On insults-7: Some final thoughts

Yes, this series actually is coming to an end! But not before I add some final thoughts.

Insults usually have no basis in fact. In fact, the more spectacular insults may have absolutely no contact with even reality. They are meant to inflame passions by ascribing qualities to the other person that, looked at dispassionately, may not even be derogatory.

For example, I discussed how the words ‘slut’ and ‘prostitute’ are insults only to someone who has a narrow-minded view of sexuality. Similarly other traditional insults such as being called a ‘bastard’ are only insults if one thinks that being born out of wedlock is somehow a stain on one’s character, something we know is absurd. Other insults refer to sexual acts involving relatives and animals, with no factual basis whatsoever.

To be fully effective as an insult, the term should be used by the speaker with the intent to insult and the recipient should recognize, either by words or tone or gesture, that there has been a deliberate attempt to insult him or her. For example, my father was born and grew up in Burma but the only Burmese words he taught me was a phrase that he told me was an obscenity that he said was used as an insult, though he never told me what it meant and I do not know if he was just pulling my leg. I have never got to know a Burmese-speaking person well enough to safely ask what the phrase means without risk of causing needless offense but if I used it in conversation with a non-Burmese speaker, the response would at most be bafflement, unless I accompanied it by yelling or gesticulating in obvious anger.

A speaker who uses an insulting term out of ignorance, without realizing it as such may be partially exempt from criticism. This is usually the case with older people who have developed habits that are hard to shake off. I have a colleague who sometimes refers to women as ‘gals’. I know this person well and this seems like a mere habit and not a symptom of a demeaning attitude towards women but someone who met him for the first time might well feel insulted. There are many areas relating to ethnicity and gender where it is not immediately obvious which terms are acceptable and which terms are disparaging and even the most well-meaning person can stumble. It is a good idea to give people the benefit of the doubt in such situations.

In the comments on the first post in this series on who determines if something is an insult, some argued that it is the listener who should get to decide, and that it was wrong of me to say that the words ‘slut’ and ‘prostitute’ used by Limbaugh against Sandra Fluke are not insults except for those who have a narrow view of sexuality. They argued that the terms should be considered insults because Limbaugh meant them as such and society currently views them as such. Most importantly, if the target Fluke thought they were insults, then they are insults.

I can understand the point of view that if a person feels that they have been insulted, it is no use, and somewhat patronizing, to tell them that they should not feel that way. What people feel is what they feel. But at the same time, I am uncomfortable with granting the right to determine what is an insult and what can and cannot be said in the public sphere to those who are the aggrieved parties because you are then effectively giving a veto on what can be said to the most sensitive and intolerant. After all, the strategy of some people to arguments that they cannot refute is to claim that they have been offended. For example, religious people often argue that there are some things that should not be said about their religious beliefs because those beliefs are sacred and deeply important to them, and that they have a right to not be offended by others saying that those beliefs are irrational. We would not, and should not, concede the right to Muslims or Jews or Christians or any other group to decide what can properly be said about their particular religion.

For example, I think that believing in a supernatural being or in the afterlife is irrational, in that there is no credible evidence to support either view. This does not mean that I think that people who believe in such things are necessarily stupid. All of us believe in things for reasons that we cannot clearly articulate and that may not hold up under close scrutiny. But there is no way that I can make that simple statement without legions of people becoming offended or insulted. We saw how just the appearance of the word ‘atheist’ on a billboard was sufficient to cause offense.

I would go further and say that it should be permissible to subject any belief structure to sharp criticisms and even ridicule. Sometimes the best way to eliminate wrong and even harmful ideas is to subject them to withering scorn. But of course, subjecting beliefs to ridicule and scorn is far different from subjecting people to it. This is where Limbaugh made his big mistake, by making his attacks on Fluke the person rather than about the policy she advocated.

Sometimes it is hard for people to separate their beliefs from their sense of self. Especially when it comes to religion-based beliefs, people’s sense of religious identity is so closely intertwined with their sense of personal identity, that it becomes impossible to criticize their beliefs without them thinking that they have been personally attacked. But we all have to learn how to do this if we are to avoid endless and tedious discussions about what can and cannot be said in the public sphere.

In my own life, I try to not offend others purely for the sake of offending them, and not be easily offended myself. I have to admit that I have had only partial success with the latter goal. But I’m working on it.


  1. Jared A says


    I don’t think you have said anything I disagree with completely in this series, but I feel that you have skirted the behavior that best utilizes insults and that cannot be dismissed as ‘mere words’: bullying.

    Bullying is the manipulation of the social environment of a target in order to alienate him or her from that environment. Verbal abuse like insults are one of many tools that can be used. It is not something that the victim can always just shrug off as harmless, because it isn’t. Bullying causes real changes in a person’s ability to understand and interact socially with the people around them.

    I know that your series has been about discussing insulting and vitriolic language on the internet rather than making specific recommendations. But without discussing how insults are used as part of cyber-bullying I don’t see how you can feel you have talked about this topic in any depth.


  2. Tim says

    Great thought-provoking article, Mano.

    I’d offer, respectfully, two points:

    1. You said, “For example, I discussed how the words ‘slut’ and ‘prostitute’ are insults only to someone who has a narrow-minded view of sexuality.”

    I disagree. Words exist in context. When words happen in the context of a culture that often supports and encourages sexualized violence toward women, words such as ‘slut’ and ‘prostitute’ are not ‘mere words,’ but are (as Jared rightly pointed out, in my view) tools of violence and bullying. In an anti-female culture such as ours, these words shift from only being words to becoming so much more … and with statistics showing that 1 out of every 4 women having been victims of sexual violence in their life (a statistic that is, sadly, most likely an under-reporting of the actual numbers), these ‘mere words’ are correctly heard by many previously-wounded individuals to be the veiled threats that they rightly are. The meta-message comes through loud and clear: “Shut your mouth and keep your place. Or you will be hurt even more than you have been in the past.”

    2. You said, “But at the same time, I am uncomfortable with granting the right to determine what is an insult and what can and cannot be said in the public sphere to those who are the aggrieved parties because you are then effectively giving a veto on what can be said to the most sensitive and intolerant.”

    I share your struggle here, Mano. And would point out that those who are sensitive and those who are intolerant are not always in the same group of people.

    Thanks again for the thought-provoking words.



  3. vf says

    Are you sure that religious people consider the word “irrational” as an insult? It seems to me they do consider faith as irrational. What they consider as insults is not being called “irrational”

  4. Mano Singham says

    I think that nonreligious people often underestimate how much effort religious people put into argue that their beliefs are rational. I will be posting about this.

  5. Tim says

    I agree with Mano. The term “irrational” would still be considered an insult by most religious people I know. The more sophisticated religious folks I’ve spoken to will often use the term “non-rational” to distinguish their religious thoughts/experience from both “rational” and “irrational.”

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