Review: A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt–And Why They Shouldn’t

A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt--And Why They Shouldn't
A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt–And Why They Shouldn’t by William B. Irvine

Honestly, I picked up this book for advice on handling those moments of being verbally knocked down and walked over (which seem to be happening all too often in my life recently– thank you, food service work!). The first part of the book is mostly just entertaining– amusing historical examples of people who knew how to sling some nasty comebacks at the drop of a hat. Most interesting to me though is Irvine’s discussion of the social uses of insults, how they establish or reinforce hierarchies, but also help us bond with each other through good-natured teasing.

I can’t help but think about this dual nature of insults in relation to microagressions. An insult can be interpreted differently by those involved, and the insulter might think they are doing nothing more than harmless teasing, making a joke that might even draw people together. In this way, the insulter doesn’t have to face the implications of their words and how those words might reinforce systems of oppression. Then, this dynamic makes the person who has been insulted doubt themselves and the validity of their interpretation. Derald Wing Sue talks about the pain of this doubt in Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation (which should be required reading for every human). The psychological and emotional strain of seemingly small, everyday slights can profoundly shape a person’s experience, and ultimately, their life chances. This is also part of the everyday, lived experience that contributes to a sense of double consciousness.

Irvine breaks down the many possible responses one can give when insulted, outlining the pros and cons of each approach. Ultimately, he takes cues from the Stoics, who sought a sort of inner equanimity that could not be swayed by insults (or praise). While reading this book, I had a strange sense of coming across this argument before. And yes, as it turns out, I was actually remembering another book by Irvine I had read several years ago, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.

I see so much overlap here with Buddhism. One of the major goals of my own practice is to become mindful of (and able to deal with) the pull of sense perceptions. The mind is like grass blowing in the wind, pulled whatever direction perceptions and emotions take it. If we become solid, like the unmoving log, we are not thrown around so easily and suffering is lessened. The same principle is true of maintaining both inner and outer composure when insulted. The takeaway: when in doubt, just say “Thanks!” and move on with your day. Useful advice indeed.

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