Insult Explained

An insult (also called putdown) is an expression, statement (or sometimes behavior) which is considered degrading. Insults may be intentional or accidental. An example of the latter is a well-intended simple explanation, which in fact is superfluous, but is given due to underestimating the intelligence or knowledge of the other.

Whether or not speech or behavior is insulting in practice, and sometimes by the terms of local assault statutes, is often a product of the subjective sense of the insulted party. However, insults to one person who might not mind such derogatory speech may indirectly insult others. Many states and local municipalities enforce prohibitions against rude, offensive or insulting speech, leaving citizens, law enforcement officers and courts to decide what is and what is not an insult. The concept of fighting words as a form of prohibited speech has developed in the jurisprudence of U.S. constitutional law concerning terms of disparagement. However, the fighting words exclusion is construed in an extraordinarily narrow manner, and only the type of insulting speech which is deemed "meaningless" can be suppressed; speech containing significant literary, artistic, political, or scientific significance cannot be suppressed, even if wantonly and maliciously insulting, demeaning, or even inciting of racial, ethnic, religious or sexual hatred; there is no "right to be unoffended" in the United States. For example, a vocal creationist might be insulted by being called a "troglodyte" for dismissing the Darwinian theory of evolution; however, this is political and scientific speech and, as such, is fully protected by the laws; the same would go for a creationist who calls a Darwinian an "apostate heathen" or similar. Insults offered as satire in an artistic format (such as a novel, film or song), are especially often considered protected speech, especially in the United States.

The role of insults in the social sense may be better understood by an appreciation of how the term is used in a medical setting. Though a popular idiom refers to "adding insult to injury", in a medical context, they are one and the same: physicians examine injuries resulting from an insult to flesh and bones, caused by various traumatic events. In speech and in social settings, insults are words which tend to injure or damage the psyche. In humor, insults may be exchanged in much the same way as fighters exchange blows in training, to develop a resistance to the pain of mild injuries, or to spar with no real intention of causing any serious injury.

"Higher level" insults

Disguised insult

For instance, an ironic apology following an insult: "I am sorry, sir, I did not think you could be insulted".

This implies the speaker is thinking that no matter how grave a thing he or she could have said, surely it could not be construed as an insult. Thus, this apology would constitute a further insult.

Or "Your generosity is only exceeded by your personal beauty"

Perceptions of insults

Sociologists suggest that insults are often an indicator of flawed reasoning about the character or motivation of others. Though insults are common, and often used in jest, a fundamental axiom of sociology recognizes that derogatory forms of speech make erroneous attributions about the motivation of a person. Scholars classify the erroneous assumptions as the fundamental attribution error.

See also