40 Pages Posted: 29 Oct 2013 Last revised: 5 Jun 2014
Date Written: April 28, 2014
The study of mass social movements, and their influence on legal, constitutional, and political reform, has long preoccupied legal scholars. Bottom-up social revolutions, ranging from the Civil Rights Movement in the United States to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, are studied extensively in the literature. The traditional conceptions of social movements largely portray them as somber occasions that reflect the gravity of the moment and the seriousness of their objectives. This Article identifies and studies a novel pattern emerging from the social movements of the 21st century, providing a unique contribution to the burgeoning legal literature on the role of non-state actors in shaping legal and constitutional change.
These new social movements — including the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the mass protests that took place in Summer 2013 in Turkey and Brazil — bear a counterintuitive ingredient in their conception and design: the ubiquitous use of humor. Although humor might appear to be antithetical to the somber nature of social movements, this Article argues, drawing on behavioral research and social movement theory, that humor can be an effective strategic tool to influence legal, constitutional, and political reforms. Humor can pierce the culture of fear prevalent in tyrannical regimes, serve as an effective coping mechanism against repressive government practices, and provoke government officials into reactionary conduct that furthers the social movement’s objectives. The use of humor can reframe and supplant the negative regime narratives of the movement and build solidarity among heterogeneous members of a movement with pre-existing sociopolitical differences. Humor can also support political mobilization by providing a low cost point of entry into a social movement, obtaining domestic and global resonance for the movement, and persuading others to join the movement by depicting an alternate, more appealing, reality. Finally, humor can provide an effective avenue for expressing popular discontent and undermine traditional methods for suppression employed by repressive leaders, including laws that criminalize and censor dissent and social mobilization.
Keywords: Humor, Revolution, Social Movement, Framing, Protest, Arab Spring, Gezi, Taksim, Turkey, Brazil, Occupy Wall Street
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By Brian Leiter