Slap in the Face!: Why Insults Are So Prevalent in Politics

In a new book, a philosophy professor recounts the human history that led up to "It's the economy, stupid!"

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Time & Life Pictures

Attorney G. William Horsley (L) as Abraham Lincoln in re-enactment of Lincoln-Douglas debates with S. Phil Hutchinson (R) impersonating Stephen A. Douglas on Aug, 1, 1958.

It takes all of eight pages for politicians to make in appearance in William B. Irvine’s new book about insults, wherein he recounts Abraham Lincoln saying that an argument made by Stephen A. Douglas “is as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had been starved to death.” In an interview about Slap in the Face, out this month, TIME asked the Wright State University philosophy professor about the role invectives have played in politics:

You name politicians as one of the most prolific sources of insults. Why is that so?

It’s because people don’t like to think about politics. People want easy answers to complicated questions, and people want it to be a struggle between forces of good and forces of evil. You’re talking to an old man who has seen many elections, and I am now appalled by the low level to which political discussion has fallen in the country.

What is the secret to an effective political insult? 

[H.L.] Mencken said one horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. That’s true. And if you can get a crowd to laugh at someone, that’s more important than any kind of carefully thought out speech that you could give. Because people want to have that visceral reaction that doesn’t require any thought.

You also name writers as a prolific source of insults. How are writers and politicians different when it comes to invectives?

Writers have fragile egos and as a result, [insults are] personal. Whereas politicians had better not have fragile egos. If they did, they wouldn’t make it. For them, it isn’t that someone else has said something that hurts their feelings. It’s typically that these are just the weapons in the war to win approval.

What are the common themes in political insults?

A lot of them I list in the book are just clever ways to say that the opponent is stupid. And again, that taps right into how people don’t want to think. If they can believe that the person making the contrary political argument is simply stupid, then they don’t have to believe that argument. They’re absolved of having to think any more about the argument. It’s a pity. Because in all of these political discussions, there are smart people on both sides, and it is possible to think about politics. People seem not to realize that. But politics matters, it makes a difference.

For the rest of the interview with Irvine about his book on insults, including why he thinks humans would be better off without them, click here.