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Humor: A Veil for Verbal Violence

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #14 (November 1975)

Recently, I went to a local theatre to see two Marx Brothers movies. Having seen several of their comedies as a boy and remembering them as hilarious, I was anticipating a light, pleasant evening. I found my reaction as an adult, however, to be quite different. What caught my attention in particular was the negativity underlying most of the humor. Much of the “humorous” dialogue included insults, threats, and in general, comments heavily laden with innuendo. This triggered a thought process where I began to inventory those things we usually consider “funny” and found that a surprising number of them were thinly-veiled forms of verbal attacks or counter-attacks.

Speech-attacks, like any other form of aggressive behavior, imply both a victim and a perpetrator. Philosophically speaking, there is little difference between this form of hostile word-use and a physical attack. Aikido, in the larger sense, concerns itself with identification and neutralization of both these types of aggression.

While practicing Aikido on the mat, we learn to recognize and harmonize with an opponent’s attack in such a way as to avoid any harm to ourselves, and wherever possible, to avoid injuring the attacker. Aikido is, in this way, a self-defense which implies neither victory nor defeat. the terms “victory” and “defeat” belong to the field of competition and are operative where conflict of interest exists.

Aikido does not deal with reality in a mutually exclusive, dualistic manner. To define Aikido as “the art of no-defeat” is not a mere semantic game. We, as speakers of the English language and, consequently, children of Aristotelian thought, are accustomed to viewing the phenomenal world in terms of polar opposites, ie., “good-evil,” “plus-minus,” “off-on,” etc. The power of this procedural mode has been dramatically demonstrated by man’s vast attainments in the fields of science and technology which are based on the scientific method. Nonetheless, there are many areas in which this method of perceiving reality is inappropriate, inefficient, and tension-producing. There are aspects of interpersonal relationships, for example, where viewing things in a binary, “either-or” fashion can defeat communication and perpetuate conflict.

As practitioners of verbal Aikido we become increasingly capable of detecting language attacks. What is the tone of the speaker? What are the assumptions implicit in a given comment? Are there any other signals, such as body language cues, which reveal a state of tension in the speaker? Equipped with a deep understanding, both rational and intuitive, of the nature of verbal violence and those signs foreboding its occurrence, we can significantly influence the course of a conversation and steer it away from dangerous areas through skilled use of language designed to minimize negativity. An appreciation of the role that humor plays in human communications will provide valuable clues for the effective regulation of the delicate balances so important in verbal intercourse.