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The Art and Abuse of Insults

offended5Many of my posts leave some feeling like I insulted them.  In one post, for example, I took the position that when it comes to responding to criticism there are four levels of maturity.  Some people who respond to criticism in a way that matches the description of the immature levels let me know that they felt I had insulted them. In another post, I took the position that psychiatrists do not really diagnose people with mental disorders; instead, they merely convert the expressed concerns of people into psychiatric jargon.  Here again, I heard from people who complained that I had insulted them.

offend7And so, when I published last week’s post titled “Insults By Jews As Works Of Art,” the negative reaction of some people had not surprised me.  What was a surprise is that the discussion that came out of these reactions proved to clarify and deepen my own understanding of the nature of insults.  In the hope that this may do the same for my readers, let’s take a look at what transpired.  Names and a few minor details have been changed to protect privacy issues.

The Exchange

Offended1Matt said that my “Insults By Jews As Works Of Art” post is inappropriate, and he suggested to the person who moderates one of the groups that we belong to that I be removed immediately.

I replied:

“In my opinion, the topic of insults is very appropriate.  Everywhere we look, whether at schools, the workplace, family gatherings or watching TV, insults occur, and sometimes this is just playful stuff, but too often it escalates a conflict, a fight breaks out, and occasionally someone needs medical attention.  On other occasions, the insults cross the line into bullying, people become depressed and some become suicidal.

offended2“With regards to Matt suggesting that I be removed from this group because of my recent post on insults, hmmm, maybe a curse would here be an appropriate response, something like:

“Matt, may you wake up tomorrow and find you’re stuck in a country where freedom to express opposing views is banned.

“I hope this is recognized as an attempt at a humorous quip.  I have no ill will toward Matt, although I do disagree with him on this issue. 

offended3“Rather than suggesting that I be removed from the group, I think it would have been much more helpful if he, and others who disagreed with what I had written, rewrote the sentence that is viewed as most objectionable so that it would be at least a little less objectionable.  Alternatively, or additionally, writing a brand new sentence that could be inserted into some specific place in the post would be far more helpful than a one-sentence criticism stating the post was not appropriate.  It is not too late to do this, and I encourage group members to do so.”

offended6One group member seeking to defend me, wrote:

“Your post was interesting as a sociological examination of a prominent ethnic group, its stereotypes, and its communal self-concept.”

Another wrote,

“This made my day Jeffrey, and made me laugh – thank you! Made me have a think about my roots as well!”

A couple of people disagreed with the idea that I should be removed from the group:

“What I like about it [your post] is that it is not vulgar.  Just benign insults that are insults.  It is like the Egyptian insult, “May you live in interesting times.” When these are translated to English, they kinda lose their meaning.  Most of the Jewish insults feel like they were translated from Yiddish; they have that flow.

“It can show students and adults that insults can be sophisticated and not vulgar, and with any luck, aren’t even recognized as insults until later.”

Jew and catholicA person that we will here call Nick wrote in part,

“I do believe you had good intentions behind your piece and would have not published it if you knew so many people would have taken it negatively. In other words, while I do not agree with you all the time I am not for banning you from this group. However, I do say all of this praying that you do understand why what you did is offensive and you are apologetic rather than trying to defend.”

I replied to Nick in part as follows:

offended4“Just to clarify, I believe my intentions were good, and I certainly did not intend to offend anyone.  However, I well knew that it would indeed offend some.  Since it is Black History Month, I’ll point out that Martin Luther King, whenever he wrote his speeches, had good intentions, did not seek to offend, but well knew his speeches were going to offend.  Mark Twain had his books banned, George Barnard Shaw was hated in many circles, and Salman Rushdie had people calling for his murder.

“There are two Yiddish sayings that might capture a little of what I’m trying to communicate.  The first is, ‘If you want people to respect you for your wisdom, just agree with everything they tell you.’ The second states that ‘A Rabbi that has not been thrown out of a congregation because of offending them is no Rabbi.’

“If you write opinion pieces, some will agree with you, some will disagree but appreciate hearing a different view of an issue, and some become offended.  That goes with the territory. Living up to a principle that one should never express an opinion that has any chance to offend means never expressing an opinion.

art1“Moreover, when in my last post I referred to some insults as works of art, what I meant to convey is this, true works of art are not just meant to be merely decorative.  Rather, they are meant to stir up, prod, challenge the thinking, and deepen the thinking of society.  I think great comedy is part of art, and I think Jews, Italians, Blacks, Methodists, and all other groups of people have some comedians who artfully express this form of art.  I happen to be Jewish, therefore, I know far more about Jewish humor than that of other groups, so I used that as an example.”

 Another person wrote:

teasing 3“Keep in mind that ALL humor is aggressive and hurtful in some way.  There is not one “belly-laugh” joke that does not attempt to hurt or belittle someone or something. No, puns don’t count – you don’t laugh, you groan.  I do not intend to live in a world without laughter, and we laugh when someone or something hurts!!!”

To this, another group member wrote that he felt this statement overgeneralized.  Among my friends, when we insult one another in a playful way, I think most of the time no one is getting hurt, and much laughter comes from this.  But there is an edge to many comedians who are seeking something beyond pure laughter.

Jon wrote,

“The Jewish cultural DNA is at least one part philosopher, one part cynic and one part humorist, among much else, of course.”

teasing 1Jon did find my title offensive, and proposed, as an alternative, “The Art and Abuse of Insults and Teasing – A Cultural and Historical Perspective.”  He pointed out that “This would highlight the universality, celebrate the creativity in humor, and hit us square between the eyes with the destructive power as we slide along that slippery slope.”

Nice.  Although I decided not to change the title, I do agree his was conceptually distinctly better than mine.  I had already published the post under the original title and to change it a week later could be confusing.  And I wondered if Jon’s title may come across as a bit too academic for the larger audience that the post seeks to interest and to do justice to the title would require a much longer piece that my post tended to be.  I did take part of Jon’s suggested title for this post.  Moreover, in order to demonstrate a little more of the universality of humor in the form of insults I now offer some non-Jewish examples.

Last week I mentioned that Rodney Dangerfield, a Jew, was a master at insulting himself.  Here’s Abraham Lincoln, a non-Jew, offering humor in a similar manner.Lincoln

Last week’s post pointed out that Don Rickles, a Jew, was a master at insulting people who were insulting him.  Here’s Winston Churchill, a non-Jew, at the same game:

Churchill

Here are a couple other insults demonstrating that the art is indeed universal:

offended7

Mark Twain

pope

Sally wrote:

teasing 4“It [my post] conflates deliberate personal insults, deliberate wishes of harm to another, consensual teasing, and comedic performance, and ties it up with an anti-Semitic bow.”

I replied:

teasing 2“Sally, I love your turn of phrase.  At the same time, I disagree with you that I conflated deliberate wishes of harm to another from consensual teasing. I made in my last post a distinct point of separating that issue as we move toward the end of the post.  Nevertheless, I will think about using in any future writings on this issue the part of your sentence that points to the need to avoiding conflating deliberate personal insults, deliberate wishes of harm to another, consensual teasing, and comedic performance.  This is very well said, makes the point I had wished to make clearer, and I thank you for this feedback.

“I didn’t mean to write in a way that suggested anything that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic.”

 Well, those are some thoughts from the feedback.  I hope that we can keep the dialogue going, particularly because there is urgency in our communities to address in helpful ways the very issues that we have been discussing.

———————

Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

Insults By Jews As Works Of Art
From Psychiatric Name Calling to Plain, Humane English

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

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