The role of insults in political and cultural conflicts, with Dr. Karina Korostelina

A talk with Dr. Karina Korostelina, a social psychologist, about her work studying political insults. Korostelina is the author of Political Insults: How Offenses Escalate Conflicts. She’s a professor at George Mason University, and Director of the Program on Prevention of Mass Violence and the Program on History, Memory, and Conflict at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution there.

Transcript is below.

Episode links:

Topics discussed include:

  • What role do insults, and the feeling of being insulted, play in political conflicts?
  • How does the role of insults in politics tie in with human group psychology?
  • Does the internet create an environment where insults are more common, and where more people can be directly insulted?
  • How Trump (and other leaders) excel in using insults, both insulting people and groups, and in creating feelings of being insulted in their own group.


Zach Elwood: Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood.

In this episode I interview Professor Karina Korostelina about insults: specifically political and cultural insults, which can play a role in political conflict and wars. Korostelina wrote a book called Political Insults: How Offenses Escalate Conflict, in which she created a category system for political insults, and we talk about some of the ideas in that book.

Professor Korostelina is a social psychologist whose work focuses on social identity and dynamics of identity and power in protracted social conflicts. She works at George Mason University; she is a Director of the Program on Prevention of Mass Violence and the Program on History, Memory, and Conflict at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

Okay, here’s the interview.

Zach: Hi, Dr. Korostelina. Thanks for coming on.

Dr. Karina: Hello. Hi.

Zach: Let’s start with how big of a role would you say insults and the feeling of being insulted play in political conflicts.

Dr. Karina: It’s a very interesting question because I studied identity-based conflicts for many many years. And one of the major tools of how to start the conflicts is to explore what mechanisms are used by different parties to control power, increase legitimacy, to control social boundary between groups. And I found that insult was very often used not only by leader on leader, but mostly between groups. That’s why I was very interested to explore how identity-based conflicts are shaped by such political insults.

Zach: In your book, Political Insults, you came up with categories for political insults for example legitimacy insults, divergence insults, projection insults, to name a few of them. And it seems like the goal of your work was to come up with a methodology for being able to categorize these insult types. Is that accurate to say?

Dr. Karina: Yes, absolutely. Then somebody asked me, “Do you know if there are any theories of insult, because this was coming up in political landscape of United States and other countries.” I started looking into literature and I found there are good news and bad news. Bad news, there are no theories of insult. And good news, there are no theories of insult. So I have opportunity.

Zach: So you can work on it. [chuckles]

Dr. Karina: Yes, I can work on it. There are a lot of concepts very similar like on civility, there are other conceptual ideas like aggression, but they were not really capturing what I was trying to find– how insults can be constructed in identity-based conflict, so I did use specifically identity-based theories, for example theory of social boundary or theory of need for positive self-esteem. This is very foundational for social identity theory that we need positive self-esteem that’s why we compare ourselves with other groups and put them down. And other theories of power and identity to create this tool seeks particular tools. And what is important for you to find is not just for analysis, the major thesis of my theory is that if we know what insult people are using and we recognise it, then we actually know what are real needs of insulting party behind this insult. So it’s really not only analyzing conflict, but it’s also helped us analyze initial motivation and initial needs and address this needs if we really care about the party, or it will give us more knowledge about what this party lacks to be more powerful in our deal with this party.

Zach: So understanding the processes and the pathways behind the feelings of the insults allows you to solve the problem better, like do better negotiations and mediations. Is that accurate?

Dr. Karina: Yes, but it’s also deeper. It’s not just feelings, it’s actually needs. For example, if the person is using the identity insult, this means this person needs recognition, needs to increase self-esteem and that’s why he’s using insult to put others down. Or if person is using the power insult, it means the person or group needs power. It has experienced an imbalance of power and wants to increase it or change this balance. So it means that they are using this insult to decrease power of the others. So every time when we see people using a particular insult, it means that they have some needs. It’s not common as just aggression or incivility as described in other theories.

Zach: How well do your insult categories carry over to non-political insults like just insults in everyday life?

Dr. Karina: Oh, my God. It’s so interesting because I see that as soon as I develop the theory… Again, you develop theory as a tool. You are not developing theory for the sake of this theory. And I see that everywhere and actually even my students who read the book or my friends who read the book, they say, “Oh, this is a type of insult.” So it’s really helping. And you see it in everyday life. It’s really seeing how people do employ it, and actually it’s helping to deal… I think it really empowers you if you know that people use an insult because they do have needs. So it’s actually helping you, “Oh, okay. You’re using this insult because you are not happy with yourself.” So it’s actually helping you not to feel insulted.

Zach: Yeah, when I was reading your book I thought of going through rap song and country song lyrics because there’s a lot of this, “You’re not really true country or you’re not really true hip hop lifestyle or whatever.” You can find a lot of insults in both of those genres and I thought it’d be fun to go through and categorize insults in those genres.

Dr. Karina: Yeah, actually soon. A harness of songs is very important. I have a student now who just completed a wonderful thesis about songs of Kurdish bands who write songs to address the Kurdish-Turkish conflict. And it’s a lot of themes which we found in the songs which were specifically addressing the relationship between the two groups.

Zach: Yeah, there’s that Spanish rapper who was basically arrested for insults to the king.

Dr. Karina: Yeah, it’s the same as the Pussy Riot, the one I wrote in this book was very interesting how this goes on, which I don’t know, there are some ideas that they were negative or not at all. They were just singing in the church. And why is it that they were singing in the church? Because this church was really positioned as a church which legitimised and empowered current Russian president. So they were just singing songs where they were insulting the power and they were trying to show that it’s not legitimate. But the government actually used completely different insults and presented these insults to population. Because they had to legitimize their treatment of these girls, so they showed look, they were singing the song in the church and that’s why they insulted religion. And this church was also devoted to the veterans of the war, so they insulted veterans. So it’s how you position it, it’s how you create… For me, the key word here is construction of insult.

Zach: Right. So it’s the construction of insult which makes me think of, you know, I see these Trump emails that I get them on the list and a big part of that is them trying to equate ‘When the Liberals and when the Democrats attack me, Trump, they’re insulting all of you” Which is a common cult psychology thing to to say any criticism of the leader is an insult to all of us. And I’m wondering have you studied that at all?

Dr. Karina: Yes, I actually discuss it in the types of insults. I discuss that some insults are transferred or loaned, and how leaders are the prototypes. And we have such a vivid prototype in social psychology and somebody who represents basic values, ideas, beliefs of the group. So how these leaders construct insult for the group and tell the group, “You should feel this way!” And that’s why [unclear] in details how insult can be loaned by the group, even if people do not feel it. But speaking about Trump, it’s very important because I wrote another book which is Trump Effect in which one of the chapters was specifically how he mastered insults as tools of reducing the power of other people, reducing their legitimacy, creating boundary between him and other people. So he really mastered insult not just in personal relations, but in the group relation and political relation.

Zach: Yeah, I think that’s still an underappreciated aspect of these dynamics because I think there’s so many Trump supporters– and I’ve talked to people and heard this firsthand that their reason for supporting Trump is because specific liberal friends of theirs or people online have been mean to them. And it’s this association which, as you say, Trump has excelled in, in associating any insults to an individual or even insults to the group. He’s harnessing that power and that’s a big part of his support. And there was a radio call-in on a political show recently that I heard where someone directly said, “I’m voting for Trump basically because some liberal people he knew on Facebook were mean to him,” which, you know, this isn’t really logical. The Democrat leaders are not making those insults. And I think these are underappreciated dynamics.

Dr. Karina: Yeah, I think we do look up to here to acknowledge that in every single group dynamics, there are some extreme ends of it of each group. And we really have to acknowledge that yes, insult is produced by both groups. We could not be conflict analysis specialists, we could not discolor some conflict analysis while not really see dynamics from both sides. But it’s unbalanced, of course. And as you write, there are also a lot of dynamics when leadership teaches people how to recognize themselves and make them– I call this sensitizing to insult in my book to then sensitize particular groups to recognize insults.

Zach: So it seems like modern communication technologies, whether it’s a large number of cable TV channels or the internet, it seems like these technologies lend themselves to the capability of more and more people to be able to find insults and be insulted. And that could be for example a rural person watching a TV show where rural people are the butt of a joke, or a fundamentalist Muslim person learning about depictions of Mohammed happening thousands of miles away. So it seems like the greater transparency of our world means that there’s always something somewhere for a group to be insulted about. Would you agree with that, and do you see that perhaps as playing a role in increased political polarisation?

Dr. Karina: Oh, I absolutely agree. Unfortunately, this great invention and new technologies of internet, mass media, and of new media platforms and public platforms instead of just bettering the society, which idea was that they did, right? At the same time, they created a lot of negative intergroup dynamics. I completely agree that they contribute to identity-based conflicts and there are a lot of research, for example of anonymity of being behind particular name, really give people more opportunities to be aggressive without feeling responsibility. And we also see this crowd effect on the mass media, where people insult one person supported by another person that creates a snowballing where groups of people become extremely aggressive and insults are reproduced and increased through this dynamics on media, unfortunately.

Zach: So it seems like social media especially adds a whole new level of things because with cable TV, obviously the more and more channels there were, the more possibility for insult there was. But now you have social media where you can directly insult people and be directly insulted. I’m wondering do you see that as an even more ramping up of this kind of dynamic?

Dr. Karina: Unfortunately, yes. I absolutely agree. One way to insult a person face to face, you have to have courage or at least you have to have more power, right? But if you do it on the internet, this removes [unclear] a reduce in social control over how people can insult, and it’s become actually honorable to insult other side in media because you will get cheered by your peers.

Zach: Some people perceive leaders like Trump who use bombastic insulting language, some people perceive that as a strong leader and I think that can be the role behind some support of these kind of strong men authoritarian leaders. But considering your work and other similar work, there’s obviously some major risks involved when it comes to leaders who insult other groups and people. With your work, when you see such speech like that from leaders, do you feel like you see the danger much more inherent in that kind of speech compared to someone who hasn’t studied these kind of topics?

Dr. Karina: This is a very important question and very, very good question because first, we do really have to understand what is power. And for years, we were believing that power is equal to coercion and control of the ability of other person to pursue his or her goal. And this conception of power and being strong and bombastic as you said was really prevalent in social sciences but also in the human minds. But recently, more and more research especially in social identity research shows that coercion is not power, it’s coercion. Power comes with ability to persuade people, ability to inspire people, ability to make people do what you do without coercing them and without pushing them. Then I see such bombastic behaviors as Trump’s very aggressive behavior, and what he’s using is instrumental aggression in comparison with say, for example, frustration as aggression. And this instrumental aggression and power insults and legitimacy insults come in exactly because he doesn’t feel power. Actually, that people behave like this for me is a clear symptom showing that these people feel that they do not have enough power how they envision to have. So this is very important to realize that power will come in with the ability to convince people based on your own example. And he has a tool, we do have to see that he does empower a lot of people by us examples. But I would not say that aggressive behavior shows the power. It is opposite.

Zach: Right. It’s like an immature perception of what power is, it’s like just storming around and insulting people, whereas it takes a lot more discipline and-

Dr. Karina: Yeah, power comes when somebody says, “Let’s do it together,” and then people say,”Yes, let’s do it together.” This is power. Right? But if you say we’re doing it or you will be punished, then it’s not power.

Zach: What comes to mind for me is Trump sending childish insults to North Korea. And Trump supporters think that’s some sort of show of power, but to me and probably many people, it’s a scary thing because with your work in mind, you see how insults can play a big role in riling up tensions and leading to unnecessary conflicts.

Dr. Karina: Yeah, North Korea is another. I wrote a chapter on North Korea in the book. I think what Trump was doing there is really mimicking their behavior because what North Korean leader is doing exactly. He’s employing insult all the time and aggression, instrumental aggression, because this is how he wants to show to his people this is what power is, this very coercive power. I actually found in my other research in Ukraine and Russia that perception of power and meaning of power there is really coercion. The public opinion or public understanding of how power functions is really very simplistic, so people who have more control over others are considered as those who have power. But in reality, people have power only if other people give them power. You cannot have power if other people do not accept it.

Zach: From an amateur perspective, the one thing that seemed not as scary about Trump’s behavior was the fact that it didn’t seem like anyone actually took him seriously. Because for example with North Korea, North Korea’s leader seemed to know that they’re kind of playing a role. Like as you say, they’re using insults and being aggressive. And it seemed like they knew that Trump was doing similar things. So there was that going for us. But you can easily imagine how if you’re dealing with people who actually will have emotional responses to insults, it becomes a lot more dangerous. It seems to me that our psychological need for conflict and feelings of group insults seem to make long-term human existence unlikely, especially when you consider future or near future destructive technologies that we might have. And I’m wondering how pessimistic or optimistic you might be about humanity’s long-term existence.

Dr. Karina: I’m actually very optimistic because when we see violence, we see more violence now because A, we live right now. Right? And B, because media really shows all these instances of violence all the time because this is how they sell newspapers or something else. But in reality if you analyse, violence strongly decreased. If we look into middle ages or we look even at 18th, 19th century or 20th century, it’s the longest time without a big war. There are still some small wars, and I’m myself from Ukraine originally so it’s still so painful for me to see it there. But the amount of violence toward women, towards sexual minorities, toward people with mental disabilities, toward prisoners, we still have a lot of violence. But it’s incomparable with violence which we had before in society. So I think we realize that with more humanity and more compassion, I see very positive tendencies. So again, I’m very worried about social media impact on dynamics and how it can provoke violence, but I think we’re in a good place.

Zach: I’m pretty concerned about the internet effects, too. I think it’s underappreciated how much impact that has. But yeah, to your point, I think it’s also underappreciated how much the ubiquity of video recordings in modern society has helped improve things too because it’s so easy to get caught doing something that is perceived as shameful. I feel like I don’t see that talked about much but I think that’s really helped us in the last few decades too,

Dr. Karina: Yes. Because if you look at violence, again connecting it to your previous question, if you look which violence produce more deaths, or which identity was most violent. And if you compare for example ethnic conflict, religious conflict, and ideological conflict and ask yourself which particular identity was most violent, you will be surprised to know that it was ideological identity. It’s not ethnic conflicts, it’s not religious conflicts, it’s ideological conflicts which kills most of the people. It’s still in [east repressions], it’s Cambodia Khmer Rouge, it’s Nazi ideology because yes, it was against ethnic group but Holocaust also was connected with people with disabilities, communists, sexual minorities. It was ideological structure. So if you look at it, ideology is the most dangerous social identity, and this is what we see social media really help to promote.

Zach: And why do you think that is that ideological identity would be the biggest source of violence?

Dr. Karina: It’s always war, again as I told. For example, I do a lot of research on history and historical narratives and collective memory, and what’s happening for example I’m writing now a book which shows how a collective memory functions as ideological construct. Because what is a ideology? Ideology is not always political. If you look into the very origin of ideology, it’s something which creates meaning of the world for us, giving us a clear perception of the future, giving us a clear connection between past, present, and the future. And it’s also given us these values, and values are evaluative and normative prescriptions for what should be done. So if you look on ideology from this point of view, it’s like original meaning of ideologies. And you see this as exactly all these Internet communities function as ideological groups,

Zach: Yeah, it seems like ideological stances are things that you can convince yourself more certainly of as opposed to religious or ethnic. There’s more of a chance of you reaching some specific logical– in your mind– logical conclusion. And that seems maybe more motivating than the other.

Dr. Karina: Yeah. Because if you look into the extreme meaning of ideology, it’s a myth. Right? What is myth? Myth is a concept about the world. And Ancient Greeks believed in their myths and they believe God is there. Right? And in the same way, every group has their ideological ideas about how the world should be organized, what is important, what is not important. And in this case, we see first of all this communities in the internet functioning like this, and having their own myths and their own perceptions. There are a lot of what’s called fake news which creates the alternative reality, but we also see insults as a key there. Because for these groups, it’s very important to insult other groups as not having right values, not having an education. And we see this insult from both sides. We know that, for example, Hillary Clinton lost last time because she was using a lot of insults and a basket of deplorables that should not come from the leader.

Zach: Yeah, that was bad. That was a bad decision. Even though in her defence, she did say half. And then she also said it at a time when-

Dr. Karina: [laughs] Just one. Even one.

Zach: I know. She definitely shouldn’t have said it. But she also didn’t… I think everybody underestimated how many Trump supporters there were, so she made a tactical mistake of thinking that there was not going to be much price to pay for that. But yeah.

Dr. Karina: Yeah, this is important. If you really bring important values, you should follow values, right? You should not be like another side.

Zach: And that’s what I see. That’s what bothers me about… I see so many liberal people and anti-Trump people using the same insulting language that Trump uses and I’m just thinking that is not the answer. That is not how we heal things, you know?

Dr. Karina: Absolutely, this is very important. If you want to change the world, you should not mirror the tactics of Trump or you should not mirror the tactics of North Korea. And for example in the situation of Ukraine and Russia again, I also wrote about it in the book. It’s the same as Ukraine instead of becoming a liberal space and liberal state, they really mimic the Russian totalitarian and position developed in 19th-century ethnic concept of national identity. Then you see this and theyr’e continuously insulting each other in the same way.

Zach: Did you happen to read Francis Fukuyama’s book, Identity?

Dr. Karina: Yeah, of course.

Zach: That was great. For anyone listening, that was a great examination of what seems to be our fracturing into these different identity-based groups. He also talks at the end about how internet and social media play a role, and that reminded me of what you were talking about.

Dr. Karina: Yeah, there are a lot of very thoughtful people really analyzing how identity plays a very important role, and if we speak about even resource-based conflict and real politics, in the end it’s social identity dynamics which makes this conflict really protracted. So identity is not the source of conflict, it’s not a result of conflict, but it’s something which changes conflict in such a strong way that it’s become protracted and very hard to resolve.

Zach: I was reading about a 1967 study by Robert Abelson and it showed that the subjects who were insulted during a discussion, their positions were made more stubborn and more extreme. Do you happen to know about that study and do you see that tying in with how internet and social media might be making people more extreme and more hardened than their positions?

Dr. Karina: No, I don’t know this particular study but I read multiple other studies that have pretty interesting words of literature about Southern pride and its impact. I was really interested to find this body of literature when I was doing research on insult and how insult plays a role in southern culture and Latin American culture for example. It’s a very important part. But yes, what actually people are trying to achieve by insulting other parties changes their behavior, right? You’re not just insulting people to make them feel bad, you use insult to change their behavior. So if you make the other party more stubborn or you make the other party less efficient, this is so your insult achieves the goal. That’s why it’s very important to analyze how people are using these insults.

Zach: Yeah, it seems like so much of any nation’s history and how the twists and turns of a nation’s history are under the hood due to these insults of various groups.

Dr. Karina: Yeah, and you know from history, there are multiple examples. People specifically used insult to make people behave aggressively and to lose control and take advantage of it. So insult in many cases was used in many historical examples, but you also can have this example from life when you insult a person specifically to make this person weaker and act aggressively and not thinking.

Zach: So this has been Dr. Karina Korostelina. Yeah, thanks so much for coming on. This has been a great talk.

Dr. Karina: Thank you very much.

Zach: If you’d like to read more about the impact of social media on political division, I recently wrote a piece entitled “The psychology behind how social media increases polarization” that I’m pretty proud of. It cites various psychological studies and effects and examines how the internet and social media amplify some negative social tendencies we have. You should be able to find that by searching for “zachary elwood social media polarization”. 

Thanks for listening.