How to insult
Once upon Shakespeare’s time, the art of disagreement was pursued with elegance. Degrees of challenge were measured out by the book, as one of his characters explains:
as thus, sir. I did dislike the cut of a certain courtier’s beard: he sent me word, if I said his beard was not cut well, he was in the mind it was: this is called the Retort Courteous. If I sent him word again ‘it was not well cut,’ he would send me word, he cut it to please himself: this is called the Quip Modest. If again ‘it was not well cut,’ he disabled my judgment: this is called the Reply Churlish. If again ‘it was not well cut,’ he would answer, I spake not true: this is called the Reproof Valiant. If again ‘it was not well cut,’ he would say I lied: this is called the Counter-cheque Quarrelsome: and so to the Lie Circumstantial and the Lie Direct.
—As You Like It V.4
Alas, we’ve mostly lost that art, especially in the blogosphere. Disagreements proceed pretty quickly to the Lie Direct. That’s dull! Let’s review the wisdom of Touchstone the Fool to recover more sophisticated practices.
Avoiding the Lie Direct
Imagine that some has just indicated that they spurn your position, e.g. on the soundness of the IPCC report. How can you reply?
Retort Courteous: Well, my view differs. (Note: then you have to stop. Really.)
Quip Modest: I’ve considered the evidence, and have come to my own conclusion on this matter.
Reply Churlish: As your judgment on this subject seems to me impaired, I don’t think it worthwhile to pursue this with you further.
Reproof Valiant: Your statement is wrong, for this reason…. (Note: this reproof is indeed valiant, because you have now undertaken responsibility to provide a full defense of your view.)
Counter-cheque Quarrelsome: How dare you speak to me like that!
Lie Circumstantial: If you said so, you would be lying.
Lie Direct: You lie!
In praise of indirectness
We may think of communication about climate change or other issues largely as exchanges of claims together evidence to back those claims up. The importance of science for these debates may reinforce the impression that what’s really at stake are the facts, just the facts. But when we actually examine arguers’ language choices in detail, we can observe that a lot more is happening. Arguers (and speakers in general) are not only conveying information to each other, they are also carrying forward an interpersonal relationship.
The Lie Direct is indeed direct–it directly frames the relationship as hostile. One person attacks the other (“you”), and in particular attacks the basic legitimacy of their contributions to the conversation. By contrast, the other strategies use various techniques of indirectness:
- speaking only of one’s own point of view, not expressly characterizing the other (“it seems to me…”)
- focusing on what is said, not on the sayer
- shifting from assertions to possibilities (“if”)
Why indirectness? “You lie” does not leave much wiggle room; accused of lying, the honorable person must draw his/her weapon. Indirectness, by contrast, leaves each some degree of plausible deniability. The speaker can point out that he did not actually say that the other person was a liar, however much that was insinuated. Both parties can continue to pretend that they respect each other. Everyone is keeping up appearances, and something like a conversation, as opposed to a duel, can continue.
For more: see Stephen Pinker’s a nice explanation of the way indirectness allows us to maintain relationships, part of the RSA Animate series.
A final plea
If you are going to insult, at least use some verbal dexterity. That way you’ll demonstrate your intellectual superiority even as you use your verbal weapons to slaughter your opponent. You can get some help from the Bard with this, too.
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