Kansas Progress Institute

Ad Astra Per Aspera ~ To the Stars Through Difficulties

On Powerful People “Jokingly” Threatening Violence

Posted on December 28, 2016

By David Burress

Powerful people are not like other people.  When powerful people make jokes about violence or retaliation or racism or firing people, they are not joking at all.  They are making threats under cover of quasi-plausible-deniability.


I call it quasi-plausible because no one is actually fooled, although supporters of the powerful will loyally pretend to be.  In other words, everyone knows that the powerful person is unnecessarily reminding people of his power to do harm to people he doesn’t like.  There is nothing the least bit funny about that to anyone who is in potential danger.  It is however, from the point of view of the powerful person and his supporters, enjoyable humor of the most cruel kind, namely a humor that rests on pleasure from inflicting fear.  In true plausible deniability, on the other hand, some people are actually fooled, or at least uncertain enough to give the plausible denier the benefit of the doubt.


Pleasure from inflicting fear is a metaemotion that as yet does not have a precise name.  It is very important in power relationships and urgently needs a recognized term.  It is a particular form of sadism, but sadism is a much more general term that includes any form of pleasure from inflicting any form of pain on someone else.
Metaemotions are a relatively recent discovery that are woefully under explored.  Indeed, there seems to be only one true metaemotion that most people with an education know a term for–namely schadenfreude.  People with little education are typically not able to articulate any terms for metaemotions at all.
With this possible exception: sadism could be defined as a metaemotion if your concept of emotion includes pain as such.  However psychologists tend to distinguish feelings like pain and nausea from true emotions.  One difference is that these feelings are generated by the autonomic system without necessarily benefitting from any cognition.
Schadenfreude, by the way is NOT a form of sadism.  Sadism is an active desire to inflict pain.  Schadenfreude is a passive and mostly guilt-free enjoyment of some else’s bad happenings that one played no role in causing.

2 thoughts on “On Powerful People “Jokingly” Threatening Violence”

  1. Bill Getz wrote:
    “Inflicting fear” can be a legitimate instrument of statecraft, as per Machiavelli, in which case it would be a rational rather than an emotional response to a certain set of circumstances. There are equally effective and more subtle means of achieving the acquiescence of the public and the elites, by making them perceive that their well-being depends on their support of a strong leader. Trump, of course, belongs to neither category. Even Ivan the Terrible was an intellectual.

  2. My response: Inflicting fear is a legitimate way to discourge lawbreaking, if accomplished through fair legal procedures. International military deterrence is also legitimate. Inflicting domestic fear through scapegoating is not a legitimate means of statecraft under modern democratic ethics.

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