10,000 Protesters Walk Into a Bar…

This might sound obvious, but when people protest or organize, it generally comes out of really strong negative feelings. Outrage, terror, misery, day-to-day overwhelm and oppression outweigh risk, and are channeled into an attempt to overcome. Naturally, this level of desperation and intention isn’t one that generates a lot of smiles—but I think that if organizers and activists can find a way to use humor in their activism, those feelings can be communicated much more effectively, and outsmart the psychological resistance of observers.

Until we become engaged, people have a natural psychological resistance to involving themselves in something unpleasant—even if it’s just listening to something negatively charged—without a good reason that seems relevant to us. One of the ultimate ways to dodge that self-protective resistance is humor.  I study cognitive science, and a little cog-sci can go a long way to explain how humor is far from a trivial tactic for political organizing.

One of the most fundamental things I’ve learned is the concept of cognitive economy: your brain is really good at quickly forming patterns that work well enough, and then clinging to them. As long as the disadvantages of the pattern aren’t too bad, this is a smart strategy. It takes a lot more energy to generate new pathways of thought than to simply maintain old ones.

It’s not until you experience noticeable disadvantages with a perception pattern that your brain will actively let it go, and agree to a re-routing – a new pattern of perceiving. This resistant property in our brains also manifests strongly when many brains work together. It’s particularly evident in issues of social justice: corporations, for instance, typically won’t reform policies unless something like a workers’ strike throws a wrench in the regularly functional gears. On the other hand, workers often aren’t willing to give up their job security—even when it’s insufficient—until things reach such a boiling point that they simply can’t go on with the usual pattern.

Humor happens when our expectations are upset, when we’re surprised. The usual set-up is in place, and then the pattern is subverted (whether through word choice, visual completeness of a picture, timing, etc.). This sequence of events, starting with an intact system that is suddenly abandoned, is strikingly similar to successful agents of social change. “Parody repeats something familiar, but with a potentially revolutionary difference,” Linda Hutcheons writes in her 2000 book, A Theory of Parody.

People watching a protest aren’t naturally inclined to listen to critical messages—let alone take action to support them—unless they have a good reason to disrupt their own routine. Physical obstructions are a good example of a noticeable disruption—picket lines and encampments, such as those used recently by the Occupy and Tar Sands protests. Having to walk around someone definitely breaks routine and attracts attention, although sometimes only in a negative sense.

Direct outreach may be hardest, since it demands that we connect with other people directly and convince them that something is important enough to require their action.  Gentle persuasion is easier to ignore than physical obstacles: people have limited time and energy with which to empathize and act, and the cognitive resources we don’t often even realize we’re using are similarly limited by all the other demands on our brains. This makes outreach incredibly challenging, sometimes demoralizingly so.

In trying to communicate urgency, organizers and activists will often appeal to reason, communicating the most relevant factual information, or statistics that indicate just how indisputably widespread, brutal, and immediate a problem is to convince people to get involved.

Unfortunately, as accurate and harrowing as the facts may be, numbers about the least stimulating pieces of information we can hear, especially if we’re unfamiliar with the problem at hand.  Personal stories, not data, get us to relate to other people. We can naturally see and feel ourselves in the situation, feel our values being violated, and are stirred to action.

Humor is a bonding force: it subverts the self-protective instinct that keeps our emotional involvement in check. Humor can make a person more open to listening seriously, especially to a difficult story. Humorous irony is a one-two punch that combines both of these emotional pulls. Langston Hughes said, “Humor is laughing at what you haven’t got when you ought to have it”—whether “it” is equality, agency, workers’ rights, access to necessary resources, or a healthy environment. In other words, humor that even briefly engages a person psychologically models the cognitive upset called for by a revolutionary message.

DW Diaz, the alter-ego of comedian Daniella Pineda, capitalizes on this sentiment with her video discussing the “fashionable” appropriation of Native American culture and art into products sold by Urban Outfitters, among others. I think the caption under the video, asking whether she goes too far, is an all-too-appropriate question. One of the challenges of using humor in organizing is that it is often used by the opposition to belittle, demean, or delegitimize. “Ironic” humor walks a fine line that often ends up seeming to identify with oppressors. The dynamic where people “pretend” to be racist as a funny thing while relying on people’s assumption of their ironic, non-racist starting position (aka hipster racism) usually just ends up as racism, for real. (Ghettopoly a couple of years ago is just the tip of the iceberg.)

In the end, using humor depends on what the organizers are comfortable with: what they feel authentically communicates their message and the reasons for their call to action. I know that on a personal level, the incorporation of humor—even with its hits and misses—into appeals for action is memorable for me. On a cognitive level, it just works.


One thought on “10,000 Protesters Walk Into a Bar…

  1. This is great! It’s really cool to have the cognitive science perspective alongside practical experiences with activism, and I think you hit the nail on the head when you appeal to humor as a route for connecting and reaching out to people who might be turned away by brutal factuality (that also is often stated as fact, but is only appealing to one perspective of fact/truth, etc.)

    The absurdity of certain types of humor is what appeals to me, and I think my own forays into activism and social justice have been propelled partially by a really strong internal sense of absurdity in life more generally. I mean, there is a reason why Chaplin’s Modern Times works as such a strong critique of industrialization and its affects upon the worker – it appeals to the absurdity inherent in mechanizing human life. But that’s just one example of a lot of different ways to make people laugh and think.

    Great first article! I am excited to read more!


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