Ever tried to fight back against someone making a joke? As soon as you get defensive, you’ve lost, right? Ever wish you could master the power of humor, that fine art of winning by weaponizing the ridiculous?
Humor’s actually a really effective weapon for activists. Humor rallies and motivates the troops, highlights absurdities and injustice, knocks sacred cows off their podiums, and undermines the authority of the power-that-be. We should employ humor a lot more than we do.
In this vein, this week’s Recommended Radical Read is Rules for Radicals: A pragmatic primer for realistic radicals by Saul Alinsky.
- Wouldn’t you love to irritate and neutralize the powers-that-be by laughing at them?
- Want to keep your opponents spinning their wheels and huffing and puffing at imaginary offenses?
- Or keep folks coming back to work on campaign after campaign because they’re having fun?
- or do you just dream of an organizing mentor who can appreciate a good fart joke?
If you answered “YES” to any of these questions, then Saul Alinsky’s your guy.
An Activism Primer
You can’t talk about Jazz without mentioning Miles Davis, Pop without Michael Jackson, Glam-rock without David Bowie. And you can’t talk about progressive activism without at some point getting to Saul Alinsky.
Rules for Radicals is a grassroots organizing Bible. Written in simple language, smattered with humorous vignettes and real-life stories from his years in organizing, it’s a wealth of strategy packed into a quick-turning 226 pages. The first time I read it, I cruised through it in a weekend.
I really recommend picking up a physical copy, because this book is gonna get you thinking and wanting to note things in the margins. But if you want or need a free copy, you can find it in various versions (text, pdf, Kindle, and audiobook) over at the Internet Archive.
Alinsky is for Activists Everywhere
While Saul Alinsky was unabashedly progressive…
“In this book we are concerned with how to create mass organizations to seize power and give it to the people; to realize the democratic dream of equality, justice, peace, cooperation, equal and full opportunities for education, full and useful employment, health, and the creation of those circumstances in which man can have the chance to live by values that give meaning to life.”
…Rules for Radicals is an activism primer for anyone who has very little power and resources and is taking on the Big Guys. Once you know his principles, you can see his strategies being applied not only in progressive circles, but also in 4Chan, Anonymous, and the Tea Party. A quick search of Amazon shows that there’s a collection of conservative books building off of his lessons.
In its essence Rules for Radicals is about upending the dominant power structure when you don’t have a lot to work with. In Alinsky’s own words:
What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.
Talking About the Real World Problems
This isn’t a book for idealists who think there’s only one right choice every time. Like its title says, this isn’t a book for purists. This is an in-the-trenches, get-yer-hands-dirty, each-situation-calls-for-different-solutions kind of primer.
Alinsky doesn’t mince words. He calls detractors idiots for not seeing the bigger picture. And while he has his personal values, he admits that if the stakes were high enough his values might need to get set aside for to win a campaign for the greater good of many more people.
He makes it sound easy, but these are big, universal topics he’s addressing. That’s what makes him timeless.
The 13 Rules for Radicals
Alinsky lays it all out from start to finish:
- organizing ethics (and why they’re more flexible than you think);
- how you word your end goals;
- terms that he uses like “self-interest” and “conflict” and the “haves,” “have-nots,” and “want-mores;”
- what qualities make for a good organizer (this section is also fascinating; you’ll see your friends in these pages and–sure enough–a sense of humor is key to being a good organizer!);
- how to best communicate your ideas;
- and how to ignite the spark of revolution in those you’re organizing.
All are worth reading and chewing over for hours.
However, the most famous part of his writing comes at the end with the Tactics for organizing. He gives you a baker’s dozen of simple guidelines for killer strategy–13 in total.
Alinsky’s tactics work as well today as they did in the 1970s when he wrote it. In some ways, they work even better because guerrilla tactics are the bread and butter of the internet.
Using of Humor as a Political Tool
We’re talking about the power of humor today, so let’s focus on just a few of Alinsky’s Tactics. I’ve put them in order of importance:
“Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”
Prick someone, and they’ll react. Usually irrationally, and then they’re reacting to your advantage. Any late-night comedian knows this trick, and many these days are using it to full effect.
“A good tactic is one your people enjoy. If your people are not having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong with the tactic.”
This is really worth thinking on. How many of our tactics these days are FUN? “I’m going to have some crazy fun tonight and start a postcard campaign”–said no one EVER. Not that phone banks and petitions and postcard campaigns don’t have a place–they do–but we’ve gotta make sure that there’s lots of fun to be had while we do them so that people want to come back for more.
“Never go outside the expertise of your people.”
You have to speak their language. This includes cultural symbols and shared ideas. If you don’t speak people’s language they get confused and retreat in fear. An in-joke can help campaigners to bond. In his section on communication he also talks about how if a particular experience is beyond someone’s expertise, you have to give people an experience to understand it. So… if you’ve ever been in a training and they led you through an exercise to then teach you a key point, you’ve been Alinsky’d. Bazinga.
Been led through an exercise to give you
an experience to help you understand something?
Bazinga. You’ve been Alinsky’d.
“Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.”
Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty among those who oppose you. Basically, look for ways to set them off-balance. Humor, especially ridicule, often causes insecurity and anxiety and can cause followers to question their leaders. In one of his most memorable analogies Alinsky suggests a fart-in to disrupt a symphony. What better way to make stuck-up people uncomfortable and at the same time be ridiculous? Who could possibly object to someone doing what comes naturally? How much fun would the participants have happily tooting their complaints?
“Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.”
And if the rules limit you, play them out to their most ridiculous, fullest extent. My favorite story is when he was organizing Black folks to have access to banking. The banks wouldn’t let them have bank accounts but they would let them rent a safety deposit box. So all those Black folks went in, followed the rules, rented a box, and put ONE FRESH FISH into their safety deposit box. All of them refused to withdraw their rotting fish until banking accounts were granted! Hah!
“A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.”
People–both your audience and your supporters–can only focus on one tactic for so long. Keep things interesting and changing. Don’t keep telling the same joke; you need new material.
“If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.”
You can push an opponent into overreacting against you, and then when they do it can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog.
Humor is practically invulnerable, as it immediately puts you in the underdog position. How many times have you heard “Oh, I was just joking! Lighten up!” This tactic is often used AGAINST the left (how often are we portrayed as humorless PC-obsessed zealots when we try to take on weaponized ridicule?), but its invulnerability is universal.
Alinsky’s Recipe for Success
Alinsky in a nutshell is: Be irreverant. Laugh at your enemies. Show how ridiculous they’re being. Keep them off-balance and on the defensive. Make ’em (the public and your supporters) laugh by talking their language. Keep ’em laughing, by keeping it fresh. Rinse, repeat. All advice we can follow any time. Who doesn’t want to laugh more, win more?
What do you think? Do you remember a time that humor was used within a campaign with really good results? Share your story in the comments.
Or what do you think about the use of humor today? Do you think the Left uses humor as much as it could? Do you think it could be used more? Where?
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