British comedian and activist Kate Smurthwaite talks to Green Left about her latest show at the Perth Fringe Festival (coming also to Hobart and Adelaide).
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What’s the intersection between comedy and activism — if you believe there is one?
For me, comedy and activism are absolutely linked — which doesn’t mean that they have to be for everyone — I have no problem with someone who chooses to do something “clowny” and surreal and everything else.
But firstly, there is very clear evidence that — and this might seem terrifying — that jokes change people’s minds more effectively than facts do.
There is a major piece of research out of the US that about 10–15 years ago showed exactly this. They told some people some quite sexist jokes and they gave some other people some sort of “sexist facts” and then they asked them for their opinions about gender issues all over again. And guess what — the ones who had heard the jokes, their opinions had shifted. And if it can be used for evil, then it can be used for good.
When we’re all laughing together about something we’re kind of laughing together and that sweeps our opinion along in a way that a stiff lecture wouldn’t do.
What message are you trying to get across with your comedy?
I talk in my show about five main issues ... the environment and the climate emergency ... war ... the cost of living crisis ... and the aftermath of the pandemic, which is still ongoing ... and then I talk about the fifth horseman of the apocalypse ... the media ... We hear so much about the three words Prince Harry said and so little about the next extinction wave and how it is going to potentially make the entire planet uninhabitable.
You work a lot with refugees, can you tell us about that?
[In Britain] we’ve just embarked on this policy of exporting refugees to Rwanda and it’s absolutely frightening, but it must be said that up until this point, we’ve already had a horrific situation in terms of the treatment of refugees.
Going back about 15 years ago, one of the things we did for refugees was we gave them English lessons, because — magically enough — we thought that they would cope better and integrate into our society better if they understood the language.
We scrapped that program under Tony Blair and at exactly the same time I heard about a group of women refugees who were looking for support as they’d just lost their English lessons. And I said ‘I’ll do it’. I have no English teaching qualifications, but I put my hand up and I ended up then replacing myself with much better qualified English teachers, but I stayed friends with these women from — mostly — different parts of Africa — Congo and Cameroon.
And I started running my own self-run thing, just taking people out for the day.
We talk a lot about [refugees’] right to a safe place to stay, to a passport and visa status, and the right to work ... but this is life and one of the things [they’re] also entitled to is a day off. And through that, I have gotten to know and feel very strongly about the situation in the UK, and it's horrific and it's only getting worse.
And unfortunately Australia is absolutely at the forefront of showing us how badly it could be done.
But in some other ways, you have some policies that are more progressive than the UK ... first of all your minimum wage is much higher and secondly you have this casual loading on the minimum wage, where if you’re offering insecure work you have to pay a little bit more for it. In the UK we have this “zero hours” contracts situation, where people are being given work contracts and they are on no pre-offered hours. You’ve got this contract and each week you find out whether or not you’ve got any work.
Can you talk about the strike wave in Britain?
The right is in charge and we have a deeply flawed electoral system and a hugely biased media, and they have a lot of power and it's going to be quite a while until that shifts.
The truth is ... that 60% of the inflation that we’re currently experiencing in the UK is explained by increased corporate profits.
In the UK our government has allowed the energy companies to double and treble our prices, whereas in France they limited the increase to 4%.
Our pension age is now 66, going up to 67, 68. In France, they’re trying to move it from 62 to 64 and they are rioting in the streets. We have to take these matters into our own hands. And right now, I’m delighted to say, we have the biggest wave of strikes that the UK has ever seen.
We talk about huge strike waves that took place in the 1970s ... but right now the train workers are out, the postal workers have been out, nurses are out, teachers are out ... big industry, big chunks of our society, big sectors are out and we’ve even got Amazon workers coming out ... the corporate sectors ... physiotherapists ... doctors ... we’re even talking about solidarity strikes.
[Watch the full interview at greenleft.org.au.]