Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Power of Mockery

"Ridicule is man's most potent weapon," wrote Saul Alinsky. Salzman makes a similar point in his discussion of media events. And now Nicholas Kristof writes at The New York Times:
The juiciest story behind the Middle East uprisings doesn’t concern Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s “voluptuous” Ukrainian nurse or C.I.A. bags of cash. Rather, it’s the tale of how a nonviolent revolutionary strategy crafted by Serbian students and an octogenarian American scholar came to challenge dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and many other countries.

This “uprising in a bottle” blueprint was developed by the Serbian youth movement, Otpor, to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. One of Otpor’s insights was that the most effective weapon against dictators isn’t bombs or fiery speeches. It’s mockery. Otpor activists once put Milosevic’s picture on a barrel that they rolled down the street, inviting people to hit it with a bat.

Otpor’s strategy mirrors one promoted by a rumpled Boston academic named Gene Sharp, who is little known in America but inspires tremors among dictators abroad. Sharp’s guide to toppling despots has been translated into 34 languages so far and was widely circulated in Egypt last year in Arabic.

After Otpor toppled Milosevic, it began to hold seminars for pro-democracy activists from other parts of the world, including many from the Middle East.

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Toppling dictators is only one application of this kind of grass-roots movement. One of the most exciting trends in the struggle against poverty and social pathologies such as crime is the use of similar youth-owned movements to change cultural norms from the bottom up.

Tina Rosenberg, a longtime writer and journalist who contributes to the Opinion section of nytimes.com, offers a brilliant look at bottom-up initiatives to achieve social change in her new book, “Join the Club.” My favorite example has to do with teenage smoking.

From the 1970s through the 1990s, nothing seemed to work to dissuade teenagers from smoking. Television commercials warned that smoking kills you or turns your teeth yellow, but teenagers felt invulnerable. And with adults united in disapproval of teenage smoking, what better way for adolescents to rebel than to cough their way through a cigarette?

Then in the late-1990s, some frustrated anti-smoking campaigners showed teenagers how cigarette companies were manipulating them into addiction. Starting in Florida, the teenagers then designed a series of funny and withering commercials, many based on prank phone calls.

One depicted a couple of teenagers telephoning an ad agency that promoted cigarettes. The kids tried to give the agency a prize for killing teenagers in large numbers, flummoxing the staff.

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