William Irvine is a philosophy professor by day, but he has an unusual sideline: He’s also a collector of insults. Irvine has gathered some of his favorite jibes into a new book called A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt — And Why They Shouldn’t.
Irvine tells NPR’s Audie Cornish that one of his favorite masters of insult is Winston Churchill. “Nancy Astor [said] to Winston Churchill, ‘if you were my husband, I would put poison in your coffee,’ ” Irvine says, to which Churchill replied, ” ‘If you were my wife, I would drink it.’ “
Irvine’s book might sound like basic self-help, but it has a distinctly academic bent. He has researched history, human evolution and even himself. “I was very attuned to insults other people were doing, and I started hearing my own insults,” he says. “They’re very subtle. You don’t even know you’re doing them, but if you replay conversations in your head, you realize you said things. And if you think about your motivations for saying them, you realize you were trying to put somebody down on the social hierarchy.”
Why are people endlessly compelled to insult each other? It turns out that insults serve as a kind of social currency, allowing people to move up and down that hierarchy through a deft turn of phrase. “A hundred thousand years ago on the savannahs of Africa, if you were a solitary individual, you were dead very quickly,” Irvine says. “So you joined a group. And then, once you joined a group, the question of how well you succeeded within that group was determined by your social rank within that group.” Striving for rank within a group, he continues, has become ingrained in the human psyche — praise and deference feel good, and public insults feel terrible.
“We have that wired into us,” Irvine continues, “and the argument philosophers would make is, if you want to have a good life, you have to overcome that evolutionary wiring.” In fact, he says, there are many things hard-wired into us by evolution that we’d do better to ignore — for example, the fondness for sweet, fatty foods that may have helped early humans survive but leaves us prone to overeating in the modern age of plenty.
Irvine says that when he told his friends he was collecting insults for a book on the subject, many of them, of course, insulted him. “And my standard response was, ‘Do you know how dangerous it is to insult a man who’s collecting insults to put in a book on insults?’ Since the book came out, I’ve had friends who’ve approached me and said, ‘That isn’t me on Page 91, is it?’ And I would always assure them that it wasn’t, but yes, they were the guinea pigs for this experiment.”