Quora Question: Doesn’t an insult, whether directed at you or not, warrant an insult in return if it is about you? Isn’t an insult that is a claim with a basis more damaging to the receiver’s image and reputation than a claim with no basis can ever be?
There is a strong impulse to answer insults that are directed at us. We feel that our honor has been insulted or damaged and this must be rectified. Those feelings are understandable but also quite destructive if we act on them.
The danger to this mindset is that it puts in motion a potentially never-ending cycle of insults, responses, and more insults. Too often this cycle escalates from verbal insults to physical violence. No good can come from this.
Fortunately, there are alternative ways to think about this. A useful distinction that will help is the distinction between offense and harm. A good resource on this subject is Lou Marinoff’s book The Big Questions. In one chapter he asks the question “if you’re offended are you harmed? The answer turns out to be no. Consider this.
Suppose someone walks up to you and steps on your toe. You have no choice about whether that’s going to hurt. It is! So, here you are harmed. Being harmed is involuntary, you have no choice about whether to feel pain or not.
Now, offense is not like this. If someone walks up to you and says “wow, you have really big feet” you have a choice to make. The choice is how you will react to this comment. I’m sure you’ve heard the expressions “no offense intended” and “none taken.” These are very revealing.
Offense is something that can be offered and it’s also something that can be taken. But, importantly for us, offense is also something that can be refused. You have a choice in this and that’s what distinguishes offense from harm.
As human beings, we are emotional beings. But, we are not slaves to our emotions. We can reason and think and this can aid us in our emotional reactions. This was a very important insight of the ancient Stoic philosophers. The basic idea behind stoicism is that we have no control over external circumstances. What we do have control over is our attitude towards them.
As Epictetus once said, “it is not things which disturb us, but our attitude towards them.” This perfectly sums up the stoic idea as well as how to handle offense. Similarly, the Roman emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius said “if you are pained by any external thing, it is not the thing that disturbs you, but your judgment about it. And, it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.”
An insult is an offense. Your initial emotional reaction will be to feel bad when you are insulted. But, remember that you have a choice about how to react. And, you can train yourself to recognize the insult for what it is and let it pass unanswered. The accuracy of the insult is irrelevant.
Doing so will not only allow you to maintain a calm attitude but can also lead to a positive cycle where insults become reduced to insignificance. Once others see that you are not impacted by insults you will find that you will become less of a target for insults.
After all, the point of insulting someone is to get a reaction. Offer no reaction and you’ve taken away the motivation for the insult and you’ve taken away the power of others to negatively impact you.
KEVIN J. BROWNE
Philosopher / Educator