The Language of Scandal: Why Do Speculative Fiction Writers Love Disgusting Scatological Insults?

Another day, another micro-controversy in the sff blogosphere! This time, SFWA has expelled a character known as Vox Day, also known as Theodore Beale, from its ranks, allegedly because he used an SFWA Twitter feed to link to a blog post of his own which violated SFWA’s content guidelines.

Where’s the controversy? you might ask, and so did I. Digging down a bit further, it quickly became clear that a lot of people had been pushing for Beale’s expulsion for ages on account of his views, which are so right-wing he makes Zero Hedge look like The Atlantic. So it seems as if SFWA simply caved in to the pressure, in its creaky old way, and found a convenient excuse to tell him to get on his bike.

Few tears shed on either side, I should think. This is an organization and an individual who were not made for one another. The “controversy” mostly consists in right-thinking people vehemently agreeing with one another that Beale is vile.

But their language is a lot more colorful than that. Below are links to examples plucked off the top of a Google search. Note that the bloggers named below are not necessarily the people indulging in, errr, colorful language. You have to scroll down to the comments in some cases. (I’m not reproducing them here because this blog is supposed to be family-friendly.)

NK Jemisin and Vox Day

Jim C. Hines.

James Nicoll.

Martin Wisse.

Cora Buhlert.

P.Z. Myers.

If you didn’t click on any of those links, let me sum it up: the anti-Beale crowd’s invective is broadly scatological, studded with obscenities and variants of “f**k.” More specifically, there’s a coprophilic theme running through this whole mass of commentary. Beale is characterised as a simian playing with his own excrement / hurling it at others. Not just once, not just twice, but over and over. What on earth is going on here?

To be honest, this isn’t the first time I’ve been struck by the right-thinking crowd’s proclivity for metaphors involving posteriors. (Cripes … I feel a bit silly reaching for these euphemisms, but how else do you write about this stuff without committing it yourself?)  I remember that I first noticed metaphors of this type being used apropos of some previous racism / misogyny-related controversy a couple of years ago, when I was still in permanent lurk-mode on the internet. Here’s an example that’s just about safe to reproduce:

You are showing your ass in public. I cannot overstate the aptness of this metaphor. This kind of behavior is exactly the same thing as running out in the town square, dropping your pants, and slapping your pustule-laden ass while babbling about the end times.”

It was those pustules that stayed with me, so to speak. Catherynne Valente really does have a way with words. I don’t know whether she originated this metaphor, or whether she picked it up from somewhere else, but it has been widely reused since. And as best we can tell, the “ass” references logically begat fecal references, and at this point repetition has drained the trope of its expressive power

Well, ain’t that cool! But I am a writer not a linguist, and it isn’t the etymology of internet catchphrases that interests me. It’s who uses what language in which circumstances. And it is fascinating to note, in the context of the current kerfluffle, that it’s the anti-Beale crowd slinging obscenities and fecal metaphors, while Beale and his defenders are keeping it civilized. Beale doesn’t have many defenders. I could only find about three blog posts supporting him. But there’s nary a “f**k” (or conjugations thereof) in the comments to those posts, or on his own blog. The worst insults the pro-Beale bloggers use appear to be “rabbit” and “critter.” Oh, and they’ve come up with assorted semi-funny alternative meanings for SFWA, such as “Socialist Fat Women’s Association.”

What gives? The anti-Beale crowd is comprised mostly of professional fiction writers and their fans. I assume they are capable of civilized invective. But they choose instead to rely on endless metaphors involving shit and conjugations of the f-word. I find this incredibly weird.

So I clicked on this link. It’s fantasy author N.K. Jemisin’s reaction to Beale’s expulsion from SFWA. Jemisin seems to have inadvertently started the whole thing by calling Beale “a self-described misogynist, racist, anti-Semite, and a few other flavors of asshole.” (This was prefaced with a warning about profanity. Point to Jemisin!) Here’s the interesting bit: She declares that “You don’t negotiate with a certain kind of terrorist unless you want to encourage more of the same, and you don’t pay the compliment of reasoned, adult discourse to a certain kind of bigot for the same reason.”

So maybe this is why the anti-Bealeites use such foul language! It’s part of a deliberate strategy of refusing to engage in reasoned, adult discourse.

On the one hand, this is diabolically brilliant. By strewing the field of debate, as it were, with excrement, you can pretty effectively chase off anyone who wants to keep it civilized. I admire this tactic from a (metaphorical!) total-warfare perspective. But on the other hand … I didn’t think that reasoned, adult discourse was a “compliment” one pays to someone else. I thought it was a standard one set for oneself, and strove, for one’s own sake, to aspire to.

I don’t hold a brief for either side in this regrettable business. A plague of smeerps on both their houses! But the divergence of their lexicons is fascinating, and quite revealing. Of what, I’d rather not venture to speculate. Because I might end up resorting to four-letter words.


Bonus Link

If you’re interested in the actual content of the controversy, the best commentary on the subject has come from Will Shetterly in this historically literate and non-profane essay. Do give it a read. It’s interesting even if you’ve never heard of N.K. Jemisin or Theodore Beale before!

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  1. Funny, I don’t recall Clarke, Asimov, Anderson, Bradbury, etc, etc having little hissy fits and internet cat fights like this back in the day. In fact, aside from Piers Anthony, I never knew squat about the personal lives of my favorite authors when I was growing up. I just liked their work.

  2. Based on the document Beale himself posted online, he was expelled in part for using that particular twitter feed to link to a blog post calling Jemisin a “Savage,” Declaring genetic science does not classify her race as equally homo-sapien. That was found to be a direct and flagrant violation of SFWA policies.

    Also, as your opinion seems to be his detractors are more prone to the scatological, I just spent two minutes on his site (*shudder*) looking at the comments. I checked those because you referred above to how the posts you link to don’t necessarily use foul language, but the comments do. I think you’ll find just as many – if not more – “colorful language” there, much of it following his decision to dub John Scalzi “McRapey.”

    1. My guess is he wouldn’t have been expelled for misusing the twitter feed one time if a set of SFWAns hadn’t seen it as an excuse to throw him out. SFWA’s historically pretty forgiving, but it has less tolerance for disagreement now.

      1. I’d be inclined to agree misusing the feed would have been overlooked, but lean more towards the extremity of what he posted as the tipping point more than a trend towards stifling disagreement. If he wanted to only to rebut Jemisin’s speech, I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have even been a violation of their policy, and I can even understand it. Precisely when Beale started rubbing other SFWA members the wrong way is a wormhole I’m not really keen to dive down. That his “rebuttal” was focused on calling her “an educated, but ignorant savage” who’s people are “engaged in attacking white people” and therefore deserving to be shot crossed a much more severe line than the occasional curse word would.

        1. Y’know, given how Jemisin went after him, I can’t really get upset that he responded. Insulters who complain about getting insulted in turn are, well, much too common on the web. But yes, so far as I know, Beale had been annoying a lot of people for years. On the other hand, SFWA’s full of people who annoy each other. In the immortal words of Rodney King, why can’t we all just get along?

    2. I didn’t spot any profanities or obscenities in the comments on Beale’s blog. But I didn’t pore through every comment thread, so you may have caught some I missed.

      1. I’m curious, the title of the piece on the page is “The Language of Scandal: Why Do Speculative Fiction Writers Love Disgusting Scatological Insults?” but the URL shows the title as “ (the attempt to bold the word “progressives” is mine). Was this intended to be a piece about general tone and civility in conversation, or the superiority of conservatives over progressives in expressing themselves civilly?

        1. I initially planned to use “progressives” in the title because that side of the debate is where the profanity was occurring. Then I realized that that could be construed as a slander on progressives in the wider world who have nothing to do with this debate, and who never resort to potty-mouthed insults. So I narrowed it down to “speculative fiction writers.” A really laser-focused title would have read: “speculative fiction writers who are progressives and who got involved in the SFWA kerfluffle” … but you’ll agree that’s not exactly snappy 🙂

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