In the course of writing something on free speech and offensive language I became interested in the question of insults: what exactly are they? And, why exactly are they wrong?
As far as I can tell not much has been written on the subject, although J L Austin has, unsurprisingly, some interesting fragmentary remarks about the subject.
A rough first-go definition of an insult would be that it is a representation of the other in a negative light. But further thought shows some of the difficulties. An insult has propositional content. Loudly saying ‘Blrrrrr’ or sticking up the finger is rude but not insulting. An insult does not have to be in the form of words. The familiar gesture of holding a finger to one’s head and spinning it to indicate that the other is crazy is an insult.
But what then is the relation of an insult to the truth? I have to say or represent something about the other that bears some kind of plausible relationship to the other. As Austin notes ‘I hereby insult you’ is not an insult as ‘I hereby promise’ is the making of a promise, or saying ‘Thank you’ is the expression of gratitude. Saying of a palpably thin person that she is fat is not insulting. Saying of a palpably fat person that she is fat is, it seems to me, not – or not yet – an insult. Something more is needed. Saying of the other what we will all acknowledge as a failure or fault or vice? But calling a dirty rotten scoundrel ‘a dirty rotten scoundrel’ does not seem to me an insult. Exaggeration? But how much exaggeration is needed? An intention to wound? But see below.
Leaving these questions to one side what makes an insult wrongful? It cannot be that an insult causes hurt. This is neither necessary nor sufficient. I can insult someone who is too obtuse to recognise the insult and thereby feel the pain. I can hurt someone who claims to feel insulted but is in fact not insulted – for instance, someone who easily takes offense or who has misunderstood the words uttered.
It is not enough that someone should intend to cause pain. I can utter the right words to the wrong person, as it were, or the wrong words to the right person. I can also insult someone accidentally without meaning to. I may act wrongly in unsuccessfully trying to insult but in such a case I do not act wrongly in insulting. I am also disposed to think that I act wrongly in trying to insult someone who fails to be insulted (it goes over their head). I am less clear as to whether I do insult someone who does not feel insulted but ought to.
And what is the relationship of the putative wrongfulness of the insult to the truth of its propositional content? Thus If I insult someone who deserves to be insulted – a bully, cheat, or hypocrite – do I do something pro tanto but not all things considered wrong in insultingly saying what is true of them? Or do I do no wrong at all?
There are other interesting questions. Can I insult your group? Can I insult you in insulting someone you are close to? For now I leave you with the above puzzles