Sticks and Stones: The Philosophy of Insults

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"Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." This schoolyard rhyme projects an invulnerability to verbal insults that sounds good but rings false. Indeed, the need for such a verse belies its own claims. For most of us, feeling insulted is a distressing-and distressingly common-experience.

In Sticks and Stones, philosopher Jerome Neu probes the nature, purpose, and effects of insults, exploring how and why they humiliate, embarrass, infuriate, and wound us so deeply. What kind of injury is an insult? Is it determined by the insulter or the insulted? What does it reveal about the character of both parties as well as the character of society and its conventions? What role does insult play in social and legal life? When is telling the truth an insult? Neu draws upon a wealth of examples and anecdotes-as well as a range of views from Aristotle and Oliver Wendell Holmes to Oscar Wilde, John Wayne, Katherine Hepburn, and many others-to provide surprising answers to these questions. He shows that what we find insulting can reveal much about our ideas of character, honor, gender, the nature of speech acts, and social and legal conventions. He considers how insults, both intentional and unintentional, make themselves felt-in play, Freudian slips, insult humor, rituals, blasphemy, libel, slander, and hate speech. And he investigates the insult's extraordinary power, why it can so quickly destabilize our sense of self and threaten our moral identity, the very center of our self-respect and self-esteem.

Entertaining, humorous, and deeply insightful, Sticks and Stones unpacks the fascinating dynamics of a phenomenon more often painfully experienced than clearly understood.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Drawing on his position as a professor of humanities (Univ. of California, Santa Cruz; A Tear Is an Intellectual Thing), Neu gives us a wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and incredibly readable-if demanding-study of a subject that will be of interest to anyone who has ever been insulted-and who among us hasn't been? Neu emphasizes "philosophical, anthropological, psychoanalytic and legal approaches" to try to understand as fully as possible the nature of insults and insulting behavior. He considers obscenity, free speech, hate speech, libel and slander, insult humor, and other pertinent issues and gives myriad examples of hurtful behavior involving well-known persons as well as insults from classical to contemporary times. Included is a fascinating and detailed "Shakespeare Insult Kit" that shows the playwright's deep and intuitive understanding of this aspect of human nature. A delightful, important study for readers of all levels; highly recommended.
—Leon H. Brody

From the Publisher
"Mr. Neu leads his readers into many a satisfying alleyway of mortifying wit."—Andrew Stark, Wall Street Journal

"[T]he book roams enjoyably over its terrain with a philosopher's eye for distinctions, offering philosophical and practical insights into insults with support from law, psychology, sociology, anthropology, ethology, and Freud. It is engagingly and fluidly written, with nuance and wit.... original and illuminating."—Margaret Urban Walker, Mind

"This is a fascinating exploration of that most human of activities: insulting one another."—Simon Blackburn, Times Higher Education

"Neu gives us a wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and incredibly readable-if demanding-study of a subject that will be of interest to anyone who has ever been insulted-and who among us hasn't been?.... A delightful, important study for readers of all levels; highly recommended."—Library Journal

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195314311
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 12/7/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 8.30 (w) x 5.70 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Jerome Neu is Professor of Humanities at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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Table of Contents

1. On Feeling Insulted
2. Honor: Slaps and Swords
3. Insult in Play and Ritual
4. Assault from the Rear
5. The Language of Abuse
6. Insult in the Law: Fighting Words, Obscenity, and Hate Speech
7. Insult in the Law: Libel and Slander
8. Insult in the Law: Blasphemy
9. Insult Humor
10. To Understand All Is to Forgive All—Or Is It?

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