Insults & Humiliation

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


June 29, 2012

Insults & Humiliation

I have distinct memories of both the first and second time that someone said to me “Your mother’s a whore.” This happened at school when I was in my early teens, and I remember them because of how different each experience was.

The first time it was said to me, I didn’t experience it as an insult. I knew that it was, of course, but for whatever reason, the sting was not there. Instead, I almost laughed, because I was struck with the absurd inaccuracy of the statement. For a second, I had taken it literally, as an expression of what the speaker believed to be true about my mother.

I remember afterwards feeling that I had discovered a super power. Invulnerability to insults! But sadly, the second time the words were hurled at me, I experienced them like you’re supposed to: heat rising from the chest and into the face, feeling furious and wronged. For years, I pondered this mystery. Why had my reaction changed?

Why did I feel angry at all? I know my mother isn’t a prostitute. I don’t even believe that my tormentor believes what he’s saying, or that he is misleading anyone observing the exchange. We all know that it is just an insult, so my mother’s and my reputation hasn’t been harmed, yet I feel demeaned.

An insult doesn’t need to be true for it to be effective. In fact, it’s almost better that it be blatantly false, to clarify the speaker’s intention to offend. So there’s something performative about an insult – or at least, certain types of insults. The content is more or less arbitrary, what matters is that the insult expresses the speaker’s desire. But at the same time, it’s not enough to simply say, “I want to insult you right now.” You have to really say it, i.e. state as a fact something which we know is not true and no-one believes to be true.

To make sense of this, Lacanians claim that we posit the existence of a third, virtual entity called the Big Other who is the ultimate guarantor of the meaning of our speech acts. The reason I am insulted despite knowing that no one believes that my mother is a whore is because I believe the Big Other might believe it. Ultimately, I am insulted because I believe in this non-existent third entity that is listening in on our conversation.

If you publish on the Internet, you have unprecedented access to abuse and scorn coming from people who disagree with what you’ve written. Here is one tweet written about me that caught my attention:

Pseudo-intellectual masturbatory garbage. Guy got stoned and barfed his worldview into a “thesis” of nonsense.

A few months ago, an article I wrote was posted to a popular discussion forum, and generated some only slightly less vicious feelings. (This is to be expected these days, of course, and in general the reactions were generally more positive than not.) The only way to deal with the negativity is to adopt my temporary super power of defusing insults by taking them too literally.

What exactly is so problematic about intellectual masturbation? Will we go blind if we think for fun? Will we go to Hell for doing it for its own sake instead of putting it to productive use? What’s most striking about the imagery in the tweet is the connotations of excessive bodily enjoyment – masturbation and drug intoxication. On one hand, this conveys the writer’s revulsion and disgust, but it also seems to fall in line with a common desire to try to degrade and humiliate writers who are perceived as intellectual, or at least wanting to be intellectual.

If you write about difficult topics, write with care or at length or using a more formal style – if, indeed, you appear to think in public at all – it causes great offense. You’re perceived as lofty, status-seeking or conceited. This is a problem. Intellectual superiority is a vice, but not only because it makes people feel small. It also generates an anti-intellectual culture.

We resent those who pretend they are better than us, and we try to take them down a notch or two. This leads to the impression that thinking is reducible to status-seeking, so that today, the term ‘philosophy’ only has an ugly connotation. How sad!

The solution is not something like “Try to be gracious” – this is just patronizing. We should go even further, and fully endorse every humiliation. Rather than retreating defensively into false dignity, you should rather embrace the indignity and accept being made into a laughingstock and an outcast.

False humility is the domain of media pundits and experts. Those who want intellectual authority need carefully photoshopped personalities, because power is granted to those who are nice about having it. Notice that whenever someone is nominated for an an award, the convention is to claim to be humbled, an implausible claim when you consider that the verb to humble means “to lower in condition, importance, or dignity.” Even stranger is the frequent but impossible claim to be both honored and humbled at the same time.

So this kind of egalitarianism is fake. In an unequal society, it’s hypocritical to have power and then claim “No, but I know we’re really all the same inside!” The true universal gesture is not to insist that you’re equal, but to insist that you’re worse than everyone. Thinking is always perilously close to being an idiot, and so there is no clear-cut distinction between intellectual and pseudo-intellectual. To think something new is to take a risk, to seriously consider an idea that most people would immediately reject as obviously false because it doesn’t fit in with existing preconceptions. So then true thought must be scandalous; a true thinker is an embarrassment, not serious, well-respected and universally admired like the expert.

So the abuse can sometimes be useful. It profanes thought, making it less lofty and more accessible to everyone. But even still, it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that these insults are mostly coming from guilty, self-loathing intellectual types who’ve internalized an anti-intellectual stigma.