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Earlier this month, British boxer Curtis Woodhouse drove 100 kilometres to confront a Twitter troll. The online tormentor had maligned Woodhouse as a "complete disgrace" after he lost his "mickey mouse" lightweight title. Woodhouse posted a $1,500 bounty for the man's street address and got in his car to deliver a knockout. (The troll promptly apologized, and the boxer drove home without making his bully's acquaintance.)

A lanky Canadian comedian named Nathan Fielder turned out to be far less thin-skinned than the boxer. Last month, Fielder, creator of the new Comedy Central show Nathan for You, issued this challenge: "If you can hurt my feelings over Twitter, I'll Paypal you $50." Fielder claims the process has inured him to abusive swipes.

Some relish the heat of insults and others lace up their gloves. In his new book A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt – and Why They Shouldn't, philosophy professor William Irvine argues that receiving and doling out jeers can actually improve relationships.

While childhood is filled with painful, blatant insults, in adulthood, "pooh head" is often replaced by less vicious quips – playful teasing that can strengthen connections between bros and spouses alike. "Curiously, friends and relatives say these things not because they want to offend us but because they like us and want us to like them in turn," writes Irvine, who teaches at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

The book also chronicles the Golden Age of insults, when the Algonquin Round Table saw wits like Dorothy Parker and Tallulah Bankhead firing legendary repartee through the 1920s. Today, all we've got is Chris Brown's putrid venom on Twitter, our era's depressingly vapid verbal battleground.

"The nuance has been removed from our attacks on other people. When we're disturbed, we'll resort quickly to profanity," says Irvine. "If an insult's got wit, you can admire it, even if it's directed at you. You read Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill – holy cow they were good."

Irvine spoke with The Globe about the social importance of the insult.

That's unsulting

Playful teasing or "unsults" as Irvine calls them, are commonplace between friends and family, implying acceptance and intimacy: "We can locate our various relationships on a continuum, according to the role teasing plays in them," he writes. In Irvine's life, "The closer the friend, the more teasing there is. Then there are people who I would never dream of teasing. I don't have much of a relationship with them." And what if no one ever insults you this way? "Chances are people regard you as a socially brittle human," is Irvine's diagnosis.


Men in particular engage in "joking relationships" as an alternative to the outward displays of affection favoured by women, Irvine contends: "It's the way men get close to each other and show social acceptance for each other." These unions involve routine back-and-forth jibes, "triggering delight" on the part of both the insulter and insultee. "Teasing is a form of permitted disrespect," Irvine writes.

Spousal sparring

Affectionate teasing is "a wonderful way to relieve the tensions that build in a long-term relationship, when the things that used to be cute become annoying," says Irvine. That includes "mocking each other's habits, preferences, mannerisms or speech patterns," he writes, suggesting this is a reprieve from direct confrontation. "The same insults that can, under some circumstances, weaken or even destroy a relationship, can, under other circumstances, preserve or strengthen that same relationship."

Tell me what you really think

Beneath the light taunts often lies a suggestion. For couples, "It's a way to communicate your wish that a person would change in a certain way," says Irvine. When we taunt friends, relatives and co-workers, we're reminding them of persistent foibles: "We point out, in a non-threatening manner, what we take to be their shortcomings and character flaws," writes the author.

Insult by proxy

When we relay negative gossip about friends – to those very friends – "This is the insult-equivalent of a free lunch," writes Irvine. This type of second-hand jab allows people to inflict harm without being the originator. Why would you ferry negative intel? "Perhaps you envy them. Perhaps they insulted you in the past. It is payback time, but you can pretend that it is something else," Irvine says.

Group dynamics

Scoring a nickname or a public joke made at your expense means that you've probably landed acceptance in the group, especially in cliques or clubs. Same goes for roasts: "You typically roast someone you admire," says Irvine. In the case of professional sports, prolific locker-room vulgarity, towel slaps and pranks create "solidarity among the team members, albeit a coercive form of solidarity," writes Irvine, sourcing the research of linguist Koenraad Kuiper, who spent time scrutinizing the bestiality and penis jokes of a New Zealand rugby team.

Insults as a 'social test'

Razzing your successful peers – the tall poppy syndrome – is "a standard social hierarchy game," says Irvine. This type of ribbing is often sparked by envy and insecurity. In actuality, insulters are worried you might drop them from your social calendar, and they tease to determine if their concern is founded.

'Insult pacifism'

While affectionate teasing can deepen bonds, many other jabs are bad-natured. For these, Irvine is advocating insult pacifism: "I have tried to train myself not to inflict first-strike insults, not to backbite, and not to respond to insults with malicious insults," he writes. Subtle, spoken barbs uttered in real-time have been hardest for the professor to kick, but he will at least edit them out of his e-mails. As for incoming missiles, Irvine suggests not responding, which can throw off a bully better than mouthing off. He writes: "People who insult us deserve our pity, not our rage."

Famous insults

"That's not writing, that's typing."

– Truman Capote to Jack Kerouac

"I liked your opera. I think I will set it to music."

 Beethoven to another composer

"The stupid person's idea of a clever person."

– Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen on Aldous Huxley

"Once again, words have failed Norman …"

– Gore Vidal to Norman Mailer after Mailer punched Vidal for insulting his writing

When MP Nancy Astor said to Winston Churchill, "Winston, if I were married to you, I'd put poison in your coffee," he replied, "Nancy, if you were my wife, I'd drink it."

"We might as well go back, and watch Katharine Hepburn run the gamut of emotions from A to B."

– Dorothy Parker during an intermission of The Lake in 1934

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."

– William Faulkner on Ernest Hemingway

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