1. Top of page
  2. Abstract

This article explores how humor can be used as one aspect of a strategy of nonviolent resistance to oppression and dictatorship. It combines sociological and philosophical theories about humor's duality and incongruity with theories of nonviolent resistance to oppression in order to investigate the links between topics that have previously been considered unrelated. Experiences from the Serbian Otpor movement, which used humorous actions as a part of its strategy to bring down Slobodan Milošević from power, serve to illustrate the dynamics of humor as a form of resistance. Empirical examples and existing theory are combined to make an outline of an innovative theory of the functions of humor in nonviolent resistance.

Nothing undermines authority like holding it up to ridicule.

—Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA)1

When the great lord passes the wise peasant bows deeply and silently farts

—Ethiopian proverb2


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract

How can humor be used as nonviolent resistance to oppression? What is the dynamic of humor as nonviolent resistance? What theoretical framework is needed in order to understand the functions of humor as resistance to oppression? These are the central questions this article aims to answer by combining the insights of existing literature with a case study of the Serbian Otpor movement. The article illustrates how humor can be part of a powerful strategy of nonviolent resistance to oppression, and discusses why humor is a unique approach to nonviolence and challenges oppression in a different way than traditional resistance.

Humor as nonviolent resistance to oppression is an underresearched area within peace studies, and little attention has been given to how and why humor can be a powerful strategy in challenging oppression. Neither have the people who study humor given much attention to the particular dynamics of humor as resistance to oppression. Both humor and nonviolent resistance are multidisciplinary fields that have received attention from researchers with a variety of academic backgrounds. A central work in the field of humor that I draw on in my construction of a theoretical framework is Michael Mulkay's On Humor: Its Nature and Place in Modern Society.3 Mulkay's distinction between the humorous mode and the serious mode plays an important role in analyzing the complex interaction between seriousness and innocence in humorous resistance to oppression. Stephen Brigham's study4 of how absurdity transcends rationality and helps us gain new insights that we cannot reach with reason and logic is not directly linked to my study since he writes about personal and not social transformation. However, in spite of our differences in focus, his insights about how absurdity works has been a great inspiration for understanding the irrational elements of humor and attempting to, paradoxically, formulate the irrational in logical and academic terms.5

Gene Sharp's classic work The Politics of Nonviolent Action6 is probably the most central theoretical work on nonviolence, and although he mentions the possibility of using humorous skits and pranks as a method, it does not appear as an aspect of his theory.7 However, my suggestions here build on his notion of political jiu-jitsu which I will return to later. James Scott's book Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts8 on everyday and often hidden resistance plays a central role in my analysis of how humor can facilitate a culture of resistance, although the book itself only mentions jokes and satire in passing.

Few people have written explicitly about the use of humor in an oppressive situation, and one of them, Gregor Benton, who has studied humor in the Soviet Union, does not think that political jokes can achieve anything at all. He writes:

But the political joke will change nothing. It is the relentless enemy of greed, injustice, cruelty and oppression—but it could never do without them. It is not a form of active resistance. It reflects no political programme. It will mobilise no one. Like the Jewish joke in its time, it is important for keeping society sane and stable. It cushions the blows of cruel governments and creates sweet illusions of revenge. It has the virtue of momentarily freeing the lives of millions from the tensions and frustrations to which even the best organised political opposition can promise only long-term solutions, but its impact is as fleeting as the laughter it produces.9

Benton does not offer any documentation for his claim, and in this article I intend to show why I think Benton is wrong and illustrate how humor, including jokes, can play an important role in resistance to oppression. A few other scholars share my optimism about the potential of humor: Jørgen Johansen writes about using humor as a political force in social democratic Norway in the early 1980s.10 His examples play a central role in my development of a theory. Kathleen Stokker's work on humor against the Nazi occupation of Norway11 has provided material from a different time period and she also gives conclusions that have theoretical implications. Linda D. Henman has written about humor as a coping mechanism for prisoners of war,12 and Bertil Neuman about humor in Nazi concentration camps.13 Their examples have also been useful for understanding how humor can be a valuable tool for individuals in extremely stressful situations.

The remainder of this article focuses on the experience of the Serbian Otpor movement, which helped bring down Slobodan Milošević in October 2000. I researched Otpor's use of humor through qualitative interviews in Belgrade in June 2006. Former Otpor activists were asked how they used humor, what it meant to them, and what they thought they achieved by using humor. These interviewees represent a diverse group of former Otpor activists when it comes to age, gender, and their role within Otpor. The interviews were conducted from a phenomenological and constructivist understanding of the importance of people's personal experiences and meanings that construct their reality.14

The case of Otpor (which means “resistance” in Serbian) was selected for this exploratory research on humor and nonviolence because it is a special and unusual case, both when it comes to the amount of humor, the importance it played in Otpor's success and the strategic way it was used.15 This makes the case rich in information and useful for this exploration. In the terminology of sampling strategies for qualitative research, Otpor is an extreme or deviant case16 which is selected purposefully because it is outstanding and special. Looking more closely at the unusual, we can often get more information about the less unusual.17 To better understand the dynamic of humor as nonviolent resistance, we need to investigate where somebody has gathered some experience and learn from them, and on the topic of humor as resistance, Otpor can provide us with indications of which functions humor can serve, and what the special dynamics of humor are. In most other cases of nonviolent resistance to oppression, humor is used so little that it becomes invisible and “disappears” among all the other factors that play a role in resistance. Because Otpor is an unusual single case, it cannot be used to draw conclusions on the prevalence of humor in nonviolent resistance. What it can do is provide new data about how humor can be used as part of a strategy for nonviolent resistance and why this strategy works. This means that the case study has provided new information, which I have combined with existing theory on humor, nonviolence, and resistance, to construct the sketch for a new theory of nonviolent resistance to oppression, which in the future can be tested on other cases.

Before we turn to the analysis, it will be necessary to clarify how I define the central concepts in this article: Resistance is a response to power that challenges oppression and domination. Oppression can take many forms, and what is considered oppression changes across time and space. For the purpose of this article it is not necessary to set criteria for “oppression” as long as those concerned regard themselves as oppressed and use humor. Humor here means everything that causes amusement, from a joke, story, play, skit, movie or book, to a way of acting or a slogan in a demonstration. It can be based on irony, satire, parody, or ridicule. The humor investigated here is political, directed against oppression, and encourages critical reflection about how society is and how we want it to be. However, humor can indeed be oppressive and cruel, for example when it is used to ridicule ethnic minorities or women. By strategy I mean a consistent and thought through way of behaving in a conflict situation. A good strategy includes an accurate estimate of this conflict, including the strengths and weaknesses of all parties. A strategy focuses on the long-term goals and how to stir the conflict toward these desired outcomes, whereas the tactics and methods determine the short- term reactions to a certain situation.18 Among researchers of nonviolence it is common to separate the practitioners of nonviolence into two categories: Those who use it as a pragmatic tool and a technique that can be used effectively against oppression without being pacifists or finding violence morally wrong, and those who consider nonviolence to be a way of life and reject violence for principled reasons.19 Although I write about nonviolent strategies and how humor can be a strategy, I do not intend to contribute to this debate. Strategies as defined above are used both by “principled” and “pragmatic” groups to work toward their objectives.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract

Almost all humor is based on contradictions and incongruity, and to understand it, we have to be able to think of humor in more than one dimension.20 Generally, what causes amusement is when things are turned upside down or when things are no longer as we usually perceive them.

Michael Mulkay, a sociologist of humor, distinguishes between the serious mode and the humorous mode, and what characterizes these two modes. In the serious mode, we all assume that we share the same world, and take for granted that other people perceive the world the same way as we do. When we are in the serious mode, there has to be a clear boundary between what is real and what is unreal. This is the world based on reason and logic, and contradictions are considered problematic, where something cannot “be” and “not be” at the same time. Contradictions are treated as failure to communicate properly, and assumed to be based on misunderstandings. In this mode, they have to be treated as problematic, otherwise they threaten to undermine the perception that we share the same world. In the humorous mode, on the contrary, there have to be contradictions, because that is the basic principle of humor. Contradictions are not problematic, but a necessary feature of the humorous mode. Here we play with the misunderstandings, incongruity, and duality. In order for something to be amusing, it usually has to turn things upside down or present itself in more than one frame at the same time.21

The contrast between innocence and seriousness is especially useful in humor used against oppression, because oppression is something very serious. Oppression should be fought, it should not be laughed at, and it is by definition not funny! Just the idea and attempt of using humor in such a situation changes what is going on, no matter whether the humor succeeds in making people laugh or not. The reformulation in a humorous mode shows in itself that something has changed, and creates the expectation of further changes. Humor, even the most aggressive examples, signals innocence, although there is a serious intention behind it. Humor changes the situation because however serious the message is, it has a hint of “Don't take me seriously,” and “I'm not dangerous.”

Here is an example: In Norway in 1983, a small group of total objectors organized in the group KMV (Kampanjen Mot Verneplikt), which means “Campaign against Conscription,” refusing both military and alternative service. KMV members wanted to create public debate and change the law that gave them 16 months in prison, but refused to call it “prison” and instead, labeled it: “serv[ing] their service in an institution under the administration of the prison authorities.”22 To avoid having political prisoners, there were officially no trials, no prisoners, and no punishment. The cases of the total objectors went through the courts only to identify and establish the name of the objector, but it was not a court case in the sense that there were anything to argue about—the result was always the same, 16 months in prison. Often the prosecutor never showed up because the result was clear anyway, so KMV exploited this in one of their actions: One of the activists dressed up as the prosecutor and overplayed his role and demanded that the total objector get even longer time in prison because of his profession (he was a lawyer). As “the prosecutor” writes several years later:

We wanted to show the country the illusion of justice in these cases. We planned to “wake” the people by laughter and make them think about what they saw. We hoped to get a balance of spectacular play and political arguments in order to, via headlines, put the whole question of conscription on the political agenda.23

During the procedure in the court, nobody noticed anything wrong in spite of the “prosecutor's” exaggerations, and one week later KMV sent their secret video recording of the case to the media and the result was that most of the country was laughing. This is indeed a case of turning things upside down to cause amusement. A friend of the accused playing the prosecutor, and demanding a stronger punishment than what the law can give, is a parody of the court. In this action, KMV activists satirized the absurdity of having a court case when there is nothing to discuss and succeeded in getting attention for their cause. A case against the activist playing the prosecutor was dismissed “for lack of evidence,” although KMV gladly sent the police the video as evidence.

In addition to turning the roles upside down, the parody of the court also exposed the incongruity between what the Norwegian state said and what it did. If the politicians call Norway a democracy, and claim that it doesn't have any political prisoners, then why are people sent to prison for their beliefs? And why is it that imprisonment is not even called a prison sentence, but rather an administrative term for serving their alternative service? This is an absurd situation, and through dramatizing it in a humorous frame, KMV could cut through all rational explanations and make people understand that this did not make sense. The lack of congruity is what made the Norwegian population laugh.

Stephen Brigham suggests that through absurdity, we can gain new insights that we cannot reach, or at least are more difficult to reach, with reason and logic. He writes mainly about personal transformation through psychotherapy, but examples like the Norwegian one and subsequent examples from Otpor will illustrate that this can also be true for changes at the societal level.24

The oppression of Otpor was very different from the oppression of the Norwegian total resisters. Norway was a democracy, Serbia a semi-dictatorship. KMV was a small group, Otpor grew to become relatively large. But they have some things in common as well. Both felt oppressed by the current situation, wanted to create social change, and managed to use humor successfully to achieve some change—a revision of the law on total resistance in the case of KMV, and the fall of Milošević for Otpor.

What characterized Serbia during the 1990s were four wars with neighboring countries, growing nationalism, international isolation, and a decrease in living standards for ordinary people. Some space for opposition and independent media existed throughout this period, although they were often harassed and repressed.25 During the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in spring 1999, most political opposition became impossible, and for a while Milošević enjoyed an increase in support for his nationalist agenda. However, soon after the end of the war, Otpor, opposition political parties, and civil society in general started to organize. The Otpor movement played an important role in bringing down Milošević, providing much of the mobilization that brought half a million people into the streets in October 2000 after his expected falsification of election results.26 The nature of Otpor's success was mainly on the psychological level—they were able to challenge the climate of fear and political apathy prevalent in Serbia during the 1990s. This change in the psychological mood was a major achievement and a fundamental factor in creating enough opposition to Milošević's rule. Otpor started in October 1998 as a network of mainly students and other young people, growing out of student protests in 1996–1997. Otpor was using a combination of serious “black” actions and humoristic mocking and ridicule to change the agenda in Serbia.27 Although the focus in this article is on the power of humor, it is essential to keep in mind that these kinds of actions were only one side of the coin, and that they were combined with actions without the slightest hint of humor.

One way Otpor created visibility was by hanging up posters and painting graffiti with the symbol of the organization, a clenched fist, all over Serbia. The Milošević regime tried to hit back at Otpor's growing popularity with a campaign of terrorist accusations, labeling them as fascists and drug addicts, and with brutal and systematic police harassment.29 The cartoonist Corax catches the irony of the situation with the cartoon in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Boy drawing Otpor fist. From left, Slobodan Milošević, Mira Marković (his wife), and Vojislav Šešelj (leader of the nationalist radical party) is coming to get him. Corax cartoon from “Danas” May 5, 2000.28

Download figure to PowerPoint


This is a play with contrast, because Otpor activists were not that young, and through their actions they did in fact pose a threat to the regime. Otpor borrowed the cartoon and used it on its leaflets. On the leaflet, the drawing of the young boy is contrasted with statements about Otpor from political parties in power. They refer to Otpor members in extreme terms—calling them drug addicts, terrorists, and fascists.

Political humor needs some incongruity and absurdity in order to thrive—if things are as the politicians say they are, then there is little to joke about and almost nothing on which to build satire, parody, and irony. In Serbia, there was plenty of this incongruity and absurdity between what the politicians said and how ordinary people, including Otpor activists, experienced their lives. This incongruity included statements about how everything was fine while the real experience was that Serbia was falling apart, or being called a terrorist because one paints graffiti. For some, humor became a logical way of dealing with this absurdity in everyday life.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract

What different functions can humor serve in a situation of oppression? Based on the existing literature and my interviews with Otpor activists, I suggest that theoretically humor as nonviolent resistance can be understood in three different ways: (a) “Facilitating outreach and mobilization” concerning the relationship with people outside the movement; (b) “Facilitating a culture of resistance” within the resistance movement—building solidarity and strengthening the individual's capacity for participating in resistance; and (c) “Turning oppression upside down.” This function has the most powerful potential, because it changes the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed.

These three functions should be understood as ideal types, where a distinction between them can help an analysis. It does not mean that there is no overlap between them or that one action of humor can only serve one function at a time.

Facilitating Outreach and Mobilization

If you do something on a volunteer base, you need to motivate people. If you do something funny, people usually smile. If people smile they feel very well, and that was another way to raise motivation of the people.30

The first function of humor concerns issues about outreach and mobilization, in other words contact with people who are not part of the resistance movement. Humor can attract more members; it becomes more fun to be involved, and it brings energy, something that Otpor discovered. It especially worked to attract young people and students, although the increase in membership was an unexpected side-effect of the use of humor. Otpor's biggest growth came in 2000 after the movement became more serious, but many Otpor informants think that humor was crucial to making Otpor attractive in the beginning stages of organizing. However, many other things may have contributed to its popularity; for instance, Otpor differed from political parties because of its nonhierarchical structure where everybody was deemed important and no one was fighting for their own position.

Humor became part of the style and the branding which made it “cool” to be a part of Otpor. In relation to others, humor can make one stand out, and it may become easier to get attention from the media, something both the Norwegian total resisters and Otpor experienced. For Otpor, it was also a way to stand out from other political organizations and to highlight intelligence and wit as a contrast to the brute force of the regime.

The literature has little to say about this function of humor, but I consider it to be straightforward and unproblematic. What has been mentioned here are all important aspects of mobilizing for a nonviolent social movement, but mobilization can be achieved without any use of humor. Many social movements manage to attract new activists and to get attention, and most of them do not consider using humor to accomplish this.31

Facilitating a Culture of Resistance

The second function of humor concerns what is going on inside the resistance movement. What happens outside and inside are linked—for example, the number of new activists influence what is happening inside—but there is a fundamental difference in how humor works in relation to the outside and the inside. Differences exist both in the form and the content of the humor one uses to reach out and the humor one shares with his or her friends in the movement.32 Humor facilitates a culture of resistance both at the organizational and individual level. Again, this cannot be achieved solely through the use of humor, and many resistance movements have created a resistance mentality without using humor. But it does occur, and can play an important role, as discussed below; for Otpor, humor was one way of creating this culture of resistance. As one informant put it:

[because of the humor] we were functioning much better in the organization, we had better relations inside Otpor, we felt like a family.33

In addition to its relationship with the outside world, an organization also needs to work on its internal dynamics, creating a culture of resistance where members support each other and overcome political and individual apathy. That humor can be of help here is illustrated by jokes from occupied Norway (1940–1945):

A Nazi officer brushed past a little gray-haired, aristocratic looking old lady. She raised her cane and knocked off his hat, berating him loudly for showing so little respect toward his elders. Embarrassed, he apologized, but she continued her tirade until he fled. The little old lady went on about her business chuckling to herself, “well, we’ll all have to fight this war as best we can; that's the fourth hat I've knocked into the mud this morning.34

Kathleen Stokker notes that “quisling humor” (directed towards Vidkun Quisling, the leader of the Norwegian Nazi party) protected people's self-respect and gave the population some sort of control in an otherwise uncontrollable situation.35 The jokes also served to break down isolation and create a solidarity and group identity within the population. Because so many people shared the jokes, their very existence contradicted the Nazi propaganda that people who did not join them would stand alone.36 As Stokker writes, “The jokes also provided an image of nation-wide solidarity that vitally assisted the resistance effort.”37

Stokker's findings present a strong contrast to the statement of Gregor Benton quoted earlier that jokes will never create any social change. In Norway, this kind of humor helped create a resistance mentality,38 or a way of showing who was “in” with the resistance movement, and who was “out” with the Nazis.

Naturally, there are differences between cultures, and Stokker contrasts the Norwegian occupation humor with jokes from Eastern Europe during dictatorship, finding that in Norwegian humor “everyone” fights back, and support for the resistance movement is found in the most unusual places. By contrast, in Eastern Europe, the jokes show that you should trust no one,39 as this example illustrates:

Two Rumanians are on a bus. One is sitting down; the other is standing. The man sitting asks:

– Are you a member of the Communist party?

– No, I am not.

– Are you in the military?

– No, I am not.

– You mean you are not a government or party official of any kind?

– No, I am not.

– Then get the hell off my foot!40

But there is something else about the function of humor that Benton fails to notice. Even a joke that is not showing solidarity in its punch line still shows who is in with the resistance and who is not. One would only share this kind of joke with people one trusts or wants to know if one can trust.

The space for resistance can be more or less limited and it consists of many possible actions along a continuum, and should not be understood only as either open rebellion or absolute submission. A hidden transcript as opposed to the public transcript is the way subordinate groups act and talk about their oppressor behind his back. In the public transcript, the oppressed under a dictatorship say “Yes sir!” and show obedience and compliance, but when she can get away with it during the dark or together with a small group of trusted friends, the worker will work more slowly, the slave will steal his master's food, and the oppressed citizen will mock and ridicule the dictator.41 According to James Scott, who invented these terms, the hidden transcript has an important role in itself in giving people dignity in the eyes of themselves and their group, but it also serves as preparation for the day when the hidden transcript is declared in public and resistance is made open, if that day ever comes.42 Scott's nuanced understanding of resistance to domination, as opposed to traditional understandings of resistance as open rebellion, provides us with concepts for looking at all the space between complete compliance and openly declared rebellion, the space where things are not as they seem on the surface. This understanding of resistance and domination also means that “power” is not something one has or does not have, but is a relational concept that involves a dynamic interaction between opposing forces. This way of analyzing power differs from the traditional understanding of it as a constant where the person/group with “most power” is the group with most weapons at its disposal. Gene Sharp nuances this understanding of power by emphasizing that even the most brutal dictator is completely dependent on the cooperation of a large number of people, and withdrawal of cooperation from people in important positions will make the dictator's power crumble.43 Scott takes it one step further when he says that challenges the oppressor does not know about do still have an effect because they change the mind of the oppressed.

Jokes, satire, and ridicule are only one part of the hidden transcript, and Scott does not give humor particular attention. But humor, as part of the hidden transcript, becomes one way of developing the culture for further and openly declared resistance and thereby empowers the resistance movement.

This is a strong contrast to Benton, but links well with Stokker's understanding of how jokes can contribute to a resistance mentality. It also links to another aspect of humor important to a culture of resistance: how it can help overcome apathy. That humor can help individuals in stressful oppressive situations has been documented, from Jews in Nazi concentration camps44 to U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam.45 But it is one thing to help the individual preserve self-respect, dignity, and a wish to live, and another thing to overcome political apathy. Two Otpor activists commenting on apathy, describe their experience as follows:

[there was] an atmosphere of absolute fear, and everything was destroyed [in NATO bombing] ...  (overall feeling that we could not do anything ... ) and this is really where humor came into the picture: You couldn't persuade anyone, in this kind of atmosphere in the country, you couldn't persuade anybody that something could be changed, that something should be changed ... with using different symbols, different narratives [Otpor succeeded]. And then there was the energy it was somewhere there, you could feel it, it was just to trigger it ... (people were really very, very eager to change things ... ) you just needed something to wake them up and make them active again.46

We wanted to show that however silly it can be, you can do something, although it may look silly, at least you do something, and that was the idea of Otpor. You don't support Otpor, you have to join Otpor, to live Otpor. And you have to take part in this kind of action, to do your own actions. Bite the system, live resistance [an early Otpor slogan].47

A culture of resistance builds upon some degree of an us/them divide. Although such kinds of divides are often considered problematic, in an oppressive situation there has to be a difference between those who are oppressing and those who are resisting. You need to name what it is you consider oppressive in order to be able to fight it. Many nonviolent resisters make an effort to separate between the oppressor as a person and the oppression he is committing, thus the humor will attack the oppressive system, but not the oppressor as a person.48

According to Berger, “Those who laugh together, belong together.”49 Sharing humor is built on shared knowledge of what we laugh at. For Mulkay, most humor is conservative and reinforces the status quo. Even political humor that at first seems to be radical and challenging, will in the long run serve to underline the already established political divisions. He thinks that political humor will only appeal to the already convinced, and does not change political opinions.50 Is this really true? In the sense of the us/them divide, Mulkay is right when he says that political humor underlines established political divisions, but it is not correct, at least not in oppressive situations, that it is conservative and reinforces the status quo. In the case of Otpor it helped create the feeling that something can and must be done about the status quo, and in order for this to happen, the difference between oppression and resistance has to be clear. Humor's play with duality and contradictions becomes one way of making this distinction obvious.

Turning Oppression Upside Down

Turning oppression upside down is the third function of humor as resistance, and here the humor deals directly with the relationship between oppression and resistance. This kind of humor has a new dimension and operates on a different level than the two previous functions. When it works, three things happen more or less simultaneously: (a) The humor used is confrontational; it provokes, mocks, or ridicules, which escalates the conflict and puts pressure on the oppressor. (b) Although an increased pressure raises the chances of repression, paradoxically the use of humor reduces fear within the resistance movement. (c) Humor reduces the oppressor's options for reacting in a way he can later justify.

Otpor was built as a nonhierarchical organization, with no individual leaders and where small independent groups organized their own actions.51 However, it still had an informal leadership and a core group that laid out the strategy, and part of that deliberate strategy was to use humor to provoke Milošević and reduce people's fear of him.

The thing is, that [humor] was something like the main thing that brought him [Milošević] down, because people were afraid, there was fear everywhere around and if we are going to change something, the main idea was to make fun of the things that make them afraid ... to make people less afraid by using humor.52

There is no doubt that humor was an important factor for reducing people's fear of the regime and of the police. Some of those interviewed for this piece stressed this element spontaneously, and everybody else supported this premise when asked directly. It is a very simple logic; it is more difficult to be afraid of someone when you laugh at him.

It is difficult to mock or ridicule those in power without some humorous elements, although the humor can be more or less “gentle” or more or less close to what is actually true. The closer one sticks to the truth about the oppressor, the better the humor works. An example of Otpor's more subtle irony can illustrate this: Mira Marković, the wife of Milošević and herself a politician in the Communist party, said in a statement that the Communists came to power with blood, so they would not leave power without blood. The Otpor activists then went to the hospital to donate blood and say “Here is our blood, now you can go.” This is humor that is not meant to make people laugh out loud, but to smile a little and provoke thought, and it turns the regime's own words against it. This humor is not very aggressive, but stuck to what Mira Marković had said. Satire twists the meaning of words, so that the person or case satirized finds her own force used against her. As Berger says about satire: “Like the martial arts, it always uses the adversary's strengths against himself and thus turns them into weaknesses.”53

Most of the humor Otpor used was not very aggressive, although some actions had aggressive elements. Let us examine an action that was also a clear provocation: To support agriculture, Milošević was placing boxes in shops and public places asking people to donate one dinar (Serbian currency) for sowing and planting crops. As a response, Otpor arranged its own collection called “Dinar za Smenu.”Smenu in Serbian is a word with many meanings; it can mean change, resignation, dismissal, pension, and purge. This action was repeated several times in different places in Serbia, and consisted of a big barrel with a photo of Milošević. People could donate one dinar, and would then get a stick they could use to hit the barrel. On one occasion, a sign suggested that if people did not have any money because of Milošević's politics, they should bang the barrel twice. When the police removed the barrel, Otpor said in a press release that the police had arrested the barrel, and that the action was a huge success. They claimed they had collected enough money for Milošević's retirement, and that the police would give the money to Milošević.

The power of humor is not in the level of aggression, at least not in an oppressive situation, but in the courage it takes and in the ambivalence between the innocence and the clear serious message. The provocation can be camouflaged behind the innocence that is part of the innocence–serious contrast explained earlier.

I have not investigated how the general public looked at Otpor's use of humor, but in order for the ridiculing of Milošević to work, it is likely that there has to be a perceived element of truth in the humor. Otpor's humor worked because they stayed within certain limits, and played with what was apparent, such as statements from the daily newspaper, or that Yugoslavia had fallen apart. If Otpor had tried to call the regime drug addicts or child abusers and made fun of that, people would have known that it was too far out. Instead they took what the regime did and twisted it and turned it against them, as in the leaflet with the cartoon of the boy painting graffiti and the statements about Otpor activists as terrorists and fascists. It was not necessary to invent new absurdities, because reality in itself was absurd enough.

As discussed above, humor used against oppression has a special twist to it because the humorous mode is connected to a perception of innocence, and contrasts so sharply with the serious issue of oppression. This contrast can take us even further, because it leads to another special advantage of using humor: How does one repress it?54

An example from Otpor illustrates this: In the beginning of September 2000, a few weeks before the presidential election, the police raided Otpor's central office in Belgrade. They took away everything—posters, stickers, office equipment like photocopiers and computers, and left only tables and chairs. Otpor called this police action “Unload 2000” and said that since the police had done the action this time, they were going to do the reaction “Load 2000.” Otpor planned for a time where the new equipment would arrive, and pretended that this was a secret action. However, because they knew who was informing on them to the secret police, they made sure that the secret police would know when all the new materials would arrive. A number of Otpor activists showed up outside the Otpor office in the main pedestrian street in Belgrade, apparently carrying heavy boxes that needed a lot of effort. The police arrived, and ordered the activists to put down all the boxes, which they reluctantly did. Some policemen were ordered to carry the boxes away. The policemen lifted the boxes with all their strength, since the boxes had looked heavy, but were in for a big surprise when the boxes flew into the air. The Otpor activists had managed to fool the police, and all the boxes were empty or full of old newspapers. Bystanders and Otpor activists were laughing, while the police were swearing at each other and the secret police's inability to provide reliable information.

The Norwegian total resisters in KMV made another spectacular action a few months after the “prosecutor,” which exposed the authorities in a different way: A number of activists climbed over the wall into the prison where one of their members was serving his 16 months. The group demanded to be imprisoned together with their friend on the grounds that they shared his views and therefore should be imprisoned with him. This caused confusion in the prison, where the guards were not used to getting extra inmates. How does one react to something like this? If the activists are allowed to stay in the prison, they make their point. If the police carry the protesters out, then the authorities look ridiculous. And if one wants to punish the protesters afterwards, how would this be done? Send them to prison as they had demanded?55

In addition to being a provocation, these two actions leave the authorities with a dilemma: How to respond when the secret police and prison system have just been exposed so directly? Humor and ridicule is not part of the means the police, prisons, and courts are used to responding to. They know how to react to violence, and how to act in response to “ordinary” protest such as demonstrations. But if the oppressor uses force against someone who is “just making fun,” he makes himself look ridiculous and gives the movement new material for further development of the fun. Two of the Otpor leaders I talked to called Otpor's actions “dilemma actions”—and the idea is to actively create this dilemma—no matter how the Milošević regime reacted, it had to regret it. Both the “load 2000” and the “Dinar za Smenu” mentioned earlier are examples of dilemma actions—if the police do not take away the barrel, they lose face, and when they do something Otpor continues the joke by calling it arrest of a barrel and saying the police will give Milošević the money for his retirement. No matter what the regime does, it has lost.

This does not mean that an oppressive system does not respond with violence, just that it is much harder to justify it. Playing with provocations can be dangerous business, and the result can be a violent response. Gandhi, for example, recommended not provoking or humiliating the oppressor since it would increase the chances of a violent response.56

The concept of political jiu-jitsu can help us understand the dynamic of turning oppression upside down. This central notion in nonviolence theory refers to how the opponents own force, as in the martial art, is used against him. When nonviolent resistance is met with violence, a special dynamic arises: It becomes difficult to justify the use of violence against a nonviolent resister. Gene Sharp, who was the first to write about political jiu-jitsu, explains:

Cruelties and brutalities committed against the clearly nonviolent are likely to disturb many people and fill some with outrage. Even milder violent repression appears less justified against nonviolent people than when employed against violent resisters.57

Such unjustified repression forces third parties and previously undecided people to take sides. When the nonviolent resisters use humor, something else happens in addition. Not only is it hard to justify violence, almost all kinds of reactions, violent or not, make the oppressor look ridiculous. This is illustrated by the different examples from Otpor that left the authorities without an adequate response, as well as by the actions of the Norwegian total resisters in which the court and prison did not risk a repressive response the activists could exploit further and, therefore, the cases were dismissed for “lack of evidence.”

Turning oppression upside down is different from the other two functions of humor because it directly challenges the relationship with the oppressor. To achieve all three elements of “turning oppression upside down” at the same time is a relatively unique dynamic, although I do not exclude the possibility that it can be created through other means as well.58

There will be cases where humor might be of great help in facilitating outreach, mobilization, and a culture of resistance, but it will not be taken to this level. Neither is there any guarantee that this strategy will work even in the cases where it is tried, because what happens also depends on the reaction from the oppressor. Oppression and resistance are so interlinked that one party does not control the situation alone. Potentially the humor can become too aggressive and focus on the oppressor instead of the oppression. If it is no longer based on wit and intelligence but too much on provocation, it ceases being funny, and the general public will lose sympathy. It is also possible to imagine scenarios where a repressive response is so severe that it increases fear even though the repression is ridiculous, or in which the oppressor manages to find an adequate response, maybe by using humor himself.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract

Theories about nonviolence and resistance have little to say about humor, and literature about humor has little to say about how it can work to counter oppression. However, when these two traditions are combined and related to empirical examples, new knowledge arises.

The case of Otpor is unusual precisely because humor was used to such a large extent. Most nonviolent movements working against oppression do not use much or any humor, and it would be easy to find examples of cases where the questions asked here would be irrelevant. However, through the case study of Otpor and examples from the literature, I have documented that humor has been used successfully to resist oppression. Because humor works in more than one dimension at the same time it can combine innocence with seriousness in a way that can alter relationships and transcend rationality.

The importance of humor as a way of resisting oppression should not be exaggerated, but humor does have a powerful potential in facilitating outreach and mobilization, a culture of resistance and turning oppression upside down. How this power is exercised depends on the situation, but humor's main source of power is its ability to turn things upside down and present them in a new frame. Examples of the unexpected are to jump into the prison or not to accept arrest as defeat. Because of its irrationality, humor has an ability to affect relationships in surprising and unpredictable ways and undermine traditional sources of power, such as the police and the military, which are firmly based in rationality. Because the serious mode is the common mode of interaction and communication, dictators generally expect to be taken seriously. When a group like Otpor ignores this general rule by presenting things in a humorous frame instead, they are suddenly the ones in charge because here they are much more familiar with “the rules of the game” than the dictatorship that still thinks in the serious mode.

Symbolic actions, including the use of humor, can have a profound influence if they manage to change people's perception of a situation. A demonstration, a street theatre, or hanging up of a poster has a very different impact in a dictatorial society, where fear dominates, than in a democratic society. Fear is not something one can touch and feel, but it still has a dramatic impact. When someone ceases being afraid or is less afraid than before, the situation has changed as long as he or she starts to act differently based on the changed perception of the situation. In Serbia, the actions of Otpor made people far outside of Otpor's own circles think that maybe things could become different. In spite of their experiences with years of deterioration and expectations of election fraud, people did go out to vote in the hope that maybe it would be different this time. And when the election fraud did happen, fear and apathy instead turned into anger and persistence. Otpor was not successful and powerful in the sense that they physically removed Milošević, but they played a crucial role in setting a different agenda and challenging fear and apathy.

The use of humor is explored so little in both theory and practice that there is a need for more practical use of it and more research before we can understand it better. This article has mainly focused on severe oppression in nondemocratic settings, although the examples from KMV are an exception to this. However, there is a strong tradition of using political humor in “Western” societies as well. For lack of space I have not been drawing on the tradition of for example the French situationists or the American yippies. In further research, it will be important to explore how these experiences can be linked to the theoretical framework suggested here, and also to investigate in what way the use of humor against oppression must differ in a democratic and a dictatorial situation.

Another area where more research and practice is needed is to look in more detail at how different kinds of humor work. Many different kinds of humor exist—for example, satire, irony, and parody—and it can take different forms, such as jokes, actions, or plays. What types of humor will best serve the different functions of humor suggested here? Are jokes for example more likely to facilitate a culture of resistance while spectacular actions turn oppression upside down?

At the personal level, self-irony and joking about one's own shortcomings are considered to have the greatest impact on self-liberation through humor. Will this also be true for the social level? What happens when a movement in addition to mocking the oppressor uses self-irony and exposes its own mistakes and shortcomings?

How is the use of humor perceived by the general public; does it change people's thoughts or behavior in any way? And can humor backfire on the nonviolent movement so that it is not taken seriously or the sympathy goes to the mocked oppressor?

A final area worthy of further exploration is to look at the oppressors’ reactions. What do they think about the humor directed towards them and how do they try to deal with it? There is a possibility that the oppressor will try to use counter humor: What would such humor look like, and how can the nonviolent movement respond to the counter humor?

  • I would like to thank Brian Martin, Carol Rank, Howard Clark, Jørgen Johansen, Stellan Vinthagen, the editor of Peace & Change, and the two anonymous referees for useful comments at different stages in the process of writing this article and the background study to it. My greatest gratitude goes to the Otpor movement that dared to experiment with humor while they were facing both oppression and repression, and especially the thirteen informants who took the time to answer all my questions. Without them, this study would never have been possible.

  • 1

    CIRCA is a UK-based network of clowns that operate through nonviolent action against capitalism and militarism, for example, at military recruitment offices and G8 meetings. CIRCA, Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, available from

  • 2

    Quoted before preface in James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990).

  • 3

    M. J. Mulkay, On Humor: Its Nature and Its Place in Modern Society (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1988).

  • 4

    Stephen Brigham, “Limitations of Reason and Liberation of Absurdity: Reason and Absurdity as Means of Personal and Social Change. Case Study: Psychotherapy” (Wollongong, NSW: University of Wollongong, 2005).

  • 5

    Two other works that I have found useful are Peter L. Berger, Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1997), and Simon Critchley, On Humor, Thinking in Action (London: Routledge, 2002).

  • 6

    Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Boston: P. Sargent Publisher, 1973).

  • 7

    In his 198 methods of nonviolent resistance, Sharp also includes one which is called “Humorous skits and pranks.” Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, 148–149, where he uses examples from Eastern Europe. Although Sharp is concerned with strategic nonviolent resistance, he does not have any comments on the particularities of humor as a form of nonviolent resistance.

  • 8

    . Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts.

  • 9

    Gregor Benton, “The Origins of the Political Joke,” in Humor in Society: Resistance and Control, ed. Chris Powell and George E. C. Paton (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988), 54.

  • 10

    Jörgen Johansen, “Humor as a Political Force, or How to Open the Eyes of Ordinary People in Social Democratic Countries,”Philosophy and Social Action 17, no. 3–4 (1991).

  • 11

    Kathleen Stokker, Folklore Fights the Nazis: Humor in Occupied Norway, 1940–1945 (Madison, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1995); Kathleen Stokker, “Quisling Humor in Hitler's Norway: Its Wartime Function and Postwar Legacy,”Humor 14/4 (2001).

  • 12

    Linda D. Henman, “Humor as a Coping Mechanism: Lessons from POWs,”Humor 14/1 (2001).

  • 13

    Bertil Neuman, Skratta Eller Gråta: Humor I Koncentrationsläger [Laugh or Cry: Humor in Concentration Camps] (Stockholm, Sweden: Carlsson, 2005).

  • 14

    For more detailed information about the case study and the conduct of the interviews, please contact the author at

  • 15

    Otpor's strategic use of humor and creativity is well known by people who are familiar with the organization. For an author that refers to Otpor's creativity and ridicule of Milošević, see for example, Joshua Paulson, “Removing the Dictator in Serbia—1996–2000,” in Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential, ed. Gene Sharp (Boston: Extending Horizons Books, 2005), 319, 322.

  • 16

    Michael Quinn Patton, Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods, 3rd edn. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002), 230.

  • 17

    Patton, Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods, 45–46, 55.

  • 18

    See for example Gene Sharp, Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential, 447–459.

  • 19

    See for example Jørgen Johansen, “Nonviolence: More than the Absence of Violence,” in Handbook of Peace and Conflict Studies, ed. Charles Webel and Johan Galtung (London: Routledge, 2007), 145, for a discussion of these two traditions that also include an emphasis on the overlaps between them.

  • 20

    Berger, Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience, 25, 32, 60.

  • 21

    Mulkay, On Humor: Its Nature and Its Place in Modern Society, 22–30.

  • 22

    Johansen, “Humor as a Political Force, or How to Open the Eyes of Ordinary People in Social Democratic Countries,” 24.

  • 23

    Johansen, “Humor as a Political Force, or How to Open the Eyes of Ordinary People in Social Democratic Countries,” 25.

  • 24

    Brigham, “Limitations of Reason and Liberation of Absurdity: Reason and Absurdity as Means of Personal and Social Change. Case Study: Psychotherapy”.

  • 25

    Matthew Collin, This Is Serbia Calling, 1st edn. (New York: Serpent's Tail, 2001); Paulson, “Removing the Dictator in Serbia—1996–2000,” 315.

  • 26

    There does not seem to be any disagreement about Otpor's central role. See for example Roger Cohen, “Who Really Brought Down Milosevic,”The New York Times, November 26, 2000; Albert Cevallos, “Whither the Bulldozer? Nonviolent Revolution and the Transition to Democracy in Serbia” (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2001); Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, Human Rights in Serbia 2000 (Belgrade, Serbia: Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, 2001), 13.

  • 27

    An easy introduction to the work and style of Otpor is the film Steve York, Bringing Down a Dictator, DVD film, York Zimmerman Inc., 2001. For more information about October 5th 2000 see Dragan Bujoševic and Ivan Radovanovic, October 5: A 24-Hour Coup (Belgrade, Serbia: Media Center Belgrade, 2000).

  • 28

    Predrag (Corax) Koraksic, On/He/Lui (Belgrade, Serbia: Plato, 2001), 158. Reprinted with permission.

  • 29

    Natasa Kandic and Humanitarian Law Center, Police Crackdown on Otpor (Belgrade, Serbia: Humanitarian Law Center, 2001).

  • 30

    Author interview with former Otpor activist, Belgrade, June 22, 2006.

  • 31

    For many different examples of nonviolent social movements see for example Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, 1st edn. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000), or Stephen Zunes, Lester R. Kurtz, and Sarah Beth Asher, Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographical Perspective (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999).

  • 32

    This is an area that can be explored much more when more examples of humor as resistance are collected.

  • 33

    Author interview with former Otpor activist, Belgrade, June 11, 2006.

  • 34

    Stokker, “Quisling Humor in Hitler's Norway: Its Wartime Function and Postwar Legacy,” 351.

  • 35

    Stokker, “Quisling Humor in Hitler's Norway: Its Wartime Function and Postwar Legacy,” 339

  • 36

    Stokker, “Quisling Humor in Hitler's Norway: Its Wartime Function and Postwar Legacy,” 349. In the postwar time, the jokes have served a different purpose. They helped create the myth that everybody participated in the resistance, and that nobody supported the occupation, which is contradicted by the fact that 60,000 Norwegians joined the Nazi party.

  • 37

    Stokker, “Quisling Humor in Hitler's Norway: Its Wartime Function and Postwar Legacy,” 339.

  • 38

    Stokker, Folklore Fights the Nazis: Humor in Occupied Norway, 1940–1945, 154.

  • 39

    Stokker, Folklore Fights the Nazis: Humor in Occupied Norway, 1940–1945, 102–103.

  • 40

    Stokker, Folklore Fights the Nazis: Humor in Occupied Norway, 1940–1945, 103. Stokker refers here to Banc and Dundes.

  • 41

    Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, xii, 4–6, 17–19.

  • 42

    Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, 202.

  • 43

    Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, 8–32.

  • 44

    Neuman, Skratta Eller Gråta: Humor I Koncentrationsläger [Laugh or Cry: Humor in Concentration Camps].

  • 45

    Henman, “Humor as a Coping Mechanism: Lessons from POWs.”

  • 46

    Author interview with former Otpor activist, Belgrade, June 22, 2006.

  • 47

    Author interview with former Otpor activist, Belgrade, June 13, 2006.

  • 48

    For example, this distinction was very important for Gandhi. Arne Næss, Gandhi and Group Conflict: An Exploration of Satyagraha: Theoretical Background (Oslo, Norway: Universitetsforlaget, 1974), 74. However, my informants from Otpor did not explicitly make this distinction.

  • 49

    Berger, Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience, 57.

  • 50

    Mulkay, On Humor: Its Nature and Its Place in Modern Society, 209–212

  • 51

    Collin, This Is Serbia Calling, 175; Cohen, “Who Really Brought Down Milosevic.”

  • 52

    Author interview with former Otpor activist, Belgrade, June 13, 2006.

  • 53

    Berger, Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience, 160. This parallel is also made by Marvin R. Koller, Humor and Society: Explorations in the Sociology of Humor (Houston, TX: Cap and Gown Press, 1988), 25.

  • 54

    Many political leaders have feared humor because they acknowledge its power. Adolf Hitler made political humor illegal in 1939, which is so absurd that it provided material for much humor. Neuman, Skratta Eller Gråta: Humor I Koncentrationsläger [Laugh or Cry: Humor in Concentration Camps], 17.

  • 55

    Johansen, “Humor as a Political Force, or How to Open the Eyes of Ordinary People in Social Democratic Countries,” 25–26; and Åsne Berre Persen and Johansen Jørgen, Den Nødvendige Ulydigheten [the Necessary Civil Disobedience] (Oslo, Norway: Fmk, 1998), 145–148.

  • 56

    Næss, Gandhi and Group Conflict: An Exploration of Satyagraha: Theoretical Background, 70.

  • 57

    Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, 657. The concept of political jiu-jitsu has been further developed by Brian Martin in his forthcoming book about backfire. Brian Martin, Justice Ignited: The Dynamics of Backfire (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).

  • 58

    It is not difficult to achieve these elements separately. Escalating the conflict can be done nonviolently without use of humor, for example, by nonviolent direct action that occupies public spaces. There are many ways of reducing fear, for example, the military do this with strict organizing and orders, and nonviolent groups achieve the same by good planning and affinity groups. The possibility for a violent response that is considered justified by the general public is often reduced by using nonviolence (political jiu-jitsu and backfire theories).