Peace and Humor

By Dietrich Fischer | 2007-07-01 12:00:00

Humor can sometimes defuse a tense situation. For example, when Reagan and Gorbachev met for the first summit meeting in Geneva in 1985, Gorbachev showed Reagan a cartoon with the two standing at opposite ends of a wide abyss, with Gorbachev proposing they should get closer, and Reagan replying, "That is a good idea, why don't you take the first step." Reagan laughed, and this helped create a good atmosphere for their first meeting.

When Johan Galtung, widely regarded as the founder of peace research, met for a mediation session with the leadership of the Tamil Tigers, he said with a smile, "I love tigers, but sometimes they need a little manicure and pedicure." They smiled approvingly. If instead he had said, "When will you give up your weapons? With violence you will never reach your goals," they probably would have responded, "Go tell that to the government."

After a long series of mediation sessions in Northern Ireland during which neither side was prepared to yield an inch, George Mitchell, the mediator, began the next session by singing a popular old song by Frank Sinatra. The two delegations asked him why he did that. He said, "because whenever I come here, I hear the same old songs from both of you." They realized that this will never get them anywhere, and that day, the two parties were willing to engage in some give and take, which led to a breakthrough, the Good Friday Agreement.

Self-deprecating jokes, in which people can laugh about themselves, can help defuse hostility and win sympathy. Here are three examples. During the Democratic primary contest in the United States in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy said he had a dream that he had to climb a ladder and cross off on every step with a piece of chalk a promise he had made and not kept. His rival Hubert Humphrey did the same and saw him climbing down. Humphrey asked, "Are you already done?" Kennedy replied, "No, I have to go down to get more chalk."

Al Gore said, "How do you recognize Al Gore among a group of 16 secret service agents? He is the one who looks stiff." If a rival had told this about Gore, it would sound offensive, but since he said it himself, it helped put people at ease.

When the Soviet economy deteriorated, Gorbachev said, "Reagan has 100 bodyguards. One of them is a terrorist, but he does not know which one. Mitterrand has 100 lovers. One of them has AIDS, but he does not know which one. Gorbachev has 100 economic advisers. One of them knows something about economics, but he does not know which one."

Poking fun not at oneself but at an opponent, on the contrary, can be hurtful and increase tensions and hostility, such as all the jokes that reinforce stereotypes, portraying other people as stupid or cruel. I prefer not to repeat any.

Empathy with all conflict parties is an essential skill of a mediator, as the following story illustrates: A quarreling couple went to see the rabbi for advice. First the husband went into his study and talked to him for about an hour, complaining about his wife and emptying his heart. The rabbi listened patiently and told him at the end, "You are right." Then it was the wife's turn, and she complained to the rabbi about her husband for an hour. Again, he listened without interrupting her and said to her at the end, "You are right." The two left relieved, walking home happily hand in hand. Then the rabbi's wife, who had secretly overheard the conversations through the wall, confronted him and said, "How could you tell them both they were right when they told such different stories!" He said to her, "You are right, too." As a Jewish proverb says, "An insincere peace is better than a sincere war."

The following true story shows that a nonviolent approach can achieve desired results where violence fails. Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, had a quarrel, as it occasionally happens in a marriage. One word led to another, and suddenly Prince Albert angrily left the bedroom, went to his study, slammed the door and locked it. The queen ran after him, knocked on the door and demanded, "Open!" There was no answer. She pounded the door with her fist and called, "Open at once!!" No answer. She shouted at the top of her voice, "I am the Queen of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the Empress of India and of the entire British Commonwealth, I am the Commander-in-Chief of all the British armed forces, and I order you hereby to open this door!!!" No answer. Finally she said in a soft voice, "Albert, I am sorry, I love you and miss you." Now the door opened.

Joining Fights, Catching Monkeys

Humor has been used to expose the absurdity of violence or sectarianism. For example, an Irishman entered a bar late at night and saw a big brawl going on, everybody fighting against everybody, with chairs flying through the air. He pulled someone aside, and asked, "Is this a private fight, or can anybody join in?"

Someone was walking late at night through the streets of Belfast and was suddenly surrounded by a gang of youngsters who asked him, "Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?" He replied, "I am Jewish." They asked, "Are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew?"

People living in a dictatorship often make fun about their oppressors to gain some relief from their dreadful lives, a nonviolent form of defense. During Stalin's time, someone said, "Thank God." His neighbor warned him, "You are not allowed to say that. We live in an atheistic country!" He asked, "What can I say then?" "You must say, 'Thank Stalin'." "But what can I say when Stalin is dead?" "Then you can say, 'Thank God'."

President Zhivkov of Bulgaria was on the telephone with Brezhnev, and his vice President was in the same room, listening. Zhivkov said, "Yes. Yes. Yes, of course. Yes, yes. No." and hung up. His vice president asked in disbelief, "Did you dare to say no to him? What did he want?" Zhivkov replied, "Oh, he simply asked, 'Aren't you ashamed of always having to say yes?'"

The following amusing story suggests that forgiving can bring relief to those who forgive. In India, forests are cleared to make room for new villages for the growing population. Most animals retreat deeper into the forest, except the monkeys. Instead of picking fruit from trees, they eat food in people's kitchens. If the door is locked, they break through the window. Because the people believe in reincarnation, they do not want to hurt or kill any animal, it might be a deceased relative. Someone came up with a humane way to catch those monkeys. They make metal vases with a wide body and a narrow opening at the top, screw them onto a window sill, and drop a banana inside. A monkey can smell and see the banana, puts his hand into the vase and grabs the banana, trying to pull it out. But the clenched fist with the fruit is too wide to come out through the narrow neck of the vase. Those monkeys are so stubborn that they never let go of a fruit once they have found it. Twice a day, an animal control officer patrols the village, and when he sees a monkey, covers its head with a burlap bag. Surprised, the monkey lets go, is fed the banana, and all the monkeys caught that day are brought by truck deep into a forest. Sometimes we find it hard to let go of a grudge or angry feeling, but if we remember the fate of those monkeys, we will let go and forgive, and feel free and happy.


Fischer, Dietrich and Johan Galtung (2000) Jokes to be Taken Seriously. TRANSCEND, A Peace and Development Network, Booklet 4, and <>, 27 pp.

Lukes, Steven and Itzhak Galnoor (1985) No Laughing Matter: A Collection of Political Jokes. London, Boston and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2007

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2007, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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