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Saturday 20 Jul 2024

Call me Neander Thal
David Simmonds

Neanderthal and Homo sapiens.

Roseanne Barr got herself and her top ranked television show axed last season. She described a former member of the staff of former US president, Barack Obama, as the product of the “Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes.” That’s a no-no in 2018.

Insulting by comparison.

Her grammar wasn’t so hot, betcha she didn’t capitalise the words as she uttered each. The comparison is so insulting and the reaction was swift, even merciless. To compare someone to an ape, even as just one half of a mating pair, is beyond the pale.

What of Donald Trump and his complaint someone wrote a column making him out to be “some kind of Neanderthal.” That used to an insult. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as referring to someone who is “uncivilized, unintelligent or uncouth.”

The definition no longer stands up to the latest science; current genetic research shows we all carry between 1.5% and 2.1% of the Neanderthal DNA. This means you and I and Neanderthals have a common ancestor. He or more likely, she, is yet identified.

Investigators are digging up evidence that indicates Neanderthals were more sophisticated than imagined. They have uncovered a series of paintings from three caves in Spain, which date, using uranium-thorium technology, to 64,000 Before Common Era (BCE). That predates the arrival of Homo sapiens, us, in Europe by some 20,000 years.

The paintings, which are black and red images of animals, as well as dots, hand stencils and fingerprints, demonstrate a capacity for abstract thought and descriptive skill. “The findings point to further parallels between modern humans and Neanderthals,” says the lead investigator. The two species “shared symbolic thinking [; they] must have been cognitively indistinguishable.”

Neanderthals died out, we are the evolutionary winners, assuming we don’t experience untimely extinction because of our own brilliance. Recently touted explanations for the success of h. sapiens include a forehead that has a greater vertical angle than that of Neanderthals, and pronounced eyebrows. This increased our capacity to express subtle emotions.

Groucho would be pleased.

Trump and his detractor, dodged a bullet, with Neanderthal coming up roses, but it’s not as though Neanderthals don’t have a paucity of detractors. Moron, dumb, crazy, stupid, an idiot and a dope are adjectives used to describe them. Maybe we should examine the insult a little more carefully, since the present occupant of the White House seems to generate such a generous flow of it.

The insult normally has two components: the person tarnished, that is, Trump; then there is the person, place, thing or condition that he stands in contrast to, that is a Neanderthal. When we insult by comparison, we are effectively spreading a double insult.

That suggests we ought to be careful. To call someone a jackass is probably just rubbing the male-donkey lovers of the world the wrong way. It’s the same for calling someone a pig or a rat or a worm. Each animal has several redeeming features and potential defenders that can push back on their account.

Even moving down the sentience scale has its risks. You might call someone as thick as a plank, but planks come from trees and trees are “brilliant at solving problems related to their existence,” according to the author of a recent bestseller. Call someone as dull as dishwater and the next thing you know, a conservation group is trolling you.

Trouble also lurks in words that appear merely descriptive. Words may originate in comparison. Can you call someone a moron, for example, without risking criticism for lumping mentally challenged people together, in a negative way, especially if the point of comparison is Trump?

It’s hard to come up with a good insult that doesn’t besmirch innocent third parties. To keep our language lively, maybe we just have to run a risk and be ready to call Trump dumb as a bag of hammers, if that’s how we see it. Hammers lovers may object to the comparison.

A purpose for Trump.

Of course, there is no rule of human discourse that says we have to resort to insult at all. Perhaps it would be better if we stuck to challenging the substance of what people say and do with substance in return. Perhaps Trump exists to test our capacity to do so, to the outer limit.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Pete Hamill and Mike Barnacle; the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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