“It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage,” Alinsky adds.
Ridicule, satire and mockery have been a part of our nation’s politics since before the American Revolution. Anonymously published satirical articles and cartoons filled American newspapers in the years before the conflict began and helped build support for independence.
Alinsky is right—ridicule is a powerful weapon. Ridicule works because it’s almost impossible to counter laughter. If a joke is funny enough, it can follow a policy or politician for the rest of their lives.
To this day, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is best remembered for the line, “I can see Russia from my house.”
There’s one problem—Palin never uttered the line. It came from a Saturday Night Live sketch poking fun at Palin’s assertion that she had foreign policy experience because Alaska was close to Russia. Tina Fey’s portrayal of John McCain’s running mate was so effective, it became the thing people were most likely to know about Palin.
President Ronald Reagan was one of the best users of ridicule. In one presidential debate, after his opponent launched into one of his standard attack lines, Reagan began chuckling before retorting “There you go again!”
The response became an instant classic, and Reagan used it again to disarm an attack during the next election.
Reagan also displayed his trademark wit when responding to attacks from his opponents that he was too old to be president. When he got the question about his age during one of the debates, Reagan turned it on its head.
“I will not make age an issue in this campaign,” he said, adding “I will not exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The crowd erupted in laughter and applause while Reagan calmly took a sip of water. He would go on to an electoral landslide that fall.
Remember though, that it’s easy to take ridicule too far. If your humor is too biting or harsh, it can make you look bad or encourage people to look sympathetically at your opponents.
Find the right balance, and ridicule can be the most effective tool in your activist toolkit.