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Toward a Rhetoric of Insult

Toward a Rhetoric of Insult

by Thomas Conley

From high school cafeterias to the floor of Congress, insult is a truly universal and ubiquitous cultural practice with a long and earthy history. And yet, this most human of human behaviors has rarely been the subject of organized and comprehensive attention—until Toward a Rhetoric of Insult. Viewed through the lens of the study of rhetoric, insult,


From high school cafeterias to the floor of Congress, insult is a truly universal and ubiquitous cultural practice with a long and earthy history. And yet, this most human of human behaviors has rarely been the subject of organized and comprehensive attention—until Toward a Rhetoric of Insult. Viewed through the lens of the study of rhetoric, insult, Thomas M. Conley argues, is revealed as at once antisocial and crucial for human relations, both divisive and unifying.

Explaining how this works and what exactly makes up a rhetoric of insult prompts Conley to range across the vast and splendidly colorful history of offense. Taking in Monty Python, Shakespeare, Eminem, Cicero, Henry Ford, and the Latin poet Martial, Conley breaks down various types of insults, examines the importance of audience, and explores the benign side of abuse. In doing so, Conley initiates readers into the world of insult appreciation, enabling us to regard insults not solely as means of expressing enmity or disdain, but as fascinating aspects of human interaction.

Editorial Reviews

John Henderson
“This is an original work well crafted into flowing continuous exposition. Readers will gladly seize on this fresh contribution and find here a stimulating and heartening extended essay leading through an entertaining, virtuoso meditation to a typically constructive proposal. Conley, who holds a distinguished record of thoughtful and humane writing, has charmed me into merriment with this thoroughly engaging book.”—John Henderson, University of Cambridge
Ted Cohen
“In Toward a Rhetoric of Insult we have a very good topic discussed by an intelligent and informed author. The result is a well-written and endlessly interesting book.”


"Students will find this a particularly interesting and accessible study of an enduringly interesting, relevant aspect of rhetoric and communication."

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University of Chicago Press
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Toward a Rhetoric of Insult


The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-11478-1

Chapter One

The Range of Insult

In late December 2006, Ilan Greenberg reported in the New York Times (December 24, 2006) that an article "seen as denigrating Islam" published in an obscure Baku newspaper "prompted demonstrations across Azerbaijan and in Iran." The article blamed Islam for Azerbaijan's sluggish economic development, and the demonstrations raised concern over Iran's influence in that country. An Iranian cleric demanded the death of the authors of the article, Greenberg reported, "and other religious conservatives in Azerbaijan have sent tremors through the Azeri government." Quoted in the article was an imam at one of the more prestigious mosques in Baku, Haji Ilgar, who is reported to have said, "I am for freedom of speech, but not the freedom to insult."

This was, at the time, the most recent of several stories I saw in the news during 2006 that featured "insult" that gave rise to indignation, anger, civil unrest, and even deaths. There was another story in the Times earlier in the year (July 10, 2006, in an article by Judy Dempsey). At what is described in the article as "a low point for Poland's relations with Europe," Polish president Lech Kaczynski cancelled a summit meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Jacques Chirac, evidently (according to "senior Polish diplomats and opposition politicians") because of a satirical article in the German newspaper Taz that said of Kaczynski that the only thing he knows about Germany "is the spittoon in the men's toilet at Frankfurt Airport," and described him and his twin brother, Jaroslav, as "the Polish new potatoes." Poland's foreign minister, Anna Fotyga, demanded a formal apology by the German Foreign Ministry, but got none—a response she described as "shocking," since the language of the article could be compared to language used in Der Stürmer, a propaganda weekly during the Nazi era. The immediate result of all this was considerable damage, in the view of many prominent Polish politicians, to Poland's interests—not to mention considerable public uproar in both Poland and Germany. A subsequent report (New York Times, August 7, 2006) by the International Herald Tribune's Andreas Tzortzis clarifies the matter. The original headline in Tageszeitung ("Taz," for short) was "Poland's New Potatoes: Rogues Who Want to Rule the World," and the article ended with the assertion that Jaroslaw Kaczynski still lived with his mother, "but at least without a marriage certificate." And there were several other printed slights, enough to make one think that 2006 may have been "The Year of Global Insult."

"Insult," then, is evidently seen as a sign of fractures or fissures in social and political civility that give rise to turmoil and conflict. There is a wealth of literature devoted to "conflict management" in both business settings and international diplomacy. And much has been written about "civility" recently (e.g., by Charles Taylor, by the "communitarians," by those debating the question of "public space" or, indeed, whether there is a "public," and so forth); but little attention has been paid to the culprit in all the failures to preserve or encourage civility—insults.

If you look around for systematic examinations of what it is that constitutes an insult, you will find that insult or insulting behavior remains one of the most overlooked (although not unnoticed) and under-examined features of everyday social interaction. Examine available research databases, for instance, and you will find little in the way of general considerations of the ways in which insults are universal among humans gathered together, and even less about why they are so universal. There is plenty of data, a very long and diverse story of social experience, but not much reflection on what that data can—or should—teach us. This book, without going into an elaborate justification-cum-survey of "the state of the art," is intended to make a start on such reflection.

There are, of course, some questions of enormous range and importance that such reflection might turn up. But let us begin with a simpler and more mundane kind of question: what do we mean when we call something an "insult"? Most often—and I am not claiming that this is particularly rigorous (or original)—we mean that it is an expression of a severely negative opinion of a person or group in order to subvert their positive self-regard and esteem; and often we consider insults to be examples of verbal abuse. It's clear, for instance, that a remark such as "You've got a face that would gag a maggot" is an insult. Fine. But not very enlightening. To begin with, consider the range of synonyms for "insult" in English that come to mind: "slighting," "affront," "ridicule," "malediction," "vituperation," "invective," "contumely," "mocking"; or, at a more vernacular level, "name-calling," "roasting," "put-down."

All of these, of course, have very different connotations, and these connotations in turn suggest a number of different dimensions along which "insult" can be plotted. Just a few of these dimensions—and again, I am not claiming rigorous analysis here—include what might be called "scenario," "intensity," and "vehicle." "Scenario" can be conceived in both "horizontal" and "vertical" terms. "You've got a face that would gag a maggot" or the Shakespearean "Thou puking, toad-spotted maltworm," for instance, are remarks probably made by an individual to another individual—perhaps the most common scenario that comes to mind. But insults can be directed by an individual against a group—the evangelizing preacher who comes to my campus, for instance, and addresses his gathered student audience as "a bunch of whores and drunks"; or one of Aristophanes' characters (Dikaiopolis in the Acharnians comes to mind) berating members of the assembly or the chorus. The converse scenario is also common: a group insulting an individual. Think of a theatre audience heckling an actor on stage. And of course there are insults directed by one group against another: the supporters of a losing college football team chanting to the supporters of their more powerful opposition, "That's all right. That's OK. You will work for us some day!" or the English soccer hooligans to the Germany fans across the stadium, "We beat you in '45, Fritz, and we'll beat you Nazis today!" Notice that some of these are exchanges between equal parties, and some are levied by (purported) superiors to inferiors or inferiors to superiors. This is the "vertical" dimension I referred to earlier. Both horizontal and vertical exchanges may be sanctioned or not: saying to someone, "You smell so bad, the last time you took a bath the soap fainted" or "Yo' mama so ugly she hurts my feelings" is permitted by the conventions governing "The Dozens," as the invective in Aristophanes was sanctioned by the conventions of Old Comedy; and indeed, it is said that it is mandatory in castebound Indian society for an Untouchable to insult himself when addressing a member of a higher caste. By contrast, what most would see as unwarranted slurs or name-calling beyond the bounds of "good taste" are, precisely, unwarranted by good taste—viz., not sanctioned, so in violation of common norms of decorum. Examples of the latter are myriad, and we will see a great many more as we proceed. For the present, one final remark should be made about "scenario," and that is that considerations of scenario (or setting, or situation) are absolutely fundamental to our understanding of insult. About this, too, we shall have much to say.

Subverting someone's self-esteem may get one in trouble. Insult people, and you will likely hurt their feelings—and that usually evokes a reaction. If someone's self-esteem is sufficiently subverted by an insult, the reaction can be violent—a punch in the face or even a duel in some societies. One group's insults against another group can result in riot (think of the reactions in the spring of 2006 to the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed), diplomatic crisis, or even war. So the matter of "intensity," of a scale of "hurt," comes into consideration—in both sanctioned and unsanctioned insults. This, too, turns up a dazzling variety of possibilities. For instance, some insulting behavior is regarded as not serious, but entertaining. Many an afternoon has been passed in an Irish pub enjoying "the craik," banter between friends that often verges on—but never quite becomes—serious malediction. There are many club comedians whose schtick is audience abuse, whether discomforting (think of the old Lenny Bruce) or reassuring (as in the recent rash of "blue collar" or "redneck" acts). Or consider the ways in which characters in a situation comedy (Seinfeld comes to mind) sometimes actually strengthen their bonds with one another through insults. By contrast, sometimes "making fun" of another can result in genuine hurt feelings (which in turn can vary from "I'm rubber, you're glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you" to angry tears—and more); and sometimes sanctioned entertaining insults end up cutting to the quick (as, for instance, when insulting remarks during a political roast may be acutely embarrassing because true). So what was intended to be entertaining turns out to be serious. This raises another dimension of insult bearing on intensity: the true–not true dimension. On the one hand, to say, in "doing the dozens," "Yo' mama's ass is so big, when she walks down the street it looks like two bears rasslin' under a blanket" is clearly not to make a statement of fact (one hopes), but it is just as clearly meant as an insult. On the other, there are some neighborhoods in Amsterdam, for instance, where to call someone a "whore" is simply to get that person's profession right. If you call an obese person "Fatty," you may intend to insult, but you report in the process a matter of fact. How serious or entertaining an intended insult may be taken to be may also, as the earlier examples suggest, be a matter of whether there are spectators present or not, and of what those spectators expect to hear or see. In short, intensity, as well as the question of whether a given response to a perceived insult is fitting or disproportionate, is always a matter of applicability and expectation—which brings us back again, obviously, to scenario or situation.

A good example of the interplay between intensity and situation can be seen in the transcript of the 1969 Chicago Seven trial that resulted from the demonstrations in Chicago that took place during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The alleged ringleaders of the demonstrations, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, John Froines, and Lee Weiner (Bobby Seals was one of the originally indicted, but his trial was separated from that of the others) were charged with conspiracy to incite, and actually inciting, riot under the antiriot provisions of the 1968 Civil Rights Act. The trial lasted for months, resulting in the conviction (which was later reversed) of five of the seven defendants not only on the original charges but on over 150 counts of contempt of court that resulted from repeated exchanges between the defendants and the judge, Julius Hoffman, such as the following (from the transcript of the trial from February 4, 1970, available online at http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/ projects/ftrials/Chicago7/Chi7_trial.html):

MR. SCHULTZ [prosecuting attorney]: Did Dellinger say anything when this announcement was made?

WITNESS: I did not hear him say anything.

MR. SCHULTZ: Did you see where he went?

WITNESS: He left with the head of the group that were carrying the flags.

MR. DELLINGER: Oh, bullshit. That is an absolute lie!

THE COURT [i.e., Judge Hoffman]: Did you get that, Miss Reporter?

MR. DELLINGER: You're a snake. We have to try to put you in jail for ten years for telling lies about us, Dick Schultz.

MARSHAL JONESON: Be quiet, Mr. Dellinger.

MR. DELLINGER: When it's all over, the judge will go to Florida, but if he has his way, we'll go to jail. That is what we're fighting for, not just for us, but for all the rest of the people in the country who are being oppressed.

VOICES: Right on, right on!

THE COURT: Take that man into custody, Mr. Marshal. Take that man into custody.

MR. SCHULTZ: Into custody?

THE COURT: Into custody.

VOICES: Right on!

MR. DAVIS: Go ahead, Dick Schultz, put everybody in jail.

MR. DELLINGER: Dick Schultz is a Nazi if I ever knew one.

MR. SCHULTZ: Your Honor, will you please tell Mr. Davis to walk away from me?

MR. DELLINGER: Put everybody in jail.

THE COURT: Mr. Davis, will you take your chair.

MR. HOFFMAN: Nazi jailer!

MR. DAVIS: This court is bullshit....

MR. HOFFMAN: You are a disgrace to the Jews. You would have served Hitler better. Dig it!

THE MARSHAL: That was Mr. Hoffman, your Honor.

THE COURT: I saw him and I heard him.

MR. RUBIN: You are a fascist! Hoffman ...

THE MARSHAL: Clear the court!

Disorder in the court, to be sure. Defendants speaking up out of turn, spectators chiming in, and name-calling—clearly "contempt of court." But notice the insults here. Schultz is called a "snake" and a "Nazi"; the court is called "bullshit"; and the judge is called a "fascist" and a "Nazi." But "snake" is pretty mild, and "bullshit" is not much more than a barnyard epithet. And "fascist" and "Nazi" are terms that were, in those days (and perhaps even today), bandied about with stupefying abandon. But this, after all, was a federal trial with its rules for procedure and courteous behavior. And judge Julius Hoffman was, of course, a prestigious federal judge—and a Jew.

In addition to drawing attention to the connection between scenario and intensity, this also brings us to the third consideration, what I am calling "vehicle," or perhaps "medium." It is probably safe to say that when we think of insults, we think of something someone says to another; so the most common—but certainly not, as we shall see, the exclusive—vehicle for insult is verbal. Verbal insult ranges from terms or phrases "of abuse" uttered by themselves to statements (such as the one about "rasslin'" bears) to the more complex articulations that one finds in slogans, ditties, poems of various lengths, extended passages of invective, and satires (Swift's Mechanical Operations of the Spirit, for instance), and so on. We can find in every language, and in the literature of every language, a rich repertoire of terms of abuse and genres of insult, from street ditties ("Little Johnny Deveroo, we don't want to play with you / It's not because you're dirty, it's not because you're clean / It's because you are a Protestant and eat margareen" was popular in my old neighborhood) to ancient Greek iambics, Nordic and Scottish flyting, and the satires of Juvenal and Old Comedy—to name just a few. The subject of "terms of abuse" is fascinating and so broad as to deserve separate treatment (see the section that follows). But for now it may be enough to observe that, to borrow some terms from the old rhetorical tradition, it is not only the elocutio (diction, style) of insults that demands attention but also, and perhaps more importantly, the delivery (pronuntiatio)—tone of voice, volume, tenor, body language (facial expression, gestures of the eye, posture, and the like), and, above all, timing. These elements are impossible to treat adequately in a book like this, and so will not receive the attention that they deserve. But it is important to note that insults involve not only verbal resources but nonverbal or paraverbal resources as well. In fact, a great many vehicles for insult are exclusively nonverbal. Inappropriate attire, bad table manners, a patronizing tone of voice—not to mention the obscene gestures we are all familiar with, like mooning—are all ways of insulting others. What keeps the verbal and nonverbal methods in the same category is the fact that they are both varieties of what Kenneth Burke so famously called "symbolic action." Accordingly, when we look in the next section at terms of abuse, we shall have some observations to make on nonverbal as well as verbal "terms."


Excerpted from Toward a Rhetoric of Insult by THOMAS CONLEY Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Thomas M. Conley is professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author of Rhetoric in the European Tradition, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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