When I was like 13 or 14 years old, I remember my late father exerted physical violence on my older sister, who was a fervent protester at the time. I guess that my father wanted to stop her from engaging in the violent, dangerous demonstration ironically by using violence – preventing violence with violence, which will never resolve any problem at all. Anyway, it was scary at the time. Tear gas, gasoline bomb, cobblestones, and tragic death are the things imprinted in my memory. The youth passionately took part in a series of violent protests for democratization in the country, risking their life. The rally site was like the battlefield where citizens and police army fought against each other to death at all sacrifices. It was the place where public outrage exploded, followed by tragic sacrifices. It might sound a poor excuse but all these scary and tragic memory have kept myself away from social movements whenever I encounter one of them.
In fact, one of the reasons that I took the Unruly Politics module was that I wanted to challenge myself and hopefully free myself from this imprinted scary and sad memory. Truth be told, it was too academic and philosophical for me to understand maybe partly because I was not ready enough to embrace either radical or challenging ideas from literatures, or still hesitant to step into the territory of unruliness. Besides, I still am not sure that I was truly unruly enough in the unruly performance at IDS, but one thing for sure about being unruly is that although under limited circumstances, the interaction based on empathy when it comes to the actual unruliness can be very powerful. It encourages people to stop for a moment and have a little bit more time to think about what’s going on around themselves and further be part of an unruly activity. And a serious of those precious experiences will surely crack my biased memory of unruliness one step at a time.
The lecture is over now, yet it is telling me, “I am not done with you, so please come and join me again. Let’s get to know each other more.” And I want to say, “Yeah, I really really do.”
Over many years, quite a lot of riots and demonstrations, such as student movements, occupy movements, and racism protests, have occurred all over the world. These varieties of activities have been interpreted its meaning and effect through unruly lens for a long time. In this blog, I focus on the meaning and motivation of actions as I believe that the meaning of activities is reflected by motivation.
Motivation generally means internal and external factors people face to create actions. In terms unruly politics, Van Zomeren and Spears (2009) point out that collective action such as riots and demonstrations has occurred worldwide in order to change the relationships between individuals, groups and external reality. For example, a wide range of protests and demonstrations known as the 2011 Egyptian revolution emerged in Tahrir square in order to oppose authoritarian regime by former president Hosni Mubarak (Jones, 2012). In particular, the introduced and reinforced discriminatory idea that the young Egyptian was a burden on society increased frustrations of citizens who are excluded economically and politically (El-Sharnouby, 2015). In other words, the people’s motivation to participate in the Egyptian revolution in 2011 was ‘fury’ over the autocratic and discriminatory government. Indeed, 28th of January on which some protests began is called ‘the Friday of Anger’. Although the Egyptian toppled Mubarak’s autocratic regime that governed Egypt for 30 years, the revolution resulted in creating a number of arrestees and causalities.
‘Anger’ is, so to speak, ‘minus’ emotions. While anger would be driving force to inspire people, at the same time, it triggers further anger and amplifies negative energy. Those who are provoked by anger are likely to become a mob. Once people run riot, others try to violently oppose them the force in order to die it down. Participants in a riot do not necessarily resort to violence to accomplish their goals. However, they tend to justify violence as a way to tackle with problem while being caught up in the negative emotions. In that riots and demonstrations cause social confusion would be a contributory factor that these actions are sometimes criticised.
How can we overcome it? Well… I think an answer is to shift motivation for actions from ‘minus’ emotions to ‘plus’ emotions. For example, in a case of an antiwar movement, negative feelings, such as anger, anxiety and fear, swirl within the message against war. Anger will stimulate further anger, anxiety further anxiety, and fear further fear. What matters is to proclaim ‘promotion for peace’ to the public instead of the ‘antiwar’. Apparently, these seem to be similar statement, but emotions surrounding the words are completely opposite. The context of praying for peace includes positive motivation like happiness, calmness and smile. Hidden messages which are associated with ‘peace’ would make people calm and catalyse positive behaviour to a prosperous future.
Of course, just changing the name of actions does not necessarily contribute to a peaceful result. If we take a wrong way to achieve our aim, a tragedy that no one presumed would happen as a result. However, words often have a great effect on actions. I believe that messages derived from ‘plus’ feelings rather than ‘minus’ feelings might provide us with a favourable and meaningful influence.
‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’
Martin Luther King, Jr.
El-Sharnouby, D. (2015). From State Exclusionary Politics to Youth Inclusionary Practices: The Tahrir Square Experience. International Journal of Sociology, 45(3), pp.176-189.
Jones, P. (2012). The Arab Spring. International Journal, 67(2), pp.447-463
Van Zomeren, M., and Spears, R. (2009). Metaphors of protest: A classification of motivations for collective action. Journal of Social Issues, 65(4), 661-679.
The ideology of unruly politics was totally apart from my daily life. It was difficult to deeply understand ‘unruly politics’ which is an elusive and abstract term even if it was literally translated into Japanese. Indeed, I heard a wide range of interpretation towards unruly politics in the lectures and literatures, often confused about it. A simple message of unruly politics I learned during the course was that ‘we have a right to express our voice’. In this respect, I have felt that Japanese people really need the idea of unruly politics.
I spent a good part of my life in Japan which is a relatively peaceful country and was brought up to follow rules and not to bother anyone. Keeping rules was a first priority for most the Japanese. So, in Japan, demonstrations and protests conducted by activists are often blamed as a dysfunctional behaviour because it can harm people directly and indirectly in that it blocks traffic and make a racket. Given that circumstances, demonstrations, protests and even strike are hardly performed in Japan and I have never seen such actions in Japan. Recently, a demonstration against a national security bill was conducted. Not a few Japanese, however, opposed that demonstration because we thoroughly pay attention to ‘harmony’ rather than dissatisfaction!
I now realised that there are a variety of unruly activities large and small during my stay in the UK. I myself participated in protests against racism in Brighton and London for the first time. People were putting up a placard, singing a song, and addressing their complaints while marching through the town. What was surprising for me was that people around us tolerantly accepted the protest. Some people even served free foods for participants of the protest. People have understood that this is a way to tackle with formal politics and that we can generate a space to express our own voice. Declaring our voice has taken root as a sort of culture in our daily life and has been broadly admitted for people.
Although I am skeptical about the effect and influence of unruly politics, I believe that the Japanese should adapt the concept of unruliness. Japanese people who tend not to say dissatisfaction might not be aware of a right to show their grievances. Furthermore, they do unfavourably receive such behaviour as an annoying event and even force to act in concert with them unlike people in the UK and other countries. I think that would be related to that Japan is a racially homogeneous nation. Unlike multiracial nations, we have not comprehended how to treat those who have different perception. The public tendency of extreme ‘harmonisation’ has been still prevailing in Japan though we have been gradually globalised, than ever, by the increase of tourists from overseas and the influence of Tokyo Olympic in 2020. Raising people’s voice is deemed as an anti-harmonised action, so to speak, ‘selfish behaviour’ against Japanese culture. To sum up, a challenge the Japanese remain is not so much taking an action as a people’s hostile attitude towards outsiders. Under that situation, it would be difficult to create diversified and inclusive society to which globalisation is heading. So, I would say the Japanese still has a room to improve capacities to accept difference in opinion, culture and value. We do not necessarily have to pursue biased ‘harmony’.
‘Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway.’
I hope the Japanese learn ‘unruliness’ as a first step to be generous and recognise ‘being different is excellent!’ in the near future.
Do not be afraid of being different from others.
Be brave to ignore people’s sympathy and antipathy.
Ethiopian marathon medalist Feysa Lilesa crossed his arms, when reaching the finish line at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. His gesture expressed the collective grievances and institutional discrimination Lilesa’s people suffer in the Oromia region. His x-mark is generally used as a symbol to protest against the government in Ethiopia. Lilesa said he might be killed if he returned to Ethiopia although the country’s official said the runner would be welcomed home from Rio as a hero (BBC, 2017). It was widely reported worldwide and caught a great deal of attention.
It would be difficult to ensure his safety. The Oromo people who participated in protest against the government’s plan of the expansion of the capital’s municipal boundary have been killed in Ethiopia. His performance was literally at the risk of his life. According to Human Rights Watch (2016), over 400 people are estimated to have been killed, thousands injured, tens of thousands arrested, and more than hundreds have been victims of enforced disappearances. Security forces suppressed participants in a violent way, arresting students and influential members of the Oromo community, such as musicians, teachers and others thought to have the ability to mobilise people for further protests. Human Rights Watch also reports that Police and soldiers firing indiscriminately into unarmed crowds. To tackle with this tragedy, Lilesa decided to express the x-sign on behalf of the marginalised Oromo people.
However, using Olympic venues as demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is prohibited by the 50 article of the Olympic Charter. If a player breaks the rule, there is a possibility of ‘disqualification of the person of delegation concerned, or withdrawal of accreditation of the person or delegation concerned’.
’50 Advertising, demonstrations, propaganda
No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.’ (IOC, 2015, p.93)
His gesture had conflicted with the rule, but has not been stripped of his medal yet.
Historically, a protest, which is called the “Black Power Salute”, was performed by medalists at the 1968 Summer Olympic in Mexico City. Two American medalists raised a black-gloved fist on the podium, and Australian silver medalist wore human rights badges on his jacket to represent a lot of sympathy for the protest against racism. Given that performance, International Olympic Committee (IOC) deemed it as a deliberate and violent breach of the Olympic spirit, and imposed severe punishments on them, such as the deprivation of the medal, the exclusion from American team, and the exile from the Olympic Village. After returning to the US, two American medalists experienced heavy racism wave there. Even Australian medalist was accused of unpleasant conduct in his country. However, IOC now shows understanding in the legitimacy of the Black Power Salute to a certain extent although it took a great many years to restore their honor.
As mentioned, even though IOC bans political demonstrations based on the Olympic spirit, these protest indeed attract people’s attention and are used as a way to deal with challenges in a long-term. Protest is often contrary to rules and regulations. I normally believe that protest should be performed under rules and disciplines as people who are not protesters tend to put emphasis on a violation of a law rather than on an argument that protesters really pursue. On the other hand, there would be a problem whether rules and regulations are legitimate or not. I cannot evaluate the legitimacy of the Olympic Charter 50 itself, I, however, consider his protest should be accepted as freedom of expression in his case. Considering that Lilesa still maintains the medal, the rule that players must not do political demonstrations might have a room to improve under some conditions.
Now, Lilesa has not returned to Ethiopia and the conflict between security forces and Oromo people has been lasting. His endeavour at risk to his life and at the sacrifice of his career is calling for dignity, stability peace and development for all the people, and the citizens of the world to stand with the people living in the Oromia region. The place of the Olympics was a chance he obtained by himself to confront the existing hardship. This was a result that he seriously worked on training and pursued running for Ethiopia. Lilesa said “I have no regrets about doing what I did in Rio. I would rather regret not doing anything” (BBC, 2017).
Hope his action retrieve the Oromo people out of the tragedy.
On the 10th of March 2017, in South Korea, the Constitutional Court upheld the National Assembly’ decision to impeach President Park Guenhye over the huge political corruption scandal involving the president, her close friend, Choi Soon-sil, loyal aides, and some conglomerates including Samsung. During the weeks before the court ruling to favor the impeachment and after the ruling, the public have been divided severely into two groups: more than 70% of the people who want the President to step down immediately, and the other group mostly composed of the elderly in their sixties, seventies, and even eighties who are against the impeachment. Those who fall into the former group have held candlelight rallies on Saturdays in the Gwanghwamun Square and the latter group has demonstrated right next to candlelight rallies, which is called “Taegeukgi rally” because they always have Taegeukgi, the national flag of South Korea, with them when protesting.
In a democratic society, a wide range of voices can be heard, which is believed to be natural. These voices are based on various experiences, history, education, ethnicity, identity, and so on. Most of these elderly people are the generations who suffered from the Japanese colonialism, the Korean War, the resulting famine and poverty, and overcame these difficulties. They believe the former dictator Park Chung-hee should be given credit for tackling the miserable poverty. This might provide us with one lens through which I can see why they support the impeached President, who is the daughter of the dictator. I cannot say I can understand fully the workings of the psychology behind this blind faith for her, but still, it’s understandable considering the historical background.
What bothers me most, however, is that when those who are against the impeachment take to the streets for the rally, most of them carry with them not only ‘Taegeukgi’, South Korean national flags, but also American flags. AMERICAN FLAGS!!! How should I interpret this weird, incomprehensible unruliness? Is it because they love America? Or is it because they want America to help them with saving impeached, imprisoned Park like in the movie, “Saving Private Ryan”? What is the underlying motivation that mobilizes them into this ridiculous action? Is it a whole another kind of colonialism that dominates the mindset of the elderly, which stems from the historical background from the Japanese colonial rule to the Korean war and the current confrontation between the two Koreas?
Presumably, what is different from the almost forty years of Japanese colonialism is that the country dominating them has been changed to the US ever since Korea were liberated from the Japanese rule. Even so, I cannot understand why Park’s supporters get an American flag placed right beside the national flag. Is it an intentionally chosen behavior or unconscious one? Or a bit of both? What on earth do they want to prove or represent? I cannot understand why they are crazy about America, why they argue South Korea should not upset the country, and why criticizing the US is considered to be pro-North Korean and all these questions have confused and irritated me for so long. However, one thing for sure is that what my country has achieved within a relatively short period of time in terms of economic growth cannot be discussed without thinking of the US as one major contributor. Whether most of the Koreans like it or not, what this country takes up in Korean economy is so huge that it cannot be ignored. Given the strong influence that America has had on my country – although it hasn’t dominated Korea as Japan did during the colonial period, it might be obvious that this country is deemed as a favorable friend and solid ally in the elderly’s mind before they know it as Fanon argues the collective unconscious of black people has been formed in the framework of colonial history and colonial domination.
It needs to be analyzed whether the American flags on the rally site are the embodiment of such collective unconscious set against the historical backdrop of Korea’s phenomenal economic growth, where the US played a vital part, or an intentional message saying, “Hey, can you see our loyalty to your country? You are such a solid ally to our country, so please come and help us save our queen, the now-impeached President, who is in trouble.” For now, I just want to know where the lament and grief that I have about this seemingly irrational behavior done by these elderly people come from. Do these feelings just originate either from a simple frustration caused by anger towards them or from kind of empathy brought up by understanding that they cannot abandon the values firmly established in the history of strong colonial influences?
The Unruly blog site has become like a confessional to me. It is a place where I talk about my frustrations and aspirations. The best part of it, unlike a confessional is that I get to read my colleagues’ blogs and get inspired from what I read. I felt solidarity in all sessions we had in this module. It felt good being involved with professionals in critical discussions on development. It has been a privilege to share with people who have such a strong sense of justice and equality.
This time I want to talk about my struggle in keeping in terms my political subjectivity with technocratic solutions provided by development projects I am involved. The frustration has been growing with years and comes from the realization (based on personal experience) that mostly civil society’s NGO sector deals with the symptoms of poverty and not its structural causes. Therefore I have started to articulate more strongly that ‘we’ are complicit in sustaining injustice. I have realized that the word justice for some reasons makes people feel uncomfortable, probably due to its strong connotations with moral and ethics. I am told from some colleagues that I should not moralize but to be simply a good specialist who is objective and rational.
During this year of study, I have been reflecting over my past experiences and I think they have a point. I should be rational indeed! Am I not the professional who chose to earn her living by helping people and ‘alleviate’ the social pains of the capitalist system? Indeed, I remember this was one of the first things I learned in social work undergraduate studies. A social worker is a relatively new professional compared to others and deals with the poverty and social issues created by the system. I remember the professor smiling and saying that as practitioners we have a prime interest on social problems because if such problems will cease, we will end up jobless.
This was the first (very cynical maybe, someone might argue) important lesson learned during that year. But there is a difference when the professor says so and when you actually get to live the dilemma between your professional background and personal ethics. The simple truth is that I qualified to become a professional who facilitates solutions for disadvantaged people/citizens by connecting them with service providers. I am part of the system indeed and I am quite aware of my complicity, positive as well as negative contribution. But I found out how bitter and cynical can be when facilitating the connection of marginalized individuals to services in a highly nonfunctional system and society!
It is not my intention to deny civil society’s role simply because I have not been involved in those types of initiatives aiming to bring about social justice. That is not at all my intention. I think my frustration is related to my involvement with typical initiatives such as providing services to poor people when the state does not provide. Other initiatives were related to training people about their rights based on the assumption that if they know better they will keep the state accountable. These experiences have made me question my role in sustaining unjust systems.
Firstly, because if civil society NGOs are there to fill the gap left by the state, they are justifying the notion and practice that is ok if state reduces its responsibilities as long as the charity and private institutions are ‘responding’. Secondly, the notion of citizenship is used as the golden standard for poor people to find solutions to problems. I agree with Chatterjee when he notes that ’… the spread of neoliberal ideology has authorized the consecration of every non-state organization as the precious flower of the associative endeavors of free members of civil society’ (Chatterjee, 2004:39).
Therefore participation in civil society is prescribed as the best way for marginalized to exercise agency in an institutional way. So, people have to be trained first to become educated citizens, get organized in groups, know their rights and then knock on state’s doors or attend lobbying meetings etc. etc. This has not worked overall during my work experiences and it was particularly frustrating being one of those initiators of the ‘circulation’ of poor people in the famous circle of networking without results. They were ignored and left out at the end.
I think this was mainly because the government in Albania during this long transition phase from communism to ‘democracy’ has provided dramatic evidence that does not care and respond to the issues of its citizens, let alone the marginalized. There is also a fundamental gap between the most marginalized and the ‘enthusiastic’ professionals like me that teach the ‘uneducated’ to become citizens. We do not loose in the process but they do as their living depends on it. Therefore I have seen the hypocrisy of the discourse of ‘social inclusion’ preaching that marginalized have to be ‘integrated’ as equals in a system which in reality is founded in their exclusion.
Maybe this works in other contexts in Western liberal democracies. I don’t know because I never had that experience of citizenship. I relate mostly with Chatterjee perspective on citizenship and governability. He (ibid) argues that in twentieth century the classic political theory of modern state keeps propagating the illusion of citizens with rights while in reality people cease to be citizens and transform into populations. They are objects of governability which operates upon the principle of benefits and costs. Therefore there is a contradiction between the techniques of administering populations which create in practice different categories of population and the imaginary homogenous construct of equal citizen and nation.
I think same that the political project of civil society (in the third world countries particularly) hides the reality that there are different groups of populations and not a ideal citizen. People in the margins are not free citizens but mostly technical liabilities for the administration. I agree with him when he says that in practice these populations in the margins or subalterns, which he names the political society, do have political agency though act it in different ways from the elite groups which organize in political organizations or civil society institutions (Chatterjee, 2004).
That is why I do not accept anymore the discourse that as a representative of civil society I am contributing for better solutions to people in the margins. That is why I think that I am being complicit when I am part of a system that preaches civil society based on citizenship concept as the best way to social justice. Therefore I firmly oppose the discourse which describes the politics of the marginalized, their ways of resisting, protesting or finding solutions as ‘illegitimate ‘ I firmly oppose to the interpretations of these acts as violent and uncivilized just because they are not organized in the ideal shape of the civil society institutions.
I think the marginalized can and have the right to actually find their own ways to practice politics in this context of dualist discourse of citizenship and governability. I think now that the minimum I can do as a development worker is to understand those acts and not condemn them. The minimum is to get aligned with their resistance as one of multiple ways of seeking justice.
Chatterjee, P. (2004). The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World. New York: Columbia University Press.
Image featured in the header: Indian policemen and activists from the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) clash during a demonstration in Guwahati on June 22, 2011, held to protest against the government’s drive to evict settlers on government land, in Guwahati. STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images
Unruliness and classical music don’t seem natural companions. Musicians in dinner jackets playing to hushed concert halls hardly evoke political struggle. In Soviet Russia, however, the genre became a dangerous battleground between the state and the artist. One of the great orchestral works of the twentieth century was a direct product of this aesthetic war– Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. If you don’t know it, try listening while you read.
The piece was written in 1936/7 against a backdrop of brutal political repression. Stalin’s purges were tearing through the population in an indiscriminate search for political enemies. Artists of every sort lived and created their work in this climate of terror. The Soviet state fully understood the potential of literature, art, theatre and music to either bolster or destabilise the regime. As the poet Osip Mandelstam, himself a victim of the purges, famously put it: ‘Only in Russia poetry is respected – it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?’
Shostakovich might well have claimed the same dubious honour for classical music. Stalin himself attended the composer’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in January 1936, and was deeply displeased with what he heard, leaving in disgust after the third act. Reportedly ‘white as a sheet’ when he took his curtain call, Shostakovich understood the extreme danger of his position. A Party newspaper editorial ‘Muddle instead of music’ quickly condemned the piece for its ‘deliberate dissonance’, so far from the ‘simple and popular musical language accessible to all’ demanded by the Soviet vision of the arts.
Shostakovich’s only chance for redemption was his forthcoming Fifth Symphony. He retired from public life in disgrace to write it, the threat of torture, imprisonment or execution hanging over the creative process. The piece eventually premiered in 1937. It was acclaimed as the height of Socialist art, establishing Shostakovich as the Soviet composer par excellence. It is full of the elements the authorities wanted: clear, rousing tunes, swelling string melodies and bold military marches. And yet, the music manages to be so much more.
You can hear the brutality of the regime’s oppression. You can hear the tension of waiting for the secret police’s knock in the middle of the night. You can hear the ever-present threat of the informer. In a situation of the most intense oppression and scrutiny, Shostakovich used his music as resistance, even as it was held up as a symbol of the regime. He commented later, after the death of Stalin, that ‘it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat…you have to be a complete oaf not to hear that.’
Music like the Fifth Symphony offers us an opportunity to explore hidden transcripts of the past, to inhabit the mask for a fleeting moment. The resistance is literally transcribed on the page for us to interpret. Perhaps this is a different way to understand the experience of the oppressed. Veena Das explores the impossibility of articulating suffering; the way in which words inevitably exclude some part of the trauma. In some circumstances, music can give voice to resistance and suffering when no other mode of expression is possible. I sincerely hope that Shostakovich found solace in his symphony along with the suffering.
Das, Veena (1996) Critical Events: An Anthropological Perspective on Contemporary India, Delhi, Oxford University Press
In our reflections on our group unruly action, we discussed the role of context in determining the significance of small acts of resistance. The recent story from the US of Desiree Fairooz, a civil rights activist from the NGO Code Pink, gave me new perspective on this idea.
In January this year, she was forcibly removed from a confirmation hearing for the attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Her offence was to laugh out loud twice at the statement from a Republican senator that Sessions’ ‘record of treating all Americans equally under the law is clear and well-documented’. Sessions is notorious in the US for being rejected as a federal judge in the 1980s because of concerns about his views on race (The Guardian 2017a). This month, Fairooz was found guilty of “disorderly or disruptive conduct” with the intent to disrupt congressional proceedings, as well as “parading, demonstrating or picketing” (The Guardian 2017b). Her sentence will be either a $2000 fine or a short time in jail.
What was it about that context that constructed Fairooz’s laugh as criminal? The act of laughter in itself was not considered unruly in that particular space. A later wave of laughter at a joke made by Sessions did not result in anyone being removed from the room by four armed police officers. The unruliness lay in mockery. There is an unruly power in humour – and men like Jeff Sessions, who fear any kind of rupture in the façade of their authority, know it. They know how laughter can undermine and ridicule. Fairooz’s laugh was an expression of dissent which could not be tolerated.
I find it both striking and alarming that a public hearing in an liberal democracy could be a context which the act of laughter becomes an act of resistance. But there is a paradox in the strength of the reaction against Fairooz. In trying to stamp out the mockery that threatened his authority, Sessions reminds us even more forcibly of the chink in his armour. He hates to be laughed at. On that note, and in support of Desiree Fairooz, I leave you with this picture.
Throughout this term, one of the ways I’ve been tapping into a sense of unruliness has been through the consumption of political satire. In the US, the influence of news parodies like The Onion, sketch comedy acts, and ‘infoentertainment’ shows like The Daily Show is becoming so pronounced that a highly regarded monthly political magazine recently devoted its feature article to Saturday Night Live and the ability of one of its famous comedians to rile up President Donald Trump.
I have always enjoyed political satire and though I still do, one of the hardest lessons I and many others have learned from Trump’s election is that turning our collective back on those being mocked, disdaining and alienating people on the opposite side of the cavernous US political divide, contributed to getting him elected in the first place. If there is hope for the US to rise from what (I hope) is political rock bottom, if there is hope for the US electorate to reject a Trump-like scourge in the future, we’ll need to reckon with the fact that the denigration of the ‘other’ only confirms and entrenches implicit biases. Particularly useful on this point, a consortium of academic institutes that make up the Perception Institute have studied the psychological and social mechanisms of implicit bias and racial anxiety and put together this report (pdf available: Science-of-Equality)
As a result of the 2016 US election, the partisan lampooning of ‘the other’ often now leaves me feeling uncomfortable because of its condescension, or as some call it the ‘smug liberal problem’. In light of Trump, it has stopped being funny to me, though conservative politicians in the US leave no fewer opportunities to get lampooned. There is however one example of political satire which I’ve found to be most emotionally satisfying, and where I believe I’d like to derive energy and life-force for the unruliness of my personal politics.
The show is called VEEP, and, I think, its ability to unearth an unruly emotional resonance is due to its ridicule translating across the aisle. Its funniest moments are when the fictionalized Vice-President of the US and staff operate in a moral vacuum that holds anything and everyone, particularly the electorate which they are supposed to serve and the democratic values they are supposed to uphold and defend, in complete contempt. Their motivations instead center on one thing: amassing more power to get ahead in the political game. It could be depressing and embolden my cynicism, as Akshay Khanna discusses in ‘Seeing Citizen Action through an “Unruly” Lens’, but instead I find this type of satire deeply satisfying because you get the sense that this is how elected politicians feel about us- the ‘real people’ who elect them and that this could be a more accurate portrayal of how US politics operate than say, the nightly news.
Arguably, because many of the shows I like – The Daily Show, John Oliver, VEEP, are on broadcast television – they don’t fall within shadows or margins of unruliness. Nor is this type of political satire unique to this moment in history, to the culture or to the country. In these respects, the political satire I’m discussing is quite ‘ruly.’ So I’ve been asking myself, what is it about engaging with these comedic bits that make it feel so unruly?
First, I’d describe it as seeking out comfort in comedians saying things no one dares to say, though these statements are utterly and unarguably true yet completely counter to the hegemonic public narrative.
And second, there is something about the potential for these jokes to have a much broader application than, in this case, the US political system. VEEP’s creator, Armando Iannucci, is British, and first aired ‘In the Thick of it’ on BBC- a fictionalized behind the scenes look at the lives of foulmouthed British MPs. The broader satirical application steers the viewer away from singling out or relishing in partisan arguments or even country specifics, instead focusing on satirizing the western democratic system as a whole. And it works oh so perfectly applied to both British and US self-congratulatory western democracies. Both shows put ‘democracy’ under a magnifying glass to expose the multitude of day-to-day bureaucratic practices that scorn constituents and the egalitarianism that allegedly underpins these democracies.
Baym and Jones argue that political satire ‘inhabits a familiar landscape, but through ridicule, offers new ways of seeing the form of that landscape and the language that inhabits it’ (2012: 12). This is a particularly resonant argument for me in relation to VEEP, as one of the elements I enjoy so much is its obscene use of profanity. As Ashkay Khanna mentions, ‘Politics here has a grammar, and a procedure that is first and foremost defined by those in power’ (2012: 165). The language of satire then can be interpreted literally, as one would never hear politicians speak the way they do on the show (this dreadful caveat withstanding). Language here can also be interpreted figuratively, where the show’s discourse uses a different ‘grammar and a procedure’ – which are not defined by the powerful – to portray these politicians as unsophisticated and political systems as morally bankrupt. This allows us to consider that perhaps it is the elites – though they position themselves above the vulgarities of the masses – who are the simplest, smuttiest and least qualified to lead of us all.
To me this generates an internal emotional orientation toward an unruly rejection of the status quo. Researchers Hoong and Lee conducted online experiments which demonstrated that as people engage with political satire, negative emotions that arise are a conduit for deeper democratic dialogue. Though their research focuses on negative emotions, in my personal experience, I am struck with relief accompanied by possibility and a burgeoning solidarity – a sense that if these jokes made it onto a nationally televised show, it is clear that I am far from alone in my dismay over the absurdities that encompass these political systems and the utter hypocrisy in evangelizing them as global beacons for democracy. Authors Baym and Jones argue: ‘At its sharpest, however, parody is an increasingly significant form of cultural and political resistance. The power of parody lies in its ability to turn hegemonic discourses upon themselves’ (2012: 12).
Baym G. & Jones, J.P (2012) ‘News Parody in Global Perspective: Politics, Power, and Resistance’ in Popular Communication 10 (1-2), pp. 2-13.
Khanna, A. (2012) ‘Seeing citizen action through an unruly lens’ in Development, 55(2), pp.162- 172
Lee, H., Jang, S.M., (2017) ‘Talking About What Provokes Us: Political Satire, Emotions, and Interpersonal Talk’ in American Politics Research 45, pp. 128–154.
There was an exhibition hosted by a legislator of the then-opposition party at the lobby of Congress in Seoul, the capital city of South Korea in January. All the paintings were parody artworks. Among the paintings displayed at the exhibition was the one named ‘Dirty Sleep’, a literally translated English title, which is a parody painting of ‘Olumpia’ painted by Edouard Manet.
Source: The Korea Times/Yonhap
As you can see the painting above, the impeached president involved in the corruption scandal is lying in bed naked with some sarcastic symbols. This painting triggered controversies instantly on the day when it was displayed. Some conservative group members even visited the exhibition and damaged the painting. The then-ruling party legislators picketed at the lobby, criticized both the host lawmaker and the artist for being disrespectful to the then-President Park, and asked for the lawmaker’s resignation from the National Assembly. They also said the painting was an intolerable act of insult against women, which can be regarded as a sexual harassment. Those who favor freedom of expression, one of the values deemed important in a democracy, defended the lawmaker and the parody artist for what they did.
I believe that it is natural that there have always been fierce debates over controversial issues between those involved in any society whether their own stance about the issues is based on reasonable grounds or not. However, here’s one criticism that I feel perplexed: the parody artwork should have been done with more care; the painting should have been based on the correct understanding of the original painting, ‘Olumpia’ painted by Manet. To be honest, I do not know much about art, so there’s much to say in artistic terms. When it comes to unruliness expressed at the exhibition to criticize the ugly corruption scandal in which the President is involved, however, how should I interpret this unruly event? One thing for sure is that at least the exhibition was successful in drawing attention from the media, politicians, and citizens whether they like it or not and became the space for all walks of life to fiercely discuss what’s the message intended to deliver and further how it should be delivered to those targeted. And I believe that’s the point of unruliness. It could be provocative or easily accessible depending on issues, actors, and surroundings.
If the artist had created the parody work with more care as one of the critics put it, the resulting work might have been more effective and more influential in delivering the message. But unruliness with more care? Under risky circumstances like dictatorship, it should be careful. But South Korea is a democratic society where freedom of expression is guaranteed, and unruliness can let diverse voices heard out loudly through this freedom. Park with the naked body in the painting might look uncomfortable, disrespectful, and unprofessional either for those who support her or those who specialize in art, but what also needs to be considered is that occasionally this kind of seemingly reckless, immature unruliness to express anger, frustration, grief, and sadness can have a profound impact on a rigid society in need of change.