Last week, in lieu of some truly astonishing discussions about "legitimate rape," I wrote a guide to talking about women's issues for the many folks who seem intent on continually inserting their feet into their mouths with comments about abortion, rape, birth control, and other of those so-called "women's issues." I forgot to mention, however, that there are ways in which one should avoid insulting women—actually, people in general—online, and in real life, too. As luck would have it, Donald Trump has brought this failure to my attention today, tweeting that Arianna Huffington "is unattractive both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man- he made a good decision."
Trump saying something like this is not surprising in the slightest and barely deserves a reaction, but it does offer a handy reminder to the rest of us that there are ways in which one should not insult people, and ways in which one sometimes can. Let's be realistic. While one might be tempted to say, "You should NEVER insult anyone, anywhere," this is just not feasible. By being a human, you're going to, sometimes without even meaning it, say something someone else does not like. When we think of insult, we tend to think only of the visceral, a jab back, the sting it brings, and how that is something we were told not to do as far back as in preschool. But people are insulting each other all the time, in socially acceptable ways. Sometimes this is even called flirting! Per Merriam-Webster's definition, to insult is "to treat with insolence, indignity, or contempt." Some people have made full professional lives of being insolent and contemptuous. Some of them are serious; some of them are kidding, but there's a right way and a wrong way. Trump's is wrong. (Pointing fingers, as per the above, is also generally frowned upon in polite company.)
Any insult is a risk, but there are ways to try to ensure that you emerge from the experience in the best possible light. As Trump shows us, the missteps are all too easily made, and they only serve to discredit the insulter. Do any of us want that? Herewith, your guide to better online insults.
Use Your Words. Be Funny. You'll strike back at the folks you want to strike back at more effectively because they will be surprised and, quite possibly, simply not know what to do with your amusing repartee. You'll also win the right sort of friends and favor if you can insult in a way that is an art in itself, that is self-deprecating or acknowledges your own foibles while throwing the insult back at he who heaved the first throw. The world vastly prefers a skilled comedic insulter to one who employs brute, bullying force. So, throw some wit into the game. Add some twists. Don't be afraid to laugh at yourself. Don't be a Trump and just call someone a "loser"—turn the tables on the insult by owning the losership, and then take the insult a step further. The first person who said, for instance, "I know I am but what are you?" or "I'm rubber and you're glue," well, that person was breaking new ground! Think along those lines, but as an adult rather than a 7-year-old. Or, point out entertaining hypocrisies. In that vein, here's a rather solid comeback to Trump's initial jab (Note: Trump has traveled so far down the insult hierarcy that supporters of those he insults go forth to fight their insult battles for them):
Donald Trump commenting on someone else's inner/outer beauty is the real joke here.— Señor Winces (@senorwinces) August 28, 2012
Further, if you can be funny (and if you're a supporter rather than throwing the first insult), you tend to get a lot with a whole lot more. For example:
Know Yourself, Know When to Insult. Are you lashing out because you're really, really, really steamed, like about to break something with your hands, steamed? Are you drunk? Are you otherwise under the influence? Do you lack a good night's sleep, or many? Are you actually angry with someone IRL? Is your insult likely to have consequences you're not prepared to deal with? Think about whether you really want to say what you're about to say, and if, possibly, you're putting unresolved anger in the wrong place. If you gave yourself, say, two hours to sober up and cool off, would you still say it? If not, walk away from the computer or Internet-enabled device and get yourself a cold glass of water or something otherwise soothing and non-alcoholic.
Know Your Goals. Why do you feel the need to insult? There are degrees of insults, of course. There are funny quips, ideally meant to surprise and make a reader think, and they may well be read as insults, if your target is a person to whom any confrontation or sign of dissent exists as such. There are arguments to the counter ("You are wrong!"). There are counter-arguments with barbs ("This is ill-reported! This is asinine! How could you even think this?"). And then there are more personal attacks, in which you argue or respond back not about what you're actually angry about but about the person who said it. Sometimes this is OK too, for instance, in the case of turning what Trump said back on him, per the Tweet above; that's pointing out inherent inconsistencies and therefore is not like saying, "Mr. Trump, you wear a horrible toupee." But, again, know your goals. Know the difference between making someone else look bad, and making yourself look worse. If your goal is to establish yourself as a reputable, credible, responsible person who you'd hope people would listen to on the off-chance you had something good or interesting or intelligent to say, say something confrontational, yes, but also still good or interesting or intelligent.
Avoid Sexist Tropes. Trump again shows us the way on this one, but we've seen it before and not just from him to the extent that it's awfully clichéd and not very interesting. Frequently, men will insult women on the Internet, hoping to cut them where it hurts the most. They presume it will hurt the most when they say, "You are ugly," "You can never find a man," "Your husband left you," "You're a slut," "You probably have an STD," or "You're a bitch." Such expressions, though, are so frequent and frankly, unoriginal (not to mention almost always untrue), that they barely leave much of an emotional mark. If, say, a woman's husband really has left her, guess what: She knows it already. Thanks for delivering obvious info about something you know less about than the insulted party! It's as if men like Trump are simply aping lines that they think will hurt a woman. If you really want to get a woman's attention on the Internet, "insult" her by telling her that her argument is faulty, and explain why. Presuming you make any sense, she's likely to pay attention, consider your point, and maybe she'll even respond or alter her viewpoint. Isn't dialogue nice? If you start out sexist, though, there's no going back; you pretty much sound like Charlie Brown's teacher from then on. The most simple tip here is, avoid anything Rush Limbaugh would say. This applies for sexist comments about men, too. Explain why. Explain what. If you can't convey what this person has done wrong and instead have to resort to name-calling or gender stereotyping, you're no better than the person whom you are attempting to insult, and you may be worse.
Make Sure that Your Beef Is Recognizable to the Rest of the Internet. If you're about to engage in a war of the insults with another party online, make sure the thing about which you are fighting is clear and established to those who may be watching (someone will be watching). Because if you are able to explain what the issue is, and the other person has simply resorted to name-calling, even if your viewpoint is not the popular one, you've already sort of won. Further, if your stance really is the clear, correct, well-reasoned, savvy one, and you can deliver it with a bit of humor, you are sure to attract supporters who will do your insulting for you. Use them wisely. Trump's follow-up statement to his original insult tweet—"Don't think my statement on @ariannahuff was harsh, if you knew her and the phony Huffington Post you would understand--- more to follow"—however, doesn't really serve to clear things up about what set off his tirade and whether he has any right to be delivering insults at all. Nor does this one:
Avoid Terrible Insults. Insults to avoid include anything sexist. Anything related to someone's appearance. Insults that do not contain enough information—"This is dumb," "This is boring," "Is this news?" "Who cares!"—all of those simply serve to say more about the reader, that he or she took the time to actually write such an inane insult. You've insulted those words by using them. Also bad: Irrelevant insults. As much, for instance, as one might be tempted to take Donald Trump to task for his poor use of a hyphen in his initial tweet against Huffington (inconsistent spacing, and shouldn't that be an em-dash?), trying to insult his intelligence in such an indirect fashion is far less powerful than saying, for instance, "I have no idea what you're talking about." The irrelevant, meandering, off-topic insult is not a very good insult at all.
Know When to Say Nothing. If you don't view something as an insult (even if others do, and attempt to rile you up about it), maybe it's not. You certainly limit the power of whoever is trying to knock you down a peg by feeling that way. Sometimes the best thing an insulted party can do is to ignore, or say, "thanks for the pageviews," or chalk it up to that strange complicated Internet phenomenon of loving the things you hate almost as much as you hate them, or, weirdly, even more so. An insult means someone is attempting to get your attention, and as Mom used to say, why give them the satisfaction of knowing you care? (Huffington has not, at this time, responded via Twitter to Trump's volleys. She appears to be far too busy.) Related: Sometimes retweeting the insult that's been made about you is the best counter-insult move there is.
Know When to Say Something. Other times, ignoring creates a false kind of comfort, and instead makes a person feel passive and weak and seems to propagate an Internet culture of rudeness. Instead, you simply want to slam back at the person who slammed you, and make sure they know not to do it again, because, well, messing with you is sort of a bad idea, it turns out. In those cases, take a deep breath, make sure you know what you want to say and are not inebriated, make sure others understand so they can have your back; avoid personal attacks and instead insult the reason or meaning or lack of logic in what your insulter is saying. Be aware that repercussions may ensue, and if you can, make your response kind of funny or at least intelligent and at the very least, truly felt. Then, go forth and insult.
Until you can master these rules, though, you should stick to retweets of Donald Trump.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.