It has often been observed that the comments we make about people change relative to their proximity to us. What’s acceptable when talking about people half-way round the world becomes decidedly uncomfortable when they’re sitting opposite. For example, when I was teaching English in Spain I decided to show my advanced students an episode of Fawlty Towers. I thought they’d enjoy the humour and having a Spanish character in there would give it an extra dimension. But the video had not been playing five minutes when an uncomfortable atmosphere made itself felt, and after a while I began to see Manuel from their point of view; a character whose lack of fluent English made him a comic scapegoat. In the end I realised that to Spanish people the character of Manuel was somewhat offensive. What was acceptable in England became unacceptable in a room full of intelligent Madrilenos. Distance is key. It’s like one of those ‘irregular verbs’ quoted in ‘Yes Minister’ – ‘I’m eccentric, you’re mad, s/he is round the twist.’ There’s a really good explanation of these here.
One of my favourite comments of late has been from a fellow member of the Labour Party. This is a person who frequently disagrees with me, and on the subject of the leadership election they said, ‘I joined the Party to defeat entryists like you.’ I found this very amusing and with it I’ve coined another irregular verb: ‘I am a joiner, you are an entryist, s/he is an infiltrator.’
Proximity is key with insults, but I guess on the internet we’re all in close proximity to each other now. And that’s the problem with social media, that it sets out in print for all to see what was previously expressed in private and in a particular context. It used to be broadcast to a specific audience but now educated students in Madrid can watch it. And find it offensive.