What causes the power behind foul language

Origins of hatred and rejection : The power of insult

The "asshole" is an instrument of power, the "puke" is a political tool - just like the "sow" and the "Vollpfosten". This is how the literary scholar Marina Münkler describes it, who at the TU Dresden investigates the question of why people insult and humiliate one another. The topic has gained publicity like hardly any other in the past few years. From debates about racist hate news online, to sexism in the workplace, to controversies over carnival speeches: the excesses are known to be numerous.

“We belittle others in order to create asymmetries,” says Münkler, summarizing the essence of two years of research. Is insulted in order to perpetuate social inequalities, moral or personal. To show who belongs and who doesn't. “It works so well because we are all vulnerable,” says Münkler. It is "part of being human" when, after being insulted, the person concerned becomes ashamed, their face turns red and tears well up. One cannot immunize oneself against the humiliation. And that is precisely why it can be used for political purposes in a wide variety of contexts.

Just a few years ago, Münkler himself researched the “ethos of friendship” in medieval literature. Then came the rise of right-wing populists. In 2014 the first Pegida assemblies were brewing, and suddenly there was not much interest in friendship studies. She is now head of a collaborative research center that was launched in 2017 and deals with “constellations and dynamics of degradation” in 13 projects. In addition to art and language experts, the team also includes historians, sociologists and legal scholars.

Against the greatest taboos in society

In the past, anyone who wanted attention when exploring swear words often focused on bizarre rather than relevance. The field produced people like Reinhold Aman, who died in March. The language professor and founder of so-called Maledictology spent decades systematizing insults from all over the world and collecting them for dictionaries.

Aman was happy to repeat his theory of the three great traditions of insulting in various interviews: the blasphemers, the family insults and the prudes. Which category dominates in a region depends on the greatest taboos of a culture. Blasphemous insults (“crucifix guy!”) Are found mainly in Catholic regions such as Bavaria or Brazil. Offenses against the parents are widespread in Asia as well as in the Arab and African regions. For example, Persian knows phrases like: "I fart into your father's beard". Anglo-Saxon countries, on the other hand, would prefer sexually charged insults (“fuck you”) or related to excretions (“shithead”).

However, insulting should not be equated with cursing. The former serve "rather as an emotional, undirected exclamation while insults are directed as aggressive acts against people," explains the Berlin psychologist Ulrich Klocke from Humboldt University. It's the difference between the "shit" scream after you fell on your bike and the "bastard" who recently took the right of way.

Greater pain resistance thanks to curses

Research on curses in particular has shown again and again the usefulness of a way of speaking that violates taboos. In an experiment, the American psychologist Richard Stephens asked test subjects to put their hands in a painfully cold ice bath. He found out that swearing made the participants much less sensitive to the cold.

People who repeated swear words during the experiment lasted twice as long on average. Stephens saw this as an indication that calling out strong expressions triggers a stress response in the body, which releases adrenaline, which makes it less sensitive to pain.

Stephens got the idea for the experiment after watching his wife cursing wildly during the birth of their daughter. A later study by the psychologist again found that the effect of the swear words can wear off. The more people cursed in everyday life anyway, the weaker the “benefit”.

Discrimination doesn't have to be intentional

Such habituation processes are also at the center of Ulrich Klocke 's work. In several studies he has devoted himself to discriminatory behavior and especially homophobia among schoolchildren. In it, insults against certain social groups were rated by the young people as particularly offensive and thus also as particularly effective.

But just because someone throws anti-gay abuse around them does not necessarily indicate a homophobic view of the world. "In our results, the personal attitudes had no significant influence on the language of expression," says Klocke. Often the young people were not even aware of the effect of their choice of words.

The environment in which people move is more important. Most of the time they “parrot what others have shown”. If teachers then did nothing, a homophobic language culture could develop through repetition - even if the corresponding convictions were comparatively weak. This additional information is of little help to those who are discriminated against, as the negative effect remains. Such insults didn't just deter teenagers from coming out. They have "demonstrably contributed to the fact that attitudes towards this group deteriorate," says Klocke. No intention is needed for that.

The "asshole" under the microscope

Marina Münkler prefers to speak of “forms of the invective” instead of agitation or insults. The made-up word is derived from the Invectiva Oratio - the Roman diatribe - as found in Cicero's rhetoric manuals. It's a sterile perspective, like putting the "asshole" under a microscope. In fact, that is, to a certain extent, the claim: the search for a kind of DNA of hatred and rejection that runs through the ages.

“What many consider to be excesses of the Internet age can also be found in its basic patterns in the early 16th century,” says the literary scholar. The discovery of the printing press created a comparable dynamic in the context of the Reformation. Martin Luther's writings were peppered with abusive formulations. His Catholic opponents would have portrayed him as "a drunkard and a whore."

The reach of the medium created new ways to fight power struggles. But it is a mistake to believe that insults only work from top to bottom. They can also help weaker people to gain influence in society. The principle works in a similar way to the puffer fish: people stage themselves as stronger than they actually are in order to deter enemies. When the Pope threatened Luther in a letter with excommunication, Luther did not admit his weakness, but burned the document and described the Pope as an antichrist - the insult par excellence.

De-escalation is not always the solution

At the same time, it was already evident back then how quickly written banter can turn into action. In a conflict it is not enough to repeat the original form of degradation, says Münkler. She cites the year 1524 as an example. At that time, at the request of the Old Believers, the bones of St. Benno von Meißen were to be raised. Luther saw behind this an action against the Reformation. A number of offensive pamphlets followed, designed to incite the population.

At some point the mood was so heated that Protestant miners held a public mocking procession in Buchholz. They dug up animal bones in a mine tunnel, carried them on a dung carrier to the local market square and yelled: This is the dear ass cheek of St. Benno.

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to draw a line from here to the present. The pamphlets look like the forerunners of quarrels on Twitter. The sobering observation from the 16th century: Even attempts at de-escalation are always associated with ulterior motives. During the Reformation, the Catholic side “mostly relied on relaxation when it was able to consolidate its position of power,” says Münkler. In some places, de-escalating approaches have made the situation between the faith communities even worse.

Nor is it always useful to compulsively aim at reconciliation. Münkler experienced this in Dresden when dealing with Pegida. “There are positions that are not negotiable.” Right-wing extremists would often stage themselves as victims of social exclusion in order to shield themselves from criticism. You shouldn't be fooled by that. People should not hold back with criticism here because they fear that their own statements could be interpreted as a degradation of rights.

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