Youth Citizenship in Divided Societies

Politics for Fun and Fun

I find it really hard to talk with someone who is wearing a green clown wig and is skipping in circles around me. Yet that is what I found myself trying to do.

It was a warm spring day in Beirut. An activist group had organized a demonstration in an effort to open the Horsh Beirut – a large park – to Lebanese people. A few weeks earlier, the mayor of the municipality apparently had told an audience at the American University, Beirut that the park was closed to Lebanese people because they didn't know how to use the space appropriately, would litter, and might engage in illicit activities. About 100 demonstrators, media people, and observers gathered by the entrance to the park. Activists played music, handed out leaflets to people driving by, danced, and generally tried to draw attention to the event. There was a short skit, in which demonstrators pointed to the absurdity of the park being closed to most Lebanese people, whereas foreigners (such as myself) could enter. The activists were clearly enjoying themselves, and onlookers found the sketch vaguely amusing. The guards blocking the entrance to the park seemed more concerned to position themselves to be included in the video taken by reporters from LBC and other media outlets.

After the sketch and unsuccessful attempts to enter the park, the crowd dispersed. And then – almost miraculously – activists were allowed into the park. As they entered, they began to sing, to skip, and one activist symbolically planted a Lebanese flag on a small mound of dirt. Another activist exclaimed that she finally felt part of Beirut. After an hour or so, people were told to leave, and the next day, the park was closed to Lebanese people.


An activist at the Horsh Beirut protest.

Reflecting on the day – and wishing I could have talked more with that wig-wearing, skipping activist – I pondered the role of humour and fun in street politics. Clowns, puppets, skits, impromptu occupations of space with dance, more organized festivals that also claim space; they are all part of street politics, and may be particularly associated with protests and demonstrations organized by young people. In The Journal of Youth Studies, Rys Farthing goes so far as to argue that fun is an integral part of young people's politics and is their way of engaging with issues. According to a long-time activist who runs training programmes, fun and humour are also the only effective means of engaging politics because they draw attention to issues that people otherwise overlook or actively ignore.

I also thought about some other interviews we have done on the YouCitizen project. I kept rehashing one in particular, where the respondent argued that it was not enough to engage young people in fun activities: it was necessary to make their engagement effective. She used the same words as the trainer, but she meant something different. I wondered what she would have made of the protest and wanted to ask her: What does effective mean in the context of a country brought to a standstill by sectarian, seemingly incompetent, and possibly corrupt governments? Who judges effectiveness?

According to my dictionary, effectiveness is signified by change that can be traced to an action. Youth programmes, for instance might be seen as effective if they lead to some change in behaviour or attitudes amongst young people. But funding organizations seem to want – or at least hope – for more. For them, effective engagements result in changes beyond the individual level and are manifested in social movements, changes in state behaviours as a result of mobilisations, and even in the institutionalisation of movements. Many people appreciated the humour that youth brought to political and social movements, but then wondered how this could be translated into good government and changing practice.


A mock interview with the mayor at the gates of Horsh Beirut. The wigs were for fun, but also to make the point that only people who look like 'foreigners' are allowed to enter the park. 

As we have talked with young people and activists, however, such changes seem illusive and perhaps not even their goal. For some of them, drawing attention to the absurdity of governmental practices and even social mores was the point, the focus. This is not necessarily a sign of defeatism or of nihilism. In some cases, it reflects a latent understanding that effectiveness, in the sense of being incorporated in social and institutional practice, is never possible, because ideas and values are corrupted as they become regularised and institutionalised.

But it may also reflect a belief that it is only possible to intervene effectively in the moment. For some people, politics has a different temporality than that of institutionalisation. If one accepts the possibility that there will be reaction to whatever statement or action one might take, then politics is a process in which action in a moment is all that is possible: gaining attention or raising awareness is a signal of effectiveness, even if it is transitory or fleeting. In this way, traditional analyses of political change and effectiveness are misguided. Fun, humour, irony draw attention and may make people think, if only for a moment. But it is in those moments that politics – and even effectiveness – are grounded, become real, and enacted.

I should have donned a wig and skipped along with the others on that spring day in Horsh Beirut.


Only those with the right identity can enter the park, as this protestor wryly demonstrates. 

Lynn Staeheli - Durham University

3 August 2015 


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