Benign Violation Theory: An Explanation for 'Pocahontas' Outrage

When I was six years old and my brother was eight, each of us was given a quarter to spend in a candy store before seeing a movie.  I thought my quarter was a fortune, but not so my brother.  The third-grader was unhappy with the quantity of popcorn he could get for his coin and complained to the shopkeeper.  The impatient shopkeeper asked my brother, "What do you want for 25 cents, the Brooklyn Bridge?"  My brother said, "Yeah, ya got any in stock?"

This exchange happened in the late 1950s on Staten Island.  The TV show Impractical Jokers is also a creation of Staten Islanders: four guys who stage embarrassing hidden camera pranks around New York City.  It is no coincidence that this show features New Yorkers pulling weird, sometimes humiliating and disgusting pranks on other New Yorkers.  It's the only place they could get away with it.  Humor, sarcasm, laughing at yourself and others, acerbic name-calling, and "ranking out" are essential coping mechanisms for life in New York – especially so for the mensches, the real people in the streets, stores, and neighborhoods.

New Yorkers have what psychologists call a large capacity for benign violation.  In other words, they can take it, and they can dish it out, too.  When the New Insensitive Male in the White House calls the identity-hoaxer Senator Elizabeth Warren "Pocahontas" – punctuated by adding that the only apology he makes is to the real Pocahontas for comparing her to goofy Liz – Trump is being an archetypal guy from Queens. He is deploying humorous mockery, a powerful coping mechanism in conflict situations, which, like my brother, he learned to use as a child.

President Trump is liberating Americans from the mental prison of political correctness and allowing them to laugh again.  But the sourpuss left wing doesn't get the joke.  On the contrary, left-wing media are all panty-wadded about Trump's Pocahontas jibe, and of course, they are wailing about racism.  Senator Warren herself wrote that Trump showed "the very worst of gutter politics."  The senator thinks nothing in politics could be worse than her being called a sarcastic name?  She must consider herself a supremely important person.

Psychologists have advanced many theories to understand the dynamics of humor and what makes people laugh.  Benign violation theory is a recent addition to this literature by Caleb Warren and A. Peter McGraw.  It is particularly robust in explaining why many people find Trump's Pocahontas moniker amusing while others are greatly offended.  Benign violation theory posits that humor is experienced when a circumstance is simultaneously perceived as a violation but also as being benign.  Most violations do not amuse, but a violation that is perceived as OK, acceptable, or safe produces amusement and laughter.  The theory explains that major forms of humor such as puns, sarcasm, punch lines, practical jokes, slapstick, and horseplay make people laugh because they involve violations of linguistic, physical, or cultural conventions ("Take my wife – no, please, take her.") yet at the same time are benign and therefore acceptable to the recipient of the humorous attempt.

Because sarcasm involves saying one thing but meaning the opposite, it violates conversational norms of meaning.  When it is perceived as safe, such as the proverbial sale of the Brooklyn bridge, it can be funny.  Trump gives Senator Warren the name of a Powhatan Indian princess who died in 1617 because he believes that the senator is not an American Indian as she has claimed to be.  The senator and others of the far left not only don't find the sarcasm amusing, but splutter that it is a racist outrage.  BVT theory neatly accounts for this: "Sarcasm isn't funny to people who don't detect the speaker's true intention.  Nor is it funny to people who don't approve of the speaker's true intention."

The left wing strongly disapproves of the president's intention to call out Senator Warren's hoax.  This is because classical liberalism is gone, replaced by dogma focused on oppressions of the distant past and sustained by bitter delusions that seek the worst in the human heart – politics founded upon the purported original and eternal sin of American white racism.  The priestcraft of the cult that replaced liberalism is driven by an obsessive search for innovative examples of white racism to confirm itself, enlarging upon loony white privilege theory and sniffing around every sombrero for signs of "cultural appropriation."  This season's fashion-forward term on the bigotry runways is "white supremacy."  Regarding the knee-jerk outrage at the president's jokes, blind dogmatists are not known for their sense of humor.

Trump's humor will prevail against the left's addiction to racism-spotting because his sarcasm is benign to people who love America as she is.  Calling Warren Pocahontas resonates with the wish of Americans for the restoration of a meritocracy and equal opportunity in academia.  In her (unsuccessful) outrage, Senator Warren is hoping that people who really are of American Indian ancestry will continue to burn in the long banked fires of historic victimization.  But she is also stoking a non-benign attitude toward America.  Leftists can't laugh at themselves or anything else anymore, and everybody needs a good laugh sometimes.

When I was six years old and my brother was eight, each of us was given a quarter to spend in a candy store before seeing a movie.  I thought my quarter was a fortune, but not so my brother.  The third-grader was unhappy with the quantity of popcorn he could get for his coin and complained to the shopkeeper.  The impatient shopkeeper asked my brother, "What do you want for 25 cents, the Brooklyn Bridge?"  My brother said, "Yeah, ya got any in stock?"

This exchange happened in the late 1950s on Staten Island.  The TV show Impractical Jokers is also a creation of Staten Islanders: four guys who stage embarrassing hidden camera pranks around New York City.  It is no coincidence that this show features New Yorkers pulling weird, sometimes humiliating and disgusting pranks on other New Yorkers.  It's the only place they could get away with it.  Humor, sarcasm, laughing at yourself and others, acerbic name-calling, and "ranking out" are essential coping mechanisms for life in New York – especially so for the mensches, the real people in the streets, stores, and neighborhoods.

New Yorkers have what psychologists call a large capacity for benign violation.  In other words, they can take it, and they can dish it out, too.  When the New Insensitive Male in the White House calls the identity-hoaxer Senator Elizabeth Warren "Pocahontas" – punctuated by adding that the only apology he makes is to the real Pocahontas for comparing her to goofy Liz – Trump is being an archetypal guy from Queens. He is deploying humorous mockery, a powerful coping mechanism in conflict situations, which, like my brother, he learned to use as a child.

President Trump is liberating Americans from the mental prison of political correctness and allowing them to laugh again.  But the sourpuss left wing doesn't get the joke.  On the contrary, left-wing media are all panty-wadded about Trump's Pocahontas jibe, and of course, they are wailing about racism.  Senator Warren herself wrote that Trump showed "the very worst of gutter politics."  The senator thinks nothing in politics could be worse than her being called a sarcastic name?  She must consider herself a supremely important person.

Psychologists have advanced many theories to understand the dynamics of humor and what makes people laugh.  Benign violation theory is a recent addition to this literature by Caleb Warren and A. Peter McGraw.  It is particularly robust in explaining why many people find Trump's Pocahontas moniker amusing while others are greatly offended.  Benign violation theory posits that humor is experienced when a circumstance is simultaneously perceived as a violation but also as being benign.  Most violations do not amuse, but a violation that is perceived as OK, acceptable, or safe produces amusement and laughter.  The theory explains that major forms of humor such as puns, sarcasm, punch lines, practical jokes, slapstick, and horseplay make people laugh because they involve violations of linguistic, physical, or cultural conventions ("Take my wife – no, please, take her.") yet at the same time are benign and therefore acceptable to the recipient of the humorous attempt.

Because sarcasm involves saying one thing but meaning the opposite, it violates conversational norms of meaning.  When it is perceived as safe, such as the proverbial sale of the Brooklyn bridge, it can be funny.  Trump gives Senator Warren the name of a Powhatan Indian princess who died in 1617 because he believes that the senator is not an American Indian as she has claimed to be.  The senator and others of the far left not only don't find the sarcasm amusing, but splutter that it is a racist outrage.  BVT theory neatly accounts for this: "Sarcasm isn't funny to people who don't detect the speaker's true intention.  Nor is it funny to people who don't approve of the speaker's true intention."

The left wing strongly disapproves of the president's intention to call out Senator Warren's hoax.  This is because classical liberalism is gone, replaced by dogma focused on oppressions of the distant past and sustained by bitter delusions that seek the worst in the human heart – politics founded upon the purported original and eternal sin of American white racism.  The priestcraft of the cult that replaced liberalism is driven by an obsessive search for innovative examples of white racism to confirm itself, enlarging upon loony white privilege theory and sniffing around every sombrero for signs of "cultural appropriation."  This season's fashion-forward term on the bigotry runways is "white supremacy."  Regarding the knee-jerk outrage at the president's jokes, blind dogmatists are not known for their sense of humor.

Trump's humor will prevail against the left's addiction to racism-spotting because his sarcasm is benign to people who love America as she is.  Calling Warren Pocahontas resonates with the wish of Americans for the restoration of a meritocracy and equal opportunity in academia.  In her (unsuccessful) outrage, Senator Warren is hoping that people who really are of American Indian ancestry will continue to burn in the long banked fires of historic victimization.  But she is also stoking a non-benign attitude toward America.  Leftists can't laugh at themselves or anything else anymore, and everybody needs a good laugh sometimes.

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