Violation as a Form of Humor

A post about sarcasm, play-acting, and consent.

Let me illustrate what the title is describing, first.

There’s this thing that I’ve done, that I picked up from other people, where I’ll respond to what I agree is a valid criticism of me by pretending to be irritated and insulted, as a way of conveying that I agree it’s a valid criticism of me.  More specifically: I have a designated facial expression and special inflection for saying the words “Shut up” as a way of communicating “Yeah, that’s a good point, you got me there.”  Here’s how this might play out, for instance:

Me: I don’t like it when people pat themselves on the back.  I don’t like to do that kind of thing, myself.  I’m pretty good about that, actually.  I’m a very modest, humble person.  I’m not the type to brag, you know?

You: Aren’t you bragging right now, though?

Me: ….Shut up.

I like to think it’s pretty clear when I’m doing this (versus actually commanding someone to shut up), but I’d make efforts to clarify if it weren’t.  I also don’t think I’d use this joke with someone I don’t already have some established degree of camaraderie with, either.  I wouldn’t want to accidentally scare or upset someone with it.

Here’s another illustration.

Sometimes, the people in my family will make joking commentary about the emotional state of our cats: when one of them is purring and kneading with half-closed eyes, or otherwise displaying obvious happy-cat body language, one of us (my father especially) might croon, “Aw, she’s hatin’ it.”

The humor in the statement comes from the fact that it’s very clearly not the case.

In both of these examples, the joke is created by pretending that someone is in a situation they don’t want to be in or that something is being done to them that they don’t want done to them (when that’s not true).  In other words, it’s feigning violation as a form of humor.

People do this sort of thing with sarcasm a lot.  For the most part I’d say it’s pretty morally-neutral.

In the first case, I’m okay with it because it’s a way for me to be playfully self-depreciating.  In the second case, I’m okay with it because we can tell the cat is very happy, and because cats can’t understand English anyway.  There’s not a whole lot of potential for harm there.

But I’m also very wary of this form of humor, I get nervous around people who sling it around without being careful with it, and I have been hurt by it before.

For example, take a “misunderstanding” I had with the Ex-Friend.  I don’t know how much of a genuine misunderstanding it was, just how it turned out by the end.

He used a phrase at me that I have a strong aversion to hearing, so I told him not to tell me that.  He responded by… continuing to direct the phrase at me, because he figured my “don’t do that” was a joking kind of “don’t do that.”  And the more I insisted, the more he figured that the intensity of my dissent had to be a joke because to him it seemed ridiculous.

This escalated until I had to practically blow up at him in order for him to realize that, no, I was actually angry at that point.  He had assumed (?) that I had cued him to play a humorous-violation game, and he was wrong.

One of the things he mentioned, as an explanation for his actions, was that he and his other friends often repeat this same particular phrase to each other as part of a game.  Presumably, he was aiming to replicate something like this game with me, a game that involves giving insincere orders as an element of play, even though I had never played this game with him and that group of friends before and hadn’t even heard of anything like this prior to this point.  Yet he figured he could just treat a “don’t do that” as insincere by default, presumably because he was accustomed to these violation games, and because he acted like “don’t do that” responses need to be about certain pre-approved, sensible things to dissent to in order to be respected accordingly.

I was horrified.

Not because his friends play wierd games (which is whatever) but because he had jumped to the conclusion that we were playing some kind of sarcastic game without considering, in advance, that I might not want to, or providing any means for me to avoid or quit the game.  Instead, he just decided that the possibility of what I was saying not being sarcastically-expressed consent was just too “ridiculous” to be plausible.

It made me feel very unsafe with him.

This was from a guy who really talked the talk when it came to “consent” & physical touch, by the way.  He was great about that, even for the smallest things, when it came to touch, even when it came to just leaning on each others’ shoulders while we were on the couch.  Maybe that’s why I was so patient with him.

Anyway, because of junk like this, violation as a form of humor can make me very nervous.  Especially if I don’t see a “way out” provided or made space for in any way.

But as someone who uses it myself, in some ways, I don’t condemn it entirely.  I think it’s something to be careful with, and to be ready to pull back from or clarify at a moment’s notice.  As long as everyone’s on the same page, I think it can be innocent and funny.

That’s why, to some extent, I understand playing with feigned-violation.  And that doesn’t change the fact that I’m very wary and suspicious of it, and that I think consent is sometimes insufficient for acceptability, and that potential for pleasure doesn’t erase or override potential for harm.

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