was serving his 16 months. The group demanded to be imprisoned together with their friend on the grounds that they shared his views and therefore should be imprisoned with him. This caused confusion in the prison, where the guards were not used to getting extra inmates. How does one react to something like this? If the activists are allowed to stay in the prison, they make their point. If the police carry the protesters out, then the authorities look ridiculous. And if one wants to punish the protesters afterwards, how would this be done? Send them to prison as they had demanded?55
In addition to being a provocation, these two actions leave the authorities with a dilemma: How to respond when the secret police and prison system have just been exposed so directly? Humor and ridicule is not part of the means the police, prisons, and courts are used to responding to. They know how to react to violence, and how to act in response to “ordinary” protest such as demonstrations. But if the oppressor uses force against someone who is “just making fun,” he makes himself look ridiculous and gives the movement new material for further development of the fun. Two of the Otpor leaders I talked to called Otpor's actions “dilemma actions”—and the idea is to actively create this dilemma—no matter how the Milošević regime reacted, it had to regret it. Both the “load 2000” and the “Dinar za Smenu” mentioned earlier are examples of dilemma actions—if the police do not take away the barrel, they lose face, and when they do something Otpor continues the joke by calling it arrest of a barrel and saying the police will give Milošević the money for his retirement. No matter what the regime does, it has lost.
This does not mean that an oppressive system does not respond with violence, just that it is much harder to justify it. Playing with provocations can be dangerous business, and the result can be a violent response. Gandhi, for example, recommended not provoking or humiliating the oppressor since it would increase the chances of a violent response.56
The concept of political jiu-jitsu can help us understand the dynamic of turning oppression upside down. This central notion in nonviolence theory refers to how the opponents own force, as in the martial art, is used against him. When nonviolent resistance is met with violence, a special dynamic arises: It becomes difficult to justify the use of violence against a nonviolent resister. Gene Sharp, who was the first to write about political jiu-jitsu, explains:
Cruelties and brutalities committed against the clearly nonviolent are likely to disturb many people and fill some with outrage. Even milder violent repression appears less justified against nonviolent people than when employed against violent resisters.57
Such unjustified repression forces third parties and previously undecided people to take sides. When the nonviolent resisters use humor, something else happens in addition. Not only is it hard to justify violence, almost all kinds of reactions, violent or not, make the oppressor look ridiculous. This is illustrated by the different examples from Otpor that left the authorities without an adequate response, as well as by the actions of the Norwegian total resisters in which the court and prison did not risk a repressive response the activists could exploit further and, therefore, the cases were dismissed for “lack of evidence.”
Turning oppression upside down is different from the other two functions of humor because it directly challenges the relationship with the oppressor. To achieve all three elements of “turning oppression upside down” at the same time is a relatively unique dynamic, although I do not exclude the possibility that it can be created through other means as well.58
There will be cases where humor might be of great help in facilitating outreach, mobilization, and a culture of resistance, but it will not be taken to this level. Neither is there any guarantee that this strategy will work even in the cases where it is tried, because what happens also depends on the reaction from the oppressor. Oppression and resistance are so interlinked that one party does not control the situation alone. Potentially the humor can become too aggressive and focus on the oppressor instead of the oppression. If it is no longer based on wit and intelligence but too much on provocation, it ceases being funny, and the general public will lose sympathy. It is also possible to imagine scenarios where a repressive response is so severe that it increases fear even though the repression is ridiculous, or in which the oppressor manages to find an adequate response, maybe by using humor himself.