Sunday, March 17, 2013

William B. Irvine's "A Slap in the Face"

William B. Irvine is Professor of Philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. His books include On Desire: Why We Want What We Want and A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.

Irvine applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt--And Why They Shouldn't, and reported the following:
On page 99 of A Slap in the Face, the following sentence appears: “To understand the pain-causing potential of insults, we need to appreciate the extent to which humans are social animals.” As the book elsewhere explains, we humans are in a bind. Deprive us of human contact, and we wither emotionally. Surround us with people, though, and we expose ourselves to the stresses caused by social interactions.

One source of stress is the insults those around us will likely direct our way. Some of their insults will be blatant, but most will be subtle. Indeed, people might even use praise to insult us. A woman, for example, might tell her friend that the dress the friend is wearing “does a wonderful job of hiding those bulges.”

The reason people insult us—and we insult them in return—is because we are playing what I call the social-hierarchy game. Thanks to our evolutionary past, we are programmed to care very much about what others think of us. It feels wonderful when they admire and defer to us, and it feels even better when they envy us. It feels bad, though, when they seem to look down on us, socially speaking, and it feels even worse when they provoke our envy. It is a recipe for human misery.

There is, however, a way out of this predicament: we need only withdraw from the social-hierarchy game. Do this, and not only will the insults others direct at us lose their sting, but we will become less likely to inflict insults on them. Do this, and our consumer behavior will change, since we will no longer feel compelled to buy status objects. And finally, do this, and our relationships will become more meaningful, since other people will start thinking of us as allies rather than social rivals.

In A Slap in the Face, I have much to say about insults, the social role they play, and the psychology that lurks behind them. I also describe my own attempt—which I regard as largely but not entirely successful—to withdraw from it.
Learn more about the author and his work at William B. Irvine's website.

The Page 99 Test: A Guide to the Good Life.

Writers Read: William B. Irvine.

--Marshal Zeringue