Friday, December 19, 2008

what makes an insult an insult?

ever since the shoe-throwing incident on sunday, i've been pondering insults. it was supposedly extremely insulting from an iraqi cultural standpoint to throw a shoe at bush--which supposedly made it even worse than it already was to throw such an object at one of the most powerful leaders in the world. but i find it hard to get worked up about a shoe. for me, i pretty much only wish he'd been a better shot or that bush had had slower reflexes. i'm more insulted that he threw a shoe at the man and missed than that he threw shoe at all. if you're gonna do something like that, it's worth getting it right.

so, if something that's meant as an insult isn't insulting to me, is it still an insult? what is the role of intent in the insult? can it retain its meaning in the face of being misunderstood as not particularly insulting? is it even MORE insulting to the insulter that their insult isn't seen as insulting?

the role of culture in insults cannot be underestimated. i used to (and occasionally still do) expend a lot of energy being insulted by the fact that all those people i saw on the train every day never acknowledge my existence with a simple nod or "good morning." but, i had to realize that they were not actually meaning to insult me. they were just ignoring me, as dictated by their culture, since they hadn't met me back in kindergarten, but there was no intent in it. so, all of that energy i was expending fuming about it was really quite wasted. i was insulted by something that wasn't an insult.

a couple of years ago, we saw a big impact of the difference of cultural perspective on insults in the whole incident with the danish cartoons. jyllands posten published a dozen cartoons depicting the prophet. they did it after a children's book company had been unable to get anyone to do some illustrations of mohammed for them. the newspaper took it as a challenge and tasked their cartoonists to come up with mohammed cartoons. they published them and then the news was apparently transported to the middle east on the back of a camel because it took another five months before the anger exploded. and a whole lot of people felt really insulted that their prophet was depicted with a bomb in his turban in a danish newspaper.

the danes were quite bewildered by the whole thing, because they had meant it as a bit of ironic humor and an exercise in freedom of speech, not as an insult per se. the swiss were a bit bewildered too, because their red flag with its white cross was also burned all over the middle east, mostly for looking a bit like a danish flag. big danish dairy producers were bewildered when their products were boycotted in the middle east, because they were accustomed to selling quite a lot of feta there.

but, i'm no farther. i'm still left wondering if an insult is still an insult if it's not seen as insulting...

EDITED:  on my flight home, i happened to think of the classic monty python insult bit from the holy grail:

john kenney had an amusing little ditty on the subject of insults in yesterday's IHT.


Gwen said...

do you ever feel like some people are just waiting to get insulted, so if it can't be about something worthwhile, something little will do fine? I try very hard not to get insulted by much of anything, because I've realized that most of people's social ineptitude has to do with them and not with me at all. And this way, I expend a lot less emotional energy, which I actually need for other things.

tangobaby said...

I wish I had something wise to say, but that whole issue with the cartoons still makes me angry.

There's insult, and then there's fanaticism that brooks no opposition.

As to the train etiquette, I wonder if the people who won't meet your eye or give you a small smile ever stop to wonder how they would feel if they were in your place? I guess it doesn't occur to them.

Barb said...

Julie, Your witty take on insults especially the shoe throwing incident is quite enjoyable.

Thanks too for sharing the Monty Python video. I forgot how dry his humour is. Gave me a good chuckle during this severe winter storm Ontario is getting wacked with. Barb xo

tangobaby said...

There, a post made perfect by the simple addition of MP. There is never an occasion where the boys cannot help to illustrate an important discussion.

Iris said...

Monty Python makes everything better. To this day I still have a huge, ridiculously girlie crush on John Cleese that none of the girls I work with can even remotely understand. They can't fathom what the draw is to him but I say "love the ones who make you laugh".

Iris said...

Oh, and to be clear, Bush makes me laugh too but there's a difference between making somebody laugh because it's your intention and making somebody laugh because your a clueless, shoe-targeted putz.