Ala Buzreba and the Art of the Insult

August 19, 2015

Years ago a very bright Asian physician joined our social group and seemed to fit in well, except for occasional looks of horror at our frequent use of obscenity in humour. On the other hand his casual racist comments discomfited us until we finally accepted his adage that “Brown people are the most racist.”

An European colleague at the same time shocked us with his cheerful blasts of profanity. He claimed to be a good Catholic, but verbal attacks upon the symbols of the faith were a big part of the way he put his thoughts together.

After several summers of work on construction crews and driving trucks, I had adopted a pattern of speech hinging on my outbursts while trying to shift a 20-speed White Mustang’s transmission. The truck boasted two gear shift levers which had to be operated simultaneously while double-clutching. I could hit four of the gears, total, in downtown Ottawa traffic.

As I entered the teaching profession I discovered that my creative use of the lunchbox vernacular was exceeded only by the verbal swagger of the administators who hired me.
Conversations in the staff room of a school in the ‘70’s took on a very salty tone, though I have been led to believe that they were no match for those of a women’s locker room when alcohol was involved.

One morning in my grade nine class I spotted a series of notes passed back and forth between a girl and a boy at one side of the room. I moved down and intercepted the note, to the extreme embarrassment of the kids. I could see why: these polite, diligent fourteen-year-old students interacted on paper with insults which left me gaping in awe. This sweet little girl’s comment to the guy behind her suggested that she had on good authority that he frequently joined his uncle in intercourse with a dead camel, warming in the sun. I still won’t repeat his comment to her.

When after class I confronted the kids with this exchange, they were at pains to make clear that extreme insults like this were part of the way they joked with each other. They didn’t mean anything by them, they were sorry, and they wouldn’t do it again when I was around.

Still, I was struck by the vivid imagery and ingenuity of their insults. Clearly this style of derision was as much of an art form to them as the casual obscenity which in larger Western society still passes for wit.

All of this brings me to the case of Ala Buzreba and the series of tweets from her teenage years whose publication caused her to resign as a Liberal candidate in Calgary. If examined from the perspective of my former students, Ala Buzreba’s Twitter invective showed a little imagination but no great creativity. Her comments should have ended up in a wastebasket where they belonged, but instead they remain archived on Twitter to be found by those of mischievous intent.

The lesson here is obvious: mainstream readers take offence to styles of humour or insult to which they are not accustomed, anything posted on the Internet is forever, and opponents will use any weapon they can find in a tight political race.

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