20 April 2011

Adopting an insult as a badge of honor

We need a term for the practice of adopting an insulting term for self-referral and wearing it as a badge of honor. The closest we have is “insult backfire”, but it’s not really it.

Character A makes a snide, sarcastic insult about a central and real trait of Character B's— but instead of being insulted, Character B feels flattered. Usually, this is because Character B feels the "insulting" trait is actually a virtue that they have been trying to cultivate. ...

Madmen: Anyone who tells them "You're insane!" will be met with a response such as "Thanks for noticing!"

Noteworthy examples:


The name of the movement is derived from the title of a Claude Monet work, Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant), which provoked the critic Louis Leroy to coin the term in a satiric review published in Le Charivari. [link]


Our English word "punk" has a derogatory meaning which often varies, applying to objects (meaning "trash", "dirt") or people (meaning "lazy", "despicable", "dirty" or also " trash "and" scum "). It is used as an ironic description of the critical substrate or discontent that contains the music. When used as a label itself, the "punks" (or "punks") set themselves apart from the adaptation to the social roles and stereotypes. [link]


Nerd is a term that refers to a social perception of a person who avidly pursues intellectual activities, technical or scientific endeavors, esoteric knowledge, or other obscure interests, rather than engaging in more social or conventional activities. It occasionally carries a derogatory connotation or stereotype, especially in early use of the word. Nerds are generally considered to be awkward, shy and/or unattractive by most, although this is not always true. ...

Bryan Caplan, a professor of of Economics at George Mason University, refers to himself as "an openly nerdy man" and has written of a "Jock/Nerd Theory of History". He believes that income redistribution is a tactic by Jocks to prevent Nerds from gaining power over them.[link]

Slashdot (sometimes abbreviated as /.) is a technology-related news website owned by Geeknet, Inc. The site, which bills itself as "News for Nerds. Stuff that Matters", features user-submitted and ‑evaluated current affairs news stories about science- and technology-related topics. [link]


President Ion Iliescu refused to negotiate with the protesters and called them "golani" (meaning a hooligan, a scamp, a ruffian or a good-for-nothing — which later gave the protest its name) or legionnaires. ... The protesters also composed their own hymn, "Imnul Golanilor" ...

Many intellectuals supported the protests, including writers like Octavian Paler, Ana Blandiana, Gabriel Liiceanu, Stelian Tănase or film director Lucian Pintilie. Eugen Ionescu supported them by sending a telegram from France in which he wrote he was a "Golan Academician" (Hooligan Academician).[link]

However, not all attempts at adopting a derogatory term as a badge of honor succeeds.

For instance, a well-known failure is Patti Smith’s intentional attempt of adopting the term “nigger” (the failure is evident to this day in the youtube comments). In this case, the failure seems to be caused by the fact that no one would actually use this term to insult a white woman.

Another well-known failure is Ayn Rand’s attempt at rebranding selfishness as a virtue:

Rand acknowledged in the book's introduction that the term 'selfishness' was not typically used to describe virtuous behavior, but insisted that her usage was consistent with a more precise meaning of the term as simply "concern with one's own interests." The equation of selfishness with evil, Rand said, had caused "the arrested moral development of mankind" and needed to be rejected.

Critics have disputed Rand's interpretation of the term. Libertarian feminist writer Sharon Presley described Rand's use of 'selfishness' as "perversely idiosyncratic" and contrary to the dictionary meaning of the term, Rand's claims to the contrary notwithstanding. Presley believes the use of the term has caused Rand's arguments to be frequently mischaracterized.

Finally, another well-known failed attempt at backfiring the insult is “queer”. Wikipedia explains this particular failure in the following way:

This term is controversial because it was reappropriated only two decades ago from its use as an anti-gay epithet. Furthermore, some LGBT people disapprove of using queer as a catch-all because they consider it offensive, derisive or self-deprecating given its continuous use as a form of hate speech. Other LGBT people may avoid queer because they associate it with political radicalism, or simply because they perceive it as the faddish slang of a "younger generation."

The reason for these two failures at backfiring the insult is far less clear, as they seem to have a very similar structure to successful examples such as “impressionism” or “punk”: given that selfishness is a common complaint against libertarians and “queer” is a common anti-gay slur. The reason seems to be the refusal of the group itself to internalize and appropriate the term in a positive way.

I speculate that the reason behind this refusal is that the negative use of the term is considered useful even within the group by the members themselves – i.e. accusations of egotism are useful social deterrents even in interactions among libertarians, and also perhaps, under certain situations, some gays might find it useful to reject other gays as “queer” (i.e. abnormal or perhaps “politically radical”). To put it differently, there are libertarian-specific and gay-specific standards of “normality” which are enforced informally by means of negative words such as “selfish” or “queer” – which is why the backfiring of the insult would have overly-hampered some types of signaling within the group. Thus, the positive capture of the insulting word was rejected.

By contrast, impressionist painters, punkers, nerds, or hooligans don’t find very much use for the possibility of insulting each other with these respective terms. Thus, in these cases, backfiring the insult (i.e. its positive capture) had little cost within the group.