The subversive power of laughter

Looking at the activist practices of 50 years ago, it is clear that those of today may have lost something vital – the ability to laugh at the establishment, and at each other

Recently, I’ve been reading a biography of Abbie Hoffman, the iconic American antiwar activist. (Sacha-Baren Cohen depicted him memorably in the film The Trial Of The Chicago 7, which I re-watched until 2am this morning.)

Hoffman co-founded the Youth International Party (Yippies), and he understood the power of humour as a political weapon like few others. Through outrageous stunts like nominating a pig for president, trying to levitate the Pentagon and threatening to dump LSD into Chicago’s water supply, he manipulated the media into covering his cause. And in so doing, Hoffman helped to mobilise a generation against the injustice, militarism and political corruption of the 1960s and 70s.

A Yippie demonstration (source: Geocities)

Learning about this influentual, imaginative dissident has been inspiring. But also, if I’m honest, a little depressing. Because back here in 2023, I’ve been having some odd days, attending activist meetings that have been heavy affairs. With more energy dedicated to hand-wringing over the issues, deliberating over process, and resolving perceived slights between participants… than on how to get out there, to confront and campaign.

It’s frustrating. And, I’m realising, far too common among activist groups today.

OK, the counterculture may have moved on from beards and flowers and public fornication1. But diving into the activist practices of 50 years ago, shows me that those of today may have lost something vital. The ability to laugh at the establishment, and at each other.

When did it all get so damn solemn?

Sociologists can chart the decline of the Joy Of Activism much better than I. But having seen it up close, I’d say 2016 was a tipping point.

(And let me be American-centric here, because its internet platforms are ubiquitous, and the US is still, today, the driver of global culture.)

2016 was the year Trump got elected, the polariser-in-chief. He exploded onto a landscape of political discourse governed by tech platforms, primed for polarisation and outrage.

This unleashed some dangerous dynamics. Would-be activists fell victim to the tug of tribalism. Meanwhile the establishment targeted them by stoking offence strategically, sometimes with outright lies. While keeping them fed on a daily diet of injustice and horror, splintering their attention, making it hard for them to see any dissident action through to its end.

Activism: today’s religion

All this is well documented. But there’s a missing piece that’s easy to overlook. While these trends were taking shape around 2016, religiosity was at an all-time low.

And political engagement and civic activism stepped in to fill that void.

Once you notice the religiosity in today’s mainstream activism, it’s hard to unsee. All the hallmarks are there: An in-group and an out-group. A fear of being cast out, cancelled. Unquestionable beliefs; a lack of nuance. A duty to act. Rituals. Heresy. Moral panics. Witch-hunts. A coalescence around charismatic preachers.

And this, I think, is where our fear of laughter comes in.

Why we’re afraid…

The Name Of The Rose, a novel about the tension between reason and faith, is one of the best-selling books ever published. In it, the priest Jorge de Burgos is asked what’s so alarming about laughter. His reply is instructive:

Laughter kills fear, and without fear there can be no faith. Because without fear of the Devil, there is no more need of God

Something similar is happening in much of modern-day activism. In its pseudo-religious incarnation, the actions of individuals in activist projects are typically saying first to their peers, then to a wider group: don’t worry I’m one of you. And in this way, betraying the solemnity of the cause, making light of Very Serious Things, is an offence worthy of ex-communication. It’s a dog-whistle, problematic, uncaring, or unserious.

So activists grumpily push on and fall in line, slogging their way through traditional tactics and performative displays.

And just like that, it’s goodbye lightness.

…and how it holds us back

Draining the lightness out of activism is self-defeating. And maddeningly unstrategic.

Lightness is a potent political weapon that Abbie Hoffman used to such great effect. Sure, a provocative stunt on its own won’t achieve your political goal. And making light of the impact of the establishment’s policies can turn out tasteless, and backfire.

But attacking their methods through humour, if done right, can rally people to your cause, grow your support base, get airtime for your solutions.

And since the establishment are a serious bunch who hate their work to be ridiculed, Hoffman-style tactics can increase the chance they’ll over-react. That their masks will slip. That they’ll do something you can exploit… to further increase support for your cause.

Meanwhile, inside activist projects, in the kinds of meetings I attended this week, lightness brings freedom. Freedom from judgment and expectation. Freedom to experiment; freedom to fail. It says: losing is not just conceivable, it’s likely. But hey, let’s give it a shot. And worst case, we’ll have fun trying.

Activism without lightness, though, makes for rigid, dull responses to the problems of the world. And it raises the chance that the energy of your activist project will burn up over matters of process, purity and personal offence. It makes the prospect of collapsing into in-fighting – a common fate of activist groups – more likely.

What can you do?

It’s not all bleak. Actually, we might be on the cusp of a sea change. Comedians have never been more popular as interpreters of political news – from Russell Brand to Joe Rogan to Konstantin Kisin – as trust in legacy media craters.

But, my activist citizen friend, the time to get ahead of this is now. Bring Abbie Hoffman into your toolkit. Deride the Establishment’s methods, not their ends. Grieve over the heating of the Earth, while ridiculing the policies of our elites that keep it heating. Laugh at the audacity of their corruption. Satirise their fumbling, authoritarian actions, their petty tyranny, their own stifling humourlessness.

And never, ever lose the subversive power of laughter.

Abbie Hoffman (November 30, 1936 – April 12, 1989)

* * *

Notes

1: I’m not sure what today’s counterculture even is. But we have to be open to the possibility – as paradoxical as it sounds – that counterculture itself has become mainstream.

This was first published on the Subvrt activism newsletter.

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