Stoic practical advice, II: on insults

Shakespearean-InsultI’m here continuing my summary and discussion of part III of William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life, which focuses on Stoic advise on a number of practical issues. Chapter 11 is on the topic of insults and how to deal with them. Turns out that there are several Stoic techniques aimed at this, and that Epictetus would not have been sympathetic to political correctness…

Irvine begins by reminding us that we tend to be very sensitive to insults, and that these can take a bewildering variety of forms, the most painful of which are usually the non physical ones (we can remember, and be hurt by, a slander several years, or even decades after it has occurred).

The problem is that people become angry in reaction to insults, and of course the Stoics thought anger is a negative emotion that needs to be curbed, hence their focus on this specific problem.

Here are a few of the strategies listed by Irvine:

* Pause and consider whether the insulter may actually be right. If so, there is no point in getting upset.

* Perhaps the person insulting you is doing so out of ignorance about your character, or of what you said or did. In which case, the proper response is to educate him.

* Consider the source of the insult: if you respect the person and value his opinions, try to learn from the episode. If you don’t, then why are you getting worked up? Indeed, you should be relieved: if that person disapproves of you, you are likely doing something right!

* Another way is to look at the source of the insult: sometimes the people in question are simply behaving like overgrown children, or perhaps they have deep flaws in their own character. They then deserve our pity, not our anger.

* There is also the standard Stoic response to similar situations, in this case from Epictetus: “another person will not do you harm unless you wish it; you will be harmed at just that time at which you take yourself to be harmed.”

The Stoics also had a battery of possible ways to respond to insults:

* With humor: “Cato was pleading a case when an adversary named Lentulus spit in his face. Rather than getting angry or returning the insult, Cato calmly wiped off the spit and said, “I will swear to anyone, Lentulus, that people are wrong to say that you cannot use your mouth!”” Or consider this: “Someone once came up to Socrates and, without warning, boxed his ears. Rather than getting angry, Socrates made a joke about what a nuisance it is, when we go out, that we can never be sure whether or not to wear a helmet.”

* Question the competence of the insulter, as Epictetus once did, suggesting that the guy obviously didn’t know him well enough, or he would have brought up much more damning flaws in his [Epictetus’] character!

* If your wit is not quick enough, the easiest thing is to provide no response at all, just carry on as if nothing happens. “As Seneca points out, our nonresponse can be quite disconcerting to the insulter, who will wonder whether or not we understood his insult. Furthermore, we are robbing him of the pleasure of having upset us, and he is likely to be upset as a result.”

That said, there are times when it is appropriate to respond to an insult, for instance in order to avoid further damage to the community: “if a student insults her teacher in front of the class, the teacher would be unwise to ignore the insult. The insulter and her peers might, after all, interpret the teacher’s nonresponse as acquiescence and as a result unleash a barrage of insults against him. This behavior would obviously disrupt the classroom and make it difficult for students to learn.” The crucial difference is that the punishment is being handed out in order to correct a bad behavior, not in revenge for the insult itself.

Interestingly (and perhaps controversially?), Irvine ends the chapter with a brief discussion of the Stoic attitude toward modern-style “political correctness”:

“Those who advocate politically correct speech think the proper way to deal with some insults is to punish the insulter. What most concerns them are insults directed at the “disadvantaged,” including members of minority groups and people with physical, mental, social, or economic handicaps …

Epictetus would reject this manner of dealing with insults as being woefully counterproductive. He would point out, to begin with, that the political correctness movement has some untoward side effects. One is that the process of protecting disadvantaged individuals from insults will tend to make them hypersensitive to insults …

Another is that disadvantaged individuals will come to believe that they are powerless to deal with insults on their own— that unless the authorities intercede on their behalf, they are defenseless.

The best way to deal with insults directed at the disadvantaged, Epictetus would argue, is not to punish those who insult them but to teach members of disadvantaged groups techniques of insult self-defense.”

Notice, of course, that by modern standards Epictetus would have been doubly disadvantaged: a member of a disenfranchised minority (slaves), and disabled (he was lame).