Nothing To Laugh At: The Role of Humor in Tibetan Resistance

Tenzin Dorjee, December 17, 2014

goat arrestedThe Tibetan sense of humor is often blunt rather than sharp, wide rather than deep. Our humor usually consists of laughing at other people’s tragedies (Sonam stepped on a banana peel and fell on his butt, hahaha!) or laughing at unfunny jokes.

I’d be the first to admit that ours is not as witty as British humor, or not as deep as Jewish humor. But thankfully it’s also not as crude as American humor, and not as rare as Chinese humor (have you ever seen two Chinese reeling in laughter?). Most importantly, the Tibetan sense of humor, regardless of the quality, is always in ample supply. It permeates all layers of life. For some reason, Tibetans have a unique ability to laugh at all jokes, funny or not funny – there’s no discrimination policy against bad jokes.

However, when it comes to the Tibetan resistance, where is our humor? I know what you are thinking. “What is there to laugh at? Living as we are in the time of fire and sacrifices, how can we allow ourselves to laugh at all?”

Think again.

First of all, humor is not just about laughing. Humor is an expression; it is a tool to expose the truth in new and unexpected ways, to highlight staggering injustices through one simple action. Secondly, it is precisely because humor is inappropriate and mischievous that it is powerful. By ridiculing the oppressor, the humorist deconstructs him and helps ordinary people to lose their fear of the regime and find the courage to take action. Besides, humor allows you to distill pages after pages of grievances (or speeches after speeches that start with “Since 1959…”) into one neat act or image that instantly illuminates the heart of the matter.

Some movements have used humor in their campaigns with great skill and success. In the Serbian movement against Milosevic’s dictatorship, the student group Otpor relied heavily on the power of humor. One of the most influential leaders of that revolution was Ivan Marovic, who came up with numerous ideas for poking fun at Milosevic while the dictator was at the height of his power. Their jokes, pranks, and street theater played a critical role in lowering ordinary Serbians’ level of fear of the regime, thus enabling more people to join the resistance movement.

Watch this video of one of their dilemma actions known as “Barrel of Laughs”:

A couple of years ago, I heard a refreshing story about a particular town in Tibet where a goat was roaming the streets with a plaque hanging from its neck. The plaque read in Tibetan: བོད་རང་བཙན། Bod Rangzen, which means “Free Tibet” or “Independence for Tibet”. As the Chinese authorities chased the goat around town before finally “arresting” it, the Tibetans were reeling in laughter. What a perfect dilemma action! If the authorities ignored the goat, they would be allowing a “Free Tibet” message to go unpunished. If they tried to do something, they would end up looking like hopeless idiots trying to arrest an innocent animal. It’s a lose-lose situation for the authorities!

This is not to say that Tibetans can simply laugh the Chinese out of Tibet. The point here is that laughter and ridicule are powerful tools in the arsenal of nonviolent action, and we cannot underestimate their power.

George Orwell, working as a British colonial officer in Burma, was at the receiving end of humor in resistance. He admitted as much in his essay Shooting An Elephant:

“The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans…” Explaining how he shot an elephant simply because the crowd expected him to shoot it like a respectable sahib, he wrote, “The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”