Insults and what to do about them

Dear colleagues,

Giving and receiving insults seems to be an inevitable part of life. Among children, insults can be open and direct: "Ha, ha, fatty!" Adults sometimes can be subtler and also more hurtful. You might feel hurt when you're not invited to a meeting or a social occasion, or your friends might tell you about nasty comments made by others, "just so you'll know."

If you want to learn about insults, the damage they do, and what to do about them, then get hold of William B. Irvine's new book A Slap in the Face. Irvine, a philosopher at Wright State University in Ohio, describes and classifies a host of insults. For instance, you can damn with faint praise: "I'm glad you finally got promoted." You can insult someone to their face, but it's safer behind their back: "Smith has no taste." You can insult someone without intending to or even knowing you've done it, for example if you don't mention someone in acknowledgements or fail to laud them as much as they expect.

There's one sort of insult Irvine thinks is acceptable: teasing among friends. Few people tease strangers, but giving a friend a humorous nickname, or making fun of their height, weight, clothes or any number of personal tastes and peculiarities, can be a sign of acceptance and intimacy. This only works if everyone understands and accepts the same teasing style. Cross-cultural teasing is fraught with misunderstandings.

Teasing aside, insults can cause a lot of grief. What should you do if you're insulted? One common response is a counter-insult, especially one that shows wit. Another common response is retiring with hurt feelings, and cutting off interactions or even entire relationships.

Inspired by the Stoics of ancient Greece, Irvine recommends a different approach, which he calls "insult pacifism". In the face of an insult, just say nothing. An alternative is just to say "thanks". Irvine tried this and found it worked a charm, confusing those who insulted him. Yet another Stoic-inspired response is to make self-deprecatory comments. When someone says "you were a bit slow today" you can say "I'm usually even slower". Insult pacifism also requires not insulting others.

Insult pacifism is not for everyone, because it means opting out of the status game. Most people care about what others think about them, and therefore try to impress them, often by drawing attention to their own talents, possessions, tastes and accomplishments. Being insulted, especially in front of others, can lower one's standing, so to maintain status it may seem necessary to reply in kind or at least to counter or neutralise the insult. Insulting others can be a useful tactic in the status game.

Insult pacifism can be interpreted as a refusal to play the game, showing you don't care about what others say about you. It's a sign that you're not a "player", not to be taken seriously. It means that your self-esteem needs to be based on your own sense of self, not on evaluations by others.

There's another side to the Stoic approach, which is even more challenging. If you adopt the Stoic philosophy, then when someone insults you, not only do you not respond verbally - you don't respond emotionally. In other words, you learn to not care about slights, backbiting and verbal abuse. You observe these and perhaps examine them intellectually, but you don't let them upset you. If you can develop this capacity, then you have overcome the power of insults to hurt you emotionally.

The Stoic approach to insults is challenging enough, but there's another, associated challenge: to not respond to praise. When someone tells you what a good job you've done, you might just say "thanks". Then comes the challenging bit: you just treat this as another comment and don't let the praise go to your head. In other words, you can take it or leave it.

Irvine aspires to this Stoic ideal. In the final chapter to A Slap in the Face, he examines his own behaviour and emotions with remarkably candid detail, for example describing his tendency to let others know about his achievements and how he has learned to moderate it.

Irvine's book is a model of sustained intellectual endeavour presented in an accessible style. It is unusual enough in this regard; it is exceptional in providing practical guidance for something that affects everyone in their daily life. If training in Stoicism became fashionable, then there might be hope for an improvement in public and private discourse.

24 September 2013

William B. Irvine, A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt - And Why They Shouldn't (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)

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