On insults and explanations

I love reading philosophers’ accounts of language. They always look at it from a different point of view. But once in a while they forget that they do not describe a communicative system that consists only of vocabulary and the rules how to use it (grammar), but also a means through which to make meaning.I came across a post on insults and decided to offer a linguistic view (with some trepidation, I must admit, as taking on philosophers is always tricky). The point that Allan Hazlett makes is simple. He says:

I characterize insults, in general, as expressions or manifestations of offensive attitudes: if you insult someone, you express or manifest an attitude that is offensive to her. In the case of refusing testimony, I argue, the relevant attitude manifested is doubt about the speaker’s credibility.

And I take issue with it. I think that in order for something to become an insult, I must feel insulted or, perhaps, at least insultable. The intent to insult me is not enough.

Before I go on, I would like to make one other point. I don’t exactly know what expressions or manifestations of offensive attitudes might be. But even if you assume that you can code an ‘offensive attitude’ in language, that would mean I can insult you by accident, as insults, according to Hazlett, do not even require intent to make an insult. I have a problem with it. But thing go haywire, when I am insulted by you saying ‘hello’ instead of ‘good morning’… But I shall leave to philosophers to consider.

OK. Let’s come back to the main argument. So, I think that insults not only require intent to insult, but they also need me to be insulted. I have two examples.

First, can you insult me speaking a language I don’t know? In other words, if you hurl the worst of the abuse in the language in which I don’t understand a single word, do you insult me? Well, it’s perhaps tricky and depends on (social practices of) honour, but I would submit that it is at least possible that you cannot. You can manifest your offensive attitude all you want (whatever it means), but if I don’t get a word of what you say….Well, on your bike, man.

I do get that such situations are not exactly frequent and common, still it is not beyond the realm of reason to imagine a situation in which two persons are trying to communicate and they don’t understand each other. Like, for example, if you have a little bump on the street in Budapest (I don’t t understand Hungarian even if my life depended on it), the Hungarian driver could speak to me all they want. Yes, I would probably get that s/he is angry and vents it, but I would have no clue, if they wanted to insult me. Can they insult me? I doubt it.

In contrast, they could be making statements all night long and they, I think, would be statements regardless of my uptake.

My second example is different. Let us imagine that someone hurls a few nasty words at me, I understand it and say something like:

I understand you’re trying to insult me, but you’re not succeeding. You can’t insult me.

It makes sense to say that, doesn’t it? And if so, once again, it would seem that it takes more to insult me than ‘express offensive attitudes’. We go into non-insulting insults, which gets quite messy, doesn’t it? And I somehow can’t imagine an insult which doesn’t insult. Though, I do accept that we say things like: he’s been shouting insults, which does undermine my point somewhat.

But let me put it differently – can my child insult me? I would say – no. Just about no matter what they say. This is because I love them. And as parents suffer the verbal slings and arrows of their teenage offspring, they understand that teenagers just need to grow out the unpleasant things they say. And if they (or we) were to be insulted by every ‘I hate you.’ or ‘You’re the worst father on earth.’, we would sulk all the bloody time. So however much the offspring might want to insult their parents, I think they tend not to succeed.

I think, in terms of John Austin quoted in the blog, insulting is a perlocutionary act (or in Searle’s terms, they require a perlocutionary effect). In other words, it needs, to repeat, the addressee to ‘be insulted’. Insulting requires a relationship, if you like – it’s discursive, situated, not only linguistic.


Now, on the basis of such considerations, I would like to make one other point – about clinical communication. My Twitter timeline is full of advice to doctors. Mostly it’s about that they should listen on the one hand and they should explain things on the other. And the advice always stops at the explaining bit. In contrast, I would like to suggest that perhaps not exactly like insults, also explaining requires a relationship and it’s far from an easy one. After all, if you explain things to me, I give you power over me. Yes, you can try to explain things to me, if I don’t want it, but it will always end with trying. After all I can sensibly say:

He was trying to explain things to me, but I wasn’t even listening to him. I hate him, remember?

I think, I need to be open to the explanation in the same way I need to be open to a promise in order for you to promise to me something successfully. If I don’t want your promise, you can stop wasting your breath. And if I don’t want your explanation, you will only be making statements.

And so, doctor, before you start explaining anything to me, I think, you need to build a relationship with me, a relationship that opens the space for explaining. So, I would suggest that the advice you really need is how to make this relationship. Only then start worrying about how to do the explaining. You could also worry a bit about whether I understand what you say. In order to be successful in your explanations, I think, you need me to understand things. How about worrying about it a bit too? Just because I am prepared to countenance your explanations and you do the explaining, doesn’t really mean that I understand. Seriously.




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