Calling politicians ‘clowns’ is a disservice to clowns – yes, really

A The Labor Party’s latest campaign mocked short-lived and current Chancellor as clowns, complete with photoshopped red noses, colorful wigs and oversized bow ties. This ad echoed years of similar criticism of former prime ministers Boris Johnson and former Donald Trump.

These are decidedly undeserved and derogatory representations – but not of the politicians.

It may surprise some to know that clowns have a long history of contributing positively to politics and society. They have brought disruption, disruption, comfort and joy to healthcare, education and humanitarian efforts.

Earlier this year, clowns took in refugees at the border with and when they overtook theirs war torn home. These clowns, from Dream doctor project, is part of a longer tradition of clowns in the medical domain. The front of a 1908 edition by the French magazine Le Petit Journal showed clowns entertaining children in a London hospital ward.

The Gesundheit! Initiate, founded by physician and clown activist Patch Adams, uses clowning to promote holistic health care models around the world. The volunteer clowns involved see themselves as social activists. They are in good company with other, more politically motivated activist clowns such as Secret rebel clown army. This group rose to prominence in protest against the war in , reaching a zenith at the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland in 2005, armed with dusters and water guns, camouflage gear and red noses.

Clowns and jesters have also contributed to some of the oldest institutions of learning. There is evidence that “Mr Tripos”, a satirical jester-examiner, would sit on a three-legged stool during early Cambridge oral examinations in the 15th and 16th centuries and would question the candidate, often through ridicule. Over time, Mr. Tripos evolved into an entertainer rather than an examiner, introducing a level of subversion and ribaldry to these formal proceedings.

Court jester

Some of the most influential clowns in history have been the jesters who spoke truth to power. In the royal courts of the and the Renaissance, their role was primarily to amuse and entertain, but in Europe and elsewhere in the world, jesters would also challenge monarchs and hold them to account while distracting the nobility from the monarch’s failings.

Will Somers, one of Henry VIII’s favorite jesters, was a commoner elevated to the royal court and crossed those lines as only a jester or fool could. He was known for his discretion but also his integrity. One anonymous 17th-century cinema writes that he would “tell the truth… to shame the devil”.

Jesters also maintained peace in society by preventing the missteps of the ruler.

In , when Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BCE) had completed the unification of the many state walls into one Great Wall, he decided that it would benefit from a coat of paint. It was just his prankster Yu Sze who managed to prevent this project and save the many lives it would have cost.

In southern India, Tenali Rama, jester and adviser to the court of Emperor Krishnadevaraya, who ruled the Vijayanagar Empire from 1509 to 1529, prevented the social unrest that would have arisen through the controversial promotion of a barber to the high Brahmin caste. This is just one version of a story about one of his many deeds, which are now the subject of children’s books and cartoons.

Send in the clowns

There is in no way a demand for a true “coulrocracy” (rule by clowns), not even a clown minister – although a jester in the Houses of Parliament would be very welcome. But perhaps what has been missing from our political processes is the voice of mockery and reality that clowns and jesters provide, grounding our decision makers and preventing their biggest misjudgments.

We have the satirists of the modern media but these are out of court. They shout and hurl epithets from the outside rather than challenge and question from within. People in power would do well to embody a clown spirit and practice clown principles.

In a recent studyour research team investigated how the idea of ​​”groupthink” (the desire for conformity and compliance leading to poor decision-making) has been blamed for incidents including the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Challenger shuttle disaster, and Covid-19 pandemic.

Together with clown trainers Andrea Jiminezwe developed a set of clowning routines to help organizations challenge the characteristics of groupthink – invulnerability, fear, and moral and intellectual righteousness.

For those who find themselves reluctant to commit to clown training, there are many great clowns to learn humility from. Humanitarian Teddy Bear Laanelahimself a good clown, founded the Swedish department for Clowns without borders. In his Clown Manifesto, he lays out principles that would serve well as moral guidelines for those seeking public office. Among his ten commandments, he says the clown’s role is to “comfort the disturbed, disturb the comfortable”, “connect with your audience”, and most importantly, to “be real”.

In our politically turbulent era, when people have lost faith in their leaders and are dissatisfied with democracy, it may be time to send the clowns in – not send them away. Let’s just hope that after so many years of misrepresentation they still want to play with us.

Author: Sean McCusker – Associate Professor of Education, Northumbria University, Newcastle The conversation


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