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Own It!

August 9th, 2007 · 2 Comments

John Derbyshire asks:

I want to know why “owning the insult” doesn’t seem to work any more. It used to be a standard ploy—not just “liberal,” but “Whig” (originally “cut-throat cattle rustler from the wild Scottish borders”) and “Tory” (orig. “illiterate Papist peasant from the remotest bogs of Ireland”). Yet nobody could now start a respectable party called the Bigots or the Statists. Why not?

This one doesn’t seem all that hard. There are certainly examples of “insult owning” far more recent than “Whig” and “Tory”—”queer” is the obvious one that springs to mind. But there are probably only two classes of insults that are really suitable for appropriation, corresponding to two distinct modes of appropriation. Call these ironic and defiant. “Whig” and “Tory” probably fall into the former category, and the appropriation works because it is so transparent that members of these parties are not, in fact, literal cattle-rustlers or illiterate peasants, nor are any of them seriously claiming to be. The meaning of the appropriation is unambiguous: See how little bothered we are by the petty schoolyard taunt you’ve tried to apply to us. “Liberal” and “queer” fall into the latter category: The signal there is more along the lines of “damn right we are!” That is, they are identifying with the literal meaning of the insult but denying there’s anything wrong with it. “Statist” and “Bigot” aren’t going to fly because nobody actually wants to accept them in a defiant-endorsement mode, but any group at which those terms is actually leveled is at too great a risk of their being seen as literally true to go with the ironic mode.

Tags: Language and Literature



2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jason // Aug 9, 2007 at 12:03 pm

    I’m having trouble coming up with a more recent example of the ironic mode.

  • 2 asg // Aug 9, 2007 at 3:05 pm

    “Reality-based community”

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