“Kiss my grits!”
This was my best friend’s and my favorite retort/counter-insult when either one of us had been “had” by the other. It also went a bit further in that the teaser/insulter would then blow a kiss which resulted in the other party slapping a haunch and squealing “Ooh!” Then the peals of laughter at our brilliant routine. While the initiation was always predicated by a tease or insult the repertoire that followed made sure that we were still bonded and there were no hard feelings. If a tease did not result in the above routine then the teaser would immediately know she had gone too far and an apology was necessary.
This “benign insult” together with more malicious insults, backbiting, and even off-handed praise; and the mechanisms to stop them from happening and hurting are the subject in William B. Irvine’s newest book A Slap In The Face, Why Insults Hurt – And Why They Shouldn’t. While this lovely book might at first look seem like a book about HOW to insult it is far from it. It is a treatise ABOUT insults, why we humans are so prone to use them, and how to hopefully reduce their use and reduce their hurtful effect. Mr. Irvine draws upon the Greek Stoics for much of his philosophical approach towards insults.
In the Part One of the book, Mr. Irvine takes us through all the different types of insults, when and where they are used and the possible outcomes of using said insults. At this point I was amazed at how many of these insults I utilize. They have become part and parcel of our daily lives that one has to wonder at the ease of which they roll from our lips and finger tips. I feel confident that just about everyone has teased a friend, a family member, a colleague. But do we consciously understand that these little jabs are actually insults; and more importantly, that we as humans actually seek these out as a confirmation that we are part of an “in group”? Even as a student of evolutionary psychology, I was blown away by this evolutionary argument. But I could see where this would make sense. As social animals we have developed behaviors and rituals that benefit our ability to survive and reproduce. When there is a particular group we wish to associate with, the only time we really know that we have arrived, is when the other, more senior members, take the time to tease us.
In Part Two, Mr. Irvine examines the hows and whys insults hurt. He delves into the physical pain caused by “hurt feelings” and that even after considerable time, calling up the memory of the insult still resulted in the pain as if it just happened. This is much the same trigger as post traumatic stress syndrome. He also discusses in depth a movement of the late twentieth century, “the self-esteem movement”, where every child was treated as a winner; in the classroom, in sports, in all activities where competition might take place. While this created a lot of young people with high self esteem, it did nothing for their self image because none were treated to character building constructive criticisms. As a result these generations had little personal responsibility and little self respect.
Part three examines how we as social creatures can deal with the daily insults that occur and how to lessen their pain and suffering. Mr. Irvine invokes strongly the Stoics viewpoint that pacifism is the best response to insults. For the Stoics, an insult should never be responded to with another insult. The best response, if a response is required is by self deprecating humor. That way, not only is the insult deflected, it is met with a smile. When this is done, the sting of the insult is thwarted. In addition to the self deprecating humor, a simple “Thank you” also prevents the insulter from achieving any satisfaction from the insult. And if one were in a rather aggressive state of mind but not wanting to let the insulter see any pain, a quick “whatever” will curb further insults. While these responses help in alleviating some of the immediate sting, Mr. Irvine looks deeper into why insult hurt. What he argues is that insults hurt because there is some truth behind them which is based on having misguided values; most specifically those values that revolve around fame and fortune. According to the Stoics, when someone values fame and fortune, any remark about not having achieved them will be quite painful. If we humans were to throw off the drives that make us want these things then not only would insults not hurt, there would be no need to spew them from our mouths.
These ideas really hit home with me. Since I have stepped off the ladder climbing treadmill of corporate American I have found a profound peace in my own life. Where I have much work to do is that I still find it necessary to point out to others who still feel a sense of accomplishment in being a part of corporate America how wrong their thinking is. Mr. Irvine has also had some challenges in attempting to live a more Stoic life. But, if we all tried at least a little we could make the world a less insulting place. Until then, I will keep my “kiss my grits” response close at hand.