In Sticks and Stones: The Philosophy of Insults, philosopher Jerome Neu, a Professor of Humanities at the University of California, Santa Cruz, probes the nature, purpose, and effects of insults, exploring how and why they humiliate, embarrass, infuriate, and wound us so deeply. In the post below Neu looks at the meaning of the shoes thrown at the Baghdad press conference earlier this week.
During what was meant to be a final triumphal press conference in Baghdad at the end of 2008, an Iraqi journalist hurled two shoes towards the head of President George W. Bush. The shoes missed (Bush was nimble), but the insult was heard round the world. Indeed, the journalist has become something of a folk hero in many Arab quarters. While what counts as an insult varies widely from culture to culture, the desire for respect (and the related desire to avoid being disrespected or diss’d) is universal. One need not go very deep into Middle Eastern attitudes towards feet to see the insult in the shoe assault. Of course, one must remove shoes on entering a mosque (or a Buddhist temple for that matter), and they are widely regarded as dirty. If the intention to insult had been obscure, the accompanying epithet (the journalist called the President a “dog”) was surely enough to make the point clear. But the throwing of the shoes (the journalist had been searched before entering the room and doubtless there was little else tossable to hand) had its significance written in a language of expressive gesture readable across cultures. While it was clearly a physical assault, the point was not the infliction of physical damage. Consider a related gesture: “a slap in the face.” Unlike a fist to the face, the point is not typically to cause serious physical injury. The boundary violation is largely symbolic. It may be a response to insult, as in a woman’s slap of a man who has made an unwanted and inappropriate sexual advance. It may be the formal prelude to a duel, as may be the throwing down of a gauntlet. Shoes, gloves, hands can all be instruments of communication. Throwing shoes might also be compared to throwing pies. It is not that anyone thinks ill of pies, it is just that pies are not designed as projectiles, and that throwing a pie in the face is not the normal use (thereby doubtless voiding any pie warranties) and the aggression-without-intent-to-physically-injure is writ (perhaps humorously) large. The assault, as with insults in general, is more psychological and moral than physical, it is an assault on dignity, expressing disrespect, and perhaps also an attempt to reclaim the insulter’s own dignity. Questions about the language of expressive gesture (whether universal or local) remain. Why is throwing flowers onto the stage at La Scala a compliment but throwing tomatoes not? Surely the world does not despise tomatoes (whatever the consensus of the Arab world towards shoes). Convention? But how do conventions get started and established in a way that yields a widely understood language? Sometimes a gesture is simply a truncated version of a full action (as when one shakes a fist to express hostility). The truncated shoes-to-head assault spoke eloquently to the world. It did not need actually to connect or do any physical damage for the message of outraged honor to be heard.