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Throwing Insults

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.

Recent Comments

  1. Jean

    I don’t know if people here in the US understood just how great an insult was made by this journalist’s actions. Certainly the police understood; he was arrested and beaten, quite severely from what I understand. Many Muslims were apologetic about the man’s behavior, yet many Americans found the incident funny.

    My Islamic friends consider shoes to be filthy. The rug upon which we leave our shoes inside their home (cold climate) is never touched by bare feet. They put their shoes on with their left hand. As filthy as they consider shoes to be, they consider dogs to be filthier, perhaps the filthiest creature possible.

    Dogs are not fed or given homes in the countries where my friends grew up (Iran, Pakistan, Iraq). Dogs eat carrion and garbage, feed on the unburied human dead, are used to kill or dispose of the bodies of the outcast, the criminal and the irredeemable. Sometimes they are used to carry out an extra-judicial death sentence.

    My friends do their best to understand our love of the dog, but basically are disgusted that not only do we allow the dog into our home, but we treat it as a good friend (and in some cases, as family). It is the part of American culture they have the most trouble understanding.

    If there are insults in our culture as serious as these insults are in my friends’ culture, I cannot think of them.

  2. dina

    @jean. i know thats a two year old comment, but i have to explain something to you.

    i am a muslim. it’s true that we consider shoes to be filthy, as you step with them everywhere and of course the streets are not that clean or else we would have just walked bare foot and man wouldn’t have needed shoes at all! But in your home, you can control your surroundings, its just a matter of cleanliness.

    but i think its universally rejected, picture someone stepping on your face with his shoe, i’ve seen it in a lot of movies, and the meaning derived from that action is quite demeaning.

    Regarding the dog issue, generally in islam, a dog is not considered the filthiest animal!! When the dog drools and a muslim touches it or touches the part around ts nose, his ablution is not accepted as these drools are filthy themselves, i think we can all agree that saliva is not very hygienic. Meaning that every time we touch a dog we have to go take our ablution again. We are allowed to have dogs only for guarding, and dogs shouldn’t enter the house. or back then they were used for hunting.

    Our religion tells us to be kind to animals, they are also creatures of god. In the quran dogs were mentioned in some of the stories, people owning them, which shows what your friends do is rather because of culture rather than religion, and iran, pakistan and iraq are very close so they might have similar behaviors. I am from Egypt and a lot of muslims pick dogs for their pets, they are one of the smartest animals on earth, but they have to follow the islamic rules by keeping them outside their house, and making sure to change their clothes and take their ablution before their prayers. Again its a matter of cleanliness.

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