The Sarcasm Activists
So the other day I was sitting in my room, trying to ignore my group’s entreaties to come help them out with our class presentation, and whiling away time by researching random stuff on the Internet. During my excursions, I came across a rather funny video about the FIFA World Cup which was at that moment in full swing. And even though it was about 14 minutes long, it held my attention throughout because it was so hilarious. But once that outburst of mirth had subsided, I found myself deep in thought. Because though the video had been thoroughly entertaining and the content side-splitting, it actually spoke about a couple of very serious issues – the riots happening in Brazil over the hosting of the World Cup and the rampant corruption present in football’s governing body, FIFA. For those of you who haven’t already guessed, I am talking the FIFA and the World Cup episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (see the video here).
And over the past few weeks I’ve become quite the fan of John Oliver and his brand of tongue-in-cheek, sometimes over the top portrayal of some of the biggest problems facing America and the World today, presented in a style which mixes both British and American forms of humour. The subjects have ranged from America’s broken prison system (here), to regressive new laws in Uganda over homosexuality (here) and Brunei over curtailment of religious freedom (here), how the world is so close to being annihilated by nuclear weapons just because of a number of tiny possible mistakes (here) and many more. They did a brilliant piece on the recent election campaign in India and how the Indian news channels are basically going crazy (here). There are also some light-hearted topics which have been used with devastating effect to make a statement against some global personalities. My favourite one is this 3-minute clip about Russia losing contact with one of its satellites which contained a bunch of mating geckos (to an Indian a gecko is like an ugly green lizard), which Russia had sent into orbit in order to observe their mating behaviour in zero-gravity (yes seriously).
One doesn’t need to put too much thought into it to realize that this is a form of political and/or social activism. By means of his show, John Oliver is bringing to people’s attention some of the most important happenings today that will substantially impact their lives and blowing the lid off many shenanigans happening in the world of politics, administration or celebrity (like this one). This serves the same purpose as the mass picketing and demonstrations of yesteryear. But today, such mass public mobilisation has become restricted to third world countries or the ones trying to overthrow a regime. In the more developed and affluent world, where getting out of your armchair is a chore, there has been a shift to online petitions and virtual parades and lobbies. And this is where this show perfectly positions itself, bringing the news that the news channels often don’t talk about, right to people’s homes in high-definition.
Another thing that is very important to the popularity of the show and why it’s getting the message across to the audience is the medium employed to convey it, namely humour. Throughout the time that you’re realizing how your tax payments are being used to do anything but benefit your well-being or how perilously close you are to being part of a nuclear barbecue just because somebody forgot to close a door, you’re laughing. The information will enrage you, maybe move you to action (hopefully), but the entire process will also entertain you. This packaging of not easily palatable information inside a light and easy medium such as satire is why the show has worked and why I feel people are paying heed. There is no sermonizing here, there is entertainment.
I don’t say that John Oliver’s show is the first one to come up with such an idea. There have been many others before (my favourite being Real Time with Bill Maher). But while Bill Maher’s style tends to be confrontational and his stand decidedly anti-establishment, Oliver has a subtle, more agreeable style. In fact, at times it almost feels as if he’s muddling through the labyrinth of banality before suddenly delivering a killer punch.
Waves of such activism haven’t passed by Indian shores either. Over the past year or two, there have been several hugely famous initiatives surfing the broadbands in India; the top of mind recall brings up names like All India Bakchod (AIB) or The Viral Fever (TVF). These and others like them have used humour and satire to poke fun at the Indian entertainment industry (remember Rowdies or Yashraj), the Indian political divide (the RaGa vs NaMo election campaign saga), the broken Indian education system, Indian eccentricities and pretensions, all the way to the deplorable attitude many people have towards heinous acts like rape.
What is that makes these videos so effective? To start off, they’re very visual. Today’s generation has the attention span of a kid with ADD and the memory of a goldfish. Where twitter feeds count as high culture, people don’t have the time to read boring news articles and listen to even more boring newscasters. But it’s not a generation that lacks soul or the activist spirit. It’s just that you need different media to engage them and outlets to express their support. These videos have done just that, entertaining while informing.
And the movement is gathering momentum. Both the creators and the audience are maturing. The content is becoming increasingly edgier and more thought provoking, putting the evils of society under a stark gaze. The audience is also becoming increasingly aware and accepting of them. The biggest proof of that would be the increased frequency with which these videos appear on my Facebook newsfeed.
So although we are not quite ready to rise up in rebellion just yet, the awareness prevails, the anger exists and the actions are being taken, even though they may be restricted to a few mouse clicks for now. This is after all the age of the sarcasm activists.
Nadeem is still trying to make sense of Life, the Universe and Everything having just started his second year and planning to have a great time while he tries to figure all that stuff out. You can follow him at nadeemraj.insideiim.com
He’s an amateur storyteller at 42shadesoctarine.wordpress.com