Kathy Sheridan: The appalling decline in the quality of public insults

We all have the right to offend but not a licence to be coarse and vulgar

Are you familiar with the word “f**knuts” ? Let the Urban Dictionary enlighten you: “A person so annoying and dumb that they can no longer be classed as an idiot and therefore a new level of idiot was created for them.” In short, it’s an insult, incorporating the f**k word for emphasis.

On Saturday, my interview with the penitent, 70-year-old, Booker Prize-winning author John Banville garnered much attention on social media, a lot of it driven by the headline "I have not been a good father. No writer is". Many readers took issue with Banville's words, either for blaming his poor parenting on his tormented art and/or for pulling all writers into his net.

But one tweet distinguished itself: “Speak for yourself, f**knuts. Family is family. The job is the job.”

Ah. Another of those brave, enlightened declarations for which Twitter is justly famous. Yet, in this case, the “f**knuts” tweet was one of the few to descend to abuse. And unlike the others, it was retweeted hundreds of times.


Was it because the tweeter was David Simon, creator of The Wire, the HBO television masterpiece? Or because a word like "f**knuts" is guaranteed to grab attention?

A browse through Simon’s prolific exchanges with his 70,000 followers suggests a fiercely principled man, highly articulate, deeply angry about inequality and lots of things. In fact, his twitter profile reads “Angriest Man in Television is faint praise indeed.”

So he’s angry. Is that reason enough for a 56-year-old man to blurt out a juvenile term like “f**knuts”. Many of us use expletives in frustration or anger or despair. Well, I do, and it hardly ever sounds clever or grown-up; just inarticulate and incontinent and richly satisfying in the moment.

But if tempted to hurl it at someone in writing – and God knows there is no dearth of temptation – the vast majority of us practice a bit of self-discipline and find another way of expressing ourselves.

Banville’s insults

Banville himself is no slouch with insults. He has dismissed another Booker Prizewinner, Salman Rushdie, as "not a serious writer"; reviewed an Ian McEwan novel as a "dismayingly bad book"; and told the Daily Mail earlier this year that he regarded Leonard Cohen and (pre-Nobel Prize) Bob Dylan "as arch-charlatans. It's just warmed-up surrealism smeared over the worst of American popular music."

Appearing as Benjamin Black, his crime-writing alter-ego, at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival in 2009, he caused uproar by revealing that his crime writing was almost offensively speedy compared to his honed and polished Banville novels. As Banville, sweating over a syllable, he could manage perhaps 100 words a day; as Black, a couple of thousand. As it happens, David Simon was also at the festival, with the garlanded detective fiction writer George Pelecanos, discussing their "novel for television", The Wire, and presumably saw or heard about the commotion.

Banville has stood his ground. During our interview, he said he believed the reason the Benjamin Black books make no money is because “he doesn’t write badly enough. He doesn’t write plainly enough – and also my name is attached to it.” Offensive? Easily. And not a single “f**knuts” required in the recipe.

Coincidentally, the elements of a good insult were up for discussion this week, with the publication by the New York Times of an astoundingly long list of "All the people, places and things Donald Trump has insulted on Twitter since declaring his candidacy for president". Tweeting the link, the great US writer Joyce Carol Oates commented: "What is notable is [his] poverty of vocabulary, imagination. Everything is 'disaster' – everyone is 'dopey/goofy/failing/dumb as a stone'".

David Simon replied, “Agree. Great minds can be measured and marked by the quality of their maledicta.” But what qualifies as a quality maledictum? Would “f**knuts” be up to the job? Or would it be more of a blurt?

Peak blurt

Under Trump tutelage, we have hit peak blurt of the malignant kind. No doubt, the Trumpkins regard that kind of remark as typical of elitists who have no understanding of ordinary people. But if impulse control and basic dignity are the concern only of metropolitan wimps, we are on a road to hell. The blurt and its constant companion “I’m entitled to my opinion”, have gone irretrievably mainstream, but can anyone argue that they have contributed to the advancement of mankind?

Remember the “midget parasite” roars at President Michael D Higgins, or Michael Conlan’s rage and one-finger gesture at the judges in Rio, or Conor McGregor’s threat to kill Nate Diaz’s “f**king team, you and them bitch kids”? They each had plenty of defenders on the basis of justified anger/injustice/showmanship, but where does it end? How do you up the ante after that?

It was fascinating this week to watch Ukip's youngest leadership candidate, Raheem Kassam, frantically backpedalling on his June tweet about the Scottish First Minister. The 30-year-old candidate wrote: "Can someone just like . . . tape Nicola Sturgeon's mouth shut? And her legs, so she can't reproduce. Thanks."

Now the spotlight is on him and the tweet has been re-outed, he has apologised "if" he offended anyone. "I've never sought political office so I've acted like my inspirations: Christopher Hitchens, James Delingpole, and Rod Liddle. "

Take a bow everyone.