Women’s rallies across the country last weekend energized people to advocate for women’s rights and intersectional issues such as fair pay, racial justice, immigration, LGBT and reproductive rights. The mood at the Raleigh event was upbeat, which was reflected in the humor expressed in the signs and costumes of some participants. A humorous sign —“Ovary-acting? Nope” — captured the female-centered message of protest.
As an advocate, I have organized and participated in dozens of protests and believe that humor can help to promote constructive and civil conflict. We once protested in the July heat in front of a payday lenders’ conference by fishing for toy sharks with dollar bills as bait. In good cheer, the payday lobbyist brought us water and laughed at our props. We never agreed on payday lending, but we could discuss our differences.
Protests are inherently based on tension. There is a conflict between those protesting and those in power. The protest happens because there are differing and passionately held values and viewpoints. Participating in a rally, march, or vigil allows a spectrum of emotions from anger to hope, grievance to celebration. It can be a silent witness or raucous protest.
Feed the positive
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The tension inherent in protest is why humor can work so well. A protest without humor is a wasted opportunity for a needed laugh. Anger and name calling feed the negative, not the positive. A protest with a little humor can be an effective tool for communicating the message.
Humor as protest draws a chuckle and conveys a point in a way that the audience can hear without being angry and defensive in return. It can be biting, caustic and shocking, but if it is funny the message will be remembered.
Good humor makes fun of one’s self as well as the other side. Humor can keep the messenger humble and connect with the humanity in all of us.
A humorous sign takes complex ideas and says them simply.
Comedians like Chris Rock, Jon Stewart and Samantha Bee use comedy as a tool for social commentary and protest. Unfortunately, you don’t often see paid comedians as speakers at protests at the North Carolina General Assembly. But you do see some funny signs in the audience. Every protester can be a comedian.
A protest sign —“I’ve Seen Smarter Cabinets at IKEA” —is funny and usable by either side.
A humorous sign takes complex ideas and says them simply. A sign at the Women’s March in Raleigh — “Stop #Twitler” — does a lot with a little.
Humor makes sensitive topics accessible. “Keep Your Hands Off My Uterus” is a popular sign at a women’s rally. In six words, it breaks down the complex and charged issue of reproductive rights to a clear and visual message.
A sign that works for most any topic: “Dumbledore Wouldn’t Let This Happen.”
Being funny is subjective and my belly buster may be your fighting words. But a good protest sign can find common ground in the humor, if not the policy.
For those in the streets, whatever the politics and beliefs, let’s season our protest with humor. The humility, joy and goodwill of humor can foster civility even as each side seeks to convince the majority that they are not only funny, but right.
Peter Skillern is executive director of Reinvestment Partners, a Durham-based nonprofit agency advocating for economic justice and opportunity.