As much as I don’t like insults, sometimes they’re a necessary evil, especially if they get someone off his rear. Who hasn’t tossed a few out at people who’ve displeased?
As long as the insult doesn’t falsely imply criminality or something else that’s not true (since that could provoke libel or slander suits), sure, go ahead. (On the Voices page, though, remember that insulting a fellow reader by name is a no-no; insulting a public figure or a general group might—might—fly.)
But if you’re going to insult someone, do me and everyone else a favor: Be more creative.
If I took a drink for every “libtard,” “teabagger,” “rethuglican,” “snowflake” and the like that I saw on online comment boards for my paper and others, I’d likely be dead from alcohol poisoning. Lucky for me, I don’t drink. Water, milk and soda don’t have quite the same dangers.
William Shakespeare, whether in comedies or tragedies, employed many insults, some blatant (“Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.”—King Lear) and some not so much (“I do desire we may be better strangers.”—As You Like It). The beauty of many of them is that at first they might not seem insulting at all … until the insultees start thinking about them, assuming they aren’t “heedless jolt-heads” (The Taming of the Shrew). If nothing else, it’ll shut ’em up for a little while.
Make us laugh at insults again, or at least think, like one Twitter denizen did for me a few days ago by using “bioluminescent wreck.” No, he wasn’t talking about a neon-green Pinto.
But wait—am I encouraging you to insult people rather than debate them? Nope. Debate them, please, if they’ll actually participate in real give-and-take, meaning they and you politely ask questions and make your cases using evidence. If, however, they decide without good reason that what you have to say is meaningless and they refuse to do anything but hurl debunked stories, conspiracy theories and, yes, insults, have at it.
But please, make it entertaining, like many Scots did after the Brexit vote and a certain American’s not-so-smart tweets about the vote. Yeah, they weren’t so nice, but they were certainly funny.
I’m not saying you should bully someone, but you’re much more likely to catch an insulter off-guard if you say “You are as a candle, the better part burnt out” (Henry IV, Part II) than if you call him a buttmunch.
If you don’t take someone’s insults seriously, you’ve shown him he has no power over you. Anger is the weakest response to insults, Neel Burton wrote in Psychology Today, because it indicates that you take the insult and the insulter seriously, and that there is truth in the epithet. Humor, on the other hand, “is an especially effective response for three reasons: it undermines the insult, it brings the audience (if any) on [your] side, and it diffuses the tension of the situation.” The power of the insult—offense—is in our reactions, which are in our control, Burton wrote.
Insults are part of how humans tend to sort themselves into social hierarchies, William B. Irvine wrote in Time. “It is the social hierarchy game that makes insults sting. We are wired so that it feels bad to lose social status and feels good to gain it.”
Irvine offered a simple solution:
“[W]ithdraw from the social hierarchy game. In practical terms, this means becoming an insult pacifist: When insulted, you carry on as if nothing happened. Or if you do respond to an insult, you use self-deprecating humor: You insult yourself even worse than they did and laugh while doing it.
“You might worry that practicing insult pacifism would invite a barrage of more verbal abuse. I have been an insult pacifist for several years now and have found just the opposite. When you respond to people’s insults not with counter-insults but with humor, you make them look foolish: They hit you with their best verbal shot, and you only laughed in response. As a result, they are less likely to insult you again. I have also discovered that by responding to insults with self-deprecating humor, you take much of the sting out of them. This is because it is psychologically difficult to get upset over something you are making a joke about.”
We can’t all be Shakespeare (those collars had to have been itchy!) and come up with such beauties as “canker blossom” or “sanctimonious pirate” (“scurvy politician” just seems too on the nose), but we can look to humor to throw a wet blanket on insults. Use self-deprecating humor when you can, but be prepared to deploy funny epithets if needed, preferably ones that haven’t been used so much they no longer elicit even a pity chuckle. (Et tu, snowflake?)