Contemporary researchers of political communication, in their studies of Russia’s rallies of 2011-2012 (including their visual aspects, such as banners, performances, installations, etc.), were unanimous in mentioning joviality as being a specific feature of the protest; according to sociologists, almost half of the self-made banners at the rallies had humorous content.
This characteristic, which is somewhat strange, distinguishes the recent wave of protestsfrom others (egrallies of the 1990s). Where did this reverence to an ironic form of self-expression in our fellow Russians come from? Is it a marginal thing, or is it a deliberate communication technology purposely being used by the actions’ participants?
The first question in this regard concerns the reasons humorous methods were used. Why were the protesters so willing to use humour and sarcasm? One could suppose that humour is the last thing one might want to use to speak about serious things… In answering this question, we can outline several reasons. The first has to do with human nature: laughter is an absolute and integral part of human existence, and the space of protest, as part of this existence, would be incomplete without it. Probably, if the people who came out to the streets had not been humans but robots, they could have done without emotions in general and laughter in particular. But this was not the case…
A number of psychological reasons exist: laughter helps people connect with other people and at the same time better express their individuality. In addition, it is a powerful compensational mechanism during collisions with a tough reality. And, finally, the third reason lies in the social dimension; it has to do with laughter’sunifying function which makes it possible not only to ‘see likeminded people in a crowd’ but also to feel more comfortable in a spontaneouslygathered group of people, which is a characteristic of rallies.
However, the problem of the role of laughter in public protest actions is not completely answered by the ‘why’ question.Aneven more interesting question exists – what for? We speak about a function of the ‘ironic protest’ since laughter is also a serious socio-cultural technology thathelps make communication (including communication at rallies) more effective.
We’ve studied many banners – both those we’ve seen ourselves and those appearing abundantly on websites; we outlined the key functions of a self-made, humorous banner and the humorous methods used by those who created them.
The first (and, probably, the most serious) function of such a banner is to be liberating. Laughter helps people break mental stereotypes and overcome ethnic or intellectual barriers; it liberates people from z yoke of imposed rules. Laughter allows people to look at things from a different angle, and that’s why the government has always disliked it, since it took the masses out of the imposed behavioural framework.
The protective function of laughter is closely tied with the first function and helps people protect themselves from a fear of the future or from the ‘wrong’ political behaviour. Protected by an armour of humour, people say what they probably wouldn’t otherwise say in a serious political discussion.
At the same time, a sign in a protest rally doesn’t always ‘demonize’ the government – sometimes it ‘domesticates’ it, as in trying to soften the conflict. And this particularly shows the third function of laughter in the political protest – the demonstrative, which is related to personal self-presentation. People use it to express themselves, to go away from purely political things and speak about whateverthey want. ‘Giveus backfairelections! Giveus backa snowywinter!’, ‘Gogol for fair elections!’, ‘Give me cookies!’, ‘People, love each other’, or even simply ‘Life!!!’. These slogans speak about everything and anything, not only political demands. The main thing here is that a person gets a mouthpiece for self-expression.
The social function of laughter makes it possible to see likeminded people in a crowd. Banners help people find others ata rally who are able to understand what they’re trying to express. The signs highlight the key points and connect people who speak the same language. Examples of such signs include those with characters from TV series or expressions and images from Facebook.
Another function of laughter is communication. Anticipating criticism, I must admit that the title is not very precise, since any banner is communication. In this case I mean that a banner allows people not only to communicate with each other but also, most importantly, to object to the opponent – the government. Such banners are very different; they include those responding to the government’s messages;the prescriptive (‘You’d better go’, ‘Putin, love us!’); the dialogical, which are one-way communications with government representatives (‘We know you want to do it for the third time, but we have a headache!’), and others.
A special group includes parody banners, which ridicule not only the poor verbal messages coming from representatives of power but also those individuals’ visual characteristics (the specifics of their appearance, clothes, and mannerisms), features of opponents’ behaviour, and details of the political situation as a whole.
One of the leading roles is played by another function – the game function. The rallies showed examples of theatrical games, masquerade, and metaphors… But most often, of course, we see the language game being played. It allows the banners’ creators to express their creativity in full. Mixing languages and using puns, allusions, and intentional phonetic mistakes make communication naughty and vivid.
And, last but not the least in our list is the recreational function of the political banner, the function of recreation and entertainment. This is a way to laugh, including at oneself, to relieve strains, stress, etc. Expressions like ‘Looking for a wife’ can hardly be related to any political message. This is not an attempt to express a political position or make a serious statement; it is just an attempt to relax, to take time out from the heavy tempo of everyday life and struggles.
Each of the functions listed here can be the subject of a separate research study which will help us better understand the socio-cultural mechanisms of contemporary political communication. But, if we go from the field of policy cultural studies to a more pragmatic dimension, we are inevitably faced with the question: Isn’t the humorous nature of protest rallies a kind of ‘surrogate’ that allows serious political slogans to be replaced with a simple outburst of creative energy? After all, most of the banners come from ‘liberal’ groups – the creative class, which is less inclined to political radicalism and for whom laughter may be a kind of substitute for more decisive action. Didn’t laughter become the one thing that united the protest, but at the same time the one thing that decreased its political effectiveness?
This question doesn’t have one answer. Of course, it would be naïve to assume that a witty confrontation with the government can serve as a substitute for a solution to specific political problems. Nor can we say that laughter completely cancels outserious confrontation: in the beginning, people use laughter to stop being afraid to express their opinions, to get to know likeminded people, and to find some opportunities for a common language, and then – under certain conditions – they proceed to more serious interaction.
It’s also worth stating that the ‘laughing revolution’ trend declined after protest participants experienced harder pushback from the government. People were no longer in the mood for laughter. Along with humour, other forms of communication have become important. When the country went out into the streets to rally against the DimaYakovlev law (anti-adoption law), hardly any humorous banners were to be seen – the march was silent… Well, silence, pause, and verbal boycott also represent a technology of influence. But that will be the subject of a different research study.
Svetlana Shomova, Professor at the HSE Faculty of Media Communications, Head of the New Media and Social Communications Department