The Benign Violation Theory

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Elias Shammas Mar 15, 2014 The Benign Violation Theory

Humor is one of the oldest forms of human interaction and it predates human civilization as a means of communication. Humor is understood by our minds and triggers a response called laughter. This response is very beneficial to our health and is known to lengthen life expectancy among other things. Laughter has directly led to the enormous success of comedy and comedians over the past centuries as they strived to trigger that response for their own economic gain. Comedians though have also always faced a difficulty. Many have struggled to stay on the line that separates the humorous from the inhumane. One of the most notable examples of this is Andrew Dice Clay who never recovered
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Firstly it has to be benign and pose no threat to the individual. Secondly, it has to be a violation of a way we think the world ought to be. Thirdly, it has to be both benign and a violation simultaneously. This theory explains why tickling for example incites laughter. When someone is tickled his personal space is violated and his body responds to it as an attack. Since this is a mock attack it is benign and thus poses little to no threat to the individual himself. As a result we find it humorous and begin laughing. Consequently, someone cannot tickle himself because there is simply no violation there. However, a stranger tickling you is not considered funny because there is nothing benign about that situation. It elucidates why we find humor in puns which are violations of linguistic norms that pose no threat to us. Hence if something is offensive, it is solely a violation and makes the person who is offended feel threatened. An instance of this is when a comedian insults a member of the audience during a performance. The rest of the audience will laugh because while insulting the audience is a violation of presentational norms, they themselves are not being embarrassed as a result of this violation and therefore find it benign. The audience member who is being insulted will in most cases find offense with the comedian because the situation could lead to his…show more content…
We can limit this response by making these situations benign. An example of this is the following joke: “ How many cops does it take to push a black man down the stairs? None... he fell.” The first statement reminds us of police brutality against African Americans and thus is a violation of the way that we think the world ought to be, while the second lightens the mood and makes the situation benign. Therefore in order to be humorous during blatantly offensive situations, one must find a means to make the situation less threatening to the individual. This can be done by creating distance between the audience and the violation, which explains why the death of Alan Pinkerton (the inspector who caught John Wikes Booth) as a result of biting his own tongue is comedic to someone hearing about it 150 years later. That same situation though would not be nearly as benign if it had happened more recently to a celebrity who is well known and admired or to a close friend. In that case the response would be one derived from sadness and not
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