Using Language to Poke Fun

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By Keely Kidner, a taste of her recently completed PhD

Given the seriousness of climate change and its devastating effects, you’d be forgiven for thinking that environmental activists have little use for humour. But in fact, humour and creative use of language are a big part of social justice activism. Environmental activists in particular pay attention to the ways that humour can make their messages more appealing, help them deal with difficult topics, and even make fun of powerful individuals. In fact, when it comes to talking about the most powerful people (like government leaders, company directors, or even well-known television personalities), activists regularly use creative humour and language to poke fun.

Sometimes humorous messages are conveyed through image alone; for example, depicting an individual as an evil villain or infantilising them through caricature. But more often, environmental activists make fun of powerful individuals by creating “mundane performances”. In other words, they shift their gestures and speaking styles in conversation to momentarily become that person.

For example, when discussing the approval of mining permits in Canada, one participant I interviewed highlighted how the Treaty rights of Indigenous communities tend to be ignored. To get her point across, she actually became a hapless government employee; she looked around the room and talked to imaginary people, as if we were suddenly in an office surrounded by other government workers. While doing so, she continuously moved her hand up and down on the table as if she were stamping mining proposals. She very skilfully manipulated her own movements, accent, voice, and gaze direction to not only temporarily become another person, but also to make a comment about how (in)effectively that person did their job.

In many ways, this sort of portrayal is similar to a stand-up comedy routine – except it’s done on the spot, in the middle of a conversation. In my research, I saw these mundane performances over and over again when I interviewed environmental activists. All it took was a slight shift in posture, facial expression, or tone of voice for them to become another person altogether, and it never failed to make me laugh.

So, whether it’s putting devil horns on the mining company CEO, or pretending to be an incompetent government employee, humour can be a useful tool when it comes to environmental activism. By making fun of powerful people who are blocking solutions to climate change, activists begin to gain back a bit of agency and power of their own.

Source of accompanying image:

John Macalister

John Macalister’s research interests include second language reading and writing, issues in language learning and New Zealand English. He teaches courses in language teaching methodology (reading and writing), and curriculum design.

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