Insult Pacifism

Speaker shares merits of ‘insult pacifism’

BLUFFTON, Ohio—William B. Irvine has a “five-second rule” that has nothing to do with eating just-dropped food off a floor.

But it has a lot to do with a person’s ability to brush off an insult, the Wright State University philosophy professor said Nov. 19 at Bluffton University.

Irvine is a self-described “insult pacifist” who, as part of a research project, began responding to verbal slights with silence or self-deprecating humor. The latter type of reply has worked so well that it has become his common response, said the author of the recently published book, “A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt—and Why They Shouldn’t.”

What a person does in the first five seconds after being insulted determines how much pain the insult causes, Irvine told a Bluffton Forum audience. Immediate efforts to calculate an insulter’s motive will be upsetting, he said, but if insulted individuals try to turn the situation into a joke, their “sense of injustice won’t be triggered” and they can move on, he argued.

Not only will it appear that the targeted parties weren’t affected, but they really won’t be, added Irvine, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from UCLA.

He did say, however, that he also considers if an insult contains information that could be helpful to him. Granting that it might address “genuine shortcomings” he needs to work on, he maintained that “a verbal rock can be a diamond.”

His experiment with insult pacifism has worked “wonderfully,” said Irvine, who became interested in insults while studying Stoicism, an ancient philosophy of life whose adherents had a similar interest.

Responding to an insult with silence, as though nothing happened, may prompt a “discombobulated” insulter to repeat it, which the target can deflect by saying “I heard you the first time,” he advised his listeners. That kind of comeback is likely to embarrass the insulter, he said.

But self-deprecating humor can be even more effective, eventually leaving insult hurlers tired and searching for easier targets, Irvine continued. “That response is devastating to the insulter,” he asserted, noting that his humor frustrated one would-be insulter to the point that the person told him “you need to take things more seriously.”

By habitually responding with such humor, “I have pretty much immunized myself” against insults, he said.

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