Is Animal Advocates' Most Underused Tool... Humor?

Four Reasons Why Satire Is Animal Advocates' Most Underused Secret Weapon

By Zachary Groff

DxE disrupting Trader Joe's grand opening in San Francisco. Pictured: Zach Groff wearing Trader Joe's attire, talking about Trader Joe's history of abusing animals. 

DxE disrupting Trader Joe's grand opening in San Francisco. Pictured: Zach Groff wearing Trader Joe's attire, talking about Trader Joe's history of abusing animals. 

Fighting animal exploitation is a deadly serious affair. Our protests are straightforward and have gravitas. In the past six months, though, we've discovered a tactic animal advocates may not use enough: comedy.

The idea of using comedy in a tragic situation may strike many people as odd. Indeed, it strikes us as odd. Comedy, though, has been used in the most dire of times. Jews in Nazi concentration camps used humor to lampoon their tormentors and escape the horrors of daily life. African Americans developed the art of throwing shade during slavery to similarly diminish their oppressors. Indeed, there's a frame for comedy in dark situations that speaks of one more place where humor exists: "gallows humor."

At DxE, we've long known - whether we admit it or not - that the subversion of expectations that often happens when we disrupt a major event can be cause for humor. Only recently, though, did we learn to weaponize this humor to undermine animal abusing corporations when we seized control of a Whole Foods grand opening in the Bay Area and welcomed guests with tales of Whole Foods animal welfare standards... and the five steps of torture in Whole Foods' Global Animal Partnership rating scheme.

Why, though, is humor so useful for activists?

1. Humor allows us to show the ridiculousness of animal exploiters' ideas. One of the most classic styles of argument is the reductio ad absurdum, which takes an opponent's argument and shows that it leads to something absurd. There's experimental evidence that this works: if you face someone with an extreme position, you can persuade them by taking their side and showing how extreme it is. Rather than disputing an animal-abusing corporation, take their side and praise how well they torture animals and obscure the truth.

2. Humor catches people off guard and opens their mind. Some of the main theories of why humor exists suggest that we find things funny when our expectations are contradicted, forcing a shift in our perspective. Nonhuman animals display similar behaviors to humans' laughter, such as open mouth play, when they are surprised or caught off guard. If you stage a protest or respond to someone in an argument with satire when they expect seriousness, you get them with their defenses down and can persuade them more easily.

3. Humor leaves our opponents with no defense against our arguments. One of the problems in any conversation about a controversial topic is the backfire effect, the bizarre human tendency to become more convinced we are right when we are confronted with an opposing argument. By purporting to take someone's side and satirizing their view rather than directly countering it, humor can bypass the backfire effect.

4. Humor builds us up and keeps us going for a day when every animal is safe, happy, and free. This goes without saying, but humor is fun. In a social movement, even one as grim and serious as ours, advocates need relief from the strain of knowing an atrocity is going on all around us. If people could use humor in the context of some of the worst crimes against humans in history, we can surely use humor to cope with our pain at the plight of our fellow animals. That is the power and purpose of humor, and animal advocates should seize on it.

Want to get involved? DxE is a grassroots network focused on empowering you to be the best activist you can be. Here are some steps you can take. 

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  2. Join a local DxE community (or, better yet, come visit us in Berkeley).
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