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A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt—And Why They Shouldn't

por William B Irvine

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William Irvine undertakes a wide-ranging investigation of insults, their history, the role they play in social relationships, and the science behind them, examining not just memorable zingers, such as Elizabeth Bowen's description of Aldous Huxley as "The stupid person's idea of a clever person," but subtle insults as well, such as when someone insults us by reporting the insulting things others have said about us: "I never read bad reviews about myself," wrote entertainer Oscar Levant, "because my best friends invariably tell me about them." Irvine also considers the role insults play in our society: they can be used to cement relations, as when a woman playfully teases her husband, or to enforce a social hierarchy, as when a boss publicly berates an employee. He goes on to investigate the many ways society has tried to deal with insults-by adopting codes of politeness, for example, and outlawing hate speech-but concludes that the best way to deal with insults is to immunize ourselves against them: We need to transform ourselves in the manner recommended by Stoic philosophers. We should, more precisely, become insult pacifists, trying hard not to insult others and laughing off their attempts to insult us.… (mais)
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The author of this book on insults is a philosophy professor who became interested in the subject of insults and how people react to them thanks to contemplating the Stoic philosophers' opinions on the matter. And... Well, he may be able to speak with authority about Stoic philosophers, to whom he devotes one chapter near the end, but the rest of his thoughts on the matter read like the not-very-insightful ramblings of Just Some Guy, but presented with the tone of a college lecture. Which is not a good combination.

Worse, the guy in question comes across as having a very limited and self-centered perspective on things. The examples he offers of insults and responses to them often seem positively weird to me, and his descriptions of how "we" have a natural urge to insult people and to take glee in backbiting and so on seem to say a lot more about him personally than they do about anyone else. He talks a lot about insults as group-bonding banter, because that's apparently how he and his buddies like to interact, and a lot about insults as a sort of social hierarchy game, but seems never to spare a moment's thought for how insults can be used to genuinely abuse, manipulate, oppress, or threaten, probably because he's never been the target of that himself and so doesn't need to care about it. Which is worrying, because it seems to me that a lot of his thoughts about how we ought to respond to insults, while they might be fine for dealing with harmless hecklers, could well be dangerous or damaging for people who are on the receiving end of such things.

Irvine also has some cringe-inducingly shallow thoughts about "political correctness" -- and, yes, he does unironically use that term -- and his discussion of hate speech is positively dripping with a viscous, oozing layer of condescending white guy cluelessness. People today are too thin-skinned! Just don't let stuff get to you, and you won't have a problem! Ugh. Although I will say that it's actually kind of refreshing, after a couple of decades of the Boomers and the Millennials hurling insults at each other and completely ignoring our existence, to actually see someone trotting out the once-familiar canard about how my generation is narcissistic and rude because we were all given participation trophies when we were kids. Still makes me want to roll my eyes, though.

Honestly, the only really good thing about this book was that it quotes a lot of genuinely witty historical zingers, and at least those were fun to read.

You know, ordinarily, I'd feel a bit bad about writing this thoroughly negative of a review. But this guy clearly likes being able to pat himself on the back for how great he is at taking an insult, so, hey, I'm just giving him one more possible opportunity, right? ( )
3 vote bragan | Jul 9, 2020 |
A lot of evopsych and a lot of self-congratulatory thinking. Irvine appears to be one of those people who thinks that logic trumps research, and his book suffers for it. This could have been fascinating. Instead it was - well, insulting. ( )
  jen.e.moore | May 20, 2015 |
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William Irvine undertakes a wide-ranging investigation of insults, their history, the role they play in social relationships, and the science behind them, examining not just memorable zingers, such as Elizabeth Bowen's description of Aldous Huxley as "The stupid person's idea of a clever person," but subtle insults as well, such as when someone insults us by reporting the insulting things others have said about us: "I never read bad reviews about myself," wrote entertainer Oscar Levant, "because my best friends invariably tell me about them." Irvine also considers the role insults play in our society: they can be used to cement relations, as when a woman playfully teases her husband, or to enforce a social hierarchy, as when a boss publicly berates an employee. He goes on to investigate the many ways society has tried to deal with insults-by adopting codes of politeness, for example, and outlawing hate speech-but concludes that the best way to deal with insults is to immunize ourselves against them: We need to transform ourselves in the manner recommended by Stoic philosophers. We should, more precisely, become insult pacifists, trying hard not to insult others and laughing off their attempts to insult us.

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