History has prominent examples that demonstrate the power of non-violent resistance against government repression. The movements led by Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and others like them come to mind. The non-violent protests that are now in their third week in cities across Turkey add a rare ingredient to the mix: humor. The Turks are in the process of crafting an unlikely historical story that exemplifies how the power of humor and innovation can be effectively harnessed against government repression and abuse. Here is a five-step guide to how Turks stopped worrying and learned to love tear gas.
1. Turn insults into points of pride. When a defiant Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the protestors as "Capulcu" (pronounced "CHA-pul-dju" and roughly translated to "riffraff"), instead of taking it as an insult, the protestors embraced their newfound labels with pride. Overnight, the word morphed from an insult to a compliment. Thousands of Turkish Facebook users changed their first or last names to "Capulcu" and national and international celebrities self-described themselves as "Capulcu" to express their support. The root of the Turkish noun (Capul) was then converted into a verb by adding the English suffix "ing," creating a neologism (Capulling) that now means "standing up for your rights." A music video titled "Everyday I'm Capulling" was promptly created to the tune of the lyrics "Everyday I'm Shuffling" from LMFAO's Party Rock Anthem.
2. If you get slapped, turn the other cheek. Many protestors have come to proudly refer to the bruises they inherited from police abuse as "Erdogan's kisses." When tear gassed, some have responded with outcries of "More!" When a rare lapse occurred in the rampant use of tear gas, protestors phoned the police to express their concerns and ask when and where the tear gassing would recommence so they can show up in a timely fashion to consume their daily dose. A widely circulated photo depicted two protestors in Ankara carrying an injured police officer to safety.
3. Respond to violence with humor. The protestors have retaliated against the use of pepper gas by throwing red peppers at the police. The pepper-gas fiend Prime Minister has now been nicknamed "Red Hot Chili Erdogan" and "Gasfather." A group of students from Bogazici University in Istanbul wrote and performed a jazz song on protest grounds that likens the taste of pepper gas to honey. Other humorous slogans encountered on protest grounds include "Tear gas works wonders on your complexion," "Tear gas helps you lose weight," and "I haven't showered for days; wash me, water cannon!" Tear gas canisters have become a popular vase substitute for flowers presented during the courtships that began on protest grounds.
4. Keep calm and "capul" on. Many protestors have not disturbed their daily routines and continue to work or attend school. At night, they exchange their daily civilian outfits for protest gear and gas masks as they march to the protest grounds. Reminiscent of the characters in The Fight Club, they arrive at work or school the following morning sleepless, bruised, and dreary-eyed. Many continue their exercise regimens on protest grounds by running yoga classes (Warrior is the preferred pose) or dancing the tango while donning gas masks. Others take a break from the protests to study for their final exams. A student was photographed on protest grounds taking a nap next to a sign that says: "I have a final at 2 pm. Please wake me up before then."
5. Circumvent media censorship through creativity. Frustrated by the Turkish media's conspicuous silence on the protests, Ali Ihsan Varol (no relation to this author) decided to make an unlikely use of his live TV game show "The Word Game" to draw attention to them. All of the answers to the questions Varol posed to the contestants were blatant references to the ongoing protests (e.g., Twitter, gas mask, dictator, censorship) and the final two answers were thinly veiled messages to Prime Minister Erdogan ("apologize" and "resign"). The protestors have followed Varol's lead. Not only did they harness the uncensored potential of the social media, they also created their own medieval newspaper by posting articles, drawings, and quotes on a prominent street wall in Istanbul. Some show up to protest grounds in penguin outfits to take a swipe at the television stations that obliviously aired penguin documentaries at the height of the protests.
These are the five primary ingredients to a mass protest "a la Turca" (Turkish style). Although humor, at first blush, might appear to be a paradoxical ingredient in what is otherwise a serious political protest, the Turkish protests may turn out to show that humor and innovation can be the most powerful antidotes against government repression and abuse.