06/13/2015 10:02 EDT | Updated 06/13/2016 05:59 EDT

How Humour Helps Us Think Seriously About Injustice

Poverty, inequality, violations of human rights and other forms of social injustice aren't usually associated with humour. But growing numbers of international development organizations are using humour both to catch our attention and to make us think more deeply about serious issues of global injustice. While some global charities still use pictures of sad, hungry children in their communications, others are using much more creative strategies involving humour -- from satire to parody to slap-stick comedy.

On May 21, NBC hosted the inaugural Red Nose Day in the United States, building on 30 years of Red Nose Day telethons organized by the U.K. NGO Comic Relief that use celebrity-studded comedy sketches to raise funds for global development charities. Similarly, a recent campaign by the non-profit features a spoof press conference in which actor Matt Damon announced that "until everybody has access to clean water and sanitation, I will not go to the bathroom."

It's not just a rich country trend. Unicef's Poo to the Loo campaign in India against open defecation features animated Bollywood-style videos of dancing poop. In Mexico, Superbarrio and other so-called "social wrestlers" use carnivalesque slap-stick comedy to draw attention to social justice issues ranging from illegal evictions to LGBTQ rights. And in Colombia back in the 1980s, then-mayor of Bogota Antanas Mockus replaced traffic cops with costumed mime artists to educate drivers about pedestrian rights and significantly reduced traffic fatalities as a result.

As I argue in a recent article -- "Can Poverty be Funny?" --- two big questions emerge from these attempts to use humour to engage us with serious issues of global social justice. Is humour an effective way to make us care about social injustices? And is it ethical to use humour to draw attention to poverty and suffering?

Marketing research suggests that humour can be an effective way of drawing attention to an issue or product and that self-deprecating satirical humor enhances both the credibility of the source of a message and its persuasive power. Significantly, we are more likely to remember and share with friends messages that are delivered through humour than the same messages delivered without humour. Moreover, research also shows that humour can help to sustain optimism that change is possible, even in the most difficult circumstances.

From concentration and refugee camps to shantytowns, people suffering from oppression around the world have drawn on humour to maintain their dignity and hope. Humour and other forms of creative communication are urgently needed to better engage North Americans with global social and environmental injustices. Simply raising awareness of these issues is insufficient; rational knowledge does not lead to changes in behaviour and policy -- as the experience of climate change clearly indicates. In addition to factual evidence, we need to be engaged on an emotional level and humour seems to be an effective way to do this.

But is it ethical to laugh about poverty and suffering? Philosophers have debated the ethics of humor since Ancient Greece and are divided into two camps. Until the 18th century the prevailing belief was that humour reflected a sense of superiority over the subject of a joke, meaning that it could never be ethical. But Enlightenment thinkers such as Immanuel Kant argued that what makes something funny is not a feeling of superiority but the incongruity between our rational expectations and how a joke actually plays out -- opening the possibility for humour to be ethical. Indeed, humour can "kick up" to ridicule and undermine the powerful just as much as it can mock the marginalized.

Unfortunately, Red Nose Day USA on NBC largely missed the opportunity to use humour to make us think more critically about the causes of global poverty. The comedy sketches and jokes were disconnected from the serious issues of poverty and inequality. They may have prompted some of us to make donations, but they failed to make us ask why people are poor in the first place and how we might be implicated in that poverty -- through our own behaviour and the policy choices of our governments. Humour that actually grapples with the issues that it seeks to draw attention to could have been much more effective.

This post was authored by John Cameron, Department of International Development Studies, Dalhousie University.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC or its members