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Next: Conclusion Up: A Theory of Humor Previous: Social/communicational aspects


The previous section began to explore how people that understand the import of each others' laughter arrive at an understanding of the appropriate communicative impact of laughter. In this section, the same method is applied to the wider problem of figuring out why others laugh at jokes or situations that don't seem funny, or why they don't laugh at situations that do seem funny. I hope that not only will the theory be seen as theoretically interesting, for its ability to explain how people are able to communicate with each other using laughter, but also its practical significance will be appreciated and made use of - because people in situations where they don't understand why other people are or are not laughing can use the theory to figure out what is in their minds.

Again, the idea is simply that one must try to discover the principle being violated, or the interpretation under which the situation might seem normal. If things otherwise seem normal in a situation in which another laughs, but if a violation that has no emotional impact to the observer is at least identifiable, then the theory suggests that if that violation is the key to the laugher's perception of humor, then they have a moral and emotional commitment to the principle violated: they care about it. Understanding just this is enough to understand the person's feelings in the situation. And following this rule is enough, in many cases, to allow one to determine what is being laughed at.

The opposite direction of inference holds with equal validity: In a terrible situation, if someone laughs incomprehensibly, it may be inferred that they hold some interpretation in which the situation is normal, and this clue may be used to explore what that interpretation might be. Perhaps, for example, they don't or can't believe the violation really occurred.

In many practical situations, however, due to what seems a pervasive attraction of feeling morally indignant, people may often be unlikely to want to understand other's acceptance of the situation as normal when they see only a moral violation in it. Moral indignation may limit the practical applicability of the theory in some situations, since if one is indignant about the violation in a situation then one is not interested in looking for a way to see it as normal or acceptable. Nonetheless, the present theory provides a powerful and fine-grained diagnostic tool for discovering the emotional and moral commitments that people have:15 if you think everything is normal in some situation, then simply consider what principles are being violated when someone laughs at it.

Consider a personal example. I was once driving my car with my friend, C, in the passenger seat, and at some point when C was watching me, I had a little fun by holding the steering wheel motionless with my knee and moving my hands, hand-over-hand, around the steering wheel, as though making a turn in the middle of a straight highway. The apparent violation of normal safe driving procedures was obvious enough (V), while the knee on the wheel and the continuing straight tracking of the car made it quite safe (N) despite the appearance of unsafe driving. Thus the simultaneous N and V interpretations were available to sponsor my mischievous laughter. C was not amused, however, and said nothing. Because I had called attention to my hand movements by smiling mischievously and making eye contact, it was clearly wrong to interpret her lack of response as due to a failure to see the violation in the situation. Consequently, I inferred that she failed to see an N interpretation despite evidence that the violation was unreal and the situation was actually quite safe. Evidently (by Table 1) she was so emotionally committed to the principle being apparently violated (safe driving, in this instance) that detachment from it, sufficient to see the situation as actually normal and safe, was impossible, and thus humor was impossible.

To make sense of this, I inferred further that she must have had some experience in which the importance of safe driving was driven home very powerfully, and so I guessed, asking ``Have you been in an accident recently?'' In fact she had been in two accidents in the previous year. It is evident that that experience had made C take the principles of safe driving very seriously, so that she was threatened, not amused, by the appearance of unsafe driving. So while on the one hand I might have had sensitivity, instead I was armed merely with the present theory of humor, and this provided enough of a clue, in the context, to figure out why my attempt to share humor didn't work.

To summarize, if you laugh and someone else doesn't, consider which condition is absent in the context: N, V, or their simultaneous juxtaposition. Conversely, if someone else laughs and you don't get it, look for something in the situation which could involve a violation of something they care about, and infer that they do. In this way, this theory of humor may be used to penetrate to surprising depths into the different worlds of moral and emotional attachments of individuals, groups, and cultures.

next up previous
Next: Conclusion Up: A Theory of Humor Previous: Social/communicational aspects
Tom Veatch