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An insult (also called a putdown) is an expression, statement (or sometimes behavior) which is considered degrading and offensive. Insults may be intentional or accidental. An example of the latter is a well-intended simple explanation, which in fact is superfluous, but is given due to underestimating the intelligence or knowledge of the other.
Whether or not speech or behavior is insulting in practice, and sometimes by the terms of local assault statutes, is often a product of the subjective sense of the insulted party. However, insults to one person who might not mind such derogatory speech may indirectly insult others. Many states and local municipalities enforce prohibitions against rude, offensive or insulting speech, leaving citizens, law enforcement officers and courts to decide what is and what is not an insult. The concept of fighting words as a form of prohibited speech has developed in the jurisprudence of U.S. constitutional law concerning terms of disparagement. However, the fighting words exclusion is construed in an extraordinarily narrow manner, and only the type of insulting speech which is deemed "meaningless" can be suppressed. Speech containing significant literary, artistic, political, or scientific significance cannot be suppressed (a test known to attorneys and law students by the mnemonic device "slaps"), even if it is wantonly and maliciously insulting, demeaning, or even inciting of racial, ethnic, religious or sexual hatred; there is no "right not to be offended" in the United States.
The role of insults in the social sense may be better understood by an appreciation of how the term is used in a medical setting. Though a popular idiom refers to "adding insult to injury", in a medical context, they are one and the same: physicians examine injuries resulting from an insult to flesh and bones, caused by various traumatic events. In speech and in social settings, insults are words which tend to injure or damage the psyche. In humor, insults may be exchanged in much the same way as fighters exchange blows in training, to develop a resistance to the pain of mild injuries, or to spar with no real intention of causing any serious injury.
Perceptions of insults
Sociologists suggest that insults are often an indicator of flawed reasoning about the character or motivation of others. Though insults are common, and often used in jest, a fundamental axiom of sociology recognizes that derogatory forms of speech make erroneous attributions about the motivation of a person. Scholars classify the erroneous assumptions as the fundamental attribution error.
Situations also exist in which a person falsely believes he or she has been insulted. For example, terms such as "Asian", "incorrect", "drunk", or "full-cheeked" are often interpreted as derogatory, when in fact they may be neutral descriptive terms or factual statements, which, at worst, would be simply inaccurate or incorrect rather than insulting. This phenomenon often occurs in individuals who suffer self-victimization or hypersensitivity.
- Ad hominem
- Cyber defamation law
- The dozens, a game of "one-upmanship" involving insults usu. related to the mother of one's opponent
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