Humor as a Tool for Social Change

by | Nov 5, 2010 | Uncategorized

Jim Schutze has been writing for the Dallas Observer about every conceivable topic for freakin’ ever, and he’s LMAO funny. Now he asks whether a case can be made for killing the homeless. His article is called “We’ve Banned Their Shopping Carts, Outlawed Panhandling, Provided Homes For The Homeless — And Nothing’s Worked. There May Be One Modest Proposal That Solves The Problem.”

The scene is Dallas, Texas, but the idea could spread. Controversy has been hot in Dallas lately, just like anywhere else that has more than one homeless person per square mile. An institution called The Bridge is operating downtown. Disguised as a homeless services center, it has a hidden, sinister purpose, which Schutze reveals:

The city has been using The Bridge as a kind of training camp to teach the homeless how to pass for home people. Then the city finds them homes.

This is awfully sneaky. If some urbanites can’t tell the difference between the housed and the homeless, how will they know whom to hate? This kind of confusion can only be expected from an administration whose efforts to make a difference have been “stubbornly ineffectual.”

For instance, in 2004, Dallas outlawed shopping carts, and apparently some residents were surprised when that didn’t solve any problems. Those people experiencing homelessness are so cunning and crafty, they just switched to baby carriages. Schutze outlines the only possible conclusion:

The lesson for me has been that the homeless situation is one of those fundamental manifestations of the human condition that can never be ‘solved’ in the sense of making it go away, unless you make the humans go away. Anything short of actually killing the homeless is going to fail to truly resolve the issue…

Schutze does not insist that we decide on the methods right now, but does advise getting good legal advice first. This is, of course, all humor of the darkest kind, and anybody who was paying attention in English class would recognize the genre.

In 1729, when Jonathan Swift anonymously published one of literature’s most famous works of social protest, Ireland had been a land of famine for centuries. It was accepted as historical fact that starving people had sometimes resorted to cannibalism. In Swift’s time, most of what we now know as Ireland was owned by the English absentee landlords, and the Irish were a bunch of subsistence-level serfs.

Swift’s pamphlet was titled “A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the publick.” The word “modest” had a different meaning in those days. It wasn’t a person with low self-esteem saying “Aw, shucks.” A modest proposal would be a simple plan, something easy to do and not likely to meet with objections.

Oddly, it is an American who suggests to the author that a one-year-old child is “a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome Food, whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked or Boyled.” The whole thing is pretty outrageous, as humor generally is when used as a weapon. There is a lot more about Swift’s famous satire in this study guide written by Andrew Moore.

Homeless activists have employed humor as a tool in many times and places. In Looking Up at the Bottom Line, Richard R. Troxell recalls the time in Austin when a group took a gosling named Homer as a hostage, and threatened to kill and eat the baby goose unless the city would allow a legal camp ground. People working for change, such as a living wage, often find they can have a little fun at the same time.

“Humor as a Tool” Bonus: a few panels by homeless cartoonist Ace Backwords of Berkeley, California.


Source: “We’ve Banned Their Shopping Carts, Outlawed Panhandling, Provided Homes For The Homeless — And Nothing’s Worked. There May Be One Modest Proposal That Solves The Problem,” Dallas Observer, 09/02/10
Source: “A Modest Proposal — study guide,” Teachit, 2002
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,”
Image by jswieringa, used under its Creative Commons license.