https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/08/five-ways-start-revolution-srdja-popovic-humour-non-violenceow to start a revolution in five easy steps: humour and hobbits, but no guns
Srdja Popovic shares his guide to changing the world – explaining why jokes are more powerful than guns and revolutions can start anywhere
- It can happen anywhere
Innumerable would-be activists have come to me over the years saying “I like what you teach, and I know it worked for Serbia, but revolution will never happen here.” Judging from history, it seems as if violence is what shapes the world. When you are facing state brutality, widespread corruption and an authoritarian system that thrives on fear, it is easy to feel that way. But time and again I have seen many of those very same people go on to spark revolutions in their own countries. Even under the direst conditions, it is still possible to get people to fight for a cause. So the first step in starting a revolution is believing that it can happen, wherever you are.
- Activism doesn’t have to be boring
The classic mainstays of non-violence – marches, sit-ins, vigils and strikes – all have their place, but it’s often easier to engage others by using creative tactics such as music, street theatre, bold imagery and jokes. Lots of jokes. Preferably rude ones at the expense of whichever oppressive force you are trying to overthrow. It’s common for people launching nonviolent movements to cite Gandhi, say, or Martin Luther King, as their inspiration, but those guys, for all their many, many virtues, simply weren’t that hilarious. If you’re hoping to get a mass movement going within a very short span of time in the age of the internet, humour is a key strategy. Also, by and large, dictators hate jokes.
- Pick your battles
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu emphasises the importance of trying to match your strong points against your enemy’s weak points. The best revolutionary leaders are adept at spotting these and planning their campaigns around them. Your opponent may have superior military might, but perhaps you have greater numbers, or are more nimble, or are simply a lot cooler. In Serbia, my friends and I made Milosevic a laughing stock simply by painting his face on a barrel and encouraging people to beat it with sticks. That was funny enough, but when the police arrived to arrest the barrel things really took off. It’s hard to remember to be scared when you can’t stop laughing. And what is less cool than sending armed men to arrest a joke?
- Hobbits can save the world
I’ve always loved JRR Tolkien and even in the darkest moments of the Serbian campaign, when Milosevic and the madness of “ethnic cleansing” controlled everything around us, I would take courage from the bit where Galadriel tells the hobbit Frodo that “even the smallest creature can change the world”. From the Iliad onwards, history seems to have been intent on telling us that our heroes should be elite warriors or genius outliers. But when you look at some of the people who have had an enduring impact on our culture today – Harvey Milk, say, or Malala Yousafzai – many of them aren’t obvious hero material. They started out as ordinary, even unassuming individuals, but went on to achieve exceptional things. In other words, they are hobbits.
- Remember that violence doesn’t work
I have dedicated my life to non-violence, but the reality is that you can be opposed to violence in all its forms and yet when you pick up a gun, still feel, in some dark place in your soul, as if there is no challenge you can’t face and no problem you can’t solve. Being armed changes people, and sometimes revolutions that start out peaceful can turn violent. But before you consider a turn to the dark side, consider the fact that research shows that it is often the person with the gun who fails most miserably. In an analysis of every conflict between 1900 and 2006, two US academics discovered that non-violent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to succeed as violent ones. Keep that at the forefront of your mind for the times when your principles are challenged.