Fifteen years ago, when Serbia's non-violent pro-democracy movement, Otpor, was just a tiny group of 20 students with $50, we decided to play a prank. We took an oil barrel, taped a picture of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic to it, and set it up in the middle of Belgrade's largest shopping district. Next to it we placed a baseball bat. Then we went for coffee, sat down, and watched the fun unfold. Before long, dozens of shoppers lined the street, each waiting for a chance to take a swing at "Milosevic" -- the man so many despised, but whom most were too afraid to criticize. About 30 minutes in, the police arrived. That's when we held our breath, waiting for what would happen next. What would the Milosevic's police do? They couldn't arrest shoppers -- on what grounds? And they couldn't arrest the culprits -- since we were nowhere to be seen. So what did Milosevic's police do? The only thing they could: They arrested the barrel. The image of the two policemen dragging the barrel to their police car was the best photo shoot in Serbia for months. Milosevic and his cronies became the laughing stock of the nation, and Otpor became a household name.
Revolutions are serious business. Just recall the grumpy faces of 20th-century revolutionaries like Lenin, Mao, Fidel, and Che. They could barely crack a smile. But fast-forward to the protests of the 21st century, and you see a new form of activism at work. The ominous scowls of revolutions past are replaced by humor and satire. Today's non-violent activists are inciting a global shift in protest tactics away from anger, resentment, and rage towards a new, more incisive form of activism rooted in fun: "Laughtivism."
Just take the Middle East and North Africa, where non-violent protesters are using laughter and wit to embolden their calls for democracy. In Tunisia, in January 2011, at the height of the protests against Ben Ali, a lone man -- later immortalized as a super-hero Captain Khobza (bread) -- fought off Ben Ali loyalists armed with a sharp wit and a French baguette. In Egypt, an outlandish video portraying Egyptian President Mohammed Morsy as Super Mario made the rounds on YouTube this March. In Sudan, students have taunted Sudanese Dictator Omar al-Bashir, holding "elbow-licking" protests -- a reference to the derogatory term he used to denigrate the democratic opposition. Even in Syria -- where the civil war has taken 70,000 lives -- satirical anti-Assad graffiti and biting slogans have electrified street protests.
And in case anyone needed reminding, the political relevance of comedians in the Middle East was recently brought home by the Egyptian government's decision to raise criminal charges against the talk-show host Bassem Youssef (the man often described as "Egypt's Jon Stewart"). The move by the government of Mohamed Morsy attested to the capacity of humor to discomfit the powers that be. (For the moment, Youssef remains free on bail.)
But the strategic use of humor isn't confined to the Middle East and North Africa alone. In the United States, Occupy Wall Street protesters regularly used humor to mock corporate America. Who can forget the ridiculous-looking protestors who, dressed as rodeo clowns and a matador, tamed Wall Street's legendary bull statue? Even in Spain, where protestors are branded Indignados ("the Indignant"), laughter is a potent weapon. Satirical theatrical performances, flash mobs, and seemingly spontaneous outbursts of singing and dancing, have become hallmarks of Spain's anti-capitalist movement, helping to reduce tensions and sustain enthusiasm for two years and counting. Russians, too, have infused laughter into their demonstrations -- using everything from condoms, boa constrictors, mental hospitals, and even Lego toys to poke fun at Putin.
There is a reason why humor is infusing the arsenal of the 21st-century protestor: It works. For one, humor breaks fear and builds confidence. It also adds a necessary cool factor, which helps movements attract new members. Finally, humor can incite clumsy reactions from a movement's opponents. The best acts of laughtivism force their targets into lose-lose scenarios, undermining the credibility of a regime no matter how they respond. These acts move beyond mere pranks; they help corrode the very mortar that keeps most dictators in place: Fear.