Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Humor - used against the powerful and by the powerful

One of the more recent and quite comprehensive articles on using humor and satire against authoritarian power can be found in the 2013 Foreign Policy (FP) article Why Dictators Don't Like Jokes.

The FP article offers a range of examples from the 1990s Balkans to several countries affected by the Arab Spring and comes with a link to a TED Talk called "The Power of Laughtivism" by one of the FP authors.

Or take the international headlines caused by a German comedian's "poem" about  Turkish President Erdogan.

If we go back several more decades, into the depth of the Cold War and to the hell of World War II, we find more humor, whether popular anti dictator jokes, exiled artists' cartoons, or Charlie Chaplin's hilarious movie The Great Dictator.

The movies and countless TV series have all told us that dictators don't laugh, and this is how we tend to see the world. This view makes all the more sense because the sheer enormity of the atrocities committed by the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and others seem incompatible with expressing joy and social connections, which humor stands for.

In line with view that bad people don't have a sense of humor, articles like this one in the British Daily Mail entitled Hitler the comedian play with our revulsion by using the standard phrases and tropes. such as "Hitler and his henchmen", while describing the funny side of people like him.

A similar piece about Stalin entitled Stalin's Odd Hobby: A Despot's Sense of Humor works in much the same way. That blog post ensures we don't let our guard down by using a sort of reminder when it says 'Crude humor from a hard man'.

A 2015 article in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) is a pretty good discussion of the relationship between humor and contemporary politics, highlighting the pitfalls, which range from tone deaf humor to outright offensive examples. The author explains why some in politics think humor and the business of governing should remain separate. He also points to the tradition in German mainstream carnival of awarding "medals" to active politicians.

This sort of institutionalized humor tends to be rather boring in Germany, unlike the U.S., where the modern incarnations of the Whitehouse Correspondents Dinner feature famous comedians as hosts and give the sitting president an opportunity to display wit and humor.

The FAZ article takes us to the use of humor as a mechanism of self defense and to a full on deferential mindset. The sub-headline "Merkel laughs every day" may be meant to show her sense of humor but, in the opinion of the blogster, feels too much like the portrayal of feudal rulers of yore. It feels as if we are told, look, subjects, not only are your rulers powerful but they have a great sense of humor, too.

It can also be used as a sort of emotional airbrush to wipe out some of the ruthlessness of a Churchill or a Kissinger and works really well when people are as brilliant as they are.

So, if you are an aspiring dictator, you should take some improv classes. Depending on the country, you may need more to overcome stereotypes.

And if your rebellious subjects are better at humor or you get bombed out of office, the classes may help you face the darkness or make it easier to win new friends in exile. 

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