This paper uses Australian case studies to demonstrate the continued evolution of the use of humour in environmental, peace, and social justice movements. Drawing from literature on the topic and from personal experiences in activist street-theatre over more than 20 years, I discuss the rationale and motivations behind humorous activism, and note audience reactions and impacts on participants. The paper is reliant on non-violence theory, within the multi-disciplinary paradigm of Peace Studies, in which education is closely linked to the non-violence tenet of ‘conversion’.
The paper describes some of the ways in which activists use humour to educate and ‘convert’ audiences, while at the same time providing positive, enjoyable, healing experiences for them. It describes how such work can also be healing for the performers themselves, through allowing a release of emotions such as rage and frustration. Humour is used to enliven and simplify popular education, and to complement other modes of education and activism. It is inclusive, drawing in audiences and adherents, and attracting media attention. It can empower and inspire audiences, and brings a healthy balance and diversity to activism. The case studies mentioned are anti-nuclear campaigns such as Jabiluka blockade and Roxby Downs and other campaigns such as in Tasmania.
Many activists have used humour to educate audiences-including police, security guards, loggers, and miners-to disseminate information (for example, about nuclear waste), and to try to convert people to ecopax or social justice viewpoints. One of the most successful Australian campaigns-widely supported by cartoonists3-was the 1983 blockade of a planned dam on the Gordon-below-Franklin River in Tasmania, which would have inundated ancient Aboriginal cave paintings and old-growth forests. At this blockade, scores of humorous songs were composed, including ‘Lurk, Loiter, Hide and Secrete’, based on the bail conditions imposed on those of us arrested. Another song-‘Tonka Toys’, by Bullfrog Smith-lampooned the machismo of developers with ‘we wanna cut, we wanna kill, we wanna bulldoze that there hill, we don’t care who pays the bill, ’cause we’re playing with our Tonka Toys’ (Bock, Tilley, O’Loughlin, & Brewer, 1983, p. 85). This ubiquitous humorous music was an important factor in the conversion of many police from opponents to covert or overt supporters (see Cohen, 1997, p. 73, McQueen, 1983, p. 37.) Flanagan pp. 44 – 45
- Abstract 41
- Historical use of humorous activism 42
- Enlivening popular education 42
- Conversion 44
- Creating holistic, liminal atmospheres 46
- Creating inclusive movements 47
- Reaching large audiences 48
- Communication 49
- Making activism sustainable 50
- Conclusion 51
Humour provides a wide variety of avenues of self-expression and possibilities for inclusion in activism, involving creativity, teamwork, and different skills. Activists may engage in different activities at different levels of intensity-from starring roles in a satire to making papier-mache puppets-and still be part of a campaign. This provides a range of options for potential activists who might be frightened off if they see ‘locking-on’4 to bulldozers or attending rallies as the only options. Such inclusivity, which is strongly advocated by non-violence theorists (Reardon, 1990, pp. 1 38-1 39), helps to promote greater involvement in activism. Flanagan p.47
Activism and the Power of Humour
This article was published in the Australian Journal of Communication Vol 34 (1) 2007, pp. 41-57. Article provided courtesy of the author, Marty Branagan who has also written the novel Locked On!
- Movements_Campaigns - Anti nuclear_Uranium
- Tactics - Creative
- Wellbeing_Self care
- Wit and humour