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The Insults You Can and Cannot Use

Sorry! These are the rules now!

by James Greig
12 June 2019, 10:36am

Photo: Crystite RF / Alamy Stock Photo

Ideally you'd never have to insult anyone, and could glide through life treating your fellow man with the utmost respect. Unfortunately, we live in a world teeming with dickheads who deserve a thorough insulting, to help them see the error of their ways.

But no matter how terrible a person is, not everything about them is fair game. Twenty years ago, calling someone you didn't like – whether gay or straight – a "poof" wouldn't have carried the same degree of social censure it does now. As we've become more attuned to subtler forms of bigotry – because most of us are no longer 13-year-old Family Guy fans – it's important that the insults we use aren't perpetuating harmful ideas.

Sadly, not everyone has moved beyond using racist, homophobic or transphobic slurs, but I'm going to take it on good faith that you, the savvy and street-smart VICE reader, have. Still, let's consider some more ambiguous insults in common usage that might, on reflection, be kind of shitty.

"VIRGIN!"

If, like me, you're a bit of a "Chad" – a red-blooded lothario who's had sex at as many as three times this year – you need to accept that being a top shagger is a privilege. That said, "virgin" has historically been one of my favourite insults, topped only by "adult virgin". But we should exercise some caution here.

Is calling someone a virgin really that much of an insult? There are all sorts of reasons why someone might have reached adulthood without having fucked (medical conditions, being asexual, shyness) and I've grown to feel uncomfortable inadvertently mocking them. In a culture that exalts sex so highly, adult virginity suggests a degree of vulnerability.

We have to consider that calling someone we dislike a virgin, in order to imply they're pathetic, risks hurting people who have never had sex and are perfectly pleasant. Beyond playground snickering, there's nothing inherently shameful about virginity. It's true that there are virgins who are toxic – i.e. incels – but mocking them on these grounds only plays into their hands. If someone's whole schtick is "I hate women as a result of society telling me I'm worthless – because I'm not having sex", replying "haha, you fucking virgin!" is probably not the best way to deal with the problem.

Is this an acceptable insult? I used to love calling people virgins, but I'm a different man now. I've grown. I've changed. I've become a better person: better than I was before and, yes, better than you. Maybe you should consider following my example.

"CUNT!"

Used correctly, this is the most satisfying insult of all. Paired with "fucking"? Linguistic heaven! But the acceptability of its usage is very much context-dependent. In the States, it's used in a similar way as "pussy" is in the UK, i.e. to suggest that someone is weak or feminine. This is obviously misogynistic, but, for the most part, the way it's used in the UK (particularly in Scotland and the north) seems gender-neutral. Calling someone a cunt simply means calling them a very bad person. You'd be hard-pressed to argue the statement "Tommy Robinson is a cunt" is problematic. But if I were to call a woman a "cunt", this would take on a distinctly more dodgy tenor. I asked Sarah, a feminist academic based in Glasgow, what she thought.

"It's context-dependent," she said. "The word is so deeply ingrained in the Scottish vocabulary that it's lost nearly all semblance of misogyny. But if someone called me a 'stupid feminist cunt', that obviously would be different. I also think it's a bit dodgy to use as an insult against people who aren’t British and don’t have any context for it. If you’re a Scottish person calling an American woman a cunt, she would have every right to be offended. In fact, if any woman is offended by being called a cunt as an insult, that's completely acceptable."

Is this an acceptable insult? If you're a woman, you can call people cunts until you're blue in the face. If you're a man: only use it to insult other men, and don't waste its potency on any but the most deserving targets.

girl smoking roll-up cigarette
Photo: Emily Bowler

"SNOWFLAKE!"

An insult favoured by people who honk with laughter at jokes about avocados and post-traumatic stress disorder, using it makes you look profoundly uncool. If you're under the age of 40 and use this term, you're also a generational traitor who deserves to be barred from every adult ball pit in the land.

Is this an acceptable insult? Only if you're Piers Morgan.

"LOSER!"

Loser is a great insult, but it depends on who's saying it and for what reason. There are certainly bad ways to deploy it. If you call someone a loser because they don't have a high paying-job, or haven't got married, or don't own a house, or haven't achieved any other marker of conventional success, you're something far worse: a Tory.

This all shares a similarity with the accusation that someone "lives in their mum's basement", which is something people often say about online Nazis or members of the alt-right. However worthy of contempt they are, this isn't the best way to insult them: most of the time, living with your parents indicates a lack of resources, rather than some character flaw.

Calling someone a "loser" in this way also obscures the fact that plenty of right-wing cunts are privileged in every possible way, and therefore quite successful. Their whole ideology is centred on the defence of this privilege, whether it's neoliberal economics protecting their wealth or anti-feminist politics upholding the advantages they enjoy as straight men. Technically, they're "winners". There's no point pretending otherwise; we just need to find more imaginative ways to insult them.

That said, some people are, quite simply, total fucking losers and deserve to be told so in the plainest possible terms.

To be a proper loser requires a certain sourness, a meanness of spirit. Losers are people who are uncool but also unkind. People who consider having been bullied in school not only an interesting piece of personal trivia, but a moral justification for being a bully as an adult. Paul Joseph Watson, for example – a deeply bitter man who appears to derive no pleasure whatsoever from his life and exists under a constant siege mentality – is a perfect example of a loser. But not because it also seems like he lives in his mum's basement.

Is this an acceptable insult? Yes, so long as you stick to the above definition.

"YOU WERE BULLIED AS A CHILD LOL!"

Eagle-eyed readers will have noted that I employed this insult myself in the paragraph above. But does that make it OK? I'm on the fence. It's kind of fucked up that we consider "you were bullied at school" more of an insult than "you were a bully", suggesting there's something pathetic about the former. Given how much bullying is racist, classist or homophobic in nature, this seems a little cruel. It also carries the sad (if possibly accurate) implication that it is the bullies themselves who are now happy and cool and well-adjusted.

Is this an acceptable insult? Probably not. It’s tempting to imagine that everyone who hates you does so because they’re working through some deep-seated childhood trauma, but maybe they just think you're a prick. Mind you, wasn't practically everyone bullied in school to some extent? I'm not sure it makes you a protected class.

wall of dildos
Photo: Emily Bowler

"DICKHEAD!"

I've wracked my brain and I cannot come up with a single reason why this might be problematic. It's... misandrist? I have failed you.

Is this an acceptable insult? Knock yourself out. In fact, given the extent to which our culture glorifies the masculine and the phallic, I’d argue that calling someone a dickhead is actually pretty damn subversive!

"YOU'RE FAT!"

You'd think most left-leaning, internet-savvy people would understand that insulting someone based on their weight is a horrible thing to do. But there still seems to be the lingering idea that if someone is a really bad person, you're justified in insulting them whatever way you like. It's not uncommon to see people who'd probably believe that fat-shaming is a bad thing to still think it’s OK to mock someone's weight – as long as they’re Donald Trump or Richard Spencer. It's similar to the endless boring jokes about Trump and Putin fucking each other – what could be more nauseating (not to mention hilarious) than two men having sex?

To say it's wrong to mock these people for being fat isn't a defence of them. It doesn't indicate a concern for their well-being. Punch them in the face, for all I care! Literally assassinate them! (JK, I abhor violence and would never condone it!) But using "fat" as an insult inherently implies that being fat is also bad. It means your efforts to insult the people you hate (however justifiably) risk hurting fat people who have done nothing to warrant your contempt. And since there's nothing wrong with being fat, it’s simply a weak and ineffectual insult. If you wouldn't call Donald Trump a faggot, then don't mock his weight. And if you would call him a faggot, then don’t do that either. Just crowd-fund tens of thousands of pounds to build a farting robot in his likeness, like a normal person.

Is this an acceptable insult? Literally never! There is not a single context in which this is acceptable – even if you're insulting Ann Widdecombe or Henry the Eighth!

In conclusion: even the worst people in the world have harmless vulnerabilities, and using those as weapons makes you look like the dickhead.

@fudwedding