Punching down is not humor. It is something else.
Authoritarians thus have a difficult time trying to do humor. They can see it is potent and they want that. But when they express their underlying premises in the parabolic manner of humor, it is never pretty.
It is an old cliché that authoritarian power cannot control humor. When you can laugh at the powerful, their fear-mongering loses its grip over your mind. Promoting fear may be in the hands of the politician – but laughing at them is in yours.
Humor only works against power. It is a control thing, even if symbolic, and even if it only works in your own mind. But the mind is what we have to liberate first – without that there will be no actions taken.
So how could the oppressive authoritarian also harness the power of humor – on top of everything else? He may have brought 90% of the media under his personal control, he may be able to spend uncontrollable sums on pushing his world view and his own inevitability – but humor is he one realm he cannot occupy. He can stifle it, he can induce so much fear that the victims forget how to laugh. But the autocrat can never own humor.
That doesn’t mean he won’t try. Actually, it means that he will try. With all his might, the same way he occupied every other source of power: by force.
But throwing money at self-professed youth-whisperers who totally know how to do humor, promise, is not enough. And humor is definitely something Orbán cannot do himself. And talking to youth, which was the goal he set for his foot soldiers. Then he gave them prodigal sums of money and a few media outlets from his collection of hundreds – to use them to talk to youth. In his war on the minds of Hungarians, the soldiers are dispatched with enough ammunition to make a huge impact – or to make themselves rich.
But that doesn’t mean that they know what they are doing. In terms of humor, for instance, they have a tough act to pull off: crack jokes at the expense of the underdogs. The opposition. Women. Homosexuals. All the traitors – as they call them.
But when all you are doing is telling jokes with the underlying premise “we will end you”, you are decidedly not funny – just threatening.
Below are shots from Orbán’s new TV channel, the aggressively youthful and anti-liberal Pesti Srácok. Its manifesto declares that they will show why being a “libtard” (Hun: libernyák, Orbán’s new word evoking visceral disgust against liberals) sucks and conservatism and ethnic self-defense is cool.
The problem is probably best illustrated by the story of an ultraconservative Fidesz hardliner who posted a joke about a man killing three wives – two with poisonous mushrooms, the third by a broken skull for refusing to eat the mushrooms. Someone challenged him that the post is not really funny – if it were, it would also be funny gender-swapped, with a woman killing her husbands. Would he post the joke like that?
The man was outraged at the thought and explained that the husband-killing wife would not be funny because wives genuinely kill their husbands. While husband, in his view, don’t typically murder wives. (After some pressing, he corrected himself that it may sometimes happen, but only in self-defense.)
Statistics about domestic violence resulting in the death of men vs women don’t back him up, naturally. But the fact remains that even he needed to craft an underdog-identity (poor, battered husband fighting back by killing wife) to find his own joke funny. But the same joke punching down (in his view) and threatening someone of his own kind (men) filled him with outrage and horror.
It is entirely likely that Orbán loyalists genuinely crafted an underdog identity. After all, they can’t shut up about “left-liberal media dominance”, a thing that only exists in their minds. Orbán is also incredibly butt hurt about major economic players resisting his will (corporations, foreign-owned companies, etc.) which only really happened in his 1998-2002 term, but never ceased to haunt him and guiding his decisions. His media war and war on the banking, retail, energy and media sectors have all originated there.
From this illusory underdog position it might be amusing to kick the opposition that is currently down. But it is still not very rebellious. When it comes to the coveted youthfulness these new media warriors are desperate to project, nothing is less youthful than the message “Look, how stupid these oppositioners are! They can’t even stomp with the herd and miss out on the golden shower of public money for loyalists! Hashtag losers, hashtag traitors, hashtag LOL, hashtag we will end you.”
Being in the position of power is alienating in a number of ways – and some of it trickles down to representatives and media hitmen of the powerful. Just as a high-ranking Party comrade cannot tell if people laugh at his jokes out of fear – and possibly doesn’t care – representatives of power find it difficult to project a one-of-us image. But being relatable is part of the jokes.
And if humor is hard if you’re as hateful as populists these days, irony is even more difficult.
The below video shows the leader of a far-right, anti-Muslim youth group called Generation Identity sharing his little thoughts on an Orbánist TV channel – in a PornHub-inspired T-shirt that actually contains his organization’s name.
Seriously, youthful AF.
And this is a screenshot from their introduction video from Youtube.
Actually, the issue of radicalization through porn sites would deserve some serious research.