Throughout my blogging career I have occasionally been taken to task for using insults and ridicule on select occasions, and have in turn often discussed the ethics of insults and ridicule. And in The New Atheism+ I articulated some of those principles again, and then I went overboard in using the tactic in comments.
People rightly brought up issues with that, so I reexamined my actions there and what people had to say on the subject, and retracted and apologized for some of my actions there. In discussing the matter further I found I was wrong about a few other things, and realized this is an important issue that deserves an article of its own. Getting things like this right is what Atheism+ is all about, and debating and educating each other on these issues is valuable and ought to be welcome.
Because this article necessitates using offensive (in some cases extremely offensive) words in illustrative examples, a trigger warning is in order for anyone who might have a bad reaction to that. This is a clinical, philosophical post about proper and improper use of words, and should be approached as such. But if that is not possible, you should avoid it.
In my previous post I wrote:
[Being compassionate] does not mean we can’t be angry or mean or harsh, when it is for the overall good (as when we mock or vilify the town neonazi); ridiculing the ridiculous is often in fact a moral obligation, and insults are appropriate when they are genuinely appropriate (because, in short, human happiness would be destroyed if we didn’t marginalize that which can destroy it). It also doesn’t mean that we won’t act against evil, ignorance, and all the sins of vanity, greed, or self-righteousness. To the contrary, it is our compassion that compels us to do so. Our compassion entails we will and must always be the enemies of the uncompassionate.
The hyperlink was to Ashley Miller’s aptly-named talk, Do Be a Dick (sometimes): Emotions and Skeptics, wherein she discusses the art and ethics of insult and ridicule along lines similar to what I have argued throughout the years. Her talk also provides some good examples of appropriate insults and apt ridicule. I am planning a future post about why ridicule is a necessary tool of social change, when used judiciously and appropriately. But here I will be focusing solely on the case of the insult.
I find that when people take offense at insults and ridicule, sometimes they are right to, but often they are relying in their judgment on mistaken assumptions, or are merely in the thrall of unjustified taboos (or are being insincere: claiming offense is a common tactic used in an attempt to silence, or shame or intimidate into silence, someone who says things you don’t like).
An example of an irrational taboo is always taking offense at the word “fuck” no matter where, when or how it is used. There is no rational basis for that. There are uses and contexts in which the word would be inappropriate, but also uses and contexts in which it is not. Merely being offended by the word itself is simply unreasonable and not commendable.
The emotional reaction of “taking offense” is not always justified, and as such is not itself automatically justifying of anything. Daniel Fincke has analyzed the matter in No, Not Everyone Has a Moral Right to Feel Offended by Just any Satire or Criticism, which articulates the basic principle that “the right feeling of offense is…a proper cognitive recognition of the truth that one has been wrongly slighted” (emphasis mine). His entire article is worth reading, even if you don’t agree with every point in it.
Fincke has valuably continued his analysis of this question in his still-in-progress series Summarizing Objections to My Stance Against Epithets, Incivility, and Quickly Personalized Arguments, which elaborates on the ideas behind his comments policy in Making My Comments Rules Explicit: “Don’t Bully People with Insulting Names” and “Make Personal Charges Against Others Only in Egregious Cases.” Part of his point is to distinguish different zones of discourse, so that his principles are not necessarily intended to be universal, but relate to what sort of tenor and discourse he wants to maintain on his own blog (which is why we all have our own comments policies, differing in various respects). But his is a good template to start with: you should have a good reason to deviate from it. Forcing yourself to think through such reasons is a valuable exercise.
For any use of insult or ridicule to be morally appropriate, at least six criteria have to be met, and here I will start with ridicule in general as the paradigm:
- (1) What you are ridiculing must actually be true.
- (2) What you are ridiculing must actually be ridiculous.
- (3) Ridicule must be judicious and selective and not overdone.
- (4) The context and venue must be appropriate.
A skit on The Daily Show is an obvious example of meeting condition 4. The comments threads on Daniel Fincke’s blog is an obvious example of failing condition 4. As would be someone’s wedding. Or any public occasion that’s supposed to be fun for everyone (unless it’s a roast or a playful insult among friends, for example). Condition 3 is met by being sparing in the use of the tactic and smart about how you frame it and how often you resort to it. But it’s conditions 1 and 2 that require particular attention. Right Wing media often violate those two principles, and that’s what makes their use of the tactic so vile. People confuse this with the tactic itself being vile, but that’s a fallacy: there are morally appropriate uses of insults and ridicule.
For example, if you ridicule someone for something that isn’t true about them, you are using the tactic immorally. You are essentially lying, degrading them undeservedly. Likewise, if you ridicule something that isn’t ridiculous, you are using the tactic to do harm to the innocent–to hurt people you merely don’t like (rather than people who are actually bad). And besides, ridiculing what isn’t really ridiculous will only make yourself look ridiculous. As when I was repeatedly mocked and ridiculed for advocating the virtues of compassion, integrity, and reasonableness in my Atheism+ comment thread: advocating the virtues of compassion, integrity, and reasonableness is not in any plausible sense ridiculous, so people who mock that only make themselves look ridiculous.
Insults must follow the same principles: they must be true (given the connotation of the words used in the context), they must be deserved (the quality being called out must actually be reprehensible), they must not be overused, and it must be a suitable place for their use. But insults require two other criteria to be met (and likewise certain other forms of ridicule):
- (5) The insult must not be insulting to an untargeted party.
- (6) The insult must not be pointlessly triggering.
It’s these criteria that can sometimes be hard to apply correctly, since not everyone is well informed about what effect various words have (educating each other can correct that), while not everyone has the right to take offense at just any use of a word, and thus (per Fincke) that it offends someone is not the same thing as that it insults them. To insult a third party, the word still has to violate one of the other criteria (the insult has to be false or target the undeserving; or become excessive or ruin someone’s party or occasion), or be so strongly associated with abuse that a really compelling reason must exist to still use it (and rarely is there one).
An example of the latter is “nigger” (which Crommunist has ably discussed in The N Word). It does make a difference who a word comes from, because not everyone is in the same position of privilege, and context is everything: “nigger” on the lips of a white person has a completely different appearance and implication than the same word on the lips of a black person. The context of where and how the word is used matters (no word should ever be interpreted or reacted to “out of context”). And context includes the social position of the persons speaking and spoken to, and the historical associations that come with that.
And yet, “nigger” is never an appropriate insult, even on the lips of a black person: because it violates rules 1 and 5. The word as an insult means or implies slave, animal, subhuman, and a whole galaxy of inherently racist character aspersions. It doesn’t just mean “lazy,” for example (one of the ways the slur is sometimes intended), it means “black people are biologically lazy,” which is racist–and it’s racist because it’s false. More importantly, using the word gratuitously reminds all within earshot of its whole ugly history, which can make the blood run cold, and is thus pointlessly triggering, violating rule 6.
Another word like this is “tranny.” See Natalie Reed on Being the Pejorative, and A Transgender Manual of Style, where she makes the point that various slurs (like “tranny” and “shemale”) are inherently abhorrent because they only serve the purpose of unjustly demeaning the target (always violating either rule 1, 2, or 6). As she says, we must not use them, except to talk about them, or unless you are “one of the people directly referred to by the term and are doing so ironically or as an act of reclamation in reference to yourself.” The latter is an example of context changing the connotation, changing what it signifies and suggests, and not merely because such a use is not intended as an insult, but because of who is uttering it–just as when black people refer to themselves as “nigger” affectionately or otherwise without intended insult. (Although as Crommunist points out, he would rather abandon even that.)
From Insult to Slur
An insult, when morally deployed, serves the valid purpose of marginalizing that which ought to be marginalized. Which is why rules 1 and 2 are so fundamental to a morally appropriate use of insults. And we need to marginalize the reprehensible–those performing acts or possessing character traits that are harmful to society, things that could be corrected or avoided by them or others, and will be, the more they are despised or evoke shame. And it is through insulting and ridiculing the reprehensible that it comes to be recognized and internalized as despised and shameful. But when someone seeks to accomplish this purpose (to marginalize some behavior or attribute, by causing it to be recognized and internalized as despised and shameful) against things that aren’t reprehensible, that aren’t harmful to society, then they are resorting to slurs. And these are not the product of compassion or moral concern, but of the personally mean and hateful. They aim to hurt the innocent. Or do so whether aiming to or not.
There are obvious sexist and racist slurs, as most everyone by now well knows. Words that categorize, and intend to categorize, a gender or a race as in some way inferior to another (whether directed at the whole race or gender, or a particular member of it). Calling a woman a “cunt” is an obvious example. Like “dick” it only makes sense as an insult if it is intended to be an aspersion on character, which means it can be used in either of two ways: to suggest that all women are loathsome (“women are all cunts!”), or to say that a particular woman is (“what a cunt!”), or in some cultures a man. In the one case, it’s always false (violating rules 1 and 5); in the other, it can in some cases perhaps be true (the same way “dick” can be).
But unlike “dick,” “cunt” has much stronger connotations of sexist disdain for women–though “dick” is generally not used to suggest men are inferior to women, “cunt” is often used that way of women. It thus, like “nigger,” violates rule 6 (even if not to the same degree, still to a sufficient degree to be more restrained in how you use it); and also, being thereby so much more vulgar in practice than “dick,” it will more frequently violate rules 3 or 4. As an insult it is therefore rarely if ever appropriate. [For a thorough treatment of this point see Jen McCreight's Cunto Bingo Card and Matthew Smith's follow-up and my comment thereon, although what I say here now supersedes everything I said there, which was not entirely correct.]
But there are also slurs that are slurs by proxy, violating rule 5. As a prime example, I now try to completely avoid false genderized language like “pussy” (for coward) or “having the balls” (for courage), after realizing (thanks to Cristina Rad) that it perpetuates a factually false sexist notion that women are cowards or you need balls to have courage. Which means there is no context in which these terms would be correct. Not even as metaphors. And the very use of them entails you endorse the sexist falsehoods underlying them–because if you didn’t, you wouldn’t think the terms were insulting (or in the case of “having the balls,” praising). From habit I can still slip into the balls metaphors when speaking rather than writing, but I police that as much as I can, and it’s my aim to get rid of it from my vocabulary altogether.
Of course, context can always change things. “I got kicked in the balls” and “Pussy Riot” are legitimate uses of those words. Because they are not being used as insults, and assume nothing false about men, women, pussies, or balls. Similarly, “gay” can be a normal descriptive word (“gay pride”; “my uncle is gay”) or a word completely unrelated to sexual orientation (“we had a gay time”). But whenever it is used as an insult (“that’s gay!”) it violates rule 5, because it is only an insult if you are assuming there is something bad, inferior, or defective about gay people (and in practice, such an insult usually involves assuming that all gay people like or do certain stereotyped things, which, being also false, is akin to being sexist, violating rule 5 again).
That’s how it is for racist and sexist slurs. But there are also ableist slurs. Ableism has been defined in various ways, not all of them defensible. But the most appropriate and defensible definition will usually be found in a good standard English dictionary, for example: ableism is “discrimination in favor of able-bodied people; prejudice against or disregard of the needs of disabled people.” (On the value and importance of combating ableism in general see Andy Semler’s primer on the subject, Creating a More Inclusive Humanism in an Ableist World.)
Racism, Sexism…and Ableism
Ableism is not exactly the same as sexism and racism, of course. Obviously assuming that a blind person can’t see is not ableism, but the opposite: it’s taking into account a very real difference, one that does makes them inferior in ability to an able-bodied person (but in only that one single respect: visual impairment). And it is not universally possible to accommodate all disabilities in every respect. We can ensure that the mentally retarded have their needs and welfare met, and are compassionately treated, but we can’t rewrite all books and media to match their reading comprehension level, for example, nor should we.
But these caveats do not diminish the fact that ableism exists in just the same sense as sexism and racism, and is just as much in need of purging from ourselves and our society. And like sexism and racism, it has malicious and nonmalicious forms, and both must be done away with by every practical means–it’s just that nonmalicious forms are easier to curb: once pointed out, it’s usually corrected, there being no malice to stubbornly resist doing that.
For example, there is the malicious racism of the KKK, or this guy. But there is also the racism born of simple innocent ignorance or lack of reflection, in short, there is racism that consists simply of “the attribution of ethnic group characteristics to individuals” even when inferiority is not being implied, or when a person making the assumption honestly doesn’t know better (see Crommunist’s Racism: A Definition and his article on Polite Racism). The latter kind of racism is not a character defect and thus should not be treated as such. It should be treated as an information problem, and solved as such. I know the internet’s availability bias can make douchebags and malignant racists seem overnumerous, but in reality most people are well-meaning and educable. We should all in fact operate on the assumption that we always have a lot to learn and thus be ready to be educated on matters we know less about (it’s called “listening,” which does not entail always mindlessly agreeing, but does entail being thoughtful and receptive to the possibility of being corrected, and not just being a stubbornly immovable contrarian).
The demand that all words that are disability metaphors are “ableist” is not particularly reasonable. If I say “That’s lame” or “You must be blind” or “You’re being childish” I am not insulting or referring to the lame, the blind, or children, and none of these terms have significant histories of abusive deployment (unlike “gimp” or “idiot,” for example…more on that in a moment). These uses are thus not ableist. They are just an ordinary deployment of metaphor. So all they have to be is correct.
There are those who disagree, who regard “lame” as ableist, but it appears no more ableist than “blind” or “childish.” When I say someone is lame (or being lame or doing something lame), I am not saying they are physically lame, nor am I insulting people who are physically lame, since I am using the word in the connotation relating to quality of thought or argument (or art or style), not physical ability–I’m not even referring to the disability at all; a lame thought is not a lame leg. A “lame idea” is only like a “lame horse” in the single sense that it is weak or less able to get from here to there, which is a true fact of both, and thus not really an insult, any more than calling an actually blind person blind would be. In fact, like “blind,” in either the literal or metaphorical sense, “lame” is often not really an insult, but just a description–there is simply nothing reprehensible about being lame, even metaphorically (see the entry for lame in the urban dictionary). So actually trying to insult someone with the word “lame” is itself lame.
By contrast, calling someone with a limp a “gimp” is not only an insult, but a slur: the word exists only to demean; and therefore, even using it metaphorically as an insult will violate rule 5 at the very least. (Except perhaps when it’s a contextually-appropriate term of affection or self-reference, under conditions such as Natalie Reed described for tranny above; or maybe [?] also in private consensual sexplay: see the urban dictionary on gimp. But we’re not talking about those uses here, but it’s use as an insult.)
Similarly, “weak” is categorized by some as ableist, but in reality we routinely refer to people who are physically weak as in fact weak: it’s just a correct description of their disability (whether chronic or acute). “My wife was too weak to get out of bed” is not an insult; neither is “his ideas for fixing the problem were pretty weak.” (Though as a Whedonite I prefer “weak tea.”) That’s just a correct use of metaphor. And there’s no overwhelming history of abuse here. Getting your hackles up over such word usage is not reasonable. And we don’t have to accommodate unreasonable expectations.
On the other hand, terms referring to mental illness or defect are another story. I have long tried to resist using terms such as crazy, insane, mad, nuts, loony, etc., of people, unless I really mean to hypothesize that someone is in some sense off their rocker to some degree. In any event we should never use these terms as an insult, but merely as a declaration of suspicion or worry–or as a description of an action or event or thing (“that’s crazy”; “I’ve been having a crazy day”; “we’ve been losing players like crazy”; “that’s a crazy policy”) or pretty much anything else that’s not an insult (“they’re crazy for each other”; “we’re crazy that way”; “I get a little crazy sometimes”).
Thus, someone’s extremely alarming behavior that implies a complete break with sense or reality may have to be called out as such–but only as a straightforward suspicion of fact, not an insult. And context matters to meaning. “Stalin was a madman” does not imply that everyone (or indeed anyone) with any mental disorder is like Stalin. In the context of such a use we understand this only references a particular kind of disturbed mind, and as such appears to be historically apt. But calling just any person with any mental illness “mad” or “crazy” is going to be wrong if you leave it to imply that they are “suffering a complete break with sense or reality,” which is false (violating rule 1). In other words, be clear what you mean, and make sure what you mean is correct.
For these and other reasons we should be sparing and judicious in the way we use terms for insanity. And in any event, we should not use them as insults. They are either honest descriptions or hypotheses–or slurs. The mentally ill are not “reprehensible,” are not generally a threat to society (those few that are, do not impugn the vast majority that aren’t), and are not deserving of insult. So if you insult them, you are violating rule 2; and if you are trying to insult someone else by reference to them, you are violating rule 5. Either way, bad on you. (For more on insanity talk and ableism see Christina’s Ableism in Atheism and the ensuing thread.)
For a starker example of ableist epithets, “gimp” and “retard” and “idiot” and even “stupid” and “dumb,” when used to refer to people who actually are disabled in the ways those epithets imply, is unmistakably intended to unjustifiably cause harm (violating rule 2) and thus those words are slurs. They attempt to belittle or marginalize those who do not deserve to be–rather than simply describing them (as more accepted words for their conditions would do).
But this also means that when these words are used to insult other people, by metaphor, we are saying “it is reprehensible to be x,” that “being x makes you bad for society,” the only proper meaning of an insult (rule 2). But that violates rule 5: people who actually are unable to walk, actually are unable to speak, actually are mentally retarded, are not reprehensible or a threat for society. It only compounds the fact that words like “retard” have such hateful histories that they are needlessly triggering (violating rule 6). Words that have become more mainstreamed, like “stupid” or “dumb,” you should still not overuse, and mostly use of things rather than people, and only use of people descriptively, not to insult them (and even then there are usually gentler ways to do that, like “he’s not too bright”).
This is what I have come to realize. And I have changed my ways accordingly. So should you. But some might think I’m just being irrationally PC. So I will say a little more about this last point before concluding.
The Problem with Stupidity
I am convinced now that “stupid” as an insult against a person is ableist, as is idiot, idiotic, moron, and moronic–and above all “retarded” (and not just the pejorative “retard”). And I will be endeavoring to avoid these words in future. Here’s why.
Let’s start with the seemingly most innocuous of these: stupid. It’s true, such a word does not assume false things about disabled people, nor is it directed at disabled people, and as long as it is truthfully applied (the person did behave stupidly or the idea really was stupid), as metaphor it does not violate rules 1 or 2, and with suitable usage, rules 3 or 4 could be met as well. And rule 6 would only apply to the other words (“retarded” especially): those words (whether you are aware of it or not) do have a horrible history of abuse against the mentally disabled and haven’t been mainstreamed as anything other than slurs, so they are needlessly triggering (even when used of things, like a “retarded idea,” so we should curb our use of even that idiom). There are plenty of words to use in their place (see this list of ableist words and their suggested replacements).
But no matter what, for all these words (even “stupid”) rule 5 intervenes: it is simply not true that nothing false is being assumed about others not targeted by this insult. An insult by definition is only moral if it truthfully declares something is reprehensible about a person, something that makes them in some way a cancer or stumbling block to society or the social good, and thus deserving of scorn or rebuke (again: rule number 1 and rule number 2). But genuinely unintelligent people, genuinely retarded people, people who have historically been clinically classified as morons or idiots (a practice now discontinued), are not reprehensible or bad. Think about it. Would you really insult someone as “stupid” if they were mentally disabled? But if they aren’t, then what quality in them are you insulting? Insult that instead.
Thus these terms, especially “retarded,” are just like “pussy” and “gay” (when used as insults), and therefore just as wrong. Not only do they run afoul of rule 5, these terms also assume the accusation that the target lacks intelligence, as opposed to failing to use the intelligence that they have, and thus the use of these words also violates rule 1, once we properly grasp just what it is we are doing when we use them.
It can be different to say an idea is “stupid” or “dumb,” because those two words have been mainstreamed into a milder idiom, such that when used of an idea, context now allows this to be a metaphor for a failure to think rather than an incapacity to think (with no implied reference to any medical condition). You can always accuse the originator of a dumb idea of being, say, lazy, careless, unreasonable, or stubborn, as long as you think that’s true; whereas if you instead think the fault is that they are uneducated or miseducated, that’s unlikely to be their fault, and thus is not a sound basis for an insult, but can be a sound basis for a descriptive assessment–and an effort to fix it.
To better parse such distinctions think of another word: “freak.” That can be used as a demeaning slur to a disabled or deformed person, and has a horrible history of such abuse. But it also has well-established connotations that make no metaphorical reference to that one. For example, “get your freak on,” “freak out,” “that sculpture is freakish,” “you’re such a freak!” Notice, first, that none of those alternative uses is an insult. And none of them refer to someone’s physical appearance or even deficiencies in physical ability. Thus “freak” does not produce any analogy to recover an acceptable use for “retarded” (or even “idiot,” “moron,” or “stupid”) as insults. We should just do without such words altogether when engaging in the art of insult.
Clarification of Content: Note that this article and its thesis is only about insults (not words used in other ways) and the morality of public discourse (not what you say in private vocalizations or conversations). You should still be cognizant and thoughtful of any consequences of your words in other domains, of course, but the conclusions reached here will not necessarily apply there.
Comments Policy: Note that I will be especially strict in enforcing my comments policy on this post. I want clinical discussions of the issue only, no gratuitous mockery or jokes or other nonsense. And of course, because we may have to discuss even the worst of words in this context, my entire trigger warning applies equally to the entire comment thread.