Humor as a Political Weapon

With the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, commentators and scholars initially focused on broader themes such as the moves by President Ronald Reagan and the subsequent Soviet recognition of the regime’s inability to stand up in the face of a determined, effective Western adversary. Without a doubt, Reagan’s policies moved nations and pushed a crumbling system to its knees. At the same time, Reagan’s skillful use of humor helped him set the stage and build support for those policies.

By Stephen R. Bowers | July 8, 2014

Historians, journalists, and others have long speculated about how to undermine authoritarian governments without resorting to civil war or some form of low intensity conflict. Within the psychological operations community, such speculation takes the form of systematic measures to exploit the weak spots within the totalitarian systems. As totalitarians have seized the initiative in the post-Cold War era, we must develop sophisticated strategies to expose the “emperor’s new clothes.”

In discussing the response to evil, C. S. Lewis often quoted Martin Luther who was said to have observed that the best way to drive out the devil is to jeer and flout him. According to Luther, “the devil is a proud spirit and cannot bear scorn.” (Bruce L. Edwards, C.S. Lewis: An Examined Life, page 178.)

A Short History of Humor

Everybody loves a good joke, if only for the temporary enjoyment of a laugh. Late-night comedians have made jokes a lucrative industry and these funny men have become some of our richest entertainers. It is worth noting that the wealthy comedians who are lionized by the mainstream media more often than not utilize their barbed humor to demean political and social figures not favored by the media. Their humor is a weapon.

Humor and its evil cousin ridicule are political weapons that can be turned against adversaries with increasingly devastating effect. A politician can survive being the object of hatred and venomous attacks. He may even benefit from such attacks, depending on the identity or standing of the attacker.  

While we are especially aware of the power of ridicule as a result of advanced communications technologies, fear of this subtle non-violent weapon is not new. Centuries ago, Augustus Caesar banned jokes about the Roman emperor because he feared their devastating impact. Christians have long since shared this concern so ridicule of another person is considered uncharitable or sinful. The only exception is in time of war when this weapon might actually help shorten a military conflict and thus save lives.

Even though the Prophet Muhammad was never viewed as a humorist, he used ridicule as a weapon of war when he declared his status as a prophet. Consequently, Islamic poets emerged not only as artists but also as warriors who employed ridicule as a weapon of war against adversaries. Muhammad recognized the utility of humiliation in order to punish those deemed as sinners and to undermine those who opposed Islamic rule. The intense and violent Muslim reaction to cartoons, writings, or films that heaped ridicule on Islam is a reminder of their recognition of the power of ridicule.

With the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, commentators and scholars initially focused on broader themes such as the moves by President Ronald Reagan and the subsequent Soviet recognition of the regime’s inability to stand up in the face of a determined, effective Western adversary. Without a doubt, Reagan’s policies moved nations and pushed a crumbling system to its knees. At the same time, Reagan’s skillful use of humor helped him set the stage and build support for those policies.

However, the identity of factors that contributed to the deterioration of the communist dictatorships would be another matter. Disintegrating economies, ethnic animosities, and the allure of the West were clearly factors but there were others.

Equally significant, if viewed at the international level, was the persistence of the United States and its allies in developing psychological warfare (PSYOP) campaigns against the East European communist regimes. While many books dealing with PSYOP have appeared since World War Two, one specific but sometimes overlooked component of PSYOP is humor. Publications such as News From Behind the Iron Curtain and the RFE monthly East Europe contributed to the building of archives of jokes that helped sustain political thought in a time when such ideas could not conveniently travel by underground publications. Jokes helped keep truth alive and represented what might be referred to as “pre-political talk”. By telling jokes, often at considerable personal risk, the average person could resist the totalitarian system that enslaved him.

In 1945, George Orwell wrote a newspaper article in which he observed that something is “funny when… it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution.” (Quoted on page 20 in Hammer and Tickle: A Cultural History of Communism by Ben Lewis.). Therefore, it is not surprising that communist authorities shared Augustus Caesar’s sensitivity to humor and hoped to create a specific form of “socialist humor.” This humor would be directed against their foes, while having no relevance for life in the communist party states. After all, since socialism would be a perfect society, there would be no subject or situation that would justify humor or any form of satire. In short, in socialist society, there would be no need for humor.

Yet, humor, especially political humor, persisted in communist regimes and emerged as a form of political resistance. This humor revealed a bitter wit that highlighted the grim reality of life under socialism. Through their jokes, individuals subjected their leaders to ridicule, thus robbing them of the dignity and gravitas essential to their public image. Even though their jokes were often modifications of those from other times and other nations, they were carefully focused as a comment on the specific conditions of their lives under communism. As such, they were an especially effective form of political comment.

In 1984, Romanian refugee C. Banc and her colleague A. Dundes published First Prize: Fifteen Years! An Annotated Collection of Romanian Political Jokes(Fairleigh Dickenson University Press.) In this work, the authors demonstrated that political jokes were not random efforts to elicit laughter but focused on specific themes such as living conditions, leaders, organizations, government propaganda, ethnic groups, food supply problems and a variety of distasteful features of socialist society. The jokes, according to the authors, reveal the failings of this system and the fact that most governments banned such speech demonstrates authorities’ fears of the miniature drama within each joke.

Contemporary Relevance

Twenty years after East Europe’s rejection of the socialist model, “progressives” in Western democracies have embraced the leftist fascination with the authoritarian, centralized political systems. Consequently, those hoping to retain basic freedoms are increasingly forced to identify tactics and strategies that will enable them to find the weak spots in the armor of authoritarian states. During the Cold War, free societies focused their concerns on the threat posed by the Soviet Union and its allies. Today, however, the threat to liberty takes the form of numerous insidious challenges: violent Islamic radicals, a resurgent Russian empire, leftist radicals working to undermine constitutional government, and an assortment of domestic adversaries which dominant key institutions such as academia and the media.

In his book Fighting the War of Ideas Like a Real War, Michael Waller describes humor and ridicule as “a secret weapon that’s worse than death.” (Institute of World Politics Press, 2007, p. 93.) While demonization of our enemy is a routine first response, vitriol by itself has a limited shelf life. While Presidents Bush and Carter elevated the status of Osama bin Laden and others, President Reagan dismissed Gaddafi as a buffoon and proceeded to take military action against him. He did not elevate the Libyan dictator to the same status as the President of the United States. 


None of this is to suggest that in challenging an authoritarian adversary we should abandon outrage and indignation. There will always be a time to express anger at those who undermine our free system. However, it is important to remember the lessons demonstrated by President Reagan who used humor to disarm rivals and enemies.

Our current adversaries, although they arouse great fear, are vulnerable. One source of this vulnerability is their arrogance, hubris, and expectation that they will always be treated with deference. In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security, which warned against tolerating the views of pro-life groups and advocates of strict constitutional government, cautioned DHS personnel to be especially sensitive to the free speech rights of pro-Shariah Muslim-supremacists. In Britain, schools have banned children’s literature featuring stories about pigs lest Muslims take offense. In the 2013 elections in Germany, Social Democrat candidate Peer Steinbrück advocated division of physical education class by gender “out of consideration for religious convictions” of Muslims.

Less deadly but no less irritating have been the pronouncements of Jay Carney as he attempted to justify administration actions. Likewise, Obama declarations such as “we are the people we have been waiting for” or his 2009 admission in Vienna that he did not “know what the term is in Austrian” should not be taken seriously. Therefore, the best response may be somewhere between a giggle and a horselaugh.

Whether they are Islamic radicals, “progressive” politicians, or administrative Leviathans such as the Environmental Protection Agency, they demand both respect and fear. Their targets are free speech – including jokes about global warming – and independent thought. Humor and ridicule undermine the foundations upon which their authority rests.

Stephen R. Bowers, Ph.D. is a professor of government in the Helms School of Government at Liberty University. Professor Bowers is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.