Add a laugh track to the movement for income equity & social justice

Many, if not most, of the stories and news reports on Humanosphere are about inequity — the global gap between the lives lived by the world’s rich and poor. But this gap is growing here at home as well, making people angry and perhaps threatening to undermine the global push for equity.

People are right to be angry and worried, says guest columnist Nathan Furukawa, an MD-MPH student at the UW, but humor can be more effective than moral outrage. Here is Furukawa’s case for adding a laugh track to the protest movement.

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By Nathan Furukawa, guest columnist

Many Americans are outraged at the growing income inequality they see around them. They should be, since this is bleeding our chances in a consumer-driven economy for lasting economic recovery.

Growth in Income Inequality

In 2010, 93% of additional income created that year went to the top 1%. This represents an average income increase for the richest one percent of $105,637 and an outrageous $4.2 million increase in income for the richest one-tenth of one percent. How much did earnings rise for the bottom 99%? $80 on average.

This imbalance translates into mounting personal debt, lost opportunity and worse health for those stuck in poverty or teetering on the brink. Yet, according to a December Gallup survey, only 17% of Americans think reducing the income and wealth gap between the rich and poor is extremely important.

The lesson here appears to be that shouting about how unfair life has become is not a compelling message.

Occupy Wall Street’s attempted Mayday protest and reboot resulting in poor turnouts, acts of violence and property destruction — and loss of public support.

So maybe it’s time to try humor.

Humor is an often overlooked and powerful tool for raising awareness and stimulating action. Laughter can spread messages rapidly and make civil disobedience accessible, fun, and trendy.

For example, look at the the youth protests in Chile last summer which motivated over 500,000 students to demand affordable secondary and higher education.

The broad support for the movement originated from campaigns aimed at organizing events that blended defiance with entertainment such as ‘Kiss-Ins’, where students locked lips in front of the presidential palace for 1,800 seconds to symbolize the $1.8 billion needed to finance public education.

In another event, students donned zombie attire and performed 1,800 relay laps around the palace to the tune of “Thriller”, a tribute to the viral Filipino prison rendition. By December, the Chilean students had turned the government on its head and made educational reform the top priority for lawmakers.

Humor can also take on a satirical form, using wit was a weapon. Take for example the women of Barbacoas, Colombia who organized the no-sex “Crossed Legs Movement” to protest the poor roads leading to the town.

The citizens had pressed the government to repair the road for years, but after seeing a 23-year-old pregnant woman and her unborn baby die en route to the hospital due to the poor roads, the women declared they had had enough. They all gathered and agreed to give up sex in protest, much to the chagrin of the men. The protest reached international news and shamed the government into allocating $22 million to repair the road.

Humor has even proven powerful enough to overthrow dictators. From 1998-2003, the Serbian civil youth movement, Otpor!, utilized humor and irony to motivate Serbians to rally against their brutal dictator, Slobodan Milosevic.

Activities ranged from “Happy Birthday Milosevic”, where citizens celebrated Milosevic’s birthday by giving him handcuffs, prison suits, and a one-way ticket to the Hague, to “A Dinar for Change”, where activists charged pedestrians one dinar to borrow a bat and hit a barrel bearing Milosevic’s face.

Comically, when the barrel attracted a large enough gathering, the instigators slipped into the crowd, leaving the police the only option of confiscating the barrel. Otpor! in turn used its influence to push for the elections that ultimately ousted Milosevic.

Humor provides a means of addressing gloomy subjects in a way that transcends boundaries normally preventing us from relating to each other.

For humor to work within a movement, it first needs to be grounded to a clear message that highlights a gross inequity.

Secondly, and most importantly, the message needs to have a broad appeal to make it seem as though there is widespread support behind it. Instead of camping in public parks, which narrows support to all but a small die-hard faction willing to brave the elements, imagine utilizing flash mobs and dancing to raise awareness and highlighting inequity.

The opportunities are endless, but to make civil disobedience simultaneously enjoyable, accessible, and meaningful, it requires a great deal of creativity and a sense of humor.

In this case, laughter might be the best medicine.

Nathan Furukawa is a student at the University of Washington School of Medicine and School of Public Health and involved in research and policy relating to economic inequality.

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About Author

Editor Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom-at-humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.