When they smile

How do these theories explain why Palestinians smile when they are getting arrested by Israeli forces?
A teenage boy smiles at the camera, his hands zip tied in front of him, two armed Border Police behind him and two armed police in front of him, one holding his arm.
A Palestinian boy smiles while being arrested by Israeli authorities

Have you ever been in a difficult, sad, or traumatizing moment and your first reaction is to smile or burst into laughter? You are neither alone nor crazy; a smile can be a stress reaction, and there are psychological and contextual explanations for this human experience.

Palestinians are often photographed or filmed smiling while the Israeli occupation forces arrest, beat, and imprison them. This reaction is often unexpected and misinterpreted by the occupation soldiers, the media, and viewers worldwide.

Why do we smile when scared? Several psychological theories speak to smiling, laughing, and the use of humour during a challenging time:

The Superiority Theory:

As David Munroe observed, “according to any superiority theory of humour, the laughter always looks down on whatever he laughs at, and so judges it inferior by some standard.”[1] In other words, people use humour or smiling and laughter to debase something or somebody.

The Incongruity Theory:

Psychologists explain this theory as “a relationship of nonconformity between the individual and the world,”[2] simply meaning when an event, action or reaction doesn’t conform with our expectations.

The Relief Theory:

This theory focuses on laughter as a form of muscular excitement. It illustrates the general law that when emotions reach a certain level of excitement, they almost always express themselves in bodily action.[3] Your body uses this instinctual mechanism to regulate emotion or defend against feelings that may make us feel weak or vulnerable.

So, in a stressful and traumatizing situation, maybe we have no option but to smile or laugh as a physiological and instinctual response? Who identifies what is superior? Who holds the power? And can smiling be a tool of resistance?

Most of the psychological theories above are missing contextual aspects of a situation. How do these theories explain why Palestinians smile when they are getting arrested by Israeli forces?

Based on racist stereotypes about Palestinians, some interpret their smiles as a terrorist trait, their smiles attributed to joy at the expense of Jewish suffering. This is not true; Palestinians smile while being arrested because they have nothing left to take control of their lives but this smile.

Every time a Palestinian is arrested, more than six Israeli border police are present during the arrest. Every time the Israeli government bombards Gaza, no one is safe. Every time there is an eviction, a Palestinian needs to go through the Israeli legal courts.

During these traumatizing events, this smile can mean different things: “ I need to decrease my stress,” “I can’t show them my weakness,” “I am strong,” “I will not obey or conform to the stereotype of being a victim,” or “It is my right to be here, my smile means I will always be strong.”

They smile while being oppressed, arrested, and denied their human rights every day. This smile proves the inferiority of every act committed by the oppressor. If a smile can break the fragility of Israeli soldiers, border police and settlers, the moral power remains with the Palestinians.

Finally, this smile means Palestinians do not only exist but resist day in and day out, and their smile is a form of it.

[1] https://academic.oup.com/jaac/article/74/4/347/5981167

[2] https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/196519351.pdf

[3] https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1412574.pdf

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