Problems with “stupid”

Stupid. A word I have used so many times for many years. It’s easy, simple, versatile and vitriolic if you want it to be. Dismissive and gratifying. But these are also things that can be wrong with it. It’s a hard habit to shake, but I think it’s worth trying, or at the very least to be aware of when and why we say it.

People – particularly in the skeptical/free thinker circles – throw “stupid” around indiscriminately and very frequently. People don’t define what they mean by it, for a start, and that’s a good place to begin asking what problem, if any, there is with it as a word – specifically with using it as an insult.

In these “unprecedented times” (ugh) there’s so much going on, so many people saying terrible things, doing ridiculous things… it can be frustrating to look out into the world and see so much nonsense, especially when it hurts us and people we love. When there are body counts.

I just don’t think the majority of things people (especially skeptical/pro-science types) label as ‘stupidity’ are that at all and what we’re often dealing with is intellectual ableism and a big chunk of gatekeeping.

6-panel cartoon by Twisted Doodles.
First panel: a shining pile of treasure. Underneath is written "Science is an accumulated treasure of knowledge"
Second panel: a stick figure stands next to the pile with their hands on their hips. The text reads "And it should be accessible to everyone"
Third panel: a dragon with tiny wings sits atop the treasure pile saying "This isn't for you" and the text underneath reads "Often it is gatekept in terms of access or being incomprehensible to ordinary people.
Fourth panel: the figure asks the dragon, "Is that treasure even real?" And the dragon replies "You're an idiot". Text reads: "And that can erode belief in science when we need it most"
Fifth panel: another figure stands with the first. The first says "The treasure is fake" and the second says "I believe you because you're not calling me stupid." The dragon is shouting "Idiots!". Text reads: "and the disbelief and distrust spreads which can affect decisions we make supported by science".
Last panel is text reading: "What might help? - Better science communication. - Stop calling people "idiots" for not understanding a concept. - Acknowledge that people react to information emotionally as well as intellectually. - Stop gatekeeping. Science is for everyone." 
Signed @twisteddoodles
By TwistedDoodles

What do you mean?

Words mean things (obviously) but as I’ve said before, when we use a popular term it’s often not actually what we mean and there are a host of better, more accurate words available.

What do you mean by “stupid” exactly – of low intelligence? The problem with this should be obvious – people with learning disabilities are not less than, and we shouldn’t be invoking our perception of them to insult other people. It’s ableism. Just like calling things you dislike “gay is homophobic, or using any number of slurs people now mostly recognise as unacceptable is also ableist. If we’re trying to insult someone’s intelligence, can we stop and ask why?

Tweet by @yeralizard includes: “…it’s putting people down for what you perceive as lesser “intelligence” that’s the ableist part. Confronting your own ableism isn’t about just avoiding certain words, it’s about adjusting your entire outlook.”

Is it rather a perceived lack of education that’s the “fault”? We shouldn’t be looking down on people with less capacity to learn and understand or more difficulty in applying knowledge. Lacking education can happen for many reasons and if you then take the step of asking who’s at fault, a more complex picture probably emerges. Does it mean something silly, unthinking or ignorant, factually inaccurate, dangerously misleading or..? 

Even if it is defined, what does it explain? Again, there are systems behind all our lives that shape our personality and ways of thinking. It’s not stupid when a rich politician says something racist. It’s racist, and being highly educated didn’t prevent it. We must not tiptoe around the words we have to describe the various systems of oppression we live with (and help to uphold by refusing to name them).

“intellect-oriented ableism like calling people “stupid” is a pillar of white supremacy and it’s unreasonable to think that you can reduce racism while leaving ableism fully intact”

Private Tweet by @shaunltd

Partly because it’s just… not helpful. It doesn’t explain or solve anything or persuade anyone of anything. Insults have their place of course, but I’m not sure this one hurts the targets more than those it stigmatises unfairly as a side-effect. Again, I’ve written before about words being important and how we use them being a choice we can make – what we say, how we say it, reflects our views and can affect other people.

What’s the point?

If we’re trying to be and do better, then our language needs to be part of what we’re aware of and actively work on. This is a tough one because it is such a beloved insult but we’ve binned plenty of those already, we can do it again.

“Policing” our own language (really it’s just being more aware/thoughtful) doesn’t and never will make us perfect, nothing will, and that’s not the point anyway. The point is consciously improving, being considerate of others, pushing for fairer systems. Hopefully we want things to improve and I don’t think throwing “stupid” around is ever going to achieve that; I think this one in particular holds us back (and hurts groups we should protect).

One of the main reasons I dislike seeing people try to end a conversation with the “fact” that [whatever the issue] “It’s just stupid” is: it becomes just that – an end. People stop asking questions and agree on that, maybe bemoan it some more, and move on. It’s lazy; we don’t look deeper to find out what the real causes of problems might be, and so we fail to address them effectively.

That doesn’t mean I never reach for it myself any more – part of the point of writing this is to hold myself to a higher standard, aim to do better, because I want things to be better.

The question is – are we trying to convince anyone of anything? If we are, this is almost certainly not the way to go about it.

The moment you belittle the mind for believing in something, you’ve lost the battle. At that point, the mind will dig in rather than give in. Once you’ve equated someone’s beliefs with idiocracy, changing that person’s mind will require nothing short of an admission that they are unintelligent. And that’s an admission that most minds aren’t willing to make.

Ozan Farol, Next Big Idea Club

It’s not even true

A lot of the time, it’s not even the case that people are doing the bad thing because “stupid”.

For example, currently we’re seeing widespread dismissal of expert opinion (a long-running trend) and simple advice that might save a whole lot of lives and make things a little easier on healthcare workers. It’s very common to go full on “stupid”-accusation with the anti-mask, anti-vax and “fake news virus!” types. But that’s just… not it.

…what strongly predicts denial of expertise on many controversial topics is simply one’s political persuasion.

2015 metastudy showed that ideological polarization over the reality of climate change actually increases with respondents’ knowledge of politics, science and/or energy policy….

Science denial is notoriously resistant to facts because it isn’t about facts in the first place. Science denial is an expression of identity – usually in the face of perceived threats to the social and economic status quo – and it typically manifests in response to elite messaging.

Adrian Bardon – Scientific American

This is of course also relevant to conspiracism – I can only recommend the excellent book by friend Rob BrothertonSuspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, which goes through the history of conspiracism, some neurobiology and why people are drawn to conspiracies in the first place, what they tend to have in common, and why it’s not about a lack of intelligence or education, usually. 

I think “stupid” is a scourge in conversation, especially when we’re talking about people we don’t know or directly to someone and getting angry. I don’t think quite the same sting is in it if we use it about something inanimate, an event, or or non-human doing something ridiculous. But we do still have better words and arguably it does still normalise the attitudes, referring back to the gay/bad example. I’m not advocating getting rid of slapstick comedy or anything else the “cancel culture” bores will probably reach for.

So maybe we can work on reducing it, especially when referring to other people.
It’s difficult, but things that are worthwhile are rarely particularly easy.

It’s cruel and unhelpful

Again, it’s been a go-to word for me for years.
Perhaps some personal background is warranted: I was bullied a lot at school for being “brainy” (southeast England cringe), the local preferred insult for kids who learned quickly/well, found learning fun, did well on tests, that sort of thing. Nerds, the sad losers, teachers’ pets.

I tried various strategies to deal with this, as a pacifist at heart who very much bought into “Hitting back drags you down to their level” and similar. Violence is scary; words hurt but usually less. Of course I tried various tactics to stop this – ignoring, leaning into it, demonstrating the opposite and, eventually, throwing it back:

“I’m not brainy, you’re just thick!”

Little me decided it was devastating, fair and accurate. It did shut a few people up. But it also got me in a lot of trouble (also fair). The thing is, some people did have learning disabilities, but generally not the ones who’d pick on me. These were just bad kids but… well, why? Sometimes it’d be parents who didn’t care or were more actively abusive. Drugs. Violence. Neglect. Or just a lack of decent support. Whatever combination, of course it would manifest in school.

Again, none of that really matters when you’re on the receiving end of their lashing out but, with distance and time, it’s of course more understandable, sad, and revealed as injustice that needs fixing rather than just a bad things that happen directly to you.

People deserve healthy lives and happy homes and for various reasons not all of us get that, and that has its results. But my turning my pain back onto someone in the form of insulting their intelligence was never actually OK, whatever their background. I don’t think it’s ever OK, really. It’s ableism.

They all reinforce the idea that a good way to describe bad things is to compare them to disabilities, or to disabled people. They may not be personally offensive against any particular disabled person. But they contribute to ableism, which harms disabled people by validating discriminatory assumptions about disabled people. At the very least, we should rethink how we use these terms, including in situations where it may seem harmless.

Andrew Pulrang, Forbes

Ultimately, it makes us look bad – it is bad, it perpetuates prejudices, and it turns people off what we’re saying. No one’s going to be convinced, however great your point, if you wrap it all up in “You stupid idiot!!

Would you be?

Links

Words and Phrases to avoid – Writing Alchemy

Coronavirus Responses Highlight How Humans Have Evolved to Dismiss Facts That Don’t Fit Their Worldview – Scientific American

Why Are So Many Anti-Vaxxers in Educated, Affluent Areas? – Discover Magazine

It’s time to stop even casually misusing disability words – Forbes

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