On Insult

Last week I read reports (e.g. here) of a big demonstration in London (on Saturday or Sunday, the 7th or 8th of February, that wasn’t clear from the reports) by thousands of Muslims protesting against Charlie Hebdo and its ‘insults’ to Islam and the Prophet. I was quite pleased to see photos of people holding up placards saying “Insult my Mum and I will punch you (Pope Francis)” as I’d expected that his words would be used in this way. I would be very interested indeed to know whether that was his intention, or whether he now regrets having spoken too rashly. When he said those words in an interview a few weeks ago it did seem totally spontaneous, but I wasn’t 100% convinced that that was genuine.

All this confirmed for me that my objection to the way most people seem to think about the concept “insult” is more than just a personal annoyance or a theoretical philosophical discussion, but an extremely important issue at the moment – frequently a matter of life and death, in fact – and that it was perhaps time for a general rant on the subject on this blog…

I was pretty certain I’d already written a longish text expressing exactly what I thought on the matter, but even after much searching I haven’t managed to find it, so I’ll just have to write something new after all. While searching I did come across a few interesting bits and pieces, though, including my (very brief) comments on Roddy Doyle’s book Paula Spencer, which I read in 2007. I wasn’t planning on publishing anything that old just yet, but it’s at least slightly relevant to the discussion about “insult” so I’ve put it online here.

So, how do you “insult someone”? Well, I’m afraid you can’t – it’s completely impossible! What can happen is that they can feel insulted due to something you say, and you can even do your best to persuade them to do so, but it’s ultimately only they themselves, the object of your insulting intentions, who can decide whether they’re going to be insulted or not. In other words you can say anything you like, but it’s impossible to insult someone who doesn’t want to be insulted.

Let’s analyse exactly what happens when person A says something negative and possibly “insulting” about person B, or about someone or something (e.g. their parents, country or religion) to which they happen to know that person B is emotionally attached. What person A says may or may not be true, in fact it’s often obviously and unarguably untrue, as in the case of “Your mother was a whore” (in a situation where it’s well known that she wasn’t), “Your father was a pig” or “Your country is nothing but one big jungle/desert/rubbish dump”. It’s often obviously the subjective opinion of person A, as in “You’re ugly” or “You’re a waste of space” (I’ve always liked that one!). Assuming that we are impartial observers of the situation, what do these statements tell us? In all these cases, the fact that person A says these things tells us all kinds of things about him, e.g. that he believes certain things or holds certain opinions, that he has a very negative opinion about person B, and that he would very much like to hurt his feelings or make him angry. It does not, however, tell us anything at all about person B. The only possible exception to this would be when person A is speaking on a subject on which he is known to have expertise, and he has objective knowledge in that field regarding person B. For instance, if person A is a psychiatrist who knows person B well, and tells him he’s paranoid and deluded, then this may well tell us something about person B – but there again that wouldn’t fall under most people’s definition of “insult”. If person A is a dustman rather than a psychiatrist, however, his statement may well be regarded as “insulting” – but then again he’s only expressing something about himself.

What it comes down to is that person A is telling us things about himself and about his own mental state at that moment, so why on earth should person B feel bad about it? No reason at all, as far as I’m concerned. The feeling of ‘being insulted’ is entirely subjective, something which exists only in the mind of the person who entertains that feeling, and is therefore – potentially at least – something over which that person has control: he has the power to decide whether to feel insulted or not. Anyone who feels obliged to feel insulted just because someone else wants them to is actually handing that person the power to decide what’s going on in their brain – hardly a good idea.

You can indeed try to make someone feel insulted, and the better you know a person and their likes, dislikes and sensibilities, the more chance you have of succeeding. But this is similar to trying to persuade someone to buy a car, or vote for a particular party. You can use all kinds of psychological tricks to make someone do what you want them to do, and as we know, much money and effort is put into perfecting the techniques to do just that, but would someone who had been persuaded in this way accuse their persuader of forcing them to buy that car or vote for that party? No, they’d be much more likely to regard it as entirely their own decision – which, ultimately, it was. In actual fact it’s much easier, using physical force, economic pressure, threats, etc., to persuade someone to buy a car or vote for a particular party than to make them feel insulted if they don’t want to, because “being insulted” is something which only exists in their own head.

What would happen if this philosophy were to become widely accepted and ever more people just decided not to be insulted by other people’s negative statements about them? The people making those statements would become less powerful because they’d be losing a weapon which they are currently being given by those who insist on feeling “insulted”, and they would increasingly come to be regarded as childish and stupid. In the long term they would give up their attempts at “insult”, which were not having the intended result and were only making them look silly. An individual who decides to ignore “insults” rather than taking them seriously will be happier, and a society in which this becomes the norm will be a more peaceful one. The opposite reaction, that of feeling “insulted”, and therefore feeling justified in seeking retribution, makes for unhappier individuals and leads to tension, litigation and violence. It also leads to a society where anyone who wishes to cause damage to someone else can do so very easily, and where everyone who doesn’t want to harm anyone else is constantly having to censor themselves and be careful what they say – the sort of world in which Paula Spencer lives.

It would seem to be simple wisdom then, not to be insulted. It’s better for the person concerned, who avoids feelings of hurt and anger (definitely not good for the health!), and it’s better for society as a whole. But is it really that simple?

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At the end of last year, for some reason, I found myself thinking about a children’s rhyme which I remembered from my youth:

Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But names will never hurt me.

I looked it up online, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it has its own Wikipedia entry. Not only is this little rhyme a very succinct expression of my own philosophy on “insult”, but its very existence is proof that this philosophy has been widely held for a long time (the rhyme dates from at least 150 years ago) and has generally been regarded as unquestionable wisdom to such an extent that it was even taught to very young children. I was slightly disappointed, however, to find a paragraph in the article expressing the exact opposite sentiment:

Although insulting words and name-calling do not cause bruises and broken bones, they may cause emotional pain and psychological harm to the target. Insulting words can be used to shame people and by bullies with the intention of hurting people, but because of the prevalence of this idea in English-speaking culture, the victims and people around them may blame the victims for experiencing pain, by believing or saying that the victims are being “too sensitive”, rather than recognizing that the aggressor’s intent to cause pain. This idea—that intentional insults should be sloughed off without acknowledging the pain they caused—is not prevalent in some other cultures.

This does indeed represent the views of a large part of the population, so I suppose I couldn’t really blame Wikipedia for mentioning it, but it should really have been qualified by something along the lines of ‘some people also believe…’. Anyway, when I looked up the Wikipedia entry again today that paragraph was missing. I was certain I’d read it there, so I looked at the revision history (frequently a very enlightening exercise) and sure enough, someone had recently removed it, explaining their alteration as follows: Deleted a whole paragraph that gave entity to the “right one has to retaliate because of emotional or psychological pain”. These are both subjective and cannot be treated as facts. physical agression can. When I looked further back in the revision history I discovered that a battle had been raging on this page since 2012 between people who could appreciate the rhyme and others who disagreed entirely with the idea it expresses. First someone had added the text:

In modern times, these poems have become much less effective, since bullying has become such a serious issue. Now some are calling the inventor of this quote a complete idiot, since many kids are committing murder and suicide from name-calling.

Later on other texts had appeared describing this rhyme as “one of the biggest lies in the history of the world”, and pointing out that bullying and ‘name-calling’ can cause self-harming, depression, suicide and murder. Some much wiser person had added:

But people should realize that words are simply words, regardless of their source. They have no power over you if you do not let them have power over you.

All these comments had sooner or later been removed. Being original research c.q. the personal opinions of the writers (as well as being badly written and devoid of references) they obviously didn’t qualify for inclusion in Wikipedia. But the fact that people had felt moved to voice their objections to this ancient rhyme shows that the whole matter is a lot more controversial than one might expect.

•••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

So, there do seem to be two schools of thought on this. As well as the view outlined above and expressed by that children’s rhyme, we also have the opposite viewpoint: when someone says something nasty about me it makes me feel bad, and there’s nothing I can do about that. Just to deny that I feel bad, to suppress my hurt, would not be healthy. And anyway, why should I? It’s the other person who’s taken the initiative of deliberately trying to hurt my feelings. Surely I have a right to get upset about that, and to retaliate (insult him back, hit him, take him to court…), both to make myself feel better and to prevent it happening again.

Well, that is indeed one way of looking at the matter, and (unfortunately, I would say) it’s the view taken by millions, if not billions of people, all over the world. I certainly wouldn’t deny that people do sometimes genuinely feel hurt because of something someone else said. But there again, that can happen even when no “insult” was intended – in fact even when the intention was good. Hardly surprising, seeing how the feeling of being hurt or insulted is a subjective feeling, related first and foremost to what’s happening in the mind of the person experiencing those feelings, and only remotely, if at all, to anything in the outside world.

Those feelings do still genuinely exist though, and I think it’s even fair to say that the natural reaction of someone hearing something bad said about them is indeed to feel hurt and angry, and to want to retaliate. The reaction which I’m promoting here and which is expressed in that rhyme, on the other hand, that of ignoring the “insult”, of simply deciding not to be “insulted”, does not come naturally to most people – it has to be learned. In many societies (certainly the one I grew up in), learning not to take “insults” seriously is an important part of one’s early education – part of ‘growing up’. A five-year-old runs up to their father, mother or teacher crying, and saying “He said I was stupid!” (or else it’s the other kid who’s crying, after the ‘offended party’ punched him!). The adult then says something along the lines of “It doesn’t matter, he’s only showing how stupid he is”, and gradually both children learn that there’s a better way to behave.

Not that it’s always easy to ignore “insults”. It’s certainly less of a problem for someone who generally feels good about themselves than for someone with low self-esteem. The most hurtful statements (and therefore, when used deliberately, the most effective “insults”) are undoubtedly those which are true, and which the recipient knows are true, but which he wished weren’t true. This has a lot to do with self-acceptance: it’s difficult to verbally hurt someone who knows themselves, knows their own faults, and accepts themselves as they are. It’s those who are desperately trying to maintain a positive image of themselves which, somewhere deep down, they know isn’t really justified, who are more likely to be hurt by what they experience as an attack on that image. It also has a lot to do with the extent to which one defines oneself by the opinions of other people, rather than having confidence in oneself. A person like Paula Spencer has absolutely no confidence in herself and her self-image is composed entirely of what she believes to be the opinions of those around her, so she’s constantly worrying about what other people think of her – and therefore very sensitive to perceived “insults”. I mean, what a way to spend your life! But this all goes together: learning to know and accept yourself as you are, learning not to worry too much about what other people think of you, and learning to ignore “insults”, that’s all part of becoming an adult. It means changing how we see the world, i.e. changing ourselves, and that isn’t always easy. But it’s still easier, and much more likely to be successful, than trying to change the rest of the world.

So, perhaps the attitude I’m recommending here isn’t something which everyone, or even most people, can turn on just like that. It’s more something which has to be worked at. The important thing is the recognition that it’s a good idea to think this way, that it’s something to be aimed at, something which we should try to achieve, even if we don’t always succeed. If we start young, it’s not too difficult. The problem, however, is that so many people do not recognise this. I get the distinct impression that, over the last few decades especially, opinion has been swinging in the opposite direction, and that it’s become ever more acceptable to take “insults” very seriously indeed. It’s become ever more a requirement to be careful what you say in case you might offend someone, and if you feel offended it’s your God-given right, in fact even your duty, to ‘do something about it’. We can see this in the culture of political correctness, and in the fact that thousands are willing to march on the streets to protest about the fact that they’ve been “insulted” – and that a minority are willing to kill and be killed for the same reason.

Everything I’ve said about “insults” on an individual level applies just as much at a cultural level. For better or worse, individuals are influenced by the culture they grow up in, and cultural norms can encourage or discourage natural human tendencies, be they ‘good’ ones or ‘bad’. Now I’m as much of a cultural relativist as the next man, but I have no hesitation in saying that a culture which encourages its members to take “insults” seriously is not likely to make them happy individuals or provide them with a peaceful life. And if peace and happiness happen to be what we’re trying to achieve, then a society which promotes the idea that “insults” are irrelevant and should be ignored can therefore justifiably be considered more advanced and more civilised.

You might have noticed that I’ve said nothing at all so far about the people doing the “insulting”, and have concentrated exclusively on the recipients. This is mainly because, as I hope to have demonstrated by now, it is the recipient of an “insult” who is ultimately responsible for the fact that he feels “insulted”. This is not to say that I approve of deliberate attempts to “insult” people or hurt their feelings. I regard it as childish, uncivilised and generally unhelpful behaviour. In fact I not only think that people should refrain from deliberately “insulting” others, but that they should do their best, within reason, to avoid doing so if possible. That said, I find it much more important that anyone should feel free to say anything which they feel ought to be said, without having to worry about whether someone else will find it offensive. In other words, I wouldn’t go out of my way to say nasty things about Pope Francis’s mother, but if something needed to be said about her then I’d want to be able to say it without running the risk of a papal punch!

•••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

And finally, to move the discussion to a slightly more abstract and philosophical level, there are a couple of other interesting points which can be made…

This whole question is really part of something much wider, namely the eternal conflict of intellect and rationality versus emotion. Feeling hurt and angry because of what one perceives to be an “insult” is an immediate, emotional reaction. On the other hand, mentally ‘standing back’, seeing things in a wider perspective and realising that you don’t need to take someone’s words seriously and give them the power to hurt you, is a much more rational approach. At the risk of over-simplifying things slightly, I would say that those who regard feelings as something primitive and animal, something which should, ideally, be under the control of the intellect, are more likely to decide not to be “insulted”, and to regard the behaviour of those who insist on simply following their hurt feelings as childish and primitive, whereas those who take their feelings more seriously and distrust rationality are more likely to demand the right to feel “insulted”, and to do something about it.

And which of these attitudes is more deserving of our approval? It would be too much to go into the question of rationality versus emotion in detail here, but I’ll allow myself one short(ish) paragraph to present my views on the subject. Our emotions are a part of our primitive, animal nature which cannot be ignored. To do so would not be mentally healthy, quite apart from the fact that anyone who never forgot their intellect and followed their emotions would have a very boring life indeed – and probably quite a depressing one. On the other hand, the emotions must remain (most of the time at least, and certainly in situations where it matters) under the control of the intellect, which is a more highly developed part of our nature. This is very easily demonstrated, once we admit that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emotions, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ being subjective terms which indicate that something is or is not helpful in achieving whatever it is that we want to achieve. For instance we might say that love, sympathy and generosity are ‘good’ emotions, and that hate, jealousy and greed are ‘bad’ emotions. I won’t specify here exactly what it is that we’re trying to achieve, as that’s another discussion entirely, but my choice of examples of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emotions should give a clue as to my (basically utilitarian) views on the matter. If we want to achieve our aims then we should try to follow the ‘good’ emotions and resist the ‘bad’ ones, but then we need some way of deciding which emotions are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’. Only the intellect can do this; we certainly can’t use our emotions to make this decision, as a ‘bad’ (i.e. unhelpful) emotion may actually feel pretty good, certainly in the short term, which is the time span in which the emotions normally operate. For instance, feeling angry and taking revenge can feel better in the short term than ignoring an “insult”. The intellect, which is better at taking a long-term view, must therefore take precedence over the emotions, and the rational view of “insult” is a better choice than the one which our emotions might suggest. To sum up:

  • There are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emotions, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ being subjective terms which indicate that things are or are not helpful in achieving whatever it is that we want to achieve.
  • Because the ‘good’ emotions are helpful in achieving our aims and the ‘bad’ ones are not, it is a good idea to follow the ‘good’ emotions and resist the ‘bad’ ones.
  • Only the intellect can decide which emotions are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’; we can’t use our emotions to make this decision, as a ‘bad’ (i.e. unhelpful) emotion may actually feel pretty good.
  • Therefore intellect must take precedence over emotion.

All very simple really. We could also put it in slightly different terms by asking the question: to what extent should one be in control of what’s happening in one’s own head? “Baas in eigen brein”, which could be translated as “Boss in your own brain”, was a slogan in use by the Dutch anti-psychiatry movement (it was inspired by the feminist pro-abortion slogan “Baas in eigen buik”: “Boss in your own belly”). In its original context it referred to mental health patients and how they should be treated, but I’ve always found it a good slogan in a much more general sense: one should, ideally, be in charge of what’s going on in one’s own head. It is very much connected with the idea that intellect should take precedence over emotion. Or perhaps, if we want to be more precise, that some entity, that which I’m talking about when I say “I”, is in control at some level which is above both intellect and emotion, and capable of choosing between them. In any case, to the extent that I am the boss, and am in control of what’s happening in my head, I can choose to be “insulted” or not – and as I pointed out above, choosing not to be “insulted” is definitely the better long-term option.

This idea will not be popular with those who take the extreme romantic view that all emotions are good and should be followed, and that the intellect is a trap to be avoided. From that point of view there’s no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ emotion: we’ve just got to follow our emotions wherever they lead us. That’s basically how animals live (the word ‘instinct’ being generally substituted for ’emotion’ in their case), and while a primitive, animal life and what we call ‘civilisation’ certainly both have their good and bad points, if I had to choose between the two I’d definitely choose ‘civilisation’, which means the choice of putting intellect above emotions. And I’m pretty certain that most of my readers, if they’re honest, will agree with me on this.

The two opposing views about “insult” outlined above can also be seen as one small part of another discussion, one which is much more basic and much wider still than the little matter of rationality versus emotion: to what extent are we producing the world we live in, and to what extent are we living in a world which has its own objective existence, independently of us, which we experience and to which we can react ? A very interesting discussion, which, yet again, it would be too much to go into in detail here. What we are talking about is two opposing models of reality, and in my opinion the most useful one is the idea that, to a very great extent at least, we live in a world which is the product of our own minds. The sort of world we see around us depends mainly on how our minds work: we tend to see what we expect to see, and to expect that which we have learned to expect. In other words, reality is subjective rather than objective: everyone experiences their own personal reality. It is relative rather than absolute: reality changes according to who is observing it and from which perspective. And most importantly, it is man-made rather than natural or God-given: we are making it up as we go along. This may not quite be true at the level of atoms and molecules, waves and particles, and perhaps not even at the level of tables and chairs, but it’s certainly true at the level of culture, words, thoughts and ideas – which is exactly where this whole “insult” business is going on.

Seeing the world in this way means taking responsibility for the reality in which we find ourselves: if we are constantly producing reality then we have the power to change it. Unfortunately, most people seem to find this view of the world uncomfortable, and would much rather live in a world where reality is going on “out there”, objective and absolute. This explains the general human tendency to regard things as objective, absolute and part of an unchangeable, God-given universe which could much more usefully be looked on as subjective, relative and man-made. This applies (at the very least) to the meaning of words and symbols, to rules of behaviour, to concepts such as good and evil, and to everything which exists at the level of human culture and interaction.

The relevance to the discussion on “insult” should be obvious by now, and brings us back where we started: the feeling of being “insulted” is a product of the mind of the person who experiences it, and its significance, its importance and its very existence are under the control of that person. Rather than making someone else responsible for how you feel, if you don’t want to feel “insulted”, then just don’t! If more people would learn to see the world this way, it would be a much happier and more peaceful place…

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