“The most powerful mental tyranny in what we call the free world is political correctness, which is both immediately and evidently observable everywhere, as well as invisible, like a poisonous gas, as its influences are often distant from the originating source, manifesting as a widespread intolerance (…) The submission to the new creed would not have occurred so swiftly and deeply if the rigidity of communism had not permeated the educated classes everywhere, for one did not have to be a communist to absorb the imperative to control and limit: mentalities had already been widely exposed to the idea that free thought and creative arts should submit to the high authorities of politics.”
Doris Lessing, “Censorship and the Climate of Opinion,” preface to Censorship: A World Encyclopedia, 2001.
The Canal Hipócritas (“Hypocrites Channel”), a comedy group that publishes its videos on YouTube, recently released their new production. In the sketch, an employee of the new political regime that has befallen the country inspects a residence in search of “fake news” and subversive messages circulated in private family groups. After being presented with a long list of names and topics prohibited by the morality police, the monitored citizen finally receives the messages they are authorized to pass on immediately. These messages are: “Good morning, Janja,” “Good night, Bonner,” and “Thank you, Supreme Court.”
In the face of the contemporary national situation, it is noteworthy the irreverence with which the Hipócritas group dares to continue confronting the autocrats of the regime. Especially because the comedians are well aware that the joke they tell today may become a grim reality the very next day. In fact, this has already happened to them when the group, originally composed of three members, was reduced to two. It should be remembered that Bismark Fugazza, one of the founders of the channel, is currently imprisoned by the order of Alexandre de Moraes, accused of “attempting against democracy,” in one of the many politically motivated arrests that, using methods typical of Stalinism, have become common in present-day Brazil.
Indeed, laughter has been on the decline in the country, at least since the new head of state sanctioned Law 14.532 on January 11, 2023, tellingly nicknamed the “Anti-Laughter Law,” which equated racial insult with the crime of racism. Clearly targeting the free exercise of humor, the law specifically determines that if the alleged act of racism occurs within the context of artistic or cultural activities intended for the public, the author of the criminal joke should be prohibited from attending such venues for three years, condemning them to exile and social pariah status.
A few months after this authoritarian aberration was enacted, the revolutionary social justice warriors entrenched in the legal world wasted no time in taking action. That is exactly what just happened to comedian Léo Lins, who was forced by a judge in São Paulo, acting upon a request from the State Prosecutor’s Office, to remove a comedy special from YouTube that had garnered over 3 million views. According to the prosecution’s argument, the comedian was “reproducing speeches and positions that are currently repudiated.”
It is evident that the hypothesis that the public should be free to decide on any potential repudiation or on the socially critical function of humor no longer even crosses the minds of the Brazilian Jacobins in judicial robes, who proclaim themselves as guardians of the Republic of Virtue. The spirit of our justice institutions is now inspired by the current Minister of Justice and Public Security, who has decreed the end of the era of freedom of expression as an absolute value in Brazil. And, truth be told, it would be strange for a die-hard Stalinist to argue otherwise. Nothing is surprising there. The real failure lies with the country that allows a Bolshevik to hold the reins of justice, defining laws and regulations based on their partisan project of power to which everyone will be subjected.
But let’s return to the case of Léo Lins. According to an article in Oeste, the judiciary (or what is now understood as such) went far beyond just censoring his content. “In addition to ordering the removal of the video from YouTube, the judge also delved into the content of the jokes that Lins can tell. She prohibited the comedian from publishing, transmitting, or even keeping any files on his devices ‘with depreciating or humiliating content based on race, color, ethnicity, religion, culture, national or regional origin, sexual orientation or gender, disability or elderly status, children, adolescents, women, or any category considered as a minority or vulnerable.’ The decision also obliges Lins to remove any jokes mentioning these groups from all his internet channels and prohibits him from mentioning them in future stand-up performances — the so-called prior censorship.”
Perhaps many in Brazil have not yet realized how far we have advanced in just a few years towards the most paradigmatic totalitarian regimes of the past centuries. It is known that the prohibition of humor — or rather, its replacement with permitted and reverent humor towards those in power — is the trademark of dictatorships. In fact, just a few days ago, I reread a masterful book by historian and economist Mark Harrison titled “One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Life Under the Soviet Police State,” published in 2016 by the Hoover Institution Press.
The author was one of the first intellectuals in the West to have access to the official Soviet archives after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. He used this material to analyze four decades of totalitarianism, based on the study of seven individual cases of victims of the secret police. Throughout the considered period, it is shown how, although progressively becoming more sophisticated, the police state maintained its general lines of operation. Drawing from the individual cases as documented in the archives, Harrison extracts the basic principles upon which the secret police operated during their history, from the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Among these principles, one stands out, precisely the one that the author names “Stop the Laughter.” Harrison begins by noting that it is a universal human characteristic to have a need for laughter, entertainment, the ability to forget problems, and to put concerns into perspective. There is, therefore, a demand for laughter, and those who provide it are usually rewarded according to a fundamental law of the market. For the same reason, laughter is essentially a social phenomenon. If I make a joke and someone laughs, we immediately share something intimate—our sense of humor. As a social phenomenon, humor often takes sides in society. Therefore, it is not neutral, and it is not always polite. We laugh with our friends, but we also laugh at those who harm us.
Regarding politics, it is commonly said that a regime becomes weakened when its comical or ridiculous side is exposed. George Orwell even suggested that “every joke is a tiny revolution,” which, according to my own formulation, explains why totalitarian regimes have such a horror of humor, forcing us all to treat the ridiculous with reverence. For some, humor is the weapon of those who have no weapons. In any case, there is a perspective from which this theoretical debate is irrelevant. And that is the perspective of the secret police.
As Harrison explains, it is not so much the fact that sharing a joke is a form of release. The essential point is that humor functions as a medium of exchange, a currency: it allows people to share sentiments. It is not the joke itself that is disconcerting. From the perspective of the secret police, the danger lies in the audience that laughs in response to it. If I tell a joke and someone laughs, it tells me something that I may not have known beforehand: that they think like me, that I am not alone.
In other words, if I tell you a joke, the danger does not lie in the joke itself, but in the act of sharing. I am sharing something with the other person, who shares their response with me, and the result is the formation of an illicit bond, so to speak, a clandestine network of humor consumers and providers. This network has no official membership records, authorized formal structure by the party, or special forum in which party members can exercise leadership. Hence its suspicious nature, which requires investigation and, ultimately, repression.
That’s right. Everyone needs to laugh. But you must not laugh at the system, the ruling party, its leaders, its police agents, and all the offended groups that the regime allegedly claims to represent, with the regime itself being the prototype of victimhood. These jokes are the flame that warms and brings people together. The audience that laughs at these jokes is a symbol of a communion around a collective heart that beats, which is why it should not exist and should not be tolerated. That is why, when Brazil reeks of the Soviet-style police state, the new “Anti-Laughter Law” specifically targets spaces of sociability for humor. These havens, immune to the regime’s obsessive political moralism, allow individuals to share the gift of laughter, thereby becoming more and more human, much to the horror of the architects of dehumanization.