On clowns

Hi there, dear reader!

I’ve been trying to make time to explore what I’m calling ‘ultimate contradiction’ on this blog, but I last wrote about Jeremy Corbyn and I’m gonna sidetrack again to write briefly about…clowns!

My 11 year-old daughter has just started secondary school. Apparently, the phenomenon of (mostly) young people dressing up as macabre, evil clowns in order to scare people has been a central topic of conversation around her school. This trend started in the US and has spread to the UK.

I want to think about what this phenomenon might signify. I’ll argue that it expresses deep-rooted feelings of fear and powerlessness in our society. I’ll contrast this evil clown phenomenon with the amazing Clowns Without Borders, a group of talented clowns who bring laughter and love to children and grown-ups alike suffering deep trauma in places like slums, disaster zones, war zones, and refugee camps. I’ll conclude by arguing that the evil clown phenomenon expresses a concentrated social fear and that its timing is not surprising, coming as it does in this time of crisis, catastrophe, and breakdown. But, as Clowns Without Borders show us, the only way forward is an embrace not of fear, but of love.

On evil clowns

I’m not going to give these odd characters dressing up like murderous clowns the air of publicity by linking to them. Suffice to say that the phenomenon involves people dressing up as evil clowns and stalking other people, sometimes young children. Mostly, they just stalk from afar. Sometimes, they chase others.

What does this phenomenon represent? I think it represents the current deep state of fear in our species inherent in our societies, in our personal and collective hearts and minds. What is the clown turned evil? It is the death of childhood: of innocence, of laughter; of wonder, of faith, of magic.  It is the triumph of the nightmare over the dream. The historical character of the clown, the jester, the joker is also the character who is able to poke fun at and speak truth to power. By lampooning the powerful – the king, the president, authority – s/he is the character who suggests that the status quo of domination and exploitation is unjust, grotesque, and illegitimate. Perhaps s/he was mostly just a pressure valve, but she was a source of hope. The rise of the evil clown, then, is the death of hope – the triumph of cynicism over utopianism. Above all, the evil clown is a concentrated, pure expression of fear. We are scared: we are scared of each other and we are scared of ourselves – as individuals, as societies, as a species.

On loving clowns

Clowns Without Borders was founded in 1993 by Spanish clown Tortell Poltrona as an organisation whose aim was to  use ‘humor as a means of psychological support to communities that have suffered trauma.’

CWB now have projects in dozens of countries. I met a CWB clown, Clay Mazing, in Aarhus, Denmark back in April this year. He had just been to the Greek island of Lesvos to perform for Syrian and other refugees there.

The situation that these clowns confront is, of course, one of profound stress, anxiety, uncertainty, illness and death. Aid workers and volunteers are there to provide material support. Clowns are there to bring relief, bring hope, bring love, bring people together through laughter. It may be a momentary respite from refugees’ trauma, but it seems to give parents such solace to see their children smiling and laughing even just for a while.

Clowns Without Borders are the very opposites of the evil clowns. They are clowns pointing us towards a brighter future for our species: a future of hope, of dreams, of laughter, of sharing, of unconditional love. They are courageous, loving clowns.

On loving evil clowns

How should we respond to evil clowns? How should we respond to fear? We should face our fears. We should face our evil clowns. But, we shouldn’t attack them. Let’s try to empathise. What kind of mental and social state would a person probably be in to do such a thing? Probably a painful one, one where s/he feels a distinct lack of power over her life; one where s/he herself feels fearful and hopeless; one where s/he herself has experienced violence. In short, evil clowns are just people experiencing more pronounced forms of the kinds of experiences and feelings we all have.

If you see an evil clown and feel a genuine sense of personal threat, run away. But, if you don’t then perhaps just a smile and a kind word might be the best response! Only by facing our fears can we, do we start to see hope.

On the contested symbolism of the clown

It’s crucial to recognise that both the persona of the evil clown and the people dressing up as evil clowns are us. They are in and of our society. They have social meaning. We have to recognise them, confront them, accept them, love them, overcome them. Everything in our culture, every symbol, has meaning. In fact, it has multiple and contradictory meanings and the power to determine which meanings dominate and shape our interpretations is a political power. There’s a reason why we’re hearing about evil clowns and not about loving clowns in our media.

So, the persona of the clown can mean various, contradictory things. The clown here is a symbol of fear (leading to hatred, violence, and separation) and a symbol of unconditional love (leading to unity). Let’s create a society in which the evil clown can be empowered to transform her/himself into the loving clown.

Cheers for reading!

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