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Mar 21 2012

On insults-6: How should we respond to insults?

Children often respond to someone saying something hurtful by reciting “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me”. But it seems like adults are less mature than children because alleged grown ups can be aroused to a violent and even murderous rage simply by being called names.

My series of posts on how to deal with offensive comments on blogs made we wonder about the whole issue of why we tend to react so strongly to perceived verbal insults. While we may have passed the stage where men staged idiotic duels to avenge insults to their own honor or that of their loved ones, injury and deaths occur even today because someone was outraged by a perceived insult, sometimes by things as trivial as showing someone the back of a clenched fist with just the middle finger raised, colloquially known as ‘giving the finger’ or ‘flipping the bird’.

Just a few days ago, the driver of the car ahead of me went through a stop sign but halted before he crashed into a car that had the right of way. A person in the other car gave him the finger before driving off and this person seemed to be so outraged (even though he was the one at fault for nearly causing a crash) that he immediately reversed direction and took off after the car whose occupants had thus insulted him. I continued in my direction so do not know what subsequently ensued. But when you think about it, it seems absurd that a harmless, non-threatening physical gesture can arouse such strong feelings. I have seen TV stations even pixilate it to avoid offending viewers.

So what gives words and gestures the power to arouse anger? First let’s consider the response to an insult that is targeted directly at you. If the insult has no factual basis, and that is often the case, then it is just a stupid comment, and it seems somewhat absurd to get angry about it. It is the person making the insult who is diminished by doing so because it shows that they have no credible argument and hence must resort to insult in order to goad you into doing or saying something stupid. The logical response would be to calmly point out the falsehood and walk away from the argument. But it is not easy to think rationally at that moment. An insult seems to send the blood rushing to one’s head and drive all reason away.

Why do we get so angry? I find it hard to imagine that we are biologically hardwired to react this way. I am not aware of any evidence that other species insult and get insulted that might suggest that an angry response to insults confers some evolutionary advantage. I am guessing that the reasons are more social and cultural than biological.

One reason that we get angry is perhaps because although we know that the substance of the insult lacks any foundation, we may fear that others who hear it may think it is true unless we immediately and vehemently challenge it. Our willingness to take extreme steps in response is a way of showing that we are innocent of the charge. Of course, this approach can lead to rising nastiness, expensive legal actions such as suing for slander or libel, or to violence and, in the old days, to duels and death.

The rational response to an insult should be to ignore or dismiss it. But even if we can deal somewhat calmly with insults aimed at ourselves, insults aimed at others can generate even more passion. The prevalence of insults that begin “Your mother is…” and “Your wife/girlfriend is …” suggests how powerful such insults can be. (These forms of insults seem to be a male prerogative, which is an interesting topic in its own right that I will not get into.)

Once again, these insults usually have no basis in fact. The person doing the insulting often may not even know the person being insulted. And yet, we immediately feel the urge to rise vigorously in opposition to what is manifestly a silly and ignorant statement. I suspect that this is because in addition to fearing that bystanders might think that a statement that does not generate a vigorous defense may be true, a more powerful reason is that we may feel that the insulted person may think less of us if we do not immediately come to their defense. In other words, we are not responding to the insult or the insulter so much as not wanting the insulted person to think we do not care about them enough to come to their defense. Responding angrily is a way of showing loyalty to the person being insulted even if everyone knows that there is no substance to the insult.

I am not saying that we shouldn’t defend ourselves and others from baseless allegations in order to prevent damage to reputations and in the interests of truth. This is about how to respond to statements aimed at us or at others that are obviously false and stupid and intended merely to get a rise out of us.

Surely the most effective response to someone trying to insult you by saying something outrageous is to treat the perpetrator with contempt? Imagine trying to insult someone and have that person burst out laughing at you? You would feel like a fool. And you would be right to feel that way because using insults is foolish.

11 comments

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  1. 1
    B-Lar

    Yes. Brilliant.

    I am remindedof an issue of the manga comic Lone Wolf and cub which deals with exactly this. In a world where taking offence means slaying the offender, it takes great personal integrity to recognise that factually erroneous slander has no basis in truth and can therefore be ignored.

    Of course, the ability to recognise that fact is not shared by everyone.

  2. 2
    machintelligence

    Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, insult for an insult!

  3. 3
    Stacy

    I am not aware of any evidence that other species insult and get insulted

    Other social animals have dominance hierarchies, and react with anger or anxiety when their “place” is threatened. The sense of insult (feeling “put down”) could be related to that.

  4. 4
    Henry Gale

    I suspect its mostly ego. The stronger the sense of self, the more likely the person is to react to an insult.

    I usually respond to a passing gesture with a smile and a wave. Kill them with kindness.

    If someone speaks an insult to me I usually smile and respond with, ‘Yes it’s true. I’m a bad bad man.’

    Then I start laughing and walk off.

  5. 5
    otrame

    @Henry Gale

    Wisdom. When you react with anger, it is often because you know the insulter has a case against you (even if you don’t actually deserve to be insulted). Like the driver in the OP.

    Since I am fairly old and am not by nature confrontational, I have, in fact, seldom been insulted to my face and when I was, it was usually because someone objected to the fact that I have no trouble hanging out with black people, even though I myself suffer from a fairly serious melanin deficiency. They desegregated my high school in South Carolina the year I started (told you I was old). So, I got a lot of insults because I made friends with some of the new black kids. I learned very quickly to say, “Why, yes, I am a nigger-lover. Thank you for noticing.”

  6. 6
    jamessweet

    I am not aware of any evidence that other species insult and get insulted that might suggest that an angry response to insults confers some evolutionary advantage.

    Really?? I would think that pretty much any species which has aggression/dominance displays has some version of an “insult”…

  7. 7
    Mano Singham

    While I think an insult could be one manifestation of aggression/dominance, I am not sure that what other species do match that particular aspect of simply trying to make the other angry, as opposed to achieving a more tangible goal.

  8. 8
    vf

    In the “helium” post you rightly state that a small leak here, another small leak here leads to big leaks. I think in the case of insults, you could say something similar, there is a difference between one insult at a cross road, and a systematic behaviour, which again and again pulls systematically on the same rope. You can’t deny that even shrugging one’s shoulders at an insult requires a little bit of a minute effort from the victim of the insult, then as insults piles up, it is quite tiresome, and in the end somewhat painful though.

  9. 9
    left0ver1under

    Just a few days ago, the driver of the car ahead of me went through a stop sign but halted before he crashed into a car that had the right of way. A person in the other car gave him the finger before driving off and this person seemed to be so outraged (even though he was the one at fault for nearly causing a crash) that he immediately reversed direction and took off after the car whose occupants had thus insulted him.

    You don’t even have to make an obscene gesture to have aggressive morons act out. When I’m crossing the street where drivers have stopped on the crosswalk instead of behind the stop line, I look directly at the drivers as I’m going past. Sometimes I give them a dirty look, but no hand gestures involved and no mouthed words.

    A fair number of such idiots shake their fists or shoot out obscene gestures, and on rare occasions the idiot will open the door and step out (Why isn’t he wearing a seat belt?), rev the engine in an attempt to threaten, or will move the car forward at, in front of or behind me.

  10. 10
    Stacy

    Jockeying for place in the hierarchy and getting along with conspecifics gets more complex the more cognitively sophisticated the species is (cf. de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics.) Our big human brains evolved along with, and in part to deal with, our increasingly complex societies. It’s not surprising that we (relatively) hairless apes jockey for position and test each other quite a lot.

    You poopyheads.

  11. 11
    Beth

    I have watched squirrels tease dogs, darting into the dog’s territory (our fenced back yard) and then running up a tree and watching as the dogs bark furiously at them. In one case, a squirrel was alternating between our dogs and a neighbors, making our dogs angry and barking, then running through the tree tops to set our neighbor’s dog off, then coming back to ours to set them off again.

    The squirrels were definitely and deliberately inciting anger and frustration in another species.

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