Sense and Nonsense: The Art of the Insult

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We are to speak well of one another, even of those who hate us. We are also to speak truthfully, sometimes even bluntly, when necessary. Strictly speaking, an insult is rude or contemptuous speech designed to hurt someone’s feelings or arouse his anger. The insult is deliberate, intended to hurt. No doubt it can be a serious sin, spoken against the real dignity found in others.

Take, however, the remark I read in this morning’s paper. The writer was discussing the dangerous, complicated, and seemingly insoluble plight of our foreign policy in Iraq. After describing a long list of specific issues, the writer quipped, as if to propose a solution, “This would never have happened if only Warren Christopher were still alive.”

That is a pretty witty remark. Warren Christopher has the reputation of being a weak, ancient secretary of state. But, of course, he is still alive and, until December of last year, still in charge. That is the humor. So, I suppose the remark might be called an insult. The only question is whether such a biting remark is justified by the objective situation. After having listed the problems, the writer could not conclude that the secretary of state was doing a wonderful job. So there is a certain art in the insult that can have a legitimate, critical purpose.

Samuel Johnson’s fellow collegian was “the celebrated George Whitefield,” the evangelist. “By doing what was strange,” Johnson thought disapprovingly, Whitefield caused attention to be drawn to himself. Evidently, at the time (1779), a famous equestrian by the name of Astley flourished. Johnson observed that if Astley preached a sermon while standing on his head on the back of a horse, “he would collect a multitude to hear him.” But a sermon so delivered is, as a sermon, “not better for all that.” Johnson added carefully, “I never treated Whitefield’s ministry with contempt.” Notice the word “contempt.” Whitefield did help “the lower classes of mankind.” However, this act did not, Johnson thought, give him a right to other distinctions. “When familiarity and noise claim the praise due to knowledge, art, and elegance, we must beat down such pretensions.”


The relevant distinctions about whether insult and contempt are culpable or therapeutic are all here in Johnson’s comment about George Whitefield and the preacher standing on his head on the back of a horse.

This reflection about the art of the insult arose because I have an autographed copy of the cartoonist Mel Lazarus’s “Miss Peach.” I have not seen “Miss Peach” of late. She was one of my all-time favorites. “Miss Peach” was about a kindergarten teacher with her little flock flawed by original sin: Marcia, Lester, Ira, Arthur, and Francine.

One sequence shows Marcia Mason at a table in front of big signs. She has opened a commercial enterprise, one with lots of potential: “MARCIA MASON’S INSULT SERVICE. We Do Your Insulting For You.” “Good Solid, Guaranteed Insults Delivered to the Party of Your Choice.” “Subtle Insult, 5¢; Gross Insult, 7¢; Severe Insult, 10¢.”

Ira comes up to Marcia’s business establishment. She greets him, “Can I help you?” Ira replies, “Yes, I’m sore at Lester, see. . . .” A new set of signs appears behind Marcia in the next scene: “Do You Want Someone Insulted But Lack The Courage? Marcia Will Do It for You.”

Marcia continues efficiently, “You want Lester insulted?” Ira responds, defiantly, “Yes, Severely.” Marcia is in business. “Lead me to him.” Ira leads her off, “Follow me.” He spots Lester, “Oh, say, Lester, Marcia wants to tell you something.”

As Ira smiles wickedly, Lester, down in the mouth, is not expecting this onslaught from this quarter. Marcia does her work smoothly. She surely knows her insulting trade: “Lester, you’re a no-good, worthless, rotten, cheap, two-faced thing!” Then Marcia, with a smirk that leaves Ira dumbfounded, adds, “In other words, you’re just like Ira here.” Walking away, over her shoulder, she adds coyly, “Bye.”

Both young men, but mostly Ira, are flabbergasted. Ira catches up with Marcia. “Hold on there, Marcia! Do you realize what you did?” Ira asks her reasonably enough. “You not only insulted Lester, the insult which I paid for; but you also insulted me. How about that?” At this, treating the whole problem as a question of economics, Marcia naturally has the last word, “Forget it. That one was on the house.” Needless to say, Ira is properly insulted for paying Marcia to insult Lester.

The insult can be one of the lesser fine arts, so good that we do not even have to pay for it. It can also be a sin, bad enough that we can never quite “forget it,” never cease paying for it.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).