(Previous post here.)
“Oral cultures often evidence wars of words, such as riddle or song contests, name-calling, and bragging… Writing, on the other hand, separates us from each other, and therefore subdues the constant verbal jousting of oral cultures. Contemporary cultures still have their contests, their agons, but they have moved to other arenas, perhaps in our culture business and sports.” (Robert Fowler)
“Internet flaming may be seen as one aspect of a partial return to oral culture in digital writing, which tends to be dynamic and playful, and which encourages interlocutors to pay attention to how messages are packaged. Flaming may therefore have important affinities with a large variety of stylized oral forms of verbal dueling in which performance is central, such as ‘flyting’ in medieval England, or ‘playing the dozens’ among contemporary Black Americans.” (Brenda Danet)
Can flaming be a good thing? Conventional wisdom says no, but that may owe to a print-culture bias. In oral cultures insults aren’t necessarily indicators of immaturity or a mean spirit. In this post we will look at the way invective has been used in three contexts — the Middle-East, the antique north, and Black America — and then see how internet flaming can serve a positive role when drawing on the best from these traditions.
The Judeo-Christian tradition is one of many from the Mediterranean steeped in the art of invective. Jesus was a master of the insult. Far from confronting his enemies in meek-and-mild fashion, he flamed with a vengeance. One of his favorite vulgarities (picked up from the Baptist) was “brood of vipers” — which sounds archaic but really means “snake bastards”. In a shame-based culture, to call someone the illegitimate offspring of a snake was as low and demeaning as you could get.
But even more generally, Jesus was skilled in the art of challenge-riposte, the game of verbal one-upsmanship played by men in many Mediterranean cultures. The Context Group explains that such men don’t respond directly to public taunts and challenges. They escalate the conflict by firing back counter-questions, counter-accusations, scriptural one-upsmanship, and insults. The more you can dodge flame and stay on top of your opponent with counter-flame, the more honorable you are. Note the following:
1. The scribes accuse Jesus of blasphemy (Mk. 2:1-12/Mt. 9:1-8/Lk. 5:17-26)
Jesus’ riposte: counter-questions
2. The Pharisees and scribes challenge Jesus for eating with outcasts (Mk. 2:15-17/Mt. 9:10-13/Lk. 5:29-32)
Jesus’ riposte: rhetorical cleverness; backhanded compliment
3. The Pharisees challenge Jesus and the disciples for not fasting (Mk. 2:18-22/Mt. 9:14-17/Lk. 5:33-39)
Jesus’ riposte: counter-question; rhetoric; clever aphorisms
4. The Pharisees challenge Jesus and the disciples for plucking grain on the sabbath (Mk. 2:23-28/Mt. 12:1-8/Lk. 6:1-5)
Jesus’ riposte: counter-question; scriptural one-upsmanship; clever aphorism
5. The Pharisees challenge Jesus for healing a man on the sabbath (Mk. 3:1-6/Mt. 12:9-14/Lk. 6:6-11)
Jesus’ riposte: healing (the Mediterranean principle, “actions shame even louder than words”)
6. The scribes accuse Jesus of being demon-possessed(Mk. 3:19b-30)
Jesus’ riposte: counter-question; rhetoric; insult
7. The Pharisees and scribes challenge Jesus and the disciples for eating with unwashed hands (Mk.7:1-23/Mt. 15:1-20)
Jesus’ riposte: insult; scriptural one-upsmanship
8. The Pharisees challenge Jesus on the subject of divorce (Mk. 10:2-12/Mt. 19:3-9)
Jesus’ riposte: counter-question, scriptural one-upsmanship
9. The temple authorities and scribes challenge Jesus after his prophetic act in the temple (Mk. 11:27-33/Mt. 21:23-27/Lk. 20:1-8)
Jesus’ riposte: counter-question; blow-off
10. The Herodians and Pharisees challenge Jesus on the subject of paying taxes to Caesar (Mk. 12:13-17/Mt. 22:15-22/Lk. 20:20-26)
Jesus’ riposte: counter-question; insult; demand; counter-question; clever aphorism
As the gospels have it, Jesus burned his opponents at every turn — and without ever resorting to violence, which made him twice as honorable. In his culture the battle of wits easily escalated to the point of violence, even though it was understood that the first person to use physical force “lost” the game. As the writers at Tektonics note:
“The art of insult was highly valued in antiquity. Our modern ‘victim culture’ encourages persons to find the art offensive, but before getting too judgmental, consider that in these honor challenges, the person who ended the game by throwing a punch was considered the big loser. Losing one’s temper and throwing a punch was as much an admission that one could not keep up the battle of wits and had to resort to violence. When Jesus runs from those who pick up stones to stone him [Jn 8:59], he is not the coward, but the winner taking his spoils.”
When wits fail and bully tactics take over, the bully loses face. But that’s a paradox, because violence inevitably takes over when men are driven to protect their honor by any means necessary (as in Jn 8:59). Thus flaming becomes even more prized as an art: the ideal way of battling for one’s honor without threat of group annihilation.
The New Testament (like the Hebrew Bible) is loaded with flame. John the Baptist was a good instructor. Paul flamed in Galatians, Philippians, and II Corinthians. II Peter and Jude are classic pieces of nasty invective. The Judeo-Christian tradition has plenty of precedent for flaming, if precedent is what one is looking for.
Norse & Anglo-Saxon Flyting
Flyting was the northern pagan version of challenge-riposte, but more aggressive. According to Andreas Jucker and Irma Taavitsainen:
“In the Old English heroic tradition insults occur in the pragmatic space of boasts and challenges. The flyting of Anglo-Saxon warriors follows strict rules. The standard sequence consists of Claim, Defense, and Counterclaim, where the Claim and Counterclaim consists of boasts and insults, which relate to the past deeds of the contenders, and threats, vows and curses, which relate to the future. The setting is outdoors, where the contenders meet face-to-face, a body of water often separating them, or it is indoors in the drinking hall… Insults focus on cowardice, failure of honor, irresponsible behavior, and crimes of kinship… Flytings may either end in actual violence or in silence.”
As in the Mediterranean, wars of wit are always conducted in public. But here the resort to violence is perfectly acceptable. If you can silence your opponent with heaps of flame, that’s good. But if fighting is inevitable, slaying him is even better. Dying in battle was the most honorable fate for a north-pagan warrior.
An example of silencing is the flyting of Unferth and Beowulf in King Hrothgar’s drinking hall: Unferth insults Beowulf by claiming he’s frivolous and heroically inadequate, to which Beowulf retorts that Unferth is a drunk (Beowulf 525-532a). An example of a violent outcome would be in the Finnsburh fragment: the Frisians insult a group of visiting Danes, a Dane counters with boasting, and then all hell breaks loose (The Fight at Finnsburh).
Defending oneself and boasting is not only acceptable but expected, unlike in the Middle-East where one ideally avoids being put on the defensive as much as possible. In the antique north one should defend as much as counter-offend. That’s why Beowulf and the Danes “prove” their heroism by boasting of their deeds. (In shame-based cultures boasting is much more risky — one plays the fool if the claim goes unrecognized — and it’s better to let others boast for you; that’s why Jesus never boasted of his healing accomplishments in the middle of flaming his adversaries.)
Norse & Anglo-Saxon flaming is obsolete in today’s world, perhaps not surprisingly, since it sanctions physical as much as verbal assault. It’s the least ludic (playful) of the three under consideration.
Black American Sounding
Sounding, also known as “playing the dozens”, is the Black American version of challenge-riposte. According to blogger Dark Damian:
“Playing the Dozens [sounding] is more than a game of fun — it is a battle for respect. It is an exhibition of emotional strength and verbal agility, a confrontation of wits instead of fists. The dozens is a war of words — perhaps the best type of war there is… [It] is a thinking person’s game. However, the tradition lives on because the game has soul. Ultimately, mastery of the dozens demands that you go to that place where humor, anger, joy, and pain all reside. It is from that cauldron that the greatest snaps [insults] are born and delivered.”
Unlike the two models seen above (especially flyting), sounding is inherently ludic (playful), and should not escalate to the point of violence. Sometimes, of course, it does. Jucker and Taavitsainen note the inherent danger:
“The purpose of playing the dozens is to better one’s opponent with caustic and humorous insults that are seen as patently untrue. Thus the practice is fundamentally ludic but with the inherent danger of seriousness as soon as insults are perceived as too close to reality… The appropriate response to a ritual insult is a response in kind [i.e. a counter-insult]. If the target of a ritual insult reacts with defensive action such as a denial, the ritual insult is redefined as a personal insult.”
When snaps (insults) hit too close to home, it’s easy to react personally. But as in the Mediterranean, defending oneself with denials is an implicit admission of defeat. You need to stay on top of your opponent with counter-flame every step of the way. A good illustration of sounding can be seen in the rap-showdown in 8 Mile. It’s not a very good film, but does an excellent job portraying the snapping culture.
Internet Flaming as a Return to Orality
Internet flaming is patterned, however unintentionally, on the agonistic tugs-of-war that dominate oral cultures. Is that good or bad?
I should emphasize that just because flaming finds precedent in oral contexts doesn’t in itself make it a good thing. At the same time, I think we can learn from the oral world and take the best from it. There are times when abusive ad hominem can be ludic (fun), and even appropriate. How many bloggers have never been pestered by a bratty or overly-contentious commenter who doesn’t relent, who shows no signs of wanting to learn as much as criticize? In such cases a bit of ad hominem or rude dismissal may be warranted, and even do the offending party some good. Most of the time it’s best to ignore such people (or use the convenient “delete” key) — that’s shaming by snubbing, incidentally — but there are those who deserve to be insulted from time to time, even scholars.
Adam Engst thinks flaming can be good because it allows people to vent aggressions which might otherwise be channeled in violent directions:
“I’ve decided that in some respects a certain amount of flaming can be positive, because there are only three ways of ending an argument on the Internet. Agree to disagree, win your opponent over to your side, or stop from exhaustion. In no case does anyone get knifed or shot, and if participating in a flame war lets someone blow off some steam, that’s better than their going home and abusing their children. Everything is relative.”
So a hypertext culture may actually offer the best avenue for flaming, since a violent outcome is automatically precluded. This contrasts most strongly with Norse & Anglo-Saxon flyting.
But flaming can be just plain fun, especially when conducted in good spirit between friends. My best friend and I insult each other all the time; some days our IM dialogue consists of anywhere between 50-85% flame. Depending on your sense of humor, it’s fun to trash your friends and make fun of them, even around serious discussion. (Using x-rated emoticons makes things even more fun and nasty.) Like joking it’s socially dynamic and eases inhibitions. The ludic aspect of flaming is very similar to Black American sounding.
Whether in an oral or hypertext culture, flaming is artistic and sporting at best, immature and mean-spirited at worst. The key is to know your audience, keep things in good spirit whenever possible, and to use invective judiciously — and sparingly — when intended harshly.