Throwing a Pie – More than a Simple Act of Protest


November 22, 2017

Published on 22/11/2017

The art of creative and humorous nonviolent resistance methods, laughtivism if you will, has been a popular topic for readers all around the world. Pie, and then especially the throwing of the object, could be considered a prototype political provocation, and a powerful punchline when staying on the surface of the act itself. David against Goliath, an “act of punching up”, mostly against a higher status person, showing that, with our face covered in pie, we all look alike, and nobody would dare to claim a superior position with a face full of cream.  

An unprecedented piece of journalism by Ben Paynter shows us the history of throwing pie as a form of nonviolent activism.  Although the record of political pie-throwing dates back to at least the mid-1600s, the recipe (of both the pie and the protest-method), have not changed much. Although maybe for one factor. Over time, “each hit became a surreal must-share moment for news agencies,” and pie-throwing “became an early political meme.” Communicating with their followers, but also more neutral audiences, “activists made sure to videotape or take pictures of each delivery, which with the growing reach of the internet were easily passed along to embolden others,” according to Paynter.  

But why exactly is throwing pie funny? Paynter claims that it is good to emphasize this for a bit, given the fact that some people involved in the act “felt the pie throwing was theater of such poor quality that it required a violent response.” To explain the humorous nature of pie, we can use something called the Benign Violation Theory, and was developed by Peter McGraw, marketing and psychology professor at the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder. According to McGraw, “for something to be funny in the eyes of the audience, the situation needs to be wrong yet okay, threatening yet safe. It needs to not make sense, yet make sense.” Most everyday experiences can be considered either good-natured (benign) or inappropriate (a violation). Only when a certain inappropriate action is made to be acceptable will it be considered funny: a benign violation! Throwing pie is inappropriate, but throwing a pie as a form of protest instead of using violence then makes it relatively acceptable.  

However, as with every method, there should come an underlying strategy. When this strategy is not in line with the act of throwing a pie, things might get ugly. And of course Paynter is right to conclude that, “from a strategic standpoint, pelting someone with a non-lethal, somewhat fluffy object makes sense: baked goods do less damage than bullets.” However, as our very own Srdja Popovic points out in the article, even pie-throwing can be a step to far sometimes. The best nonviolent acts are low risk and should not alienate any potential supporters, so they can be repeated by others to build momentum. How innocent pie throwing might sound, examples from Paynter’s article prove that the action can carry physical and legal repercussions. “[Pie throwing] can be funny, but it also can be offensive and insulting and people can take it differently,” Popovic says. 


Read Paynter’s full article here, and think twice before you start throwing them pies around!