January 5, 2023
Article Source: Journal of Democracy
By Sophia McClennen, Srdja Popovic, and Joseph Wright
In 1982, during the Polish Solidarity movement, the people of Świdnik, a small town in eastern Poland, decided to protest government-media propaganda by taking their television sets for a walk. Activists had wanted to register their discontent at the communist state’s control of all news media, but decided that encouraging individuals to attempt a private boycott would be pointless: After all, who would know if you were sitting at home in your living room not watching the news? But what if a way could be found to make such a boycott publicly visible? What if dissatisfaction with government propaganda and the state’s stranglehold on information could be put on unmistakable display for everyone to see?
Eventually, the activists decided to take their television sets onto the street at the time of the main evening newscast, “walking” them in wheelbarrows as though they were babies in carriages. Before long, anyone walking the streets of the town at this hour could see friends and neighbors ambling and laughing, pushing their TVs, using the thirty minutes previously spent listening to the official newscast to greet one another, gossip, and share in the thrill of standing up to the regime together.
The practice of “walking” TV sets was not only creative but contagious. It was a great gag, and the practice soon spread to other Polish towns. Flabbergasted, the communist government weighed its options. It could not arrest anyone; there was no law forbidding Polish citizens from pushing television sets down streets. All the regime could do was move the 10 p.m. curfew up to 7 p.m., thereby forcing everyone indoors [End Page 110] and signaling its powerlessness to contain criticism with a move that outraged the Polish public even more.
The wheelbarrow protests put the government in a tough spot: Ignoring the protesters would simply embolden them, reveal the government’s weakness, and increase resistance. Repressing protesters for doing something as innocuous as pushing TVs in wheelbarrows would make officials look heavy-handed and overly repressive. The clumsy effort to tamp down the protests by decreeing an earlier start to the curfew cost the regime credibility, expanded the base of Polish citizens critical of the government, and made the authorities look absurd. They could no longer claim that they were acting in the best interest of the people. Once that narrative had been disrupted, their grip on power became tenuous and eventually the regime fell. This specific type of nonviolent tactic is called a dilemma action. It is designed to create a dilemma for the target and force opponents into a “lose-lose” situation: Whatever the opponents do, they will suffer reputational harm and end up looking bad. A well-chosen dilemma action taps into widely held beliefs and uses unpredictability and humor to destabilize the official narrative and attract widespread public support.
But, beyond making for a good story, is this tactic effective? Does it have outcomes that we can measure? Our research suggests that dilemma actions can make a nonviolent campaign 11 to 14 percent more likely to succeed. Nonviolent campaigns are already nearly twice as likely to succeed as violent campaigns (working half the time versus only 29 percent of the time), and our findings suggest that dilemma actions can give nonviolent campaigns a further edge, helping them to succeed almost two-thirds of the time (64 percent).
Over the past three decades, research has shown that nonviolent social protest has been the most reliable path to democracy.1 Recent democratic backsliding notwithstanding, sustained nonviolent mobilization remains a proven path to democratic survival, especially among new democracies.2
Nonviolent mobilization campaigns can and do fail, of course. Since 1905, their rate of full success has been 47 percent (150 of 320 cases). In a more recent subset of all cases since 1974—namely, all the cases that have occurred since the “third wave” of democratization began with the Carnation Revolution in Portugal—the rate of failure (defined as anything less than full success) has been 53 percent (137 out of 258 cases). Civil resistance reached a “new level of popularity” after 2010, but its effectiveness began to decline.3
We know that nonviolent mass movements are significantly more effective than violent ones, but why do nonviolent movements sometimes fail? Could their tactics play a role? Nonviolence itself is a broad tactic, but simply saying that a movement is nonviolent says little about how it actually pursues its goals (other than by abjuring violence, of course). [End Page 111] There is a vast difference, for example, between nonviolent movements that emphasize protests and ones that incorporate more disruptive direct actions such as strikes.
Research on the efficacy of specific nonviolent tactics is scant. Most of it focuses on comparing a few cases to one another, or studies tactical changes within a movement. Apart from suggestions that campaigns will be more effective if they use a “variety” of methods, there has been little noted regarding specific types of tactics and their role in campaign success.
This said, there has been growing interest in assessing the effects of creative tactics. Building on anecdotal accounts such as Steve Crawshaw’s Street Spirit: The Power of Protests and Mischief, or activist training guides such Andrew Boyd and Dave Oswald Mitchell’s Beautiful Trouble: A Toolkit for Revolution, or the Guide to Effective Nonviolent Struggle published by the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), Steven Duncombe and Silas Harrebye offer data on the relative effectiveness of creative versus conventional forms of activism.4 They find that across nearly every quantitative measure—observations of interest, numbers of petition signatures gathered, speed and scale of flyer distribution, reactions to the activists—the creative approach beat the conventional one when it came to reaching desired objectives.
Our study is meant to add to these contributions. It introduces, conceptualizes, and measures the efficacy of dilemma actions. We then use global data on dilemma actions during nonviolent campaigns to assess how this tactic influences campaign success. Our findings suggest that dilemma actions reliably boost campaign success. What makes this tactic so effective?
During their colonial occupation of India, British authorities held monopoly control over the vital everyday staple of salt, taxing it and controlling its production and distribution with an eye toward its value as an export. The independence movement could have angrily protested this state of affairs, but instead chose to do something far more creative. Led by Mohandas K. Gandhi, independence activists marched to the coast and began evaporating seawater to make their own salt. Tax protests and noncompliance soon spread across India and affected many things besides salt.
The British authorities found themselves in a bind: They could watch their control over salt (and more) go away, or they could launch a crackdown. They chose the latter, arresting thousands and along the way harming the colonial regime’s legitimacy, sparking an international outcry, and giving the independence movement additional momentum. [End Page 112] Gandhi’s unique ideas regarding civil disobedience became famous, but he was also a master at devising creative dilemmas that would confound his opponents and help his cause.
We have documented cases of dilemma actions across history and on every continent, but systematic study of them is a recent endeavor. The first activist to write about the success of dilemma actions was George Lakey, who in 1987 described what he called “dilemma demonstrations.” Canadian activist Philippe Duhamel read Lakey and devised a “dilemma demonstration” in 2001 designed to protest the Canadian government’s participation in the Free Trade Association of the Americas. Armed with a “giant key,” protesters embarked on a “search-and-seizure operation” at the Department of International Trade and Foreign Affairs in Ottawa, where they demanded that they be given access to the draft trade treaty. Protesters were arrested, which then drew public scrutiny. Why was the Canadian government refusing to release a draft? Why the secrecy? A week later, the protesters had achieved their goals and the drafts were made public. Duhamel later published a detailed account of the tactic.5
For Lakey and Duhamel, at the tactic’s core is the dilemma, which is created by a direct action tactic that forces the opponent into a lose-lose choice. Like all direct actions, dilemma actions work outside of conventional advocacy. They are designed to make the target respond. The typical choice is between efforts to repress the activists, which look heavy-handed, or inaction, which looks weak. In both scenarios, the target loses public credibility and the campaign builds momentum.
In one classic example, the Serbian movement Otpor! (Resistance!) plastered an oil barrel with President Slobodan Milošević’s picture, then placed the barrel in a busy shopping area. Passersby could drop a coin into the barrel and hit the image of Milošević in the face with a baseball bat. Calling the action “dime for change,” the activists encouraged their audience to recognize that they lived under a regime where the government cared more about shielding the autocrat’s image than about letting people peacefully express themselves. Police arrived and had to decide what, if anything, to do. They chose to “arrest” the barrel, which provided excellent photo opportunities and left the police, and by association Milošević, looking absurd. Otpor! could have gone the route of traditional protest, but a fun, provocative dilemma action drew far greater attention to the regime’s repression and built support for the nonviolent movement against it.
Even more important, our definition of dilemma actions, which builds on the CANVAS training experience, requires that activists tap into a widely held belief. Thus, for example, the “dime for change” dilemma action foregrounded the belief that people should be able to peacefully express frustration with their government. When the police shut things down, the repressive response made Otpor! more legitimate and the Milošević regime less so. By combining a peaceful action with [End Page 113] one that taps into a widely held belief, activists have a better chance of building broad public sympathy for their goals and incorporating the type of “large and diverse participation” that Erica Chenoweth has noted as critical for campaign success.6
The third element of a good dilemma action is playful irony. Humor is a powerful tool for activists targeting authoritarian regimes. Laughtivism has been defined as the “strategic use of humor and mocking by social nonviolent movements in order to undermine the authority of an opponent, build credibility, break fear and apathy and reach target audiences.”7 Showing that humor in political activism goes beyond just “letting off steam,” Majken Jul Sørensen explains how funny political stunts can disrupt repressive regimes’ discourse and reframe the narrative.8 Her research shows that using humor also helps activists themselves, who report feeling less fear when engaging in acts that have a humorous element.
Not all humorous stunts are ironic, of course. Activists dressing up in funny costumes may be fun but is not necessarily ironic. Dilemma actions, by contrast, need irony. They hinge above all on exposing the situational irony of opponents’ claims to be acting in the public’s best interest when in fact they are not doing so. As Bill Moyer writes, power-holders devise myths to justify their self-serving policies and programs.9 Oppressive governments do not need citizens to actually believe these myths, but they do need citizens to act publicly “as if” they believe them.10 The inherent irony is that the powerholders’ public narrative hides the truth of their actual practices.
The activists’ goals, then, are to use creative tactics to reveal the truth behind the myths that have been presented to the public as true, and—just as important—to expose citizens to public acts that subvert those myths. If, for example, a regime will not allow the people to publicly express themselves in protest, then a dilemma action will ironically call attention to that by displaying blank signs, staging silent protests, or having toys instead of people do the protesting. Dilemma actions are therefore a form of public disobedience that undermines regime narratives, but in a manner that honors a widely held social norm. The upshot is a public demonstration of how the regime’s narrative defies social norms.
A government may say that it has started a war to keep its citizens safe, while in fact the war puts the citizens at far greater risk. Protesters could respond by hitting the streets in a traditional protest, or they could try creatively ironic dilemma actions: writing antiwar messages on currency, [End Page 114] dressing in skeleton costumes to protest in cemeteries, or holding up blank pieces of paper in silent complaint.11 Arresting a bunch of creative activists for peaceful actions will hurt the regime’s reputation. This outcome is of great interest since a major factor shaping campaign success or failure is how the public perceives activists. When they are seen as disruptive or annoying or extremist, they tend to fail to attract new members.12 By contrast, research shows that if the public feels moral outrage at how the state treats activists, public support for the movement will likely rise.13 Actions that have an element of ironic play can be very effective at portraying activists sympathetically and their targets as hostile.
While the dilemma actions in our study vary in terms of how playful or funny their actions may be, they all share an effort to use creative irony to expose the intrinsic ironies of autocratic power.
The Dilemma-Action Study
This project began with the goal of pairing decades of activist experience with academic research. One member of our research team, Srdja Popovic, knew that dilemma actions could make a difference. He learned this firsthand as a leader of Otpor! helping to bring down the Milošević regime, and later from decades of CANVAS work training other activists across the globe. In order to put experience to a test, we conducted a holistic case study of 44 dilemma actions, coding nine different success metrics. This formed the basis of our 2020 book Pranksters vs. Autocrats.14 The results were encouraging, and led to this study, which documents the extent to which nonviolent campaigns use dilemma actions and tests whether they affect success rates.
To test the efficacy of dilemma actions as part of a nonviolent campaign, we examined dilemma-action tactics that took place during the 320 nonviolent campaigns occurring between 1905 and 2019, and which are included in the larger Nonviolent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes (NAVCO) 1.3 dataset covering the period from 1905 through 2019.15 The nonviolent campaigns in NAVCO 1.3 provide a sample that we can code for the presence of dilemma actions, allowing us to compare success rates of campaigns with and without dilemma actions.
The first step in coding was to learn the range of tactics used by each campaign and to search for markers of dilemma actions. Examples of these markers include boycotts, hunger strikes, media art, labor strikes, sit-ins, and symbols. If we found a dilemma action, we then coded its descriptive and evaluative features. If our team found a single example of dilemma-action tactics being used within a campaign, the search of the campaign stopped at that point—there was no need to find all dilemma actions since one was enough for comparative purposes. If no evidence of dilemma actions surfaced at first look, the team revisited primary and secondary sources twice more to confirm the absence. [End Page 115]
To give an example of how the coding went: In January 2009, during Iceland’s so-called Cutlery Revolution, nearly two-thousand people gathered outside the Althing (parliament) building to bang pans, pots, and other kitchenware. This use of everyday kitchen items was a helpful and ironic way to highlight the effect that the government’s handling of a massive banking collapse and financial crisis was having on ordinary citizens’ ability to feed their families. Banging pots and pans also made a lot of noise and drew media attention.
The demonstrators called on Prime Minister Geir Haarde and his cabinet to resign, and demanded reforms to make government more transparent. This disruptive action forced the government to either treat the protesters like criminals—and likely face charges of having overreacted—or let the noisy demonstrations continue. The demonstrators achieved their short-term goals: Haarde, the head of the central bank, and the country’s top financial-oversight officer all stepped down. Early elections were held that April. In order to code this case, two members of the research team independently consulted five distinct secondary sources, including newspaper articles, an encyclopedia entry, a peer-reviewed journal article, and an extant database of nonviolent mobilization.
Iceland’s Cutlery Revolution is just one example. Overall, our data indicate that dilemma actions occurred in only about a third of nonviolent campaigns, but at a fairly constant rate over time, suggesting that the presence of dilemma actions is not new. Dilemma actions also occur outside nonviolent campaigns, in part because many attempts at mass mobilization—both with and without dilemma actions—never attract the thousand or more participants that are needed to make it into the NAVCO dataset. In order to get around this limitation in the data, we have assembled our own database of more than four-hundred dilemma actions that includes instances where such actions were one-off events untied to any larger movement, let alone one with a thousand members. We have included, for example, the May 2013 “Kisses in the Subway” protest that happened after public-transit officials in Ankara, Turkey, looked at a station’s security-camera feed and noticed a couple kissing. Defying official admonitions to cease displaying affection on public transport, more than a hundred people flooded a station and spent several minutes kissing. Some held signs reading “free kisses.” Officials then had to decide whether to criminalize kissing or let these protesters undermine their authority. The dataset of dilemma actions found in the NAVCO data comprises about a quarter of the cases that we have studied thus far.
The success rate across all nonviolent campaigns in the NAVCO 1.3 dataset is roughly 54 percent. The left plot in Figure 1 shows that this average varies considerably by whether a campaign uses a dilemma action. [End Page 116] Nonviolent campaigns lacking a dilemma action have an overall success rate of just under 50 percent, while those with dilemma actions succeed on average 64 percent of the time.
Dilemma Actions and Nonviolent-Campaign Success
Note: Partial success is treated as 50 percent, failure as 0, and full success as 100 percent.
Next, we tested the efficacy of dilemma actions.16 Our estimate suggests that dilemma actions are associated with an increase of ten percentage points in the probability of campaign success. This is lower than the prior fourteen-point estimate (64 versus 50 percent success rate), but our estimate comes from an approach that is often less sensitive to outlier observations. Both approaches suggest that, on average, dilemma actions make nonviolent campaigns significantly more likely to succeed.
The difference in success rates has narrowed over the last three decades, however, just as the overall success rate for nonviolent campaigns has dropped. Both these trends—the smaller difference made by dilemma actions, and nonviolent campaigns succeeding more rarely overall—seem to have started as the Cold War was ending. For much of the twentieth century, including the years from 1920 to 1950, we see a success rate for dilemma-action–inclusive campaigns that substantially outstrips the success rate of campaigns lacking a dilemma action. In the three decades or so since the Cold War ended, however, the difference shrinks. Specifically, it goes from 25 points between 1905 and 1988 to 9 points since that latter year: From 1989 through 2019, nonviolent campaigns with at least one dilemma action succeeded in 61 percent of cases, while campaigns without succeeded 52 percent of the time.
What can explain the shrinking success gap? Could it be that dilemma [End Page 117] actions have a bigger impact when used against full-fledged autocracies of the sort that were more common before the Cold War’s end? Such regimes are by definition farthest from rule by consent of the governed, and as such start out with wider legitimacy gaps for dilemma actions to exploit. To examine this possibility, in Figure 2 we plot the estimated marginal effect of dilemma actions by the level of democracy of the targeted government.
Figure 2. Dilemma Actions Boost Nonviolent-Campaign Success in Autocracies
Source: Democracy data (x-axis) from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project.
The plotted line indicates that the marginal effect of dilemma actions is highest in more autocratic countries. When campaigns target the most autocratic governments (those with democracy scores between zero and 0.2), the dilemma-action effect is well above average. In the most democratic governments in the set (those with democracy scores above 0.6), by contrast, the dilemma-action effect is about half what it is in autocracies. In short, when nonviolent campaigns target more-autocratic governments, dilemma actions are nearly twice as likely to boost campaign success compared to the situation where dilemma actions are used in more-democratic settings.
How Dilemma Actions Help Nonviolent Campaigns
Our team gathered a range of descriptive data on each dilemma action case to code fifteen distinct metrics, some of which were descriptive and some evaluative. Our evaluative findings indicate four specific elements of dilemma actions that shape nonviolent-campaign success: facilitating [End Page 118] group formation, delegitimizing opponents, reducing fear, and generating sympathetic media coverage.
Popovic has argued that a successful movement will tap into what he calls the “cool factor.” His experience is borne out by research regarding what dilemma actions can do to shape public perceptions of the movement as well as the morale of those directly involved. Such actions, for example, present activists as nonthreatening.17 Research on humor and activism further suggests that the use of humor lowers the resistance of the audience to the activist’s message and can induce audience members to think about an issue that they might have been avoiding.18 Even more important, the use of play in activism can help to break down social barriers, creating new alliances among disparate members of society.19
Dilemma actions not only affect public perceptions but the activists themselves. Dilemma actions done with humor and irony give participants as a group positive feelings. To a greater degree than other nonviolent strategies, dilemma actions can help groups to form and stay active. The short-term adverse reactions that dilemma actions tend to rouse from opponents are easily interpreted as tactical successes, which can make activists feel empowered.
Almost all the time (that is, in 92 percent of cases) dilemma actions during nonviolent campaigns are followed by increases in the numbers of campaign participants. Movement mobilization continues after the dilemma action 82 percent of the time, and in 93 percent of cases the event boosts public sympathy for the nonviolent campaign.
Dilemma actions must not only pose a true dilemma (failed attempts are often traceable to a lapse on this score), but must also touch the chord of a widely held belief. Getting the opponent to respond to the dilemma action in a norm-transgressing way is key. The response is “lose-lose” because the dilemma action dictates that the only alternative to violating a widely shared norm is nonaction, which is a loss because it looks weak.
The dilemma then creates a situation whereby the target is likely to lose legitimacy in the eyes of the public. How onlookers assess the probable value of activism against the target may change as well.20 For example, if the opponent’s first choice is to avoid responding publicly to a dilemma, citizens may sense weakness and resistance grows as a result. If the number of people involved in the dilemma action swells, activists’ legitimacy will rise while their target’s falls. In practice, this means that one of the best ways to mount a dilemma action is to aim at an opponent’s absurd, excessive, irrational, or repressive rules. If protesting is outlawed, then activists can hold up blank signs. Arresting people with blank signs will cost the opponent legitimacy as the public loses respect [End Page 119] for the opponent’s rules. A well-executed dilemma action can reframe the narrative of the regime from legitimate to illegitimate, from just to unjust, from representative to autocratic, and so on.
Regime nonresponse is rare. We find that 90 percent of the time, a dilemma action meets with an aggressive or violent response, or at least one that arguably looks like an overreaction. In July 2011, for example, people marched en masse in Malawi to protest their government. They flew the country’s original postindependence flag—the government had recently changed the design and banned display of the old one. They wore red clothing and called themselves the “Red Army for Democracy and Peace.” Riot police launched violent crackdowns in several cities, but this did not quell the protests, which went on for several more days and sparked again in August and September. The authorities’ harsh reaction, just as in our earlier example of the Polish government’s overreaction to walking TVs in wheelbarrows, aided the activists and undercut the legitimacy of the regime.
A third causal mechanism linking dilemma actions to campaign success involves the psychology of fear. Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef writes that fear has always been the “best weapon” of repressive regimes, but “when you laugh, you aren’t afraid anymore.”21 He is the Cairo heart surgeon who became famous for his satire in early 2011, not long after the Arab Spring had toppled the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship, through videos shot in his laundry room and posted to YouTube. Youssef accumulated millions of views on the internet and then made waves with a television show styled similarly to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. Youssef’s program, Al Bernameg, eventually reached thirty-million Egyptians (almost a third of the populace) and offered groundbreaking comedy featuring unprecedented open mockery of the Egyptian government. Authoritarian regimes use fear to discourage expression, stifle resistance, and foster social division. Fear may create feelings of isolation and apathy by inducing pessimistic perceptions of risks and by boosting risk aversion—two mechanisms that reduce participation in protest.22 Yet as Youssef learned firsthand, laughter can work against fear. When the government of President Mohamed Morsi arrested him in March 2013 for allegedly insulting Islam and the Egyptian state, for example, Youssef showed up at his hearing in a massively oversized version of the hat that Morsi had worn earlier that month while receiving an honorary degree in Pakistan. Rather than let himself be intimidated by the arrest, Youssef used the opportunity to laugh at Morsi’s inability to handle criticism.
Youssef left Egypt in 2014 after further repression from the military regime that had ousted Morsi in a July 2013 coup, but the effects of Al Bernameg continued as other comics such as Shady Abu Zeid launched their own political-satire shows. Zeid also took his satire to the streets [End Page 120] with a dilemma action in 2016, offering inflated condoms as balloons to police in Cairo on the fifth anniversary of Mubarak’s fall. Videos of the protest show the activists and members of the public laughing in the face of police authorities.23 Since laughter is a positive emotion that enhances group formation and collective action, it can be a powerful activist tool.
Dilemma actions may reduce the fear of both activists and their observers. The use of laughter to counter fear may well attract more members to the movement and ease the problem of activist burnout. Perhaps even more importantly, dilemma actions that induce the opponent to react absurdly or illogically may reduce fear among nonparticipants such that they may be likelier to join future protests against the opponent or to replicate the dilemma actions in a different time or place with a different audience.
Autocrats, as Popovic and Youssef underline, do not like jokes. Dictators tend to have thin skins, and to overreact if ridiculed. Their overblown reactions to humor lay bare their outsized egos and fragile identities. In Belarus in 2011, activists were able to agitate the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka by simply clapping in public. When his police arrested some of them, the public saw a heavily armed authoritarian government with every means of coercion at its disposal revealing its fear of peaceful protest.24 We find qualitative evidence suggesting that most dilemma actions (87 percent) help to reduce fear or apathy among campaign participants. By reducing fear and boosting public sympathy, dilemma actions nearly always (88 percent of cases) help to reframe the opponent as less scary or more repressive.
Finally, a well-designed dilemma action will receive media coverage. The key question is whether it is favorable. Research has shown that, in general, protests get bad press and protesters are painted as deviants.25 Coverage will vary based on the outlets doing the reporting and the level of press freedom in the country. Regarding actions in highly repressive countries, international and domestic coverage will predictably diverge.
In the ideal case, media coverage of the dilemma action will introduce the group doing it (assuming it is new or otherwise unfamiliar to the public) and document the norm-violating behavior of the opponent.26 A media report might convey summary information about the group such as its size, composition, and ties to allied or sympathetic groups. Widening public awareness may in turn lead more citizens to change how they assess the legitimacy of the group and its goals.
Media coverage is key to agenda setting, framing, and priming.27 Agenda setting has to do with issue saliency (whether or not the public is thinking about an issue), framing has to do with how the public thinks about an issue, and priming has to do with what leaps first to mind when the topic is raised. For a dilemma action, media coverage is crucial: [End Page 121] Without sufficient coverage of the right sort, there will be no reframing the narrative or priming the public mind to influence what people think of the activism and the reasons behind it. The playful nature of dilemma actions, their use of irony, and their appeal to widely held beliefs are meant to attract sympathetic coverage that can reshape how the public sees the opponent. Our finding in this regard is encouraging: The goals of dilemma actions drew favorable coverage 84 percent of the time.
What Does Success Look Like?
Chenoweth has noted that even when campaigns of nonviolent civil resistance fail, they still lead to long-term reforms more often than violent campaigns do. In fact, nonviolent campaigns were about ten times more likely to precede a democratic transition by five years or less than were violent campaigns.28 Our research suggests that nonviolent campaigns deploying dilemma actions may be even more effective at these long-term outcomes.
In 2012, protesters in Sudan organized “elbow-licking Friday” in an ironic reference to then-president Omar al-Bashir’s habit of calling those who wanted him to leave office “elbow-lickers”—people with a foolish appetite for attempting the impossible. As masses of “elbow-licking” protesters hit the streets, they were met with rubber bullets, tear gas, beatings, and arrests. This aggressive repression went hand-in-hand with internet and media clampdowns plus the president’s bizarre efforts to claim that there had never been any real revolt in the first place. His government’s legitimacy drained away. He hung onto power, but it seems fair to say that the “elbow-lickers” contributed to the growth of a prodemocracy movement in Sudan. Bashir was finally toppled by a 2019 military coup, and despite another putsch in 2021 there are plans to hold elections and write a new constitution in 2023. There were no immediate concessions in this case, but again it seems fair to say that the cause of better and freer government did gain ground in the public mind, and that exposing a repressive president’s absurd ego aided the cause.
Thus, even within the set of campaigns that the NAVCO set designates as failures, those that used dilemma actions still had high success across critical metrics such as reframing the narrative, increasing activists’ appeal, and reducing fear among activists themselves. Each of these positive outcomes has the potential to help unravel repressive power in the future. Once an autocrat’s image has been tarnished by an effective dilemma, it can be hard to recover.
These effects can be seen in various instances that we have tracked of dilemma actions targeting Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia, revealing the potential positive effects of dilemma actions even if they have not so far led to regime change. Over the last decade, a range of Russian [End Page 122] activists have deployed dilemma actions to challenge the legitimacy of Russian autocracy. In one hilarious 2012 example, activists in Barnaul, Russia, bypassed a ban on public dissent by setting up a display of toys holding tiny protest signs. Seeming to take inspiration from the arrest of the Milošević barrel in Serbia, the authorities ruled the toy array an “unsanctioned event,” then denied an application for a new display by declaring that toys could not be citizens of Russia.29 The situation drew international media coverage and made the Kremlin look ridiculous. In 2021, the police made an arrest in a snowman protest.30
Since the invasion of Ukraine, creative activists in Russia have used dilemma actions to protest the brutal crackdown on any mention of “war.” They have staged silent actions with copies of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and have drawn up self-censored posters that bear asterisks where the phrase “no to war” should appear. They have even added antiwar signs to merchandise price tags.31
In late 2022, similarly, protesters in the People’s Republic of China held up blank signs and violated bans on public gatherings in response to the government’s repressive “zero-covid” laws, efforts that led to modest concessions as the government decided to loosen restrictions. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, protesters have also used dilemma actions in antigovernment protests. Women have danced, removed their head coverings, and cut their hair publicly in efforts to mock the authority of the morality police. Their actions have received widespread public support. Each of these acts allows protesters to playfully expose the ironies of repressive power and to reframe aggressive policies as exercises in absurdity.
Will these creative tactics force the regimes in Russia, China, and Iran to end their aggressive policies? Probably not. But can such approaches harm these regimes’ authority and popularity?32 Our research shows that there is a decent chance for both to suffer damage. [End Page 123]