04 February 2021





Topic and essay by Lawrence


The sole function of insults is to offend others. And in a common language game when someone insults someone else it is in retaliation of an offense committed by the person being insulted.


But what qualifies as an insult? Looking at some commentators on the subject there seems to be a confusion on what is or isn’t an insult. On the mild criteria we can include common expletives but nothing serious. Some might include hate speech, racist speech, slurs, abuse, and even threatening behaviour accompanies by verbal abuse. I would argue that these are not within the scope of the meaning of insult. And many behaviours that are accompanied by verbal expressions may very well be criminal or illegal acts: for example incitement to cause violence, racist and racial abuse, verbal acts implying immanent violence and so on. These language acts are beyond the scope of a philosophical analysis of insults.


For the purpose of this essay I will use the terms: insultor to mean a person who insults someone else. I follow the principle set in “lessor” that means “landlord”. And “insultee” as in “lessee” which is a tenant. Insultor and insultee are not present in the internet as far as I know.


I will argue that it is a necessary condition that an insultee has behaved by deed or language to offend the insultor. Without this prior offence any insult would just be unsocial behaviour and unjustified. Of course, what qualifies as an offence can be wide and subtle. An insultor might be mistaken about the intensions of an insultee which ought to result in due course into humble apologies. A valid insult must also be a justified insult even though the scope is wide.


For example, sports fans (insultors) might feel compelled to insult the opposing team (insultee) when one of their players commits a foul against a member of the insulted team. In this case insults may be directed at the offending player, the team itself, and even the fans of the offending player and team. Offence by association seems to be a valid and justified condition for an insultor to insult an insultee. Then there is the classical joke of insulting the referee by pointing out they need a pair of glasses they miss a foul committed by the opposing team.


Another necessary condition for a justified insult must be that an insult is said in the heat of the moment: the insultor must be genuinely hurt by the offence caused by the insultee. A justified insult must be issued at the time of the offence, this is not like revenge which may or may not be best served cold. And although insulting someone a long time after the offense might be irrelevant, it also matters when the insultor learnt of the offence.


An offence and an insult create a context and insults must fit that context. Whatever the morality of insults is, there are many rules and protocols to follow. These rules not only give meaning to the insult, but also offer some protection against aggressive retaliation. For example, one does not insult the other person by invoking their mother, dog, cat, or menú del día these are certainly subjects that are out of bounds.


Insults are a powerful language tool and should be handled carefully; not only can insults backfire but also have unintended consequences. A misplaced insult can easily get one banned from social media sites, even if justified: in real life things might turn even worse.


Maybe the most devastating danger of insults is when an insult backfires. For instance, when the insultee fails to recognise that what is being said is an insult: the person is just oblivious to the insult. This means wasted effort for the insultor especially for such a risky language game since the insult can easily turn into a physical confrontation. Indeed, this is also very common when someone does not have a good command of the language: the insultee just don’t appreciate the insult.


Again I would argue that a necessary condition for a valid justified insult is that it has to create an emotional reaction in the insultee. This is when we can argue that there is an art to insults: insults have to evoke emotions but they also have to be proportional. An insult without an emotional reaction in the insultee is just a damp squib. And an insult that breached the boundaries of language is just reckless. But first and foremost insults are the language and tools for visceral anger and fury.


If we accept that there is just a thing as the art of insult – be it a linguistic art- then surely it must follow the sufficient condition of art: art has to evoke the emotions. Indifference in art is the worst form of death for art. We can like a piece of art, or hate it, but indifference will kill art. The same with insults we can be angry or brush off the insult, but indifference kills the insult.


Proportionality and staying within the boundaries of language means that our language must be both flexible and powerful enough to do the job at hand. As expected the ability to use language effectively with an astute skill to choose the right words and concepts is imperative. The language we use should be enough to offend the insultee, but no more.


Insulting others is definitely part of human behaviour and part of the language repertoire. This is evident by the number of links we are offered when we search for insults in an internet search engine, not to mention the myriad of insults. We are familiar with many of the insults in our language, even considering that many insults are very local to specific regions. These readymade insults somehow lack a soul, lack the magic dust. These readymade insults are like readymade frozen pizza – they lack the passion of a creator. And like perfect homemade pizza, there is nothing more cathartic than a self made insult that carries our soul and heart as well.


Maybe at this stage we should question the moral implications of insults. The curious aspect of insults is that we do not need to resort to them on a day to day basis. Unless, that is, one seeks controversy on some social media sites; even the Wild West was not as wild as a social media website.


But what we fail to appreciate is that an effective insult is for life and not just for the moment. Sure, some insults are ineffective, many more are forgotten in the course of time, but dangerous insults are the ones that last for a life time. A misplaced insult or a well justified insult can split families and friends or even countries. Whilst we can all appreciate the value of a justified insult, we certainly ought to feel morally obliged to consider using insults.  An effective insult is also an insult that remains radioactive for life.



Best and take care



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