Ridicule as Strategic Communication

by Kristin Fleischer

In his book Fighting the War of Ideas like Real War: Messages to Defeat the Terrorists, J. Michael Waller argues that the United States already has a “secret weapon worse than death,” and it is cheap, readily available and easy to deploy. That weapon is ridicule.

Although the suggestion that ridicule and satire are legitimate tools of strategic communication might receive some – dare I say it – ridicule, Waller’s argument is a good one. Ridicule and satire have a long history in warfare, and they have been deployed both offensively and defensively. In the U.S., ridicule was used in the Revolutionary War, both to mock the British troops and to raise the morale of the American fighters. In WWII, domestic use of ridicule targeted Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito. In a more contemporary example, Waller cites Team America: World Police as an example of effective parody of Islamic terrorists and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.  While a movie that features graphic sex between puppets might not have universal appeal, Waller is correct in pointing out that prior to the movie, American audiences would likely not consider the Korean dictator someone to laugh at.

Nor is humiliation merely a Western conception. In pre-Islamic society in the Middle East, law breakers were often mutilated – either whipped or dismembered – as much for purposes of humiliation as pain. They became living symbols of what befell criminals in the community. Ridicule was also used as a weapon of war in both pre-Islamic and early Islamic society and poets were often assassinated because of their power to create and spread ridicule. Today, Waller argues, “many extremists equate ridicule with pain or death.” Bin Laden himself has been quoted as saying he fears humiliation more than death. Well known strategic advice says ‘know your enemy.’ If your enemy fears humiliation over death – which would serve to make him a martyr – then the use of ridicule seems highly appropriate:

In nearly every aspect of society and across culture and time, ridicule works. Ridicule leverages the emotions and simplifies the complicated and takes on the powerful, in politics, business, law, entertainment, the media, literature, culture, sports and romance. Ridicule can tear down faster than the other side can rebuild. It can smash a theoretical or intellectual construct (p. 95).

Jarret Brachman makes a similar argument:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about jihadis in my career it’s this: they are our secret weapon in the fight against jihadis… they are more than happy to point us in the directions of their weaknesses.

Brachman has coined the term ‘jihobbyists’ to refer to a growing number of armchair terrorists, who cheer on extremism from the web. The term, and the attitude that accompany it, have ‘stirred the pot’ in a most revealing way: “What you find by doing this is that the jihadis can’t not respond. And what they respond to is what they are most sensitive about.” And as Brachman points out, what really gets under the skin of these jihbbyists is not an insult to their ideology or religious beliefs, but the suggestion they still live in their mother’s basement. After all, it is very difficult to maintain a serious and terrifying self image when you get compared to this guy.

Waller’s suggestions regarding the strategic use of ridicule are an expansion of arguments he and others have made about the importance of language use in ‘the war of ideas.’ In ‘buying into’ terrorist’s language – especially by using terms such as jihad and mujahidin – Waller argues that the U.S. and its allies, “ceased fighting on our terms and placed our ideas at the enemy’s disposal” (p. 54). If this is a war of ideas, and words are weapons, then we need to be using the right ammunition, so to speak. More than that:

Being a declared adversary – even enemy – of the United States is a status symbol among the world’s terrorists, dictators, and political extremists. By taking that enemy too seriously, by hyping it up as a threat, the United States is unintentionally credentializing a heretofore insignificant individual or group, and giving it the stature it needs to rise above its own society, establish itself, attract recruits, and gain influence. Ridicule can cut the enemy down to size (p. 104).

According Waller (p. 109), ridicule is vital because:

  • It sticks;
  • The target can’t refute it;
  • It is almost impossible to repress;
  • It spreads on its own and multiplies with each re-telling;
  • It boosts morale at home;
  • Our enemy shows far greater intolerance to ridicule than we;
  • Ridicule divides the enemy, damages its morale, and makes it less attractive to supporters and prospective recruits; and
  • The ridicule-armed warrior need not fix a physical sight on the target. Ridicule will find its own way to the targeted individual. To the enemy, being ridiculed means losing respect. It means losing influence. It means losing followers and repelling potential new backers

While Al Qaeda and its ideological offshoots are certainly not insignificant, one recent event that would seem to support Waller’s case and would have been an excellent opportunity to ‘deploy’ ridicule is that of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, commonly known as the ‘underwear bomber.’ Although nothing these days drives the current 24-hour news cycle like the mention of terrorist activity, the facts are that the would-be bomber of the Christmas day flight quite literally sewed explosives into his underwear… and then couldn’t ‘get it off.’

Also, given Waller’s arguments, the appropriate response to Bin Laden’s (alleged) praise for the attack – nearly a month after the fact when intelligence analysis suggested that the video was an example of Al Qaeda struggling to maintain relevance – came not from major media outlets, but from The Daily Show. Snore indeed.  Another, more general example of ridicule that is aimed at the idea of the suicide bomber is a ventriloquist routine by comedian Jeff Dunham, titled Achmed the Dead Terrorist, an example Waller points to in his own blog.

This is not to suggest that the threat of terrorism is non-existent or a call to underestimate Al Qaeda’s ideological appeal or material capabilities, and Waller is quick to point out (correctly) that ridicule can be as dangerous as any kinetic weapon when improperly deployed. In the nine years since September 11, however, far more people in the United States have died of heart failure, diabetes, or car accidents than terrorist attacks. Given this, pointing out that Americans statistically have more to fear from a cheeseburger than a ‘guy in a cave’ is not only true, it’s good strategy.

9 Responses to “Ridicule as Strategic Communication”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. Andrew says:

    Ridicule as a psychological operations method is often overlooked in favor of informational messages, especially by the increasingly too-serious-for-its-own-good military. The fact that ridicule and humiliation are feared more than death renders them a potent weapon in the fight against extremism in a society that is honor-based.

  2. Retired says:

    What this particular example of ridicule, Achmet, demonstrates, however, is that humor doesn’t always translate well across cultures and that what may seem funny to a mainstream American audience can be deconstructed in other cultures to demonstrate our arrogance and ignorance. On the other hand, in the right hands, such as those of talented Muslim American or Muslim British comedians, ridicule, mixed with self-deprication, can indeed be quite devastating. Why do jihadis take the the critical work of our scholarly analysts so seriously? Because they really demonstrate a mastery over the topics they discuss.

    • fleischer says:

      I would agree that humor is highly audience dependent and encouraging Muslim American or Muslim British comedians is an excellent idea.

  3. clarisse says:

    As all weapons, humor deserves professionalism, good strategy (target and stakes) to be efficient (immediate + long-term).

    A good article from Sohail Inayatullah on the joke strategy, and a show from Pakistan:

    Defeating the Taliban: One Joke at a Time – Sohail Inayatullah

    Pakistani comedians fight Taliban with humour
    ‘We should fight terrorism with humour.’
    ‘It’s a route to normalcy when all they see is inhumanity daily… with satire it educates the population in a palatable format that makes them see through the emotion and spin-ridden narrative of Pakistan,’ Zaka added.

    • fleischer says:

      Indeed. As Waller points out, humor – like any weapon – has the potential to backfire and must be used carefully.

      Thank you for the resources.

  4. DrRitcheson says:

    I would be loath to consider ridicule and satire as tools of strategic communication. The reason for my resistance to make such a stretch derives basically from the fact that neither of these modes –ridicule or satire- encourages understanding, engagement, interaction, alignment or any other the other critical goals of the USG strategic communication vision.

    Ridicule and satire are powerful weapons, but used inexpertly, and without thorough research of the target audiences, they can have terrible, unforeseen consequences. Efforts must be made to weigh the advantages of a successfully employed campaign using these modes versus the immediate fallout and ongoing ill-effects of unsuccessfully employed campaigns. Computers working in parallel have difficulty conceiving of second and third and nth order effects within populations, and the audience’s memory will be much longer than ours in this regard. We must therefore tread cautiously, and if we need to act rapidly, we need at least to keep an eye on the horizon, and to remain mindful of our impact – intended and unintended. This is not simply the risk of a joke falling flat, and an uncomfortable silence punctuated only by the sound of ice cubes being rattled in the drinks of a bored audience. People are put in harm’s way when initiatives are poorly conceived and precipitously deployed. This is no place for improv.

    I suspect that more often than not, the use of ridicule and satire says rather more about us than we should be revealing. I suspect furthermore that concentrated efforts to understand and engage key audiences and populations in respectful, mutual and collaborative dialogues will in the long term bear greater fruit than tactical joke making. At the very least, let us be clear that these sorts of efforts that intent to provoke, demean, destabilize and deride reside more traditionally (and very often with a high degree of effect and success) in the toolbox of the PSYOP warrior, than in the hands of strategic communication professionals. This is not to downplay the former’s activities, but just to remember, to each trade its tools.

    Dr Andrew Ritcheson

    • fleischer says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful response. We are agreed that engagement and understanding of contested audiences are important in the long term goals of the US strategic communication vision. But actors willing to harm others – including using suicide tactics to murder innocent civilians – to further their goals are not interested in engagement and understanding. So I would say that they, rather than audiences in general, are the appropriate targets of ridicule and satire.

      We are also agreed that ridicule and satire are dangerous. They should be deployed carefully and not merely as ‘improv’. Waller and I both point this out. On the other hand when terrorists do something worth making fun of and we do not point it out we commit a dangerous act by letting their narratives and actions go unchallenged.

      We seem not to agree about who should engage in this sort of communication. I don’t draw as sharp a distinction between PSYOP personnel and strategic communication professionals as you seem to. Both communicate to support a mission or some other set of goals. So if ridicule is a good tactic for one, it seems to me it’s a good tactic for the other too, again if it is used carefully.

  5. MST says:

    I returned to your article after viewing the movie 4 Lions. I think it’s a perfect case in point.