Tactical Frivolity

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Tactical frivolity is a form of public protest involving humor, often including peaceful non-compliance with authorities, carnival and whimsical antics. Humor has played a role in political protests at least as far back as the Classical period in ancient Greece. Yet it is only since the 1990s that the term tactical frivolity has gained common currency for describing the use of humor in opposing perceived political injustice.

There is no universally agreed definition as to which sorts of humorous protest count as tactical frivolity. Generally the term is used for a whimsical, non confrontational approach rather than aggressive mocking or cutting jokes.

The study of humor by social historians did not become popular until the early 1980s and the literature on this subject studying periods before the 20th century is relatively sparse. An exception is the frequently cited ‘Rabelais and His World’ by Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian scholar and philosopher. The work discusses the life and times of the writer and satirist François Rabelais with emphases on what the author considers to be the powerful role of humor in medieval and early times. Carnivals, Satire and the French folk custom of Charivari were discussed as mediums that allowed the lower classes to use humor to highlight unjust behaviour by the upper classes. These humorous protests were generally tolerated by the ruling authorities. Examples of the use of humor for political protest even from Classical times such as ‘Lysistrata’ by ancient Greek dramatist Aristophanes have been described as ‘Rabeleisan protest.’

Studies of hunter gather tribes thought to have systems of social organization that have changed little since prehistoric times have found that ridicule or anger is used by many tribes to oppose any individual who tries to assume authority in a way that violates the tribes egalitarian norms. An example of a political protest making extensive use of humor in early modern times is the 17th century British movement the Levellers.

One of the earliest protest groups whose use of humor has been specifically described as ‘tactical frivolity’ is Orange Alternative, a movement that emerged in Poland during the early 1980s as a part of the broader Solidarity campaign. They made exstensive use of visual jokes and theatrical stunts to protest against oppression by the authorities, a common theme was to dress up as elves (sometimes translated dwarves or gnomes). Orange Alternative have been described as the most ‘influential of the solidarity factions,’ who were central to enabling the overall movement to prevail, partly due to the success their comedic ‘happenings,’ which attracted the  attention of the world’s media.

A protest movement described as partly responsible for popularizing the contemporary use of ‘Tactical Frivolity’ is Reclaim the Streets (RTS). They formed in 1991 in Great Britain inspired in part by the anti road protests of the previous decades and in part by the Situationists. As the 1990s advanced, RTS inspired splinter groups in other countries across the world, and they were heavily involved in organizing the international Carnival against Capitalism, an anti capitalism event held in many cities simultaneously in the summer of 1999. Carnival against Capitalism, frequently known as J18, is sometimes credited as being the first of the major international anti capitalist protest. RTS have reported that many of their organizers were inspired by independently reading the work of Bakhtin.

Large scale International anti-capitalist protests are widely seen as dawning between 1998 and 2000 with events such as the protests at the Birmingham 1998 G8 , J18, the Seattle 1999 WTO protests and the Prague 2000 IMF protests.[

The 1999 Seattle demonstrations saw extensive violent clashes with the police. For the 2000 protest in Prague, demonstrators divided themselves into three broad groupings based in part on the way they wished to engage with the authorities. There was a ‘Yellow march’ for traditional non violent protest, a ‘Blue march’ for those who were up for physically taking on the police, and a ‘Silver and Pink’ group which is described as employing ‘tactical frivolity’ and also in being the most successful in terms of penetrating the security cordon around the IMF meeting. Attending Prague was also a small group specifically calling itself ‘Tactical Frivolity,’ which consisted of a Samba band plus thirteen women from Yorkshire dressed as pink fairies.

Ten months later, a group of protesters dressed in carnival outfits and again calling themselves the Pink and Silver bloc, or Pink Fairies, used the term ‘tactical frivolity’ to describe their own methods when protesting at the 27th G8 summit in Genoa. These included waving ‘magic fairy wands’ at the police and training ‘radical cheerleaders,’ as well as the deployment of a ‘revolutionary spaghetti catapult’ designed to ‘splatter the leaders with pasta.’ The device failed to hit any leaders with spaghetti, but according to journalist Johann Hari the Pink Fairies did succeed in causing mass laughter among the crowds.

At the 2005 G8 summit in Scotland, tactical frivolity was again used by protesters such as the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army a group whose theatrical and carnival like performances succeeded in attracting considerable media attention and were funded by Arts Council England.

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