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The Moral and Linguistic Contours of Insults

image of blue and red fingers pointing at each other

Thanks to Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D-TX), we can update a philosophical joke used to illustrate the use-mention distinction. For those unfamiliar, the use-mention distinction is a way to distinguish when a term appears in a sentence and refers to some object, typically its meaning, versus when the term that appears in the sentence refers to its appearance. As Cappelen et. al. point out there is a difference in the way the term shared in the following sentences function:

D1. Jim went to Paris.

D2. “Jim” has three letters.

In D1., “Jim” is being used and refers to a person, possibly even me. That reference helps establish the truth-value we assign to the statement. So, if “Jim” refers to me, then the sentence is false; if it refers to some other person named Jim, who just returned from France, then then the sentence is true. In D2., “Jim” is being mentioned and in doing so the reference of “Jim” just is the term “Jim,” not any object external to the sentence.

So, what is the joke that can now be updated?

One time at a golf tournament, a famous golfer hit a ball into the deep rough. Hoping to be allowed to pick up the ball and drop it into a more favorable spot, the golfer calls an official over and asks for a ruling. The official denies the golfer the opportunity to pick up and drop the ball without penalty, clearly frustrating the golfer who replies as follows: “Just to be clear, if I were now to say ‘You’re a feculent analphabet,’ I would get an additional penalty stroke, right? The judge, having taken a philosophy of language class, reluctantly agrees with the golfer without issuing a penalty.

Okay, not the funniest joke, and the way I narrated it is even less funny, but it is really meant as an illustration. Since the golfer merely mentioned the sentence “You’re a feculent analphabet” and did not use the sentence to level an insult, the golfer did not violate the rule against insulting officials.

What does this have to do with Rep. Crockett? During a meeting of the House Oversight Committee two weeks ago, the following exchange occurred between her and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA):

Rep. Crockett: Do you know what we are here for?

Rep. Greene: I don’t think you know what you are here for … I think your fake eyelashes are messing up what you’re reading.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), in accordance with §961 of the Rules of the House of Representatives,  motioned for the committee Chair Rep. James Comer (R-KY), to have Rep. Greene’s words taken down (i.e., stricken from the record) because they were an attack on another member of the House and thus an example of unparliamentary debate. According to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Greene’s words violated Rule XVII 1 (b) which states that “Remarks in debate (which may include references to the Senate or its Members) shall be confined to the question under debate, avoiding personality.” As clarified in §361, “Personalities in debate forbidden,” House members may not refer “to a particular Member of the House in a derogatory fashion.” Rep. Greene, by insulting the appearance of Rep. Crockett, seems to have clearly violated this rule. However, Rep. Comer ruled that Greene’s comment “lacked decorum but did not violate rules against attacking other members.” Wanting to ensure that she understood the ruling, Rep. Crockett asked “I’m just curious, just to better understand your ruling: If someone on this committee then starts talking about somebody’s ‘bleach-blonde, bad-built, butch body,’ that would not be engaging in personalities, correct?”

As with the aforementioned golf judge, Rep. Comer would have to agree, twice over, that Rep. Crockett did not personally attack Rep. Greene. First, both representatives used sentences that involved insults about the appearance of another member of the House, and thus by his own ruling do not constitute a violation of Rule XVII 1 (b); second, unlike Rep. Greene, Rep. Crockett only mentioned and did not actually use the relevant sentence, thereby not actually attacking anyone.

But can the use-mention distinction really carve out Rep. Crockett’s words as not subject to the rules?  Here is one way to try to express the use-mention distinction:

But this expression of the distinction defines mentioning by noting that you have to use the relevant expression (“Jim” in our analytic example, “feculent analphabet” in the joke, and “bleach-blonde, bad-built, butch body” in Rep. Crockett’s example) in order to mention it. The use may be self-referential, but it is still a use. So, to mention an expression, you have to use it, suggesting that the distinction collapses.

If that is the case, then in some sense, both Rep. Greene and Rep. Crockett used the relevant insults. In fact, given the overall context of the events, it is pretty clear that Rep. Crockett’s expression was an insult, indirectly aimed at Rep. Greene, mediated through a direct question to Rep. Comer. Complicated, yes; an insult aimed at a target, nevertheless. Still, if neither Rep. Greene nor Rep. Crockett engaged in personal attacks, then an insult about the appearance of one person is not a personal attack, regardless of the analytical issues regarding the use-mention distinction.

Now to the evaluative questions: “How is an insult about an appearance of another person NOT a personal attack?” In other words, did Rep. Comer make an error in his ruling?

Consider the best thing that we might say for Rep. Comer’s position, namely, that an insult is a species of criticism. Criticism is a judgment about the value — moral, political, practical, aesthetic, etc. — of some object. Criticism, in this most basic definition, is a core activity of a deliberative assembly such as the U. S. House of Representatives and its enumerated powers as granted by the Constitution of the United States.  Whether it is proposing, debating, and voting on legislation (Article 1, Sect. 1), considering whether to punish and even expel a member for disorderly behavior (Article 1, sect. 5, clause 2), or whether or not to declare war (Article 1, Sect. 8, clause 11), a properly functioning deliberative assembly will involve members of the House expressing their judgments about the value of exercising these Constitutional powers. So, the problem is not that Rep. Greene and Rep. Crockett engaged in criticism per se; the problem must lie elsewhere.

The problem with insults is that they are a species of aggression toward another, i.e., an attack. Given the nature of these comments, we might identify the verbal sparring as an exchange of microaggressions. According to Derald Wing Sue and Lisa Beth Spanierman, microaggressions are “verbal and nonverbal interpersonal exchanges in which a perpetrator causes harm to a target, whether intended or unintended.” The key element is that the criticism has a harmful impact. A microinsult, as a species of microaggression, causes harm by conveying “stereotypes, rudeness, and insensitivity … that demean a person’s racial, gender, sexual orientation, heritage or identity.” The choice of words by each representative attacking the appearance of the other demeans the heritage or identity of the other. Furthermore, as Jerome Neu points out, “[t]o insult is to assert or assume dominance, either intentionally claiming superiority or unintentionally revealing a lack of regard. To be insulted is to suffer a shock, a disruption of one’s sense of self and one’s place in the world.” In short, the result, if not the intent, of a microinsult, is to lower the value and regard owed to a person, to treat the other as less than equal. As such, this is a moral problem in that insults lower the worth and esteem of the target that is not warranted. When the characteristics identified by insults are tied to physical appearance, this is clearly out of bounds because one’s appearance has little to no moral relevance because our physical characteristics have little to no connection to moral worth. This is especially true if those characteristics are not of our own choosing, such as body shape. But they are also irrelevant if the identified characteristics are choices that conform aesthetic cultural standards such as hair color or the use of lash extensions.

In the end, we have an answer to the question regarding Rep. Comer’s decision that Rep. Greene and Rep. Crockett were not engaged in personal attacks: He’s wrong.

Insulting another’s appearance, whether directly in the case of Rep. Greene or indirectly in the case of Rep. Crockett, is a personal attack in violation of Rule XVII 1 (b). It is time for Comer and the rest of the elected officials to act in accordance with their own rules in the House.  In fact, these rules should probably be observed by all those seeking elected positions this coming November: they should not be “speaking reviling, nipping, or unmannerly words against” anyone.

We Are Running Out of Insults

photographs of different people yelling

When it comes to speech, kindness is often the best policy, but those who need a sharp word may find themselves in a predicament: how to express what they mean without using language that is demeaning towards marginalized groups.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many words used as insults have historically been used to oppress. One prominent example is the trio “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron,” which were codified as scientific classifications for mental disability in the 19th century and then popularized by the eugenicist psychologist Henry Goddard in the early 20th century. A word you might call your little brother when he is being — well, frustrating — is deeply ableist and tied historically to eugenics.

Language has long been used as a tool of oppression. But in many cases, the link to a word’s more explicit oppressive use is lost to many contemporary users of that word.

Awareness of many words’ oppressive histories is growing, thanks in large part to efforts from scholars and members of marginalized communities, such as disability activist Hannah Diviney, who called out Beyoncé and Lizzo for use of an ableist slur in their lyrics. However, many people are simply unaware that the words they are using are tied historically to ideologies and practices they themselves would find immoral.

Is it permissible to use words that are historically tied to oppression, especially when many people are unaware of the link? In many cases, a person’s ignorance of facts relevant to a situation can absolve that person of moral responsibility. For example, if I give you a ticket for a flight that unbeknownst to me will end in a crash, I will not be morally responsible for the harm that comes to you when you board that flight. I could not have known. But we are morally responsible for ignorance that is borne out of negligence, and higher stakes increase our responsibility for educating ourselves.

Because the terms in question have been used to suppress entire groups of people, there’s ample opportunity for collateral damage when they are used.

For example, if someone calls their friend a misogynist slur, that slur not only aims its disdain at its direct target (the friend), but also at women and girls in general. In fact, many misogynist insults work only via their denigration of women. When someone is called a sissy, for example, the insult just is the identification of the target with femininity — and therefore, by implication, weakness. This point of view is communicated to anyone who reads or hears the insult.

The philosophical term for the idea that certain words can cause damage to those to whom they are not directed is known as a term being “leaky.” A leaky term is one which, even when it is merely quoted or mentioned rather than used, is still felt as damaging or offensive. The n-word is a paradigm case of a leaky term. The n-word is so-called because, for many, saying the full term in any context is racist.

Not only are insults tied to oppressing marginalized groups potentially leaky and prone to cause collateral damage (often by design, as in the “sissy” case); people’s speech also reaches further now than any time in history. Gone are the days of cursing out a politician for a small audience consisting only of one’s family in one’s own living room. Now, a simple @ of the public figure’s username will direct one’s insult right to the screens of hundreds, thousands, or millions of users of social media. More is at stake, because more people are affected.

Generally, when the repercussions for an action are greater, the moral responsibility for carefulness increases.

It may not be a big deal for a parent to serve their family food that seems unspoiled without first consulting its expiration date; the same cannot be said of a restaurant. Similarly, the wider one’s speech reaches, the less one’s ignorance of its meaning is morally exculpatory. Put simply, the leakiness of insults and the far reach of social media increase the stakes for considering the meaning of one’s speech, even beyond speech that is very obviously ableist, racist, or misogynist.

We can also question whether the connections with the past uses are really lost, even in cases less commonly thought of as full-on slurs. The current use of a word can reveal a tacit commitment to the immoral ideals the word represented more explicitly in the past. Consider “idiot” with its historical tie to eugenics. It was an ableist term meant to designate a so-called mental age of the person being evaluated, designating low intelligence. It’s still used to designate low intelligence today, as an insult rather than a clinical diagnosis. And as such, it still carries an ableist dismissiveness of people with cognitive disabilities.

So what’s a non-ableist, anti-racist, non-misogynist to do? The answer may be, of course, that one could simply refrain from insulting another person. This is an excellent suggestion, and it has much to recommend it as a general policy. However, some cases will require the use of an insult, and some people, at least, will find it easier to change their terms than to quit the habit of insulting others.

More generally, people need the ability to transgress a little with language — as when reserving taboo words for special expressions of outrage. Wouldn’t it be helpful for a language to have terms of insult that hit their intended target and no one else?

Perhaps we should invent new insults. Media aimed at children often does. The problem with novel insults is that they often come across as unserious. Similarly to fictional profanity, such as “frak” in place of “f***” on the TV show Battlestar Galactica, novel terms often lack the bite of the original. The attempt to replace the original term, which is damaging beyond its intended meaning, results in a term that is often not strong enough. “Dillweed,” with its surprisingly illustrious career, may get a laugh on TV, but real life may require something stronger.

Numerous lists offer examples of alternative words, but as with much of language, change comes slowly. It may be that change in social consciousness surrounding terms that are ableist, racist, misogynist, etc., must precede widespread use of insults that avoid these pitfalls.

The Harms of Reporting Political Insults

photograph of reporters' recording devices pushing for response from suited figure

This week I had the most amazing experience reading a news article. The article was discussing the preparations being made for the impeachment trial and I came across this sentence: “Trump tweeted right before and after Pelosi’s appearance, in both instances using derisive nicknames.” What an idea: to avoid repeating what is essentially name calling and to simply refer to what kind of statement was made. Afterall, what is the journalistic value of reporting that a politician called someone else by derisive nicknames and then repeating those nicknames? Does it make us more informed? Does it make national political debates any better? Perhaps not, and this means that the question about whether journalists should repeat such insults is an ethical one.

After the 2016 Presidential election there was much discussion about the issue of journalistic standards and the merits of covering a candidate like Donald Trump so much. Even before the election there were reports that Trump had essentially received over $2 billion dollars in free media simply because he was so consistently covered in the news cycle. Later there were those in the media, such as CNN President Jeff Zucker who acknowledged the mistake of airing campaign rallies in full as it essentially acted as free advertising. According to communication studies professor Brian L. Ott such free advertising did affect the electoral results. What this means is that media is not always merely a bystander covering election campaigns because that coverage can affect who wins or loses. This is relevant for several reasons when it comes to reporting and repeating political insults.

For starters, such insults can act like a form of fake news. Part of the problem with fake news is that the more it is repeated, even while being demonstrated to be false, the more people are likely to believe it. In fact, a study has demonstrated that even a single exposure to a piece of fake news can be enough to convince someone that its contents are true. Even when a report explicitly aims to repute some false claim, the claim itself is more likely to be remembered than the fact that it is false. Now, if we think about insults and nicknames as a piece of information, we are likely to make the same mistake. Every “Lyin’ Ted,” “Shifty Schiff,” or “Crooked Hillary” in some form offers information about that person. The more it is repeated the harder it is to repudiate claims related to it. No matter how many fact checks are published, “Crooked so-and-so,” remains crooked.

One may argue that if the media took measures to stop directly quoting such names and insults and simply noted the fact that an insult was made or is being popularized, then it is no longer performing its journalistic function of informing the public. It might be wrong to not report on direct quotes. However, if insults are more likely to stick in the minds of the public than the information repudiating the stories behind such insults, then the result may be a less informed public. As for the matter of reporting on quotes, this issue is already being discussed in terms of whether the media should repeat quotes that are factually incorrect. Darek Thompson argues that the media should put such quotes in “epistemic quarantine” by abstaining from direct reporting on the language being used in the name of securing the original purpose of journalism: to report the truth.

There is another objection to consider. By not covering insults and replacing them with general descriptions of the comments the media will no longer be reporting neutrally. However, the important thing to keep in mind is that politics is not just about information it is about branding. According to Amit Kumar, Somesh Dhamija, and Aruna Dhamija one outcome of political marketing is the political brand. If a politician is able to cultivate a personal brand, they can create a style and image which is distinct, and thus are able to target specific “consumer citizens” in a way such that politicians are able to establish an instantaneous reaction with the public.

For example, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has spent years cultivating a brand beginning with his boxing match with a Conservative Senator, with it establishing a sense of “toughness, strength, honour and courage.” One can only imagine that his recent beard growth, with its ability to project experience, is an attempt to change that brand. However, just as a company’s brand can be tarnished, so can a personal brand. When an insult like “Cooked Hillary” is used in a repeated and targeted way, it damages that brand in a way distinct from merely insulting someone. It acts less as an assertion of fact and more like a way to connect concepts on a subconscious level. Thus, when the press repeats insults, they are acting as a form of advertising to attack a political brand. In other words, repeated reporting of such insults is already non-neutral in its effects.

Perhaps reporting insults still serves a journalistic purpose, however it is difficult to see what purpose that is. Such insults are less about the merits of policy and are essentially ad hominem attacks. In fact, the reporting of such ad hominem attacks makes addressing empirical claims very difficult. According to a study, attacking an individual’s credibility may be just as effective as attacking the claims that the individual makes. For instance, attacking Clinton for being corrupt “could be just as effective as actual evidence of criminality, and no less influential.” In other words, once an ad hominem attack is made, the empirical facts of the case do not really matter. Dr. Elio Martino of Quillette notes, “If attacks on a person’s character are effective, and potentially irreversible even with the subsequent addition of facts, it becomes easy to discredit people wishing to tackle the difficult but important issues facing our society.”

So, reporting ad hominem attacks essentially does not aid in keeping the public informed. However, others have noted that reporting insults only serves to make politics “more trivial and stupid.” In a polling exercise in Australia, a group sought to get voter perceptions of political leaders and to form a word cloud of the responses. The responses mostly consisted of insults. As Terry Barnes notes, “While it may be a bit of fun—and it’s always fun for the rest of us to see political figures publicly humiliated—this tawdry exercise dumbed our politics down that little bit further, trivializing for the sake of titillation.” This isn’t an issue isolated to one politician or one nation; reporting on ad hominem attacks is trivial and it damages our ability to carry on political conversations. It is hard to see what journalistic purpose the reporting of any political insult could have.

All of this brings me back to the article I began with. It was so pleasant to see a pointless insult not being directly quoted, but simply noted. My hopes were dashed, however, when I scrolled further to not only find the tweet containing the insult embedded in the article, but to also find the article itself later mentioning the “derisive nickname” in question: “Crazy Nancy.” Would I have been missing out to know that a politician insulted another without knowing what the insult was? I don’t think so.

Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee: Political Comedy’s Unwritten Rules

Photo of television static

At the end of May, Rosanne Barr, star of a hit TV sitcom, tweeted that Valerie Jarrett, a black advisor to President Obama, was (somehow) the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and The Planet of the Apes. ABC cancelled her show and apologized to Jarrett. Then, a few days after the Barr incident, Samantha Bee, star of a political comedy show, called Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and advisor, a “feckless c***” for insensitively posting a picture of herself holding her young son in the midst of growing attention to the way children are being separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border. She apologized, as did her network, TBS, but she wasn’t fired.

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