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Insults and the imagination

This is a short speech I prepared for the opening of the Time of the Writer festival in Durban.

My name is Sarah, and I collect insults. I’ve written three collections of South African insults, and I don’t think I’ll ever run out of material for more.

In the research I’ve done, I’ve found that insults in South Africa apply mostly to two categories: politicians (and politics), and BMW drivers. And sometimes politicians who drive BMWs. Conveniently, in South Africa, we have a lot of those.

I’ve also been on the receiving end of a few insults myself, and I thought it would even things out to share one of them. Last year Steve Hofmeyr — that’s the Steve Hofmeyr, called me a lakseermiddel, a laxative. I’m clearly not a good one, because … well, you’re an audience of smart people, so I’ll leave that to your imagination.

Which brings me to why insults are important, and what they have to do with freeing our imaginations.

Firstly, insults tell us a lot about ourselves. Who we insult, and why, reveals a great deal about our history, our society and our culture.

Insults are used as weapons. In the past, they’ve been used to take away the dignity of those we despise, and they still are. When we use ethnic slurs, we very deliberately deny others their humanity. We have a lot of horrible words in our history, which I won’t repeat. But all of you in this theatre can all think of a long list of them.

That’s the thing with apartheid — it wasn’t just a crime against humanity, it was an insult to it too.

But insults are also our most important marker of freedom. A country that does not permit the freedom to insult doesn’t permit other freedoms either. When we joke about politicians or mock the powerful, we’re taking back some of that power for ourselves. That’s why insult laws are in place in many parts of the world. Two years ago, an artist caused trouble when he painted a certain presidential appendage. I paint as well as write, and I have an art exhibition opening at the end of this month, called Firepool — and yes, I’ve been very careful not to paint any penises.

Insults are used to shut down debate. How often, in politics, do we rely on invective instead of intelligent discussion? We call the parliamentary leader of the opposition a tea girl. We still make tired jokes about Julius Malema, because insults are often about a failure of the imagination, not a freeing of it.

And here, the flip side again, because insults remind us of who we are. Mutually intelligible insults are a form of social bonding. They contribute to a sense of national self. Ag man you’re such a doos. I put it to you that you have to understand South African culture to understand what that means. Same goes for mampara. Moegoe. Poephol. (Did I touch you on your studio?)

And finally, I want to talk about imagination.

Insults are often about fear. An utter failure of the imagination. But they can also be used to free it.

Call me an idealist, but I like to imagine a world free of prejudice and ignorance, and one of the ways we get there is to mock ignorance and prejudice wherever we find it.

It’s not the only way.

It’s not always the right way.

But I do believe that when we encounter bad ideas, stupid ideas, ideas that are just wrong — we should be brave enough to call them what they are. (Yes, Uganda, I’m subtweeting you right now.)

Insults matter. They can make a difference.

So use them wisely.

Thank you.


  • Sarah Britten

    During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.