Mon, 20 Jun 2022 Feature Article

The Psychology and the Philosophy of Insults: Insulters Have Problem of Status Insecurity

The Psychology and the Philosophy of Insults: Insulters Have Problem of Status Insecurity

Some years ago, I wrote an article titled "Incivility in Our Public Discourse" under a pseudonym. In that article, I provided sociological reasons for incivility in public discourse. But in the present article, I intend to provide a psychological and philosophical reason for insults and how to deal with them if you become a victim of insults.

We rarely discuss incivility in public discourse or the pains people suffer from personal insults, which many take for granted. Social media have provided platforms for Ghanaians worldwide to dialogue, debate public policies, and develop innovative ideas to shape and direct our country. However, public discourse on social media has become a significant concern. Incivility has increased on Ghanaian social media platforms, with some engaging in personal attacks against opponents and people they dislike. Rudeness to political opponents is now escalating and pervasive.

The goal of philosophy, especially moral philosophy, is to teach us how to have a good life or live a good life, but insults by their nature produce pain, which is the opposite of a good life. Insults cause us to lose social status and diminish our self-worth. The word "beef" has become a buzzword on Ghanaian social media platforms. The idiomatic expression "to have a beef" has gained much currency as many Ghanaian bloggers and vloggers use it to instigate insults among opponents on social media. Some social media personalities believe that the easiest and the shortest way to gain popularity or to "trend" is to insult someone on social media. Ghanaian social media have many instigators who aim to fan the flame of insults or social dissension.

Nevertheless, insults are not good for our health since they drain us of our emotional energy. Insults cause powerful emotions and enter our personal histories. They cause us feelings of shame, guilt, and anger, all injurious to our health. The emotions that result from insults are wounded pride, shame, humiliation, embarrassment, guilt, and anger. Often we are shocked and disappointed when our expectations of respect are unmet, causing psychological pain. People who insult often intend to assert or assume dominance, either intentionally claiming superiority or unintentionally showing a lack of regard for the insulted. Every human being expects and deserves respect and recognition; therefore, disrespecting and disregarding someone devalues their humanity.

I often find it difficult to understand why "educated" people could hurl insults at others daily. Growing up, my grandmother severely warned us never to mock anyone's physical appearance or utter unkind words to anyone, even though she never went to school. It was rare to find any respected or educated person mocking someone's physical appearance in public or using profanity in public space.

Dr. Nigel Barber, an evolutionary psychologist, considers or interprets insults as an attempt by one to reduce the recipient's social status and raise the insulter's relative status. He says that if this logic is correct, we can assume that insults are motivated by anger surrounding issues of status insecurity.

The question still is: Why do "intelligent" and "educated" people engage in this unethical activity? What are the intrinsic reasons people insult? Yiannis Gabriel, a psychologist, writes, "A person may hurl an insult at another simply because of "the pecking order and the undoubted primary aggression that characterizes us as humans." Eva Jajonie, a clinical psychotherapist from the American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology, also observes, "When suppressed concerns and feelings, such as lack of self-esteem; self-defeating thoughts and behaviors; guilt; and anger, for example, are not treated or dealt with, the person uses insults to unleash anger, to escape dealing with the pain or trauma experienced, or as a way to exert control [over another person] and feel powerful." Eva Jajonie's observations mean that insulters often have psychological problems that we must all help them address.

Immanuel Kant locates this kind of evil, something he calls radical evil, in the fundamental disposition of the will to privilege itself over the general good. How would these people feel if they were the targets of these insults they hurl at somebody's husband, wife, mother, father, sister, or brother? Kant insists that this radical evil is a defect in the human at the root of human agency.

Radical evil, according to Kant, is a corruption of our core moral maxim, that is, the core moral disposition out of which we act - and it is corrupt because we do not act out of the maxim that we should treat everyone as we would want to be treated. Jesus said in Matthew 5:22, "… Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, 'Raca,' is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell. That is how seriously Jesus took insults, especially unprovoked ones.

An insult is a kind of injury. We suffer insults just as we suffer injury. The main aim of insulters is to turn active beings into something fundamentally passive, turning them into what they are essentially not, as humans. The activity of being caused to suffer through insults means that we are no longer actors but merely passive recipients of something. The behaviors and activities of these insulters are to humiliate and dehumanize their opponents.

Sometimes people use the expression, "add insult to injury," as if injury and insults are different, but the reality is that insults and injury are the same. The book of Proverbs says, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will hurt forever." Proverbs 12:18 says, "There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing." Also, Proverbs 18:21 says, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits." So these people know how bad words are but have decided to use heart-breaking words to silence their opponents. They know how painful it is to describe women as prostitutes. Nevertheless, people who have never had sex with some women would describe them as prostitutes to humiliate them.

Recent psychological studies have authenticated the wise sayings of the great book about the power of words. These studies have shown that pain of hurt feelings from verbal abuse far outlasts memories of physical pain. Researcher Zhansheng Chen of Purdue University, Indiana, noted that 'The evolution of the cerebral cortex certainly improved the ability of human beings to create and adapt, function in and with groups, communities, and cultures, and respond to pain associated with social interactions. However, the cerebral cortex may also have unintentionally allowed humans to relive, re-experience, and suffer from social pain." My question is: why do we insult others when we do not want to be insulted?

Insults strike a person's feelings, self-esteem, pride, identity, and ego. So, no matter why an insult happens, how it happens, or when it happens, the truth is that it will leave a scar. Finally, let me say that insults not only demean and dehumanize the victims but also demean and dehumanize the INSULTERS. Think about it, what do you think comes to people's minds when they hear you insult others, especially when they have not provoked you? How do you think they will assess you as a person?

How can we avoid or prevent the emotional effects of insults if we become the recipient of insults? In other words, how do we put out the fire of insults if someone were to ignite one against us? How do people, therefore, respond to insults? Let me cut through the chase: Ignore them! The Greco-Roman moral philosopher Epictetus gave the following advice:

"Remember that it is we who torment, make difficulties for ourselves — that is, our opinions do. What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?" — Discourses I, 25.28–29. Epictetus intended to say here that the best antidote or response to insult is to ignore it. It is how we interpret insults that make them hurtful or not.

Epictetus also wrote in the Enchiridion, "If you learn that someone is speaking ill of you, do not try to defend yourself against the rumors; respond instead with, 'Yes, and he does not know the half of it, because he could have said more.' — Enchiridion 33.9

Seneca, another Greco-Roman moral philosopher, wrote, "It is the part of a great mind to despise wrongs done to it; the most contemptuous form of revenge is not to deem one's adversary worth taking vengeance upon. Many have taken small injuries much more seriously than they need by revenging them: that man is great and noble who, like a large wild animal, hears unmoved the tiny curs that bark at him." Ignoring people's insults is the most contemptuous form of revenge for them.

We always make life decisions that prompt us to choose between taking a low road or a high road. A low road is doing what your instinct prompts you to do when you are provoked. On the other hand, taking the high road is behaving morally when others are not doing so. To take a high road is to consciously treat other people with kindness, civility, and gentleness when they least deserve them. Often emotionally stable people take the high road while emotionally unstable people take the low road. Insulters do denigrate not only the insulted but also devalue themselves. Insulters give us a window into their emotional space and tell us how much they value themselves. You know you cannot respect yourself and disrespect others. How you respond to stimuli tells us a lot about who you are because the same stimuli that were applied to you can be applied to another person, but the reactions can be different. Our responses to stimuli tell people the kind of person we are.