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How is Humor an Agent for Social Change?

Humor is the kind of art where spirit brims. It is an art of a high frequency and its gift to us is laughter and lightness. And for those who really need it, it brings healing. The irony is that the more seamless it may look, the harder it might have been to write – which is exactly why I appreciate its intent and respect its artist.

Take Banksy for example. Banksy is a graffiti writer whose middle name is sarcasm. The portrayal of his existence itself is wittily framed and paradoxical. Banksy isn’t his real name. His identity is anonymous – someone who no one, and yet everyone knows, because of how reputed his work is. His art uses humor as a rhetorical tool to inspire social change.

In 2010, he drew the graffiti in the picture above and strategically placed it in a low-income area at Chinatown, Boston, to highlight class struggles in a capitalistic society.

When talking about humor, another name that pops up in my mind is Hasan Minhaj. His Netflix show “Patriot Act” takes a captivating spin on news. It is a political satire inspired by his upbringing as an Indian American and first-generation child of immigrants. In his interview with PBS, Minhaj reveals that his father would say that the additional cost of entry to the US is the “American Dream Tax”, i.e. “micro-aggressions, racism, or bigotry” experienced by immigrants.

That sparked Minhaj’s interest in starting serious conversations, albeit funny, about issues like bigotry, racism, and Islamophobia. Watch the trailer of the show (below) to learn more.

Let's talk about disability. Disability is a serious subject for most people. That isn’t the case with the comedian and actress Rosie Jones. There is an undeniable warmth and smoothness to Jones that has the power to break down social attitudes and awkwardness around disability. In her comedy, she makes fun of her cerebral palsy for the most part. Below is a two-minute mood-lightener by her: Disabled Elephant in the Room.

Since we are covering comedians, let’s not forget Hannah Gadsby and her radically innovative “Nanette”, which powerfully showcases what it's like to be a gay woman in a homophobic and sexist society. Gadsby deconstructs humor in a very raw, vulnerable and revealing way, where we learn about her relationship with humor and ills of society simultaneously. If you haven’t watched her, you are missing out!

These are few of the many artists who not only use laughter as a means to inform people about the absurdity of ignorant norms, but also as a tool to break walls between them and their audiences. I for one feel an automatic kinship towards a person who can make me laugh. Chances are, the same person has the power to make me feel a lot more, including an emotional trust. While humor can’t always bring about a social change, and it may even come off as a little vain to some, it is a transmitter of strength and laughter to those in sadness and suffering. It is the quiet whisper, “I’m here, let’s fight this battle together.”

Like Allen Klein said, “ You may not be able to change a situation, but with humor, you can change your attitude about it.”


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