How to insult successfully

Public discourse is often counter-productive because we do not know how to disagree

The other week I appeared in a documentary on US TV which, among other things, demolished some of the conspiracy theorists’ cherished notions of how Bush brought down the twin towers eight years ago today. My role was to explain how otherwise sane people believed insane things. Soon the emails started to arrive. Let me take two to stand for the rest.

A seaman aboard a merchant navy ship, using the captain’s email address, ended a typical list of what he regarded as terminal proofs with the following: “I hope your sister’s back NEVER sees the light of day.....You stink.” The next day, a Mike Reis (who, from his email address, is a musician) followed his slightly different catalogue with: “You’re either a gigantic moron or a corporate shill-sellout-scumbag-f***head. Which is it David?.... you f****** asshole. Grow a sense of common decency. pigf***er.”

As I sat reading this last message, the question occurred to me as to what the purpose was behind it. What did Mike Reis hope to achieve? My merchant seaman had failed in communicating his insult for the simple reason that I couldn’t parse what it meant — except for the “you stink” bit, which is only what your young children say to you every day. Mike’s words, however, I did understand. Just what, however, did he think I would feel on reading them? That I was wrong in suggesting that conspiracy theorists like him were a tad unreasonable? Hardly.

Let’s return to that question in a moment, after I relate a minor, embarrassing incident that happened to me in Bavaria last week. The five of us were in a queue to enter Neuschwanstein castle, Ludwig II’s most famous folly. There were three lines, and we were in one of them. Two of us went through and then a burly, dark-haired fellow and his woman companion, who I took by colouring and lack of manners to be Italian, interpolated themselves between us. Annoyed at this queue jumping, I muttered “arsehole” as Mr Burly passed me by.

He turned and, in the accents of north London, demanded whether I had been talking to him. This scenario hadn’t been what I intended, and not thinking in time to reply, “I’m sorry, I thought you were Italian,” I just pretended I hadn’t heard him. He walked off.

But what had been the point of my insult? I think (1) to establish that I knew that a rule had been broken, but (2) to leave the situation sufficiently ambiguous for the imagined Italian to be discomfited, but confused.

Let us return to Mike Reis, musician. What was his fantasy of my reading his email? That I would feel upset? That his insults would so precisely dovetail with my own internal doubts as to cause me intolerable anxiety?

Now imagine the angry Mr Reis being strategic. “Dear Mr Aaronovitch,” he might have written. “I agree entirely with you about the 9/11 conspiracy. Which is why I am sorry to have to tell you that you are a very poor advocate for our case. Not only was your argument incoherent, but it was also condescending and counter-productive. And couldn’t you have taken more care with your appearance? Yours embarrassedly, Mike Reis.”

This would have flattened me (oh, and Mike, no point in doing it now).

I discussed the insult question with fellow columnist, Danny Finkelstein, and he likened it to the habit that some have in writing to the BBC and framing their complaints about a perceived bias in terms of total denunciation and bilious dislike. Whereas, if their missives began, “I am a huge fan of the BBC, and there is hardly a programme that I don’t enjoy, but in this one instance I feel badly let down… …” Well, the producer on the other end won’t consign that one to the automatic killfile.

    Last updated: 5:31pm, September 9 2009