Weaponizing Ridicule

The fifth rule: Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.

—Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals

Army University Press, by Michael J. Waller, Sept. – Oct. 2017:

Venezuelan women stripped off their pants and threw them at riot police, taunting the already demoralized young men to “man up” and put them on. Jeering crowds laughed at the confused paramilitary forces, chanting for them to “wear some pants” and side with the people against the tottering Maduro dictatorship. Suddenly, the truncheon-wielding, helmeted police and their armored vehicles didn’t seem quite so menacing. Once the public could make fun of the repressive machine, everyone knew the police state’s time was running out.

Improvised street theater across Venezuela in the spring of 2017, with the occasional Molotov cocktails adding drama to provoke overreaction among the security forces, marked the tipping point for a corrupt regime that had brought itself to the breaking point. The people laughed in the face of their oppressors. Their fear evaporated.

When a police state loses its ability to instill obedience or fear, it cannot long survive. When terrorists lose their ability to terrorize, they lose their most vital psychological weapon. Terrorism being by definition a form of psychological warfare—the name says it all, which is to instill terror among populations and leaders—the perpetrators cannot exist in perpetuity if they fail to cow the people.

Killing terrorists and their supporters is only part of the counterterrorism arsenal. Yet, hunting down and killing them has been the primary means of counterterrorism in a war apparently without end. Sometimes the worst thing to do to an enemy is to mock him or her. Ridicule, mockery, and their related tactics have been weapons against evil—and evildoers’ weapons against all things good—throughout recorded history.

“The devil … the proud spirit … cannot endure to be mocked,” wrote Sir Thomas More, the closest friend and confidant of King Henry VIII, who would lose his head to the executioner’s axe for being what he called “the king’s loyal servant, but God’s first.”1

Ridicule can work when philosophy, theology, or reason fails. “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear Scorn,” said Martin Luther, a leader in what would become the Protestant Reformation.2

Authors Douglas J. Feith and Abram N. Shulsky echo Luther, writing, “One of the most potent weapons of the Enlightenment in its battle against religious fanaticism and intolerance was ridicule.”3

The same can be said about most conflicts today. Ridicule has received little attention in modern military thinking. The military is not supposed to be funny. But neither are diplomats nor spies. Ridicule seldom if ever becomes a factor in military or diplomatic strategic planning, and rarely at the tactical or operational levels, even though many of our priority targets, large and small, are ripe for a good laugh.

Al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi lost his aura of invincibility in 2006 when the U.S. military released raw outtakes of a captured video showing the terrorist chief to be a befuddled, pudgy bumbler in a black ninja costume who didn’t know how to operate a machine gun.4 But some in the U.S. military didn’t get the value of ripping down al-Zarqawi in this way, arguing that the machine gun, an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, is “complicated to master” and requires extensive training. Plus, the M249 in question was an “older variant, which makes its malfunctioning unsurprising.”5Arab journalists, on the other hand, saw the value immediately. Iraqi television broadcast the video over and over for days.

Dictators, terrorists, and totalitarian ideologues, almost by definition, cannot tolerate being laughed at. Nor can anyone with an inflated ego and thin skin. Ridicule is their Achilles’ heel. And, humor is a robust underground phenomenon in any society. The Soviet leadership was so fearful of humor that the KGB had what Russian comedian Yakov Smirnov called a “Department of Jokes.” That was not the real name of the department, which had a more anodyne designation as a subunit of the KGB’s political enforcement section, the Fifth Chief Directorate, but Smirnov’s nickname for it made the KGB look all the more weak and bizarre (although all jokes still had to be KGB approved).6

An antigovernment protester holds a poster with a caricature of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro 2 March 2014 during a rally against his government in Caracas. The poster reads, “What the hell does SOS mean?,” “Peace no, bullets yes.” Subsequently, thousands of antigovernment demonstrators marched in the capital trying to keep up the momentum during months of protests demanding Maduro’s resignation. (Photo by Jorge Silva, Reuters)

The Nazis took a different view. Early after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, the Nazis banned comments critical of the regime, but did not ban jokes. Some German historians say that the Nazis considered jokes to be an escape valve for ordinary Germans’ tensions and frustrations. During the losing years of World War II, however, the Third Reich took jokes as a form of military defeatism, punishable by imprisonment or death, although historian Rudolph Herzog, author of Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany, found that the jokes were a pretext for purging undesirables.7 A persuasive case can be made that excessive denunciation of humorists and jokers, playing up the threats they present, using shows of force, and even physically attacking them, can strengthen the purveyors of ridicule and deepen their appeal.

Cost Effective

Ridicule costs nothing to deploy. It requires no expensive hardware or special procurement budget. As such, it has no pork-barrel political constituency in Congress and no career path in the armed forces. Because ridicule effectively costs nothing, it cannot be accounted for as a tool or weapon. The lawyers and accountants who increasingly dominate military thinking and action cannot “bean count” ridicule the way that they can easily account for spent munitions, wrecked vehicles and gear, dead and mutilated servicemen, and endless disability benefits. Military promotions tend to be for tangible, accountable time and actions, with occasional intangibles like gallantry and valor, not difficult-to-account-for innovations like ridicule that can weaken and destroy an enemy more effectively than kinetic, bean-countable force. So, we miss endless opportunities to take out our enemies and put our adversaries in their place.

Take an opportunity in early 2017, when Russia sent its creaky Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier on its first-ever deployment from the Baltic to the Syrian coast. NATO maritime countries wrung their hands at the development. What if, instead, they simply made fun of the diesel-belching monstrosity? They could have caused an Internet sensation by dogging the Kuznetsov in full public view. What if, rather than marvel at Russia’s new naval aviation capabilities, the alliance simply made fun of the mechanically plagued Kuznetsov? One wag suggested on Twitter that the British send a Royal Navy salvage tug to escort the Kuznetsov as it sputtered its way through the English Channel. At the time, Russian aircraft recklessly buzzed NATO warships and even reportedly penetrated NATO airspace. By making fun of Moscow’s flagship on its first Mediterranean combat run, the alliance could have slapped Vladimir Putin down a few notches instead of elevating him toward his craved status as a military peer.

Such a stunt is not “information” in the informative or cyber sense of information operations (IO). It’s political theater. It isn’t “military information support operations,” whatever that is, the awkward terminology having stripped the very essence from its former name, psychological operations (PSYOP). But political theater can be PSYOP. Without a proper name, we deprive ourselves from using what we have in hand for the psychological effect on a target. We would never think of using a tugboat to weaken the intimidating first-ever presence of a Russian aircraft carrier. Instead, policy makers moan and groan about what to do, while bloggers and Twitter activists virtually blew the Kuznetsov’s prestige out of the water.8

Vulnerable Leaders

Let’s look at some examples of some vulnerable national leaders around the world, and then at some vulnerable adversaries on the tactical and operational levels. First, we must resist the urge to recoil in twenty-first-century horror at forms of ridicule that many in the modern West feel are misogynistic and bigoted, and consider the appropriateness against the relevant targets in their own societies.

Russia. Vladimir Putin has a thin skin. He has a crass sense of humor, but he is vulnerable when the laugh is on him. A group of psychologists and policy strategists has argued that Putin’s carefully cultivated tough-guy image is an overcompensation for his own insecurities about his personal sexual identity.9 Putin is so thin-skinned that he officially banned a popular meme of him with his face painted in drag. That reaction inadvertently made the meme more popular than ever, becoming an international sensation. NATO militaries have now begun to consider memetic warfare, which employs memes as a form of psychopolitical conflict.10

Egypt. An indicator that a regime is ripe for a ridicule attack is when that regime passes laws and issues decrees to ban public insults against those holding political power. In the case of Egypt after the February 2011 revolution against Hosni Mubarak, the Islamist successors made such a ban part of the new constitution. The democratically elected regime of Mohammed Morsi, which quickly tried to consolidate power into a theocratic Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship, would tolerate no jokes.

That constitutional ban didn’t deter Egyptian funnyman Bassem Youssef, who hosted a popular television program modeled after Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. Youssef had aimed his merciless wit against Mubarak without reprisal, but the Islamists quickly had enough of him after Morsi became the butt of his jokes. Youssef aired a regular gag of poking fun at Morsi’s repeated use of the word “love” in political speeches. To the tune of love songs, Youssef caressed a red pillow bearing an image of Morsi’s face. These and other offenses were now a crime that earned international headlines. Youssef “made fun of President Mohammed Morsi on television,” the London Telegraph reported.11 International public opinion, led by Stewart himself, arguably spared Youssef from prison. The comedian now directs his wit at the Sisi government that ousted Morsi, with no repercussions.

Humor and ridicule can create a battlespace of its own. In Youssef’s case, the Islamists fired back with their own acidic comedy. Abu Islam Ahmed Abdullah, whose show Hezbollah is aired on the Ummah Channel (these are real names, not jokes), appeared to express physical attraction to Youssef, calling him more beautiful than famous Egyptian actresses, and urging him to cover his face like a woman.

For comedic jihadists, the humor is one-way. Abu Islam said that Islamic sheikhs who have become involved in politics should be held above criticism, “because God gave them the right to enlighten people on what is right and what is wrong and that they can judge who will go to heaven and who will go to Hell.”12 The Morsi regime and other Islamists called for restrictions on freedom of expression against Egyptian artists in general with high-profile intimidation campaigns.13

Qatar. The United States considers the dictatorial regime of Qatar a reliable friend and ally in the war against violent extremism, even though the Qatari regime and its ruling family finance the indoctrination, training, and operations of jihadists worldwide. We have conditioned ourselves to think of Qatar as a partner because Qatar “lets” us use the massive Al Udeid military base we built there, much of it at our expense. Why we consider Qatar a friend and ally when it finances the people who kill us is beyond the scope of this article, but let’s look at the thin-skinned intolerance of the regime as an Achilles’ heel if times get tough. Qatar can dish it out to the rest of us with its Al Jazeera television and Internet channel, but it can’t take it.

The Qatari regime sentenced a poet to life in prison for the crime of “insulting” the emir. The offense: deriding the family dictatorship as a bunch of “sheiks playing on their Playstations.”14 The poet, Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, supported the regime-backed Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa, and seemed to call for a democratic revolution in Qatar, though he was careful not to say so specifically. Calling for the overthrow of the ruling al-Thani family is a capital crime in Qatar. In one of his poems, al-Ajami said, in Arabic, “If the sheiks cannot carry out justice, we should change the power and give it to the beautiful woman.”15 Such putdowns don’t seem like much to people in democratic societies, and the ridicule isn’t particularly profound, but it shows the weakness of jihad-exporting petro regimes and the simplicity of taking advantage of their leaders’ emotional and psychological insecurities.16

Syria. The Syrian uprising prior to Islamic State (IS) attempts to control the country began after the Assad regime arrested schoolchildren for painting antigovernment graffiti in what appeared to have been a well-organized, low-budget provocation.17 The children were not arrested for vandalism but for political crimes. Faced with no real journalism and a weak Internet presence, Syrian artists became increasingly courageous in skewering the Ba’athist Assad regime with the psychologically lethal weapon of satire.

Dictator Bashar al-Assad is said to be extremely sensitive to ridicule, in part for his own political survival and in part because of a physical feature—an unusually long neck—that makes him an easy target for cartoonists, puppeteers, and other artists.

“From the beginning the regime has known it’s dangerous to use the image, to use art,” Syrian artist Aram Tahhan told CNN. “The camera is the equal of any weapon from the point of view of the regime.”18

Many of the authors needed no Internet. They spread their message through songs, cartoons, and poetry. They moved from their traditional skirting of social boundaries to becoming literal iconoclasts, smashing regime personalities and symbolism head-on. Others used the Internet to reach audiences both in Syria and around the world. A group of ten artists, calling themselves Masasit Mati, created cheap, easy-to-smuggle finger puppets of regime leaders to star in a video lampoon called “Top Goon.”19 The very simple—and very funny—puppet show ripped down the regime’s fragile cult of personality around Bashar “Beeshu” al-Assad, his henchman, and his glamorous wife. The simple performances also heaped ridicule on the regime for its atrocities.

These short, comical puppet shows were popular in Syria and around the world, and reduced the regime to repressing puppets. The puppets themselves were an ideal format for underground video resistance. Easy and inexpensive to make, small enough to hide or discard in an emergency, and mercilessly funny caricatures of various Syrian regime figures, the puppets carried out a brilliant divisive operation to embolden the average Syrian and marginalize what was left of the regime. The short and entertaining shows are worth watching and promoting as examples of cultural resistance to dictatorship, and as ideas for battling other adversaries, such as the regime in Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. Top Goon has its own YouTube channel in Arabic, and videos with English captions and subtitles.20 The entire campaign was possible by a small grant from the government of the Netherlands.

Before the emergence of IS, some foreign observers urged that satirical artistic expression be supported as a tool in Syria against the well-organized, disciplined, militant, and generally unhumorous Muslim Brotherhood, which sought to take control of Syria.

“A creative and resolutely non-violent form of opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime has taken hold in Syria, as the country’s artists respond to the crisis with newfound boldness and purpose, despite the clear dangers in doing so,” wrote CNN’s Tim Hume.21

“Since the uprising, the artists have broken through the wall of fear in Syria and are thinking in another way,” said Syrian journalist Aram Tahhan, one of the curators of an exhibition on Syria’s creative dissent—Culture in Defiance—on display in Amsterdam. “The uprising has changed the artists’ thinking about the task of art in society, how they can do something useful for society,” Tahhan said in the CNN report. “They have rewritten everything.”22

“With works spanning from painting to song to cartoons, puppet theater to graffiti to plays, the exhibition traces the way that Syrian artists have used a range of creative techniques within traditional and new media to create political, populist art that both brooks ‘the red line’ of dissent and engages the public in unprecedented ways,” according to CNN.23

North Korea. The totalitarian family dynasty of North Korea may be more absorbent than it seems. The Internet has made Pyongyang acutely sensitive to satire and ridicule. After the 2004 release of the “South Park” puppetry of Team America: World Police, rumors circulated in Washington that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il ordered the assassination of producers and directors Trey Parker and Matt Stone.24 Team America’s vulgar humor did no damage to American power and prestige, even though it satirized what was then the Global War on Terrorism. But, it pierced the choreographed imagery of Kim’s propagandistic persona and turned him into a global object of ridicule.

Kim’s son and successor, Kim Jong-un, is even more thin-skinned. When introduced to the world as the successor to his ailing father, South Koreans derided him as a “fat pig” and a “Teletubby.”25Apparently facing substantial opposition from the ruling elite, Kim Jong-un consolidated his domestic political power through a regime of fear, executing longtime loyalists through the most humiliating and bizarre methods and assassinating his own half-brother. A decade after the release of Team America, James Franco and Seth Rogen starred in the action-comedy The Interview, in which the CIA recruited their talk show characters to assassinate Kim under the pretext of having him on their television program.26 The North Korean foreign ministry warned that release of The Interview would be an “act of war” that would trigger a “merciless” response.27

Bloody as he is, the chubby North Korean dictator appears intensely conscious about his hard-to-control weight. In 2016, the Chinese government censored websites that called the 275-pound tyrant “Kim Fatty the Third.”28 When U.S. Sen. John McCain referred to Kim as a “crazy fat kid,” the North Korean government called the comment “a provocation tantamount to declaration of war.”29 In the bizarre world of North Korea’s hermit regime, where personal image and psychological intimidation are the only means of keeping power, playing on Kim’s obsession with his personal appearance could become an important psychological factor in bringing the regime to heel and even hastening its collapse.

Too sensitive to employ? Many of the real-world examples above raise policy questions for the United States and its NATO allies. Has Western society become too sensitive to find such mockery acceptable? In an absurd way, it has become politically and socially normal for the United States to kill and maim people around the world, but forbidden and even immoral to make fun of them. One of the problems to consider is, have we become too politically correct to use ridicule adroitly against targets in traditional or fundamentalist societies because of our own social prejudices and fears about offending (as opposed to killing) others?

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J. Michael Waller, PhD, is a founding editorial board member of NATO’s Defence Strategic Communicationsjournal, published by the alliance’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga, Latvia, and is a vice president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. He holds an MA in international relations and communication, and a PhD in international security affairs from Boston University. For thirteen years he was the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Professor of International Communication at the Institute of World Politics. He is the author or editor of several books, and he has written for prominent national academic and professional publications, as well as Reader’s DigestUSA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Times, and the Wall Street Journal. He has been an occasional commentator on BBC, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NPR, and the Voice of America.