It’s noon in downtown Bangkok and everybody is holding their breath for another day of demonstrations. At the end of November 2020, the country has been rocked for months by youth-led protests demanding a new constitution, monarchy reform and the resignation of Prime Minister and former military coup leader, Prayut Chan-O-Cha.
Day after day peaceful demonstrators are met with teargas and water cannons. It hasn’t been going well.
Until the Thai protesters summoned the help of some unlikely superheroes: giant, inflatable pool ducks. And although all they do is hold these giant yellow mascots above their heads during protest marches, the results have led to a dramatic shift in the dynamics among protesters, the public, and the police.
The rubber floaty toys have utterly disconcerted police. Instead of facing a mob of angry protesters intent on lobbing stones and Molotov cocktails their way, thus instigating the repressive reaction they have been well trained for, they now had something totally unexpected to deal with: hundreds of inflatable rubber ducks (accompanied by the occasional inflatable Santa Claus as well).
These protest toys have become a powerful symbol of the resistance. They throw the security forces off guard and, even more importantly, have helped demonstrate the resilience and creativity of the young protesters, who chant things like “Sure, you can water cannon us, but we’ve still got our floaties!” Adding inflatable ducks to protesting has also brought an element of humor that makes participating in the resistance entertaining and encourages the public standing on the sidelines to join in on the fun.
Pranksters vs. autocrats
Confronting rubber ducks makes the job of policing feel a bit silly and actually harming the ducks feel even worse. This is exactly the kind of dilemma the Serbian police experienced when they were told to detain a petrol barrel that had been plastered with former dictator Slobodan Milosevic’s face, then beaten with a bat by bystanders in a public square in 1999. And it is the way Russian officials felt when they were told to defend Vladimir Putin by officially banning protest toys in 2012.
Can you really order a policeman to water cannon inflatable toys?
These are only a few examples of a trend we have seen building momentum over the years. Whether deliberately or accidentally, protesters across the globe have been pulling humorous stunts and creating creative dilemmas to help their causes.
Of course, we love stories of rubber ducks defeating the police. It is linked to our natural desire to see a weak David conquer a powerful Goliath. So what, we wondered, would we find if we actually tried to measure the impact these sorts of tactics have on the success rates of nonviolent actions? What would happen if we could prove that these stories aren’t just heartwarming; they are evidence that certain types of tactics work better than others? And that’s just what we did in our book, Pranksters vs. Autocrats: Why Dilemma Actions Advance Democracy. Our idea was to combine our experience, to pair the strengths of a seasoned activist (Srdja), who had successfully used dilemma actions to rid Serbia of Slobodan Milosevic as part of his work with the Otpor student group (Serbian for resistance) and then worked for decades with other nonviolent groups through his NGO, and a scholar (Sophia) who had conducted decades of research into creative responses to political repression.
We know that non-violent resistance is more effective than violent resistance. But our research suggests that using dilemma actions that put your opponent in a lose-lose position gives non-violent movements an even better chance of success. And those dilemma actions that we call laughtivism offer unique advantages.
Power to the panties
Two critical elements are needed to help a non-violent movement make a difference: increasing the scope and diversity of supporters and reframing the opponent’s narrative. Dilemma actions, especially laughtivist ones, are exceptionally successful at achieving these goals.
Consider this scenario: You live in a brutal dictatorship. Every protest results in violent reprisals. But one day, a group of women decide that the best way to mock the toxic masculinity of the regime is to tuck their used panties into an envelope and mail them to the generals. The joke is that for some ridiculous reason these supposedly strong men are scared of women’s panties. They honestly think their virility will be threatened if they touch them. Before long, legions of panties are flooding the generals’ mailboxes. Knickers stream in from abroad, landing in embassies and elevating the prank to an international level. Even better, the panty campaign leaves the power elite paralyzed. There is nothing they can do, so they do nothing. And that show of weakness causes your movement to explode as supporters join in your efforts. You have effectively shown that your nation’s reportedly strong leadership is actually a bunch of wimpy dudes afraid of underwear.
This actually happened in Burma in 2009 and it is one of the 44 cases we studied. Our examples spanned 1930-2019 and 28 countries on five continents.
We didn’t just analyze the cases; we also did a binary study across a series of nine critical metrics (increasing support, gaining media attention, protecting protests from violent reprisals, leading to concessions, etc.) that indicate the potential for success of a given nonviolent operation.
What we found was a remarkable degree of success for each element we tracked and measured.
We also analyzed the critical strategic elements required for success. First, you need to choose a topic people can relate to. Your issue should be the sort of thing that draws a broad base of support. Then you need to decide on the target, making sure you select an opponent who will also draw a solid base. Research shows that taking on the wrong target can sometimes actually backfire and weaken your movement. Pussy Riot experienced this sort of backlash when they performed inside one of Moscow’s largest churches, a move that alienated religious members of the public and distracted from Pussy Riot’s pro-democracy message.
Kiss me, it’s time to revolt!
Next, you need to design the dilemma action. There are various types of dilemmas and it is important to choose the type best suited for your context and goals. Naked butts suggesting that politicians are full of BS might work well in the UK, for example, but it is unlikely to be effective in Saudi Arabia. Each successful dilemma action requires some follow-up, what we call “post-production,” where your team works to circulate the story across a range of media platforms and capitalize on the momentum sparked by the successful action. And lastly, it is critical to anticipate your opponent’s reaction and prepare your next move.
Try imagining your opponent’s reaction to this: You live in a country that has just passed severe morality laws for subway passengers. They are repressive and ridiculous. But rather than protest these draconian measures, you and your supporters show up at the subway and just smooch. For a really long time.
Sloppy, wet, slurpy kisses for minutes on end. Protesters hold up signs offering free kisses. Everyone is laughing. Everyone, that is, except the police, who have literally no idea how to handle the situation.
And the next thing you know, the protesters have exposed the immense absurdity of the laws. They have changed the narrative from one where the laws protect society to one where the laws are unnecessarily repressive. And even those conservative members of society that might have been in favor of morality laws actually laugh at the police sternly telling the protesters to stop kissing. Your group wins more allies and successfully changes the narrative, while your opponents lose face and power.
That’s how the story turned out in Turkey back in 2013.
So next time you plan a protest, consider incorporating rubber ducks, panties or sloppy kisses knowing that they aren’t just fun; they have been proven to make a difference.