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."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now, I'm sorry to say - and I hope you won't be too offended - but we're going to spend some time insulting you.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Alfalfa) You make me vomit.
JOHN CLEESE: (As character) Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (as Earl of Kent) A rascal, an eater of broken meats, a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave.
WILL SMITH: (as William Smith) Your mama's so dumb, she went to the movies and it said under 17 not admitted, so she went home and got 16 of her friends.
CORNISH: That's Will Smith, as the "Fresh Prince of Bel Air"; Shakespeare's Earl of Kent; "Monty Python"; and Alfalfa, from "The Little Rascals" - all experts at insults. We recently spoke with another expert, William Irvine. He's become a collector of insults, and he's put them in a new book called "A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt - And Why They Shouldn't." So which are his favorites?
WILLIAM IRVINE: Almost anything by Winston Churchill - what was it, Nancy Astor saying to Winston Churchill, if you were my husband, I would put poison in your coffee; and him saying back, if you were my wife, I would drink it.
CORNISH: Irvine's book, we should say, might sound like basic self-help. But he is a philosophy professor. He researched history, human evolution and himself.
IRVINE: I was very attuned to insults other people were doing, and I started hearing my own insults. 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 motives for saying them, you realize you are trying to put somebody down on the social hierarchy.
CORNISH: So in the book, when you get down to the why - why is it that we insult each other? - you actually end up looking back to our ancestors, back into evolution. And it sounds like you're saying that insults are their own kind of social currency; we're using it, in one way or another, to move up and down our social circles.
IRVINE: A hundred thousand years ago, on the savannas of Africa, if you were a solitary individual, you were dead very quickly. You simply could not have withstood nature, at that point. 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 the group. So you did things to rise to the top of the social hierarchy that you were in. That got programmed into human beings.
So now, it feels good for other people to praise you or defer to you. And it feels really bad for them to insult you in public. We have that wired into us. And the argument philosophers would make is, if you want to have a good life, you have to overcome that evolutionary wiring.
CORNISH: If we are hard-wired to care about insults, then is it really a bad thing? I mean, is it necessary?
IRVINE: We're hard-wired to care about a bunch of things that if we actually care about them, we're in trouble. So for instance, we're hard-wired to like sweet, fattening foods. Our evolutionary ancestors who liked them did well in the savannas of Africa, but they were in a radically different environment than we are. So if you allow yourself to be persuaded by those tastes for that kind of food, you're going to overeat; you're going to end up with a heart attack. Same is true of sexual desires - hard-wired into us and yet unless you can have some level of control over them, you're going to live - probably - a life that's not the life that would be of your choosing, if you really stopped to think it through.
CORNISH: Now, with a book title like "A Slap in the Face," I'm wondering how people reacted when you'd tell them what you were writing about. I mean, did they essentially, respond with insults?
IRVINE: Well, I had friends who - you know, I told them I'm writing this book, I'm collecting insults; and they would nevertheless, insult me. 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 have 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.
CORNISH: Well, William Irvine, thank you so much for speaking with us.
IRVINE: Oh, thank you. The pleasure was mine.
CORNISH: That's William Irvine, professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. He's author of the new book "A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt - And Why They Shouldn't."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YA MAMA")
THE PHARCYDE: Ya mom is so fat - how fat is she? Ya mama is so big and fat that she can get busy with 22 burritos, but times are rough. I seen her in the back...
CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.