This is a reprint of one of my posts from the Speculative Faith blog a couple of years back. It’s a parable about civilized discourse, something of a lost art these days. Instead, the preferred way to engage someone on the opposite side of an argument is often a personal attack that ramps up its intensity until the target is either silenced or shunned.
If that doesn’t yield enough satisfaction, the internet offers all sorts of creative ways to destroy someone’s reputation, and the people who deal in this flavor of bullying tend to hunt in packs. They cut a bloody swath through the science fiction and fantasy community in the past few years, facilitated by a culture that turned a blind eye to character attacks so long as they employed the proper rhetoric and focused on the correct set of issues. By the time it became clear the community was enabling individuals devoted to systematic, sadistic brutalization of vulnerable people, and somebody identified the ringleader, a horrifying amount of damage had already been done. A lot of people are still picking up the pieces of their shattered personal and professional lives.
My focus here isn’t the wolfpack, but rather those of us, myself included, who might sometimes forget in the heat of the moment that conversation is about exchanging ideas, not forcing our counterparts to repent in sackcloth and ashes if they disagree with us. That’s a culture which gives aid and comfort to the bully, and it’s a place nobody should want to live.
That said, here’s a little fable from a barbecue stand.
It’s a beautiful, sunny day in East Hickory, Georgia. At the Pig and Whistle Down Home BBQ, Earl Bodine tugs on his John Deere cap and gives the sparkling counter its third polish of the morning with a damp dishrag. The door opens to the tinkle of a tiny brass bell, and a portly fellow in bib overalls enters the restaurant. He settles himself on a stool at the counter.
“Welcome back, Mort!” Earl tucks the dishrag into his back pocket, then picks up an order pad and a ball-point pen. “What can I get for you?”
Mort strokes his chin. “Hmm. How’s about a pulled-pork sandwich, side of slaw, and a large sweet tea?”
Earl jots down the order and hangs it on a carousel in the kitchen window. “One Zuckerman’s Famous Pig, Raylene! Slop it!”
“Yeah, yeah. Number Six comin’ up.”
“Haven’t seen you around lately.” Earl fills a giant plastic tumbler with iced tea and sets it on a coaster in front of Mort. “Where’ve you been keepin’ yourself?”
“As good as your barbecue is, Earl, I require some variety in my diet. I’ve been doing a little restaurant hopping.”
“I understand. Find anything good?”
“There’s this new hash house on the other side of the tracks called Loco Larry’s. He claims to have the hottest barbecue sauce in town.”
“Does he now? Well, sir, I reckon it’s time to break out the Shut Up Juice again.”
“Shut Up Juice? What’s that?”
“Order up!” Raylene hands Earl a plate through the kitchen window, which he delivers to Mort.
“Here, let me show you.” Earl rummages around beneath the counter and emerges with an eyedropper and a large plastic mayonnaise jar with the initials S.U.J. scrawled on it in thick black marker. “I got tired of all them young upstarts disrespectin’ my barbecue, sayin’ my sauce didn’t have enough heat, and so on, and so forth. So, I invented Shut Up Juice. Blended into my top-secret regular sauce base is the essence of ’most every hot pepper known to man, plus a few cultivated only by denizens of the underworld. It is guaranteed to silence any smart-aleck fool who thinks he knows barbecue better than me.”
Earl cuts Mort’s sandwich in two and dispenses a single drop of rusty, murky fluid from the jar onto one of the halves. “There. Give’er a taste and let me know what you think.”
Mort takes a bite. “…”
“Dang hot, ain’t it?”
“…” Mort clutches his throat. His face is turning beet red.
Earl smiles. “So, whatdya say? Give me your honest opinion.”
“…” Mort chugs the entire contents of his glass of tea and waves frantically at Earl for a refill.
Earl serves him another glass, which Mort drains twice as fast as the first one. “See what I mean? That there is the hottest sauce in the world, and will render any loud-mouthed braggart speechless who dares challenge me. It has saved me untold hours of listening to drivel, nonsense, and tomfoolery, and it has won every argument I deemed to be in need of swift and decisive termination. I usually apply a full tablespoon, but you’re a good friend, and I didn’t want to ruin your appetite.”
“Mer…wheeze…mercy goodness, Earl…you could…strip paint with this.”
“Hmm. Hadn’t considered industrial applications.” Earl pulls out his order pad. “Let me jot that down. May be some profit in it.”
Mort mops his face with a blue polka-dot handkerchief. “There’s one problem, though.”
“You don’t say. Looked pretty effective to me.”
“The thing is, it stopped me from talking, but I couldn’t taste the sandwich. The sauce totally blotted out the sweet, savory smokiness of the meat. Seems to me, the sauce should complement that flavor, not overwhelm it. Don’t you want your competition to recognize the superiority of your barbecue?”
“I mostly want them to shut up.”
“But once they recover from the Shut Up Juice, they’ll start trash-talking your food again.”
“Maybe…after two months of blessed silence!”
“It doesn’t solve the problem. Here, I want you to try something.” Mort produces a tiny bottle from the front pocket of his overalls, unscrews the lid, and taps it twice over the other half of his sandwich. “Now, take a bite.”
“What’d you put on that?”
“Oh, just a little something my grandma came up with a long time ago. Family secret. Try it.”
“Mort, if I find you’re going into business against me, it may put our friendship in jeopardy. Just sayin’.”
Earl takes a bite, then another…and another. “Well, I’m…I’m speechless. I’d never have thought there was a way to improve my barbecue, but I have to admit this tops anything I’ve ever tasted. Your grandma wouldn’t be interested in sellin’ me the rights to that there family secret, would she?”
“You’re welcome to it. She won’t mind.”
“Gimme that bottle. What in blue blazes is this stuff?”
Mort hands Earl the bottle, grinning from ear to ear.
Earl looks at it, frowns, and shakes it twice. “It’s empty!”
Mort nods. “Read the label.”
“‘Less is More.’ Is this some kind of joke, Mort? It ain’t very funny.”
“That’s my grandma’s secret. Your barbecue doesn’t need Shut Up Juice to prove your point, Earl. It’s plenty good as it is. Let the food do the talking.”
“Let the food do the talking. You know, it makes sense. Why didn’t I think of that?”
Raylene’s voice rings out from the kitchen. “Because you are a nitwit, Earl Bodine!”
“I love you too, Sweet Pea!”
Mort tugs on Earl’s sleeve. “You can start right now. I believe you owe me a sandwich.”
In argument, as in barbecue, it’s difficult to resist the temptation to silence critics with some kind of extra-spicy “shut up juice”– a well-timed zinger, witty insult, or even a “proof text” from Scripture, if it’s that sort of debate. It may feel good, for a minute or two, but it rarely settles anything, is a great way to make enemies, and is much less productive than letting your case stand or fall on its own merits. What you were trying to say gets lost when everyone’s attention focuses on the Shut Up Juice.
So, stay cool, fight fair, remember there are human beings on the other side of that screen, and read your comment two or three times before clicking Submit.