LLRX Book Review by Heather A. Phillips - Jerome Neu’s Sticks and Stones: The Philosophy of Insults

Sticks and Stones: The Philosophy of Insults

"Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." This playground rhyme is a familiar one to anyone who has ever had to negotiate the byzantine corridors of grade school politics. And as anyone who has ever had occasion to use this phrase knows, it is often more a show of defiance than a statement of truth. For, as Lord Chesterfield said, “An injury is much sooner forgotten than an insult”.

Words, like the proverbial “sticks and stones” can cause hurt – or else why have laws against slander and libel? Insults are wounds to the intangible. And while a broken leg is easily dealt with, it is more complicated to salve a contused sense of honor, a scalded reputation or a lacerated social standing.

Jerome Neu’s Sticks and Stones: the philosophy of insults explores the characteristics, purpose, intent and effects of insults. He devotes his first chapter to the sensation of “feeling insulted”, exploring concepts such as truth, perception, understanding, and intent as well as the roles of contempt, sensitivity, and expectation. Those of us with a legal background might ache to apply a “reasonable person” standard (or as Neu would have it, an “Aristotelian mean”) in order to determine when a person’s feelings of insult might be valid. However because all insults are contextual – relying not only on the “time, place and manner” of the insulting act, but also the social relationships and milieu of the event as well as the perceptions and intent of the parties involved -- the nature of insults is somewhat inherently slippery.

Neu discusses the need for an insultee – that is, the need for someone to perceive an insult — in order for an insult to take place (if a tree is insulted in the forest but no one hears it .... ), he notes that the application of such an "Aristotelian mean" is frustrated not only because of the idiosyncratic nature of people (some simply being more sensitive than others), but the ability (one might say even the necessity) of the insulter to target insults to the tender areas of the recipient’s psyche.

In addition to personal, idiosyncratic, sensitivities, insults also involve culturally taboo (and thus, societally sensitive) subjects such as gender, sexuality, religion, and race. Indeed, Neu devotes an entire chapter to exploring the nexus of gender and sexuality as an environment of taboo and topic of insult. In addition, Neu speaks at length about religion as a culturally sensitive topic, and therefore as fertile ground for insults. Running through Neu’s explorations of these environments of insult (for lack of a better phrase) is how they demonstrate cultural constructs of honor and gender, and our concepts and ideals of character.

In spite of the scope of these other explorations, Neu does not focus solely on the feelings of the insultee. In fact, his exploration of satire and insult humor, as well as his analysis of the breadth and scope of Shakespearean insult and the historical example of court jesters, Neu explores the positive, creative aspects of insult. By providing the ability to laugh at fraught or even dangerous situations, by deflating pomposity (as in the “Monty Python principal”), or by pointing out unwelcome but necessary truths, such insults allow sunshine – proverbially the best disinfectant – into traditionally proscribed and hidden topics.

Devoting three chapters to the intersection of insult and law, Neu makes clear his skepticism about any type of proscription on speech (insulting or not) – whether these proscriptions deal with obscenity, blasphemy or hate speech. Neu clearly sees unrestricted speech to be necessary for legitimate governance. The discomfort caused by insult, whether or not it was intended, is a type of collateral damage that is unavoidable and incidental to the necessities of free thought, expression and discussion. Opponents who seek to outlaw or subjugate insulting speech are undermining the bedrock of participatory governance.

In a way, Neu’s book defies easy categorization. It is not a legal treatise, in spite of his focus on the law. It is not an anthropological or sociological study. It is, however, an approachably written and intriguing examination of insult and free speech. This captivating book would find a welcome home in any university collection that collects in the area of political philosophy, and though not a “law book” in the classical sense of that term, would make a good contribution to a law collection dealing with public policy or freedom of speech.

cover of Sticks and Stones: The Philosophy of InsultsSticks and Stones: The Philosophy of Insults
Author: Jerome Neu
Binding: Hardcover
List price: $37.95 USD
Amazon price: $48.75 USD