I did not attend his funeral; but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.
Some cause happiness wherever they go; some, whenever they go.
He has all the virtues I dislike; and none of the vices I admire.
I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend … if you have one.
George Bernard Shaw, (to Winston Churchill)
Cannot possibly attend first night; will attend second, if there is one.
What is it that’s so gratifying about getting in a good zinger — at someone else’s expense? A new book by William Irvine, a philosophy professor at a U.S. university contends that, under some circumstances, the barb, the insult can constructive — even a sign of approval and affection. One can well imagine that Shaw and Churchill were neither offended nor alienated by the above exchange. In A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt and Why They Shouldn’t, Irvine identifies a number of circumstances wherein the ‘unsult’ (as he terms endearing teasing amongst friends and family) is a sign of acceptance and a check-in on one’s status within that group. With certain conditions applied (and that’s the kicker), such ‘teasing’ reassures that one ‘matters’ in and to a group: no insult equals no relevance or interest in you by other group members.
He goes on to characterize the carefully crafted zinger as a form of ‘permitted disrespect’ between adult male friends. Think back to those inglorious high school days when, if a buddy didn’t punch you in the shoulder on meeting or departing, it was almost certainly a bad thing. Or even earlier, failing to be pushed into a snow bank or tripped in the hallway meant your peer status had slipped a notch or two. The verbal gibe, in Irvine’s view, is the grownup version of same.
Or in spousal relationship, reportedly the (carefully crafted) effect is relief of tension, without direct confrontation; pointing up of a concern, without eliciting defensiveness or shutting down the conversation. Hmm? Similarly, amongst friends or co-workers the point can be a ‘non-threatening’ vehicle for bringing irritating issues to one’s attention — without straining the relationship. Again, hmm?
What a very fine line one walks, however, in this world of witty repartee. It would seem to require a careful assessment of one’s pre-existing status with the intended target. Too little familiarity and one risks open offense. (In high school currency, punch the stranger in the shoulder and . . . look out!) Too intimate a relationship and the impact of one’s ‘obtuse wit’ is that of hurt or resentment. In the beginnings of relationship, the casual bit of sarcasm is accepted as an endearing part of the ‘come on’ (hopefully); later on it’s more likely to be seen as a betrayal by ‘the only one I can count on to be open and honest’ (regrettably).
Or if the intended recipient is a bit literal, or worse, utterly humorless; the gibe risks becoming a gauntlet, tossed down. In the age of email the accepted wisdom is that use of subtlety and irony are shoal-laden waters — misunderstood intent and ‘emotional tone’ being all too common. No opportunity to see the wink, the inclusion of punctuated pictograms aside.
I have long been a devotee of satire and allegory. Jonathan Swift, of Gulliver’s Travels fame, thoroughly won me over with his Modest Proposal (http://art-bin.com/art/omodest.html) wherein he suggests that a solution to the ‘Irish Problem’ might simply be to have them eat their healthier children. Much, perhaps too much, of my earlier ranting took the form of thinly concealed irony intended to pillory those institutions (and on occasion, individuals) with whom I had issue. I have rarely shirked from employing the veiled insult. I cannot recall, however, the last time, that such was employed as a ‘term of endearment’, a testing of my rank in a particular hierarchy, or a problem-solving, conflict-resolution strategy. (Truth be told, it was likely in late high school: sweet on a particular girl and too socially awkward to simply ask her for a date, I chose instead to ‘insult’. Years later — the acquaintance survived for some time in spite of me — she shared that she was convinced I disliked her. And why would she consent to spend time with someone who evidently hated her? Didn’t work then and won’t work now!)
With the evolution of the ‘insult’ from what Irvine calls the Golden Age [populated by the Twain's, the Wilde's, the (Mae) West's, and the Churchill's] to the era of Don Rickles, Dennis Miller, Chris Brown — where curse has replaced class, rant displaced rhetoric, invective outranks intellect — perhaps it’s time to revisit the simple Buddhist parameters of ‘Right Speech’: speak the truth, in a timely and helpful fashion. Nothing wrong with a good insult — but it will ever be mean-spirited, intended to hurt, one-up, or put down, and be rooted in anger, veiled or overt . . . and little more. Let’s not dignify it as a ‘therapeutic intervention’.