Cartooning and Activism: Humour is a Weapon

by | 13 Nov 2013 | The Blog | 0 comments

Environmental and social justice campaigners have a reputation for being po faced moralists who lecture people about the woes of the world, and it’s partly deserved, and partly because, well, how do you approach these themes without defaulting into that tone?

Well, here’s one way… 1960’s radical activist Saul Alinsky helped lead a campaign against Eastman Kodak’s racial hiring practices in the US city of Rochester. He threatened to buy a block booking of 100 seats for the Rochester Philharmonic (the city’s cultural jewel, sponsored by Kodak) and fill them with 100 local black activists, all of who had been fed ‘huge portions of baked beans’ earlier that evening… the campaign won.

Humour is disarming, and isn’t incompatible with heartfelt, passionate anger about injustice. If anything, it’s able to communicate moral outrage in a way that’s easy for people to relate to, dissolves the pigeon-hole image of the finger wagging, bleeding heart liberal, and makes those in power look like the pompous, straight laced, cruel buffoons that they often are.

The biggest compliment anyone’s ever paid me was John Pilger saying my cartoons were ‘brilliantly ironic a bit ruthless’. I thought in response- ‘Ah. Right. He gets it!’ Because of course humour is often quite cruel… and therefore powerful.

But it isn’t just the humour in the role of political cartooning that’s interesting from a campaigning point of view. Summing up complex and heavily disputed / defended issues into such a minimalist form forces you to distill down the core essence of what it is that’s wrong with a situation. And compact, concentrated ‘ethical bombs’ like these can then explode with a lot of force. Cartoon molotovs?

I’ve tried to translate that approach into some of the street theatre stunts I’ve done for campaigns over the years, and create big three dimensional cartoons. ‘Buy Nothing Day’, aimed at emphasising how consumerism and overconsumption in the rich world are key factors in third world poverty and ecological destruction was a particularly tough one! Who wants to hear that?! How do you say it without coming across as a puritanical killjoy? The key was to get people to ask questions in their own minds about the issue, and subvert the messages of the advertisers, and so we arranged for a group of sweet looking alien ‘tourists’ to be taken on a guided trip through the heartland of the shopping malls. The tour guide’s faltering attempts to explain to them why a shop might be called ‘ENVY’ left everyone watching with a sense that someone had yelled out that the consumerist emperor was in fact totally in the nuddie.

The most recent example I’ve seen of this kind of approach was the protests at the Tory Party conference here in Manchester. Yep, there was all the usual rent-a-leftie, earnest, angry rhyming chants (nails down a blackboard to my ears), but as the marchers passed the actual conference centre everyone stopped that, and just started booing at the top of their voices. I loved it, because it felt like something the delegates inside might feel was quite familiar from their own social values- booing a “frightfully unsportsmanlike” foul at a polo match..? It felt half angry, half ridiculing. Perfect!

And that’s enough from me, I think… now go out there and mock those in power!



Polyp has been drawing political cartoons since the 1980s – many will know him for his regular features in New Internationalist or his frequent work with environmental and social justice groups. You can find out more at his website: