“He who allows himself to be insulted, deserves to be.”
— Pierre Corneille
I must admit to a certain degree of ambivalence when it comes to the fine art of verbal jousting. Although I was pretty quick with a wisecrack as a youngster, I was also on the receiving end of some well deserved invective.
When I was in Grade 3, our class project was to create a historical panorama with murals and period costumes. The teacher told me to come as a Roman soldier. I rummaged through the basement but was shocked to discover we didn’t own a sword, so I used an old hockey stick. I couldn’t find a Roman helmet either so I borrowed Dad’s fishing hat. I substituted red flip-flops for sandals and my toga was a large Maple Leaf hockey sweater.
Another boy, I’ll call him Steve, came as a minstrel. He wore a jaunty period hat, a cloak and pointy shoes with tassels. He was also wearing pantyhose! Most of the boys began to snicker. But the teacher cut them off lauding Steve’s costume and obvious talent. In contrast, she called my efforts ‘pathetic.’
Looking back, Steve always was the most theatrical boy in class. When we played Star Trek at recess, my phaser was on stun. Steve’s was on ‘stunning!’ I respected his talent but, to my shame, I was too afraid of my classmates’ opprobrium to applaud his courage.
That night I told Dad about Steve and his detractors.
“Never insult people. Remember, a man must walk a month in your moccasins before he can judge you.”
“Without taking them off?”
“But what if he has sweaty feet? Ewwww!”
“Yeah, Dad,” my brother chimed in, “Ray’s feet smell pretty bad already.”
“No they don’t. Hey, that’s an insult!” I protested.
“But it’s true, Dad,” Jay replied. “Even the dog won’t chew on his slippers.”
“Never mind. I’m the head of this house and I say no insults!”
“We thought Mom was the head of the house,” I responded.
“What?” Dad sputtered.
Mom calmly looked up from her knitting. “No boys, the man is the head.” Then she smiled mischievously and added, “ The woman is the neck.”
While Dad mumbled under his breath I ran to the basement to retrieve my moccasins. I hid them under the bed for safekeeping. Smelly feet indeed!
A few seconds later I opened the window.
Despite Dad’s injunction, I secretly admired people who could deliver an insult. For instance, there was Pierre Trudeau. Once during question period a Conservative backbencher heckled him. During his rebuttal Trudeau nodded toward his opponent and said, “The honorable member disagrees with me. I can hear him shaking his head.”
Or take Edwin, an elderly character on the Dick Van Dyke Show. When his mother, an obstreperous centenarian yelled, “Edwin, you’ll send me to an early grave,” he replied, “Mother, that is no longer possible.”
No one likes being insulted. And, I must admit that I can be pretty thin-skinned. I once ran for a minor position in student government. At an informal campaign event my rotund opponent compared my acne prone face to the pizza. Annoyed, I quickly rejoined, “Speaking of pizza, I know you want to be ‘Big Man on Campus,’ but leave a little for the rest of us.” My verbal slam garnered a huge laugh.
But it was a Pyrrhic victory because I’d also slammed the door on a potential friendship.
Looking back I think Pierre Monierre was wrong. No one deserves to be insulted — although it does feel good to retaliate. The book of Proverbs says that a “fool’s anger is known at once, but the sensible person ignores an insult.”
Good advice, even if you don’t have smelly feet.