Weaponizing Humor and Ridicule Against ISIS

on May 18 | in CIA, Terrorism, War of Ideas

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How do you fight an idea?

Governments and NGOs are trying to do so in a variety of ways—community outreach, tough policing, aggressive tweeting—in the quest to ‘counter violent extremism,’ mostly of the ISIS and al Qaeda variety.

But the jury remains out whether these high-minded efforts are indeed generating desired results. One only has to glance at the scientific studies that show how arguing with, say, anti-vaccination activists makes them cling more tightly to their beliefs. It’s possible deploying earnest arguments with the ISIS-curious may paradoxically end up reinforcing their worldview.

So let’s try something different than just being earnest and serious. Instead, let’s ridicule ISIS on a global scale.

This might end up being a more potent long-term weapon than dropping bombs over Syria. After all, ridicule and humor (and the assistance of Superman) helped deflate the KKK in the late 1940s.

High-minded seriousness only gets one so far—it’s doubtful the 1980s egg-bubbling imagery from the War on Drugs era actually had much effect to stop *anyone* from smoking, say, marijuana. Beyond launching a thousand parodies, the ad may not have persuaded too many people from doing drugs.

Why? Because peers did it, and many of them didn’t end up splattered in a frying pan. And if one happens to be a hard-core drug user, one’s life has enough readily-apparent problems that one won’t be ‘scared straight’ by a public service announcement.

Same with hardened jihadists. There are certainly individuals that have gone over the bend that law enforcement over here—or the military and intelligence services over there—must confront. Countering terrorism can sometimes be ugly, and require applying force and violence.

But many are still impressionable, ISIS-curious types who are persuadable in one way or another—and some of the weapons are ridicule and humor to make it socially unacceptable to even consider joining ISIS. We should endeavor to make thinking about joining a jihadist group as off-putting as, say, calling for organized racial segregation.

Holding up the folks who trundled off to Syria as suckers or morons is worth examining and emphasizing. No one wants to be a sucker.

And ISIS’ list of losers, simpletons, and the folks you don’t want to have over for dinner is a long one. Like the jihadists who are the drug dealerspetty criminalsthugs and terrible husbands. By the way, some of those nice girls who ran off to the so-called Caliphate came to a very ugly end; but the takeaway here must be they shouldn’t have gone to that Syrian snakepit in the first place.

ISIS also plays the homewrecker, shredding the bonds between parents and children. Your mom is “heartbroken” and “wants you to come home”; a popular hadith is “Paradise lies at the feet of your mother.” And parental intervention is a critical component to keep people on the side of the righteous.

But having mommy dearest ask you to please kick the jihadist habit is probably ineffective just by itself. Drug addicts and criminals have mothers too. This is compounded by the fact ISIS’ recruiters prey on the persuadable, searching for a larger meaning in their lives.

We should indeed target those recruiters ruthlessly, but if one is already under their spell and half-way considering running off to Raqqa, it’ll take more than sitting down around the kitchen table to lift the jihadist fever.

No one wants to feel dumb. Since ISIS brands itself as a high-minded project, and the fussy high-minded types hate it when you make fun of them. Especially if you make them seem like suckers. Or fools. Or charlatans.

To that end, deploying ridicule and enforcing social norms could help the impressionable from going down a dark path. Broadcasting to the world about the very large pool of lemmings that left for the charnel house of Syria and Iraq may be a way to keep folks from trundling after them.

U2’s Bono recently told lawmakers at a Senate hearing on countering violent extremism, “You speak violence, you speak their language. But you laugh at them, when they’re goose-stepping down the street, and it takes away their power. So, I’m suggesting that the Senate send in Amy Schumer, and Chris Rock, and Sacha Baron Cohen.”

The snarky stylings of Schumer, Rock, and Cohen may not stop ISIS’ killers at home or abroad. But Bono actually may be on to something, actually. Their brand of edgy, topical, acid humor or ridicule might indeed reach a few of the reachable and turn them away from the biggest mistake of their lives.

Ridicule may degrade, but ultimately won’t defeat ISIS—only a ground force will push them out of their cities. But it might help persuade future adherents from falling sway to its murderous ideology.

photo: Office for Emergency Management. War Production Board. (01/1942 – 11/03/1945) NARA.

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