The Promise and Pitfalls of Humor and Ridicule as Strategies to Counter Extremist Narratives

CSC members H. L. Goodall, Jr, Pauline Hope Cheong, Kristin Fleischer and Steven R. Corman have just published a new article in Perspectives on Terrorism.  The abstract is below, and the article is available (free) here.

Rhetorical Charms: The Promise and Pitfalls of Humor and Ridicule as Strategies to Counter Extremist Narratives

In this article we provide a brief account of the uses of humor, in particular satire and ridicule, to counter extremist narratives and heroes.  We frame the appeals of humor as “rhetorical charms,” or stylistic seductions based on surprising uses of language and/or images designed to provoke laughter, disrupt ordinary arguments, and counter taken-for-granted truths, that contribute to new sources of influence to the globally wired world of terrorism.  We offer two recent examples of how the Internet in particular changed the narrative landscape in ways that offer potent evidence of uses of humor to remake extremist heroes into objects of derision.  We also caution those who would make use of humor as a strategic communication device to take into account the negative side effects and unexpected consequences that can accompany such uses.

2 Responses to “The Promise and Pitfalls of Humor and Ridicule as Strategies to Counter Extremist Narratives”

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  1. Visitor says:

    At least three examples used for this analysis are inaccurate:

    First, Kentucky Fried Chicken: The incident was, in fact, JUST THE OPPOSITE of what is described. The Mubarak regime’s propaganda outfit tried to paint the Tahrir demonstrators as being in the pay of foreign parties giving them a stipend as well as meals from KFC. Journalists on the scene quickly showed that this was a lie and that the participants were drinking tea and eating simple biscuits provided by members of the movement. They joking referred to the biscuits as “kintaki.” [The KFC branch was closed during that period anyway.] This comeback at a clumsy disinformation effort entered the Tahrir Square lore.

    Second, “La Vache Qui Rit” [The Laughing Cow] is an OLD anti-Mubarak epithet and its significance comes from its history. The nickname goes back to his days as VP under Sadat, when he was viewed as dumb, smiling vacantly as Sadat talked. It was a joke known all across the Middle East. This was seen as evidence that Sadat did not want any competition. When Mubarak became President, the joke was revived among those who were less than impressed by him. The Arab spring was the other bookend of Egypt’s Mubarak experience.

    Third, a “jilbab” is NOT a head covering. It is a rather generic term for a long, loose garment worn by men and women in a variety of Muslim cultures [variants: jilaba, galabiyya]. It has also become, like a long, unkempt beard, a symbol of Salafi men who wear it with a shortened hemline. A religious woman’s jilbab would be worn in any case with a “hijab.” These symbolic forms of dress have crossed geographic regions along with other symbols of a globalized neo-Islamic Salafi culture.

    The jilbab also demonstrates the dilemma of filmmakers and caricaturists seeking to condemn or parody jihadi terrorists. By having them appear in what is their preferred garb, they also insult peaceful Salafis who see this dress as religiously-inspired. It was just this overlapping of symbols that Egypt’s famous comedic icon, Adel Imam just landed a 5-year jail sentence for insulting Islam.

    • editor says:

      Thanks for your comments. Regarding KFC and The Laughing Cow, we don’t dispute your accounts. However, our purpose in the article was not to comment on the history of these images. Rather we looked at how they were appropriated by protesters for satirical purposes. For example, a picture of Mubarak as Colonel Sanders was in circulation, probably as a humorous retort to the regime’s propaganda efforts you describe.

      Regarding jilbab, in Arabic the term is used to describe a body garment, as you point out. However, we used the term in the context of discourse about Noordin Top in Indonesia. There, jilbab is indeed the word used refer to the head covering known elsewhere as a hijab. According to our Southeast Asia subject matter expert, this is one among many examples of Indonesians adopting an Arabic term but changing its meaning.