Dealing with insults, the Stoic way
The delicate balance between personal philosophy and social justice
“Remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves—that is, our opinions do. What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective? (Epictetus, Discourses I.25.28–29)
A few years ago there was a lively discussion, in Stoic circles, about insults and how to deal with them. A discussion, I believe, that has implications far outside of Stoic philosophy, affecting pretty much anyone who has ever felt insulted at some point or another in their life. Which means almost every human being who ever lived. So perhaps it is a good idea to revisit the issue and reflect some more on it.
The quote above from Epictetus makes it crystal clear what the Stoic advice is concerning insults: ignore them. This is a direct consequence of the fundamental Epictetean notion that there is a sharp distinction between facts and opinions. Facts are objective descriptions of things or events. Opinions are value judgments about those things or events. Facts are independent of the existence of human minds, opinions are generated exclusively by human minds (i.e., they are not “out there” in the world).
For example: years ago someone told me on social media that I am a mediocre academic who wrote a piece critical of a famous female colleague out of spite and a sense of inferiority. (This is the piece, in case you were wondering.) Ouch. The utterance was clearly meant as a put down, and therefore a good candidate as an insult. So let’s parse it carefully, with a particular eye toward separating facts from values, a la Epictetus.
One fact is that someone did write those things on social media. A second fact is that they were directed at me, personally, since the guy used my handle for that particular social platform. A third fact is that I am an academic. Am I a mediocre one? While “mediocre” can be a subjective value judgment, it can also be interpreted factually. In this second sense, by the objective standards of the academy I am certainly less famous and accomplished than the colleague I had criticized. But I am an Endowed Professor (that’s an actual title) at a good public university. That probably puts me above mediocrity, though definitely not into the stellar category. Did I write the piece out of spite and a sense of inferiority? Well, my introspection says no, but of course introspection is notoriously unreliable. Certainly, though, my social media interlocutor could not possibly know my motivations or inner thought processes, so that part of his statement is not factual, it’s just a guess on his part.
Now for the value component. Did the guy insult me? That was, apparently, his intention. Did I feel insulted? Not in the least, since I feel secure in both my motivations for writing the original piece and the soundness of my arguments. Besides, if my arguments turned out to be incorrect, then the rational thing to do would be for me to correct them, not to feel insulted. So did I decide not to respond, to behave like a rock, as Epictetus suggests? No. I took a second Epictetean route, exemplified by the following quote:
“If you learn that someone is speaking ill of you, don’t try to defend yourself against the rumors; respond instead with, ‘Yes, and he doesn’t know the half of it, because he could have said more.’” (Enchiridion 33.9)
So I tried out a bit of self-detracting humor myself. It was a fun exercise. There was no response from the other guy, and we both moved on to more pressing matters in our lives.
In general, though, I prefer the rock-approach, on the ground that it is (a) easier to implement (you literally have to do nothing, instead of racking your brain in order to come up with some clever retort), and (b) does not lend itself to misunderstandings (self-deprecating humor often borders into, or is perceived as, sarcasm, which is not a constructive response to anything).
Whit this background in mind, what, exactly, were my fellow Stoic disagreeing about when it comes to insults? The discussion involved Bill Irvine, author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy and of The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient; Eric O. Scott, who used to blog for Euthyphroria; and Don Robertson, author of Stoicism and the Art of Happiness as well as of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.
Briefly, here are their respective positions. Bill argued (here) that as Stoics we should not react to insults, just as Epictetus suggests. This applies, he says, also to the sort of high-profile on-campus situations that have in recent years made the rounds in the news, such as micro-aggressions, safe spaces, and trigger warnings. Moreover, according to Bill, the world would be a better place if more people took up the Stoic attitude toward insults, because insults generate anger, and anger wastes a lot of our time and emotional energy (and leads to violence and even war; in other words, it’s a really bad idea).
Eric wrote a response to Bill (here, with Bill’s counter-response here), arguing that there is a danger in reacting to insults as rocks: we may underestimate or ignore structural injustices that need to be addressed, essentially turning Stoicism into a quietist philosophy. If a black person, say, or a woman, simply ignores racist or sexist comments directed at them, this could easily devolve into disregarding not just the insult, but the pernicious culture that generated it.
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