By Eric Shiraev
Decades ago, in my glorious kindergarten years, I remember those spontaneous episodes of verbal dueling we were engaged with one another, from time to time. Out of nothing, armed with a scarce arsenal of extremely bad words known to the kid, we would throw obscenities at our peers only to dodge the equally infantile yet similarly disgusting insults. There were no rational calculations, nor cognitive deductions, nor Socratic methods, nor even a hint of logic: you simply fastball your opponent with as many slurs as you can produce. Maturation brings wisdom: we all have learned to watch our mouth in public forums, to be careful and empathetic. Then came political correctness.
Yet from time to time we regress. Regression—a psychological mechanism suggested by Sigmund Freud to explain a person’s symbolic “retreat” into an infantile stage of development: a grownup would start acting or talking in a juvenile way, sometimes puzzling others. Freud believed that regression can be normal: we all tend to regress when we feel frightened, embarrassed, or irritated.
Regression is a powerful steroid for spontaneous character attacks. As an attacker, you don’t need reason. You need no fact checking. You just insult your opponent. Smear him. Label her as bad as you can. Exaggerate. It is amazing how quickly people’s strong emotions hurl out of their subconscious mind the most unusual and disgusting nouns and adjectives. Regression is a stimulant for character duels.
“Character dueling” is an exchange of character attacks between two opponents taking turns. They can launch such attacks verbally in front of each other—as children often do. They can exchange their attacks in published pamphlets, which was a common practice in the 18th and 19th centuries. They can digitally record their insulting rounds for radio or television. Or they can launch instantaneous attacks on Twitter or other social networks. Regression weakens or even eliminates the barriers of political correctness and reveals a lot about the personality of the duelists as well as their society.
Two Russian media personalities—widely known across the country—Vasyli Utkin (48 y.o.), a sports commentator, and Vladimir Soloviev (56 y.o.), a mainstream television and radio talk-show host, plunged into a duel of a unique kind—and certainly rated “R”. The ordeal began innocently enough. Utkin posted a video criticizing policy of President Putin during the COVID-19 crisis: the sportscaster was angry that the Russian government did nothing to financially compensate the average Russian for the lost incomes during the social distancing period. “I don’t need this type of government,” Utkin declared. Soloviev, a notoriously pro-Putin guy, immediately responded. He said back some harsh words about Utkin personally, who has immediately countered in kind on Twitter. It went back and forth: a remarkable character duel has unraveled. It was filled with colorful insults and personal smears, the duel that also caused a classical shitstorm—a widespread and vociferous outrage and astonishment on the Russian-speaking internet. Two journalists regressed back to the duels of their kindergarten years. The divided camps of commentators on Twitter regressed also.
Consider just a fraction from the list of mutual attacks and insults that the two journalists have been spewed at each other within a very short period. All those words have been translated verbatim:
A sick man
[he has] untreated depression
[he has] Tourette syndrome
[he] needs medical help
[he] needs help of a dietician
[he] needs to wash up
[he] needs to shave
[he] will pee his pants
Corrupt, disgusting, and fat pig
Real men do not French-kiss other men
If you suck poorly [the Kremlin] will make you suck again
Notice that besides some more or less expected insults, such as calling somebody a “scum”, clearly alluding to sexual acts or toilet activities, or advising the opponent to “wash up”, there are insults referring to mental illness, body weight, and sexual orientation. Social stigmas were thrown there and flying all over the place. Many verbal taboos have been lifted.
In the second volume of the book on Scandalogy (2020), Martijn Icks and I have argued that character attacks—including insults—are likely to succeed in causing a scandal and drawing public attention when they are aimed at individuals who appear or act inappropriately, embarrassingly, shamefully, or immorally. These acts or appearances usually refer to sexual behavior, sexual identity, mental illness, racial identity, marital responsibilities, corruption—to name a few. Character attacks are also likely to succeed if their quality (believability of the content of the attacks and trustworthiness of the sources of these attacks) or quantity (scope, frequency, and intensity) are quite high. In other words, to cause a scandal, to be effective, character attacks should be of a particular quality and quantity, plus they should refer to a certain topic to which the public is sensitive at the moment.
The Utkin-Soloviev, duel has been a classic example of how some character attacks succeed. They did not necessarily destroy the reputation of the targets: It was already been low in the eyes of their haters. The insults rather mobilized or built psychological support for the attacker in the eyes of their fans: the pro-Putin crowd was cheering Soloviev, the opposition was applauding Utkin. The insults by these two duellists further consolidated the rank and file of two opposing each other groups. Both sides have found their guy credible, his insults right on target, and the opponent disgusting.
One more thing is amazing though. Most people in Russia who were unhappy with the duel were displeased with the public form the attacks, but not with their content. As one commentator put it sarcastically: “The parents of these two journalists didn’t teach them not to swear in public”. A valid point. It is astounding though that the homophobic slurs as well as the references to mental illness and a person’s body shape were considered “suitable” so long as they kept private. And maybe so long as these insults have been fired by a fellow tribesman, who maybe was regressing, but still remained a member of their tribe. We call such tribes “echo chambers” these days.