Fighting words, in all their glory

Simon Blackburn revels in a trawl through our rich and varied tradition of ad hominem attacks

April 10, 2008

This is a fascinating exploration of that most human of activities: insulting one another. It discusses the psychology of verbal abuse, and the sense of assault it can engender. It talks of the surprisingly large role that insults play in human affairs, introducing contests of words (apparently popular among Turkish boys and, nearer to home, in rap music), ritual exchanges of insults, licensed jesters, carnivals and other occasions for satire, humour, ridicule and, finally, the more serious end of things: fighting words, hate speech, incitement, blasphemy, pornography, harassment, fatwas, libel and slander. It does not only talk of these things, but admirably illustrates them.

One valuable exhibit is a "Shakespeare insult kit", two columns of 50 adjectives and one of nouns, giving nearly half a million three-word insults, although since it is often part of the ritual of insult that we speak in our own words, these would be repeated only by fobbing crook-pated clotpoles, or ruttish pottle-deep moldwarps and their ilk. Falstaff certainly knew how to turn an insult: "You scullion! You rampallion! You fustilarian! I'll tickle your catastrophe." Comparing Gordon Brown to Mr Bean seems tame by comparison.

What have philosophers to say about insults? There is the philosophy of language, with its analysis of all speech as action, and its work on meaning and convention. It has grounded useful distinctions, such as that between what is said and what is implied by other mechanisms, and it has mapped some of the dangerous abysses between intention and uptake, so that we need to ask whether insult lies in the eye, or ear, of the audience, or in the intention of the perpetrator, or perhaps in neither but in what that fictional persona, the reasonable man, would have made of it.

There is moral philosophy, able to argue about wider categories of harm than simple physical injury: insult can hurt, and it can damage a person. The word "insult", as Jerome Neu reminds us, is still used in medicine for a straightforward physical injury, but psychological and social damage is just as real. The philosophy of mind might be interested in our fragile sense of self and self-respect, and the background that might make the difference between taking a verbal slight to be laughable or hurtful. Above all, the philosophy of law has to try to find principles governing the uneasy balance between the right of people to speak their mind against the right of people not to find themselves injured by things said about them. It must also worry about insults to groups and to ideologies or religions, and whether such categories even make sense.

One especially salutary chapter, given our present authoritarian and repressive tendencies, concerns the fate of speech codes, especially on campuses in the US. These are designed to ensure that nobody ever feels less than equal concern and respect from everyone around them, so nobody must ever feel uncomfortable or challenged. This is quite hard to achieve: I have seen it said that one campus code condemned "eye contact or the lack of it" as demeaning and insulting. As Neu also says, silencing is a dangerous weapon, and there is very little guarantee that once it is drawn it will be used only to defend what all right-thinking people know.

Indeed, Neu suggests that repressive legislation tends first to be used against those it was brought in to protect. Thus, under the influence of the powerful feminist campaigner Catharine MacKinnon, Michigan brought in very restrictive sexual speech codes, which the police promptly used largely to persecute gay and lesbian bookshops.

Those arguing for such codes often claim that by doing nothing, universities or other institutional bodies are in effect collaborating with whatever sexist or racist evil is being allowed to have its say. But the university can say plenty by way of condemning certain attitudes and their expression, without banning anything. If in turn this is belittled as merely a gesture, then, as the legal theorist and public intellectual Henry Louis Gates Jr asked, "Why is it 'mere words' when a university condemns racist speech, but not when the student utters the abusive words in the first place?"

Neu also has good things to say about forgiveness, reconciliation and "moving on". He has proper reservations about these therapeutic nostrums. There are crimes that it would be indecent to forgive, and insults as well. This brings me to my own favourite insult. The poet Swinburne described the sage Emerson as performing on his "obscene platform the last tricks of tongue now possible to a gap-toothed and hoary-headed ape who now in his dotage spits and chatters from a dirtier perch of his own finding and fouling; coryphaeus or choragus of his Bulgarian tribe of autocoprophagous baboons who make the filth they feed on". Nothing politically correct about Swinburne, a rap artist before his time. No respeck at all. Let us hope Emerson didn't forgive him.

Sticks and Stones: The Philosophy of Insults

By Jerome Neu

Oxford University Press 304pp, £15.99

ISBN 9780195314311

Published 6 December 2007

to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments