The Art of the Insult & The Sin of the Slur


Throughout my blogging career I have occasionally been taken to task for using insults and ridicule on select occasions, and have in turn often discussed the ethics of insults and ridicule. And in The New Atheism+ I articulated some of those principles again, and then I went overboard in using the tactic in comments.

People rightly brought up issues with that, so I reexamined my actions there and what people had to say on the subject, and retracted and apologized for some of my actions there. In discussing the matter further I found I was wrong about a few other things, and realized this is an important issue that deserves an article of its own. Getting things like this right is what Atheism+ is all about, and debating and educating each other on these issues is valuable and ought to be welcome.

Because this article necessitates using offensive (in some cases extremely offensive) words in illustrative examples, a trigger warning is in order for anyone who might have a bad reaction to that. This is a clinical, philosophical post about proper and improper use of words, and should be approached as such. But if that is not possible, you should avoid it.

The Context

In my previous post I wrote:

[Being compassionate] does not mean we can’t be angry or mean or harsh, when it is for the overall good (as when we mock or vilify the town neonazi); ridiculing the ridiculous is often in fact a moral obligation, and insults are appropriate when they are genuinely appropriate (because, in short, human happiness would be destroyed if we didn’t marginalize that which can destroy it). It also doesn’t mean that we won’t act against evil, ignorance, and all the sins of vanity, greed, or self-righteousness. To the contrary, it is our compassion that compels us to do so. Our compassion entails we will and must always be the enemies of the uncompassionate.

The hyperlink was to Ashley Miller’s aptly-named talk, Do Be a Dick (sometimes): Emotions and Skeptics, wherein she discusses the art and ethics of insult and ridicule along lines similar to what I have argued throughout the years. Her talk also provides some good examples of appropriate insults and apt ridicule. I am planning a future post about why ridicule is a necessary tool of social change, when used judiciously and appropriately. But here I will be focusing solely on the case of the insult.

I find that when people take offense at insults and ridicule, sometimes they are right to, but often they are relying in their judgment on mistaken assumptions, or are merely in the thrall of unjustified taboos (or are being insincere: claiming offense is a common tactic used in an attempt to silence, or shame or intimidate into silence, someone who says things you don’t like).

An example of an irrational taboo is always taking offense at the word “fuck” no matter where, when or how it is used. There is no rational basis for that. There are uses and contexts in which the word would be inappropriate, but also uses and contexts in which it is not. Merely being offended by the word itself is simply unreasonable and not commendable.

The emotional reaction of “taking offense” is not always justified, and as such is not itself automatically justifying of anything. Daniel Fincke has analyzed the matter in No, Not Everyone Has a Moral Right to Feel Offended by Just any Satire or Criticism, which articulates the basic principle that “the right feeling of offense is…a proper cognitive recognition of the truth that one has been wrongly slighted” (emphasis mine). His entire article is worth reading, even if you don’t agree with every point in it.

Fincke has valuably continued his analysis of this question in his still-in-progress series Summarizing Objections to My Stance Against Epithets, Incivility, and Quickly Personalized Arguments, which elaborates on the ideas behind his comments policy in Making My Comments Rules Explicit: “Don’t Bully People with Insulting Names” and “Make Personal Charges Against Others Only in Egregious Cases.” Part of his point is to distinguish different zones of discourse, so that his principles are not necessarily intended to be universal, but relate to what sort of tenor and discourse he wants to maintain on his own blog (which is why we all have our own comments policies, differing in various respects). But his is a good template to start with: you should have a good reason to deviate from it. Forcing yourself to think through such reasons is a valuable exercise.

Basic Principles

For any use of insult or ridicule to be morally appropriate, at least six criteria have to be met, and here I will start with ridicule in general as the paradigm:

  • (1) What you are ridiculing must actually be true.
  • (2) What you are ridiculing must actually be ridiculous.
  • (3) Ridicule must be judicious and selective and not overdone.
  • (4) The context and venue must be appropriate.

A skit on The Daily Show is an obvious example of meeting condition 4. The comments threads on Daniel Fincke’s blog is an obvious example of failing condition 4. As would be someone’s wedding. Or any public occasion that’s supposed to be fun for everyone (unless it’s a roast or a playful insult among friends, for example). Condition 3 is met by being sparing in the use of the tactic and smart about how you frame it and how often you resort to it. But it’s conditions 1 and 2 that require particular attention. Right Wing media often violate those two principles, and that’s what makes their use of the tactic so vile. People confuse this with the tactic itself being vile, but that’s a fallacy: there are morally appropriate uses of insults and ridicule.

For example, if you ridicule someone for something that isn’t true about them, you are using the tactic immorally. You are essentially lying, degrading them undeservedly. Likewise, if you ridicule something that isn’t ridiculous, you are using the tactic to do harm to the innocent–to hurt people you merely don’t like (rather than people who are actually bad). And besides, ridiculing what isn’t really ridiculous will only make yourself look ridiculous. As when I was repeatedly mocked and ridiculed for advocating the virtues of compassion, integrity, and reasonableness in my Atheism+ comment thread: advocating the virtues of compassion, integrity, and reasonableness is not in any plausible sense ridiculous, so people who mock that only make themselves look ridiculous.

Insults must follow the same principles: they must be true (given the connotation of the words used in the context), they must be deserved (the quality being called out must actually be reprehensible), they must not be overused, and it must be a suitable place for their use. But insults require two other criteria to be met (and likewise certain other forms of ridicule):

  • (5) The insult must not be insulting to an untargeted party.
  • (6) The insult must not be pointlessly triggering.

It’s these criteria that can sometimes be hard to apply correctly, since not everyone is well informed about what effect various words have (educating each other can correct that), while not everyone has the right to take offense at just any use of a word, and thus (per Fincke) that it offends someone is not the same thing as that it insults them. To insult a third party, the word still has to violate one of the other criteria (the insult has to be false or target the undeserving; or become excessive or ruin someone’s party or occasion), or be so strongly associated with abuse that a really compelling reason must exist to still use it (and rarely is there one).

An example of the latter is “nigger” (which Crommunist has ably discussed in The N Word). It does make a difference who a word comes from, because not everyone is in the same position of privilege, and context is everything: “nigger” on the lips of a white person has a completely different appearance and implication than the same word on the lips of a black person. The context of where and how the word is used matters (no word should ever be interpreted or reacted to “out of context”). And context includes the social position of the persons speaking and spoken to, and the historical associations that come with that.

And yet, “nigger” is never an appropriate insult, even on the lips of a black person: because it violates rules 1 and 5. The word as an insult means or implies slave, animal, subhuman, and a whole galaxy of inherently racist character aspersions. It doesn’t just mean “lazy,” for example (one of the ways the slur is sometimes intended), it means “black people are biologically lazy,” which is racist–and it’s racist because it’s false. More importantly, using the word gratuitously reminds all within earshot of its whole ugly history, which can make the blood run cold, and is thus pointlessly triggering, violating rule 6.

Another word like this is “tranny.” See Natalie Reed on Being the Pejorative, and A Transgender Manual of Style, where she makes the point that various slurs (like “tranny” and “shemale”) are inherently abhorrent because they only serve the purpose of unjustly demeaning the target (always violating either rule 1, 2, or 6). As she says, we must not use them, except to talk about them, or unless you are “one of the people directly referred to by the term and are doing so ironically or as an act of reclamation in reference to yourself.” The latter is an example of context changing the connotation, changing what it signifies and suggests, and not merely because such a use is not intended as an insult, but because of who is uttering it–just as when black people refer to themselves as “nigger” affectionately or otherwise without intended insult. (Although as Crommunist points out, he would rather abandon even that.)

Such are the general principles. Next I will examine how they apply to some particular cases.

From Insult to Slur

An insult, when morally deployed, serves the valid purpose of marginalizing that which ought to be marginalized. Which is why rules 1 and 2 are so fundamental to a morally appropriate use of insults. And we need to marginalize the reprehensible–those performing acts or possessing character traits that are harmful to society, things that could be corrected or avoided by them or others, and will be, the more they are despised or evoke shame. And it is through insulting and ridiculing the reprehensible that it comes to be recognized and internalized as despised and shameful. But when someone seeks to accomplish this purpose (to marginalize some behavior or attribute, by causing it to be recognized and internalized as despised and shameful) against things that aren’t reprehensible, that aren’t harmful to society, then they are resorting to slurs. And these are not the product of compassion or moral concern, but of the personally mean and hateful. They aim to hurt the innocent. Or do so whether aiming to or not.

There are obvious sexist and racist slurs, as most everyone by now well knows. Words that categorize, and intend to categorize, a gender or a race as in some way inferior to another (whether directed at the whole race or gender, or a particular member of it). Calling a woman a “cunt” is an obvious example. Like “dick” it only makes sense as an insult if it is intended to be an aspersion on character, which means it can be used in either of two ways: to suggest that all women are loathsome (“women are all cunts!”), or to say that a particular woman is (“what a cunt!”), or in some cultures a man. In the one case, it’s always false (violating rules 1 and 5); in the other, it can in some cases perhaps be true (the same way “dick” can be).

But unlike “dick,” “cunt” has much stronger connotations of sexist disdain for women–though “dick” is generally not used to suggest men are inferior to women, “cunt” is often used that way of women. It thus, like “nigger,” violates rule 6 (even if not to the same degree, still to a sufficient degree to be more restrained in how you use it); and also, being thereby so much more vulgar in practice than “dick,” it will more frequently violate rules 3 or 4. As an insult it is therefore rarely if ever appropriate. [For a thorough treatment of this point see Jen McCreight’s Cunto Bingo Card and Matthew Smith’s follow-up and my comment thereon, although what I say here now supersedes everything I said there, which was not entirely correct.]

But there are also slurs that are slurs by proxy, violating rule 5. As a prime example, I now try to completely avoid false genderized language like “pussy” (for coward) or “having the balls” (for courage), after realizing (thanks to Cristina Rad) that it perpetuates a factually false sexist notion that women are cowards or you need balls to have courage. Which means there is no context in which these terms would be correct. Not even as metaphors. And the very use of them entails you endorse the sexist falsehoods underlying them–because if you didn’t, you wouldn’t think the terms were insulting (or in the case of “having the balls,” praising). From habit I can still slip into the balls metaphors when speaking rather than writing, but I police that as much as I can, and it’s my aim to get rid of it from my vocabulary altogether.

Of course, context can always change things. “I got kicked in the balls” and “Pussy Riot” are legitimate uses of those words. Because they are not being used as insults, and assume nothing false about men, women, pussies, or balls. Similarly, “gay” can be a normal descriptive word (“gay pride”; “my uncle is gay”) or a word completely unrelated to sexual orientation (“we had a gay time”). But whenever it is used as an insult (“that’s gay!”) it violates rule 5, because it is only an insult if you are assuming there is something bad, inferior, or defective about gay people (and in practice, such an insult usually involves assuming that all gay people like or do certain stereotyped things, which, being also false, is akin to being sexist, violating rule 5 again).

That’s how it is for racist and sexist slurs. But there are also ableist slurs. Ableism has been defined in various ways, not all of them defensible. But the most appropriate and defensible definition will usually be found in a good standard English dictionary, for example: ableism is “discrimination in favor of able-bodied people; prejudice against or disregard of the needs of disabled people.” (On the value and importance of combating ableism in general see Andy Semler’s primer on the subject, Creating a More Inclusive Humanism in an Ableist World.)

Racism, Sexism…and Ableism

Ableism is not exactly the same as sexism and racism, of course. Obviously assuming that a blind person can’t see is not ableism, but the opposite: it’s taking into account a very real difference, one that does makes them inferior in ability to an able-bodied person (but in only that one single respect: visual impairment). And it is not universally possible to accommodate all disabilities in every respect. We can ensure that the mentally retarded have their needs and welfare met, and are compassionately treated, but we can’t rewrite all books and media to match their reading comprehension level, for example, nor should we.

But these caveats do not diminish the fact that ableism exists in just the same sense as sexism and racism, and is just as much in need of purging from ourselves and our society. And like sexism and racism, it has malicious and nonmalicious forms, and both must be done away with by every practical means–it’s just that nonmalicious forms are easier to curb: once pointed out, it’s usually corrected, there being no malice to stubbornly resist doing that.

For example, there is the malicious racism of the KKK, or this guy. But there is also the racism born of simple innocent ignorance or lack of reflection, in short, there is racism that consists simply of “the attribution of ethnic group characteristics to individuals” even when inferiority is not being implied, or when a person making the assumption honestly doesn’t know better (see Crommunist’s Racism: A Definition and his article on Polite Racism). The latter kind of racism is not a character defect and thus should not be treated as such. It should be treated as an information problem, and solved as such. I know the internet’s availability bias can make douchebags and malignant racists seem overnumerous, but in reality most people are well-meaning and educable. We should all in fact operate on the assumption that we always have a lot to learn and thus be ready to be educated on matters we know less about (it’s called “listening,” which does not entail always mindlessly agreeing, but does entail being thoughtful and receptive to the possibility of being corrected, and not just being a stubbornly immovable contrarian).

All the same goes for sexism. And ableism. They also have malicious and nonmalicious forms, both of which in need of correcting.

Ableist Slurs

The demand that all words that are disability metaphors are “ableist” is not particularly reasonable. If I say “That’s lame” or “You must be blind” or “You’re being childish” I am not insulting or referring to the lame, the blind, or children, and none of these terms have significant histories of abusive deployment (unlike “gimp” or “idiot,” for example…more on that in a moment). These uses are thus not ableist. They are just an ordinary deployment of metaphor. So all they have to be is correct.

There are those who disagree, who regard “lame” as ableist, but it appears no more ableist than “blind” or “childish.” When I say someone is lame (or being lame or doing something lame), I am not saying they are physically lame, nor am I insulting people who are physically lame, since I am using the word in the connotation relating to quality of thought or argument (or art or style), not physical ability–I’m not even referring to the disability at all; a lame thought is not a lame leg. A “lame idea” is only like a “lame horse” in the single sense that it is weak or less able to get from here to there, which is a true fact of both, and thus not really an insult, any more than calling an actually blind person blind would be. In fact, like “blind,” in either the literal or metaphorical sense, “lame” is often not really an insult, but just a description–there is simply nothing reprehensible about being lame, even metaphorically (see the entry for lame in the urban dictionary). So actually trying to insult someone with the word “lame” is itself lame.

By contrast, calling someone with a limp a “gimp” is not only an insult, but a slur: the word exists only to demean; and therefore, even using it metaphorically as an insult will violate rule 5 at the very least. (Except perhaps when it’s a contextually-appropriate term of affection or self-reference, under conditions such as Natalie Reed described for tranny above; or maybe [?] also in private consensual sexplay: see the urban dictionary on gimp. But we’re not talking about those uses here, but it’s use as an insult.)

Similarly, “weak” is categorized by some as ableist, but in reality we routinely refer to people who are physically weak as in fact weak: it’s just a correct description of their disability (whether chronic or acute). “My wife was too weak to get out of bed” is not an insult; neither is “his ideas for fixing the problem were pretty weak.” (Though as a Whedonite I prefer “weak tea.”) That’s just a correct use of metaphor. And there’s no overwhelming history of abuse here. Getting your hackles up over such word usage is not reasonable. And we don’t have to accommodate unreasonable expectations.

On the other hand, terms referring to mental illness or defect are another story. I have long tried to resist using terms such as crazy, insane, mad, nuts, loony, etc., of people, unless I really mean to hypothesize that someone is in some sense off their rocker to some degree. In any event we should never use these terms as an insult, but merely as a declaration of suspicion or worry–or as a description of an action or event or thing (“that’s crazy”; “I’ve been having a crazy day”; “we’ve been losing players like crazy”; “that’s a crazy policy”) or pretty much anything else that’s not an insult (“they’re crazy for each other”; “we’re crazy that way”; “I get a little crazy sometimes”).

Thus, someone’s extremely alarming behavior that implies a complete break with sense or reality may have to be called out as such–but only as a straightforward suspicion of fact, not an insult. And context matters to meaning. “Stalin was a madman” does not imply that everyone (or indeed anyone) with any mental disorder is like Stalin. In the context of such a use we understand this only references a particular kind of disturbed mind, and as such appears to be historically apt. But calling just any person with any mental illness “mad” or “crazy” is going to be wrong if you leave it to imply that they are “suffering a complete break with sense or reality,” which is false (violating rule 1). In other words, be clear what you mean, and make sure what you mean is correct.

For these and other reasons we should be sparing and judicious in the way we use terms for insanity. And in any event, we should not use them as insults. They are either honest descriptions or hypotheses–or slurs. The mentally ill are not “reprehensible,” are not generally a threat to society (those few that are, do not impugn the vast majority that aren’t), and are not deserving of insult. So if you insult them, you are violating rule 2; and if you are trying to insult someone else by reference to them, you are violating rule 5. Either way, bad on you. (For more on insanity talk and ableism see Christina’s Ableism in Atheism and the ensuing thread.)

For a starker example of ableist epithets, “gimp” and “retard” and “idiot” and even “stupid” and “dumb,” when used to refer to people who actually are disabled in the ways those epithets imply, is unmistakably intended to unjustifiably cause harm (violating rule 2) and thus those words are slurs. They attempt to belittle or marginalize those who do not deserve to be–rather than simply describing them (as more accepted words for their conditions would do).

But this also means that when these words are used to insult other people, by metaphor, we are saying “it is reprehensible to be x,” that “being x makes you bad for society,” the only proper meaning of an insult (rule 2). But that violates rule 5: people who actually are unable to walk, actually are unable to speak, actually are mentally retarded, are not reprehensible or a threat for society. It only compounds the fact that words like “retard” have such hateful histories that they are needlessly triggering (violating rule 6). Words that have become more mainstreamed, like “stupid” or “dumb,” you should still not overuse, and mostly use of things rather than people, and only use of people descriptively, not to insult them (and even then there are usually gentler ways to do that, like “he’s not too bright”).

This is what I have come to realize. And I have changed my ways accordingly. So should you. But some might think I’m just being irrationally PC. So I will say a little more about this last point before concluding.

The Problem with Stupidity

I am convinced now that “stupid” as an insult against a person is ableist, as is idiot, idiotic, moron, and moronic–and above all “retarded” (and not just the pejorative “retard”). And I will be endeavoring to avoid these words in future. Here’s why.

Let’s start with the seemingly most innocuous of these: stupid. It’s true, such a word does not assume false things about disabled people, nor is it directed at disabled people, and as long as it is truthfully applied (the person did behave stupidly or the idea really was stupid), as metaphor it does not violate rules 1 or 2, and with suitable usage, rules 3 or 4 could be met as well. And rule 6 would only apply to the other words (“retarded” especially): those words (whether you are aware of it or not) do have a horrible history of abuse against the mentally disabled and haven’t been mainstreamed as anything other than slurs, so they are needlessly triggering (even when used of things, like a “retarded idea,” so we should curb our use of even that idiom). There are plenty of words to use in their place (see this list of ableist words and their suggested replacements).

But no matter what, for all these words (even “stupid”) rule 5 intervenes: it is simply not true that nothing false is being assumed about others not targeted by this insult. An insult by definition is only moral if it truthfully declares something is reprehensible about a person, something that makes them in some way a cancer or stumbling block to society or the social good, and thus deserving of scorn or rebuke (again: rule number 1 and rule number 2). But genuinely unintelligent people, genuinely retarded people, people who have historically been clinically classified as morons or idiots (a practice now discontinued), are not reprehensible or bad. Think about it. Would you really insult someone as “stupid” if they were mentally disabled? But if they aren’t, then what quality in them are you insulting? Insult that instead.

Thus these terms, especially “retarded,” are just like “pussy” and “gay” (when used as insults), and therefore just as wrong. Not only do they run afoul of rule 5, these terms also assume the accusation that the target lacks intelligence, as opposed to failing to use the intelligence that they have, and thus the use of these words also violates rule 1, once we properly grasp just what it is we are doing when we use them.

It can be different to say an idea is “stupid” or “dumb,” because those two words have been mainstreamed into a milder idiom, such that when used of an idea, context now allows this to be a metaphor for a failure to think rather than an incapacity to think (with no implied reference to any medical condition). You can always accuse the originator of a dumb idea of being, say, lazy, careless, unreasonable, or stubborn, as long as you think that’s true; whereas if you instead think the fault is that they are uneducated or miseducated, that’s unlikely to be their fault, and thus is not a sound basis for an insult, but can be a sound basis for a descriptive assessment–and an effort to fix it.

To better parse such distinctions think of another word: “freak.” That can be used as a demeaning slur to a disabled or deformed person, and has a horrible history of such abuse. But it also has well-established connotations that make no metaphorical reference to that one. For example, “get your freak on,” “freak out,” “that sculpture is freakish,” “you’re such a freak!” Notice, first, that none of those alternative uses is an insult. And none of them refer to someone’s physical appearance or even deficiencies in physical ability. Thus “freak” does not produce any analogy to recover an acceptable use for “retarded” (or even “idiot,” “moron,” or “stupid”) as insults. We should just do without such words altogether when engaging in the art of insult.

–:–

Clarification of Content: Note that this article and its thesis is only about insults (not words used in other ways) and the morality of public discourse (not what you say in private vocalizations or conversations). You should still be cognizant and thoughtful of any consequences of your words in other domains, of course, but the conclusions reached here will not necessarily apply there.

Comments Policy: Note that I will be especially strict in enforcing my comments policy on this post. I want clinical discussions of the issue only, no gratuitous mockery or jokes or other nonsense. And of course, because we may have to discuss even the worst of words in this context, my entire trigger warning applies equally to the entire comment thread.

Comments

  1. John Morales says

    For example, if you ridicule someone for something that isn’t true about them, you are using the tactic immorally. You are essentially lying, degrading them undeservedly.

    I don’t think so, rather I think you can at most attempt to ridicule someone if the claim isn’t true; also problematic is how one supposedly could degrade another with the truth.

    (Still, I agree that the very point of ridicule is to point out someone’s condition and that its power derives from its truthfulness)

    • rose-ellen says

      An insult [a comment made which is meant to degrade another person]can never be true because all people are equal.An insult is therefore always false.What one person finds reprehensible is not what another finds reprehensible.There are words which are instrinsically meant to degrade another[cunt,nigger ,lame, retard].There are other words which may be inherently valid words[have meanings that refer to truths about people] but can be used falsely to degrade another.The word anti -semite comes to mmind. There are real anti -semites and calling an anti-semite an anti-semite is not an insult but an accurate label for such a person. This inherently valid descriptive word can be used however to falsely label someone whose beliefs you may find reprehensible. Say you believe that the capital of israel should be tel aviv -not jerusalem.You might be labeled an anti semite-by someone who finds that position reprehensible[that jerusalem should not belong to islrael].Hence by hurling the insult anti-semite at such a person the intent is to degrade the person for having a position that one subjectively finds reprehensible.In this case -as in the case of all insults-the insult which is meant to degrade is a lie[i’m assuming the person is not an anti-semite] compounded by another lie;the lie that the person is an anti semite because of their view on jerusalem and the lie that they are inferior[degraded]. All men are equal no matter what they believe so to degrade another is to deny their equality.Therefore all degradations are lies[all insults are lies]. When the insult is false[the person is not anti-semitic ] then it is a further lie. Insults are both false and cruel.The target of the insult will perceive it that way.They know that they are not inferior to the person hurling the insulttand it is incorrect to say they will be shamed. They won’t be shamed-they will be angry that they were falsely maligned[degraded] -in their view.

    • says


      All men are equal no matter what they believe so to degrade another is to deny their equality.

      That’s not true. Some people are cruel, others are not. Some people are hypocrites, others are not. Some people are dishonest, others are not. Some people are intellectually careless, others are not. Some people are unreasonable, some people are not. Some people hate others for illogical reasons, others do not. Some people behave badly, others do not. And so on.

      It is in the context of these kinds of inequalities that insults have a purpose, and can indeed be true descriptions of people, as my article explains, and as I have expended in many comments above.

    • rose-ellen says

      yes some people are hypocrites, liers, cruel etc. That has nothing to do with their equality as people. As humans we all have the same basic needs-hence all people are equally human. People are not one dimensional; you can be cruel to one person and kind to another, hypocritical in one sense and consistent in another.You can be illogical in your hatred of some people and illogical in your love of others. [and likes and dislikes have their own inner subjective “logic” that the outsider knows nothing of.What is illogical to you -has an inner subjective logic for the holder of the belief-no matter how objectievly false their beliefs are or how reprehensible the belief is to you-or the culture of a particular time and place or to a subculture]].And I would add what appears hypocritical to you or the culture at large also has its own internal consistency.You can hold rephensible views[reprehensible to you or the culture of a particular time and place or to a subculture you may belong to]in one regard and hold noble acceptable views in another[noble by your standards or the standards of a particular culture of a time and place or a subculture]The target of insults will always view his existential status as equal to those who insult him and will regard insults meant to connote inferiority as proof of his victimhood-in that the person hurling insults is willing to resort to the lie of labeling him inferior[insults meant to connote inferiority] to express displeasure with his views. Of course if you call a lier a lier-that is not an insult but a truth expressed. If you label someone a racist because they appose amnesty for illigal immigrants[because you find opposition to amnesty for illigal immigrants reprehensible] then your intent is to degrade someone [to label them as inferior- as being a racist is culturally deemed a morally inferior position to hold.]The label racist however in such a case is a lie[assuming the person is not racist though he oppossed amnesty for illigals].The insult is a lie .A racist would have no problem labeling himself with such a term but the intent to shame someone whose position you find reprehensible[regarding illigal immigration say]would only vindicate the victims sense of himself as the honest noble victim of people who are willing to resort to the lie of degradation when confronted with a view they find reprehensible.people -all equal-hold different views about different issues.To reduce someone to the status of an inferior person by the use of the insult[the lie meant to connote existential inferiority] is a lie.All beliefs are subjective and you’d be hard pressed to find any one who you would find every belief or every action or every personalty trait they ever had reprehensible.And it would only be an opinion-a sensibility on your part or the part of a particular culture or subcultur].

  2. says

    I’d say you’re in the clear on “insane.” Insanity isn’t a disability. It’s a legal state of not knowing right from wrong or not understanding the nature of your actions. That is how it gets used colloquially, too.

  3. Hunt says

    Great, great post. I entirely agree about “retarded.” In 2003 or 4 my family was on vacation with my cousin, who has had a mental disability since birth. My mom inadvertently opined that “George Bush was retarded,” an insult that I happened to support at that time, except that I was aware of who was listening, and she, inexplicably was not. I could see written on his face the impact it had on my cousin. His wounds were very deep. I don’t even think words like “insane,” used around a person with mental illness have quite the bite of “retarded.” It should be utterly avoided.

  4. says

    I mostly agree with you: except with your discussion of lame.

    The simple fact of the matter is that there is a cultural assumption in some cases that people with various physical defects have corresponding mental, emotional, or moral defects as well. You may have never witnessed this or been on the receiving end. I don’t know. It is, however, something I’ve witnessed, and something that disabled people I know have commented on to me. With that in mind, I don’t think using the word lame metaphorically as you suggest is justified.

    You may be using it for a poor argument and not just to stand in for general suckiness like many people do, but the problem is that the metaphor is still not appropriate: you are referring to something which is poorly done, and act that a person has not done well, and comparing it to potentially permanent physical disabilities which are neither the fault of the person with them nor necessarily resultant from that person’s actions.

    And as a culture we have a very long history of blaming people for their physical disabilities: assuming that it must be due to some sort of sin for which they are being punished, due to incompetence, due to whatever. But this is not generally true, and using “lame” to refer to something a human being does poorly has these implications.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    While in general agreement, I don’t see any terms in the proffered “suggested replacements” for ableist words that I would use to, say, describe the intellectual capacities or reasoning skills of, e.g., Louis Gohmert, Sarah Palin, or Steve King.

  6. says

    It seems to me that any “insult” gets its power from being wrong. If someone called me, “curly haired!” it would have no power to wound. In order to be insulting, an insult has to liken the target inappropriately to something else – generally negative. I don’t expect that if someone called me “brilliant” I’d be insulted, but I might be if someone called me “foolish.” In other words, truth doesn’t have much ability to hurt, where hurt comes in is because it’s a lie.

    If you accept that argument, then the only appropriate insults or slurs that can be thrown are ones that are true or extensions of the truth. One might call a person we considered an authoritarian a “bootlicker” and, then, the power of our insult is not necessarily stemming from its untruth, but rather that we’ve stretched a truth past the point where it remains true. After all, I suppose a real authoritarian who literally licked the darklord’s boots might smile cheerfully if called a “bootlicker” – the power of that term to wound is because that’s exactly the stereotype we’re invoking and applying on our authoritarian. But are we actually being unfair to any self-actualized bootlickers by knowingly likening someone, inappropriately, to them? That’s the underlying dynamic with all ableist insults, after all.

    I’m pretty convinced that there really aren’t any “moral” insults that work at all; if you want to show someone you disapprove of them, the only moral way of doing so is to be honest – and if your honesty hurts your target, then that really is their problem, as long as your descriptive term (intended as abuse) is delivered in good faith. In which case it’s not really “abuse” it’s an ungently-delivered statement of fact.

    I can imagine any insult that is not true, being insulting because it’s forming an invidious false comparison. Calling someone a “fucker” might be hurtful to the asexuals. Calling someone a “fool” might be hurtful to the foolish who are aware of it and don’t like being used as a stereotype of a Bad Thing. Rule #5 covers a huge amount of ground. I think I’d go so far as to say that it’s impssible to insult someone at all without violating it.

    I agree with you, in other words. The challenge is not to be merely insulting but to, where appropriate, flay opponents with the truth, perhaps poetically applied.

    • says

      Incorrect. If someone is actually behaving foolishly, calling them foolish rightly shames them, and communicates to those observing that foolish behavior is shameful (a double effect). That is why we have the emotion of shame to begin with. That’s its evolved social function.

      Even if the target does not believe or realize or admit they are behaving in some shameful way, they still are, and so the insult still applies (even if it only educates the observer and merely generates unwarranted outrage in the target instead of shame). As long as the insult is still true. But in most actual cases, the target knows it’s true (whether fully consciously, or just deeply enough to feel it), and that’s when it hurts even more. Because it ought to.

      But I must note again, we have to distinguish circumstances defined by rule 4: insults only have their place in certain contexts. I have discussed this several times in comments upthread so I won’t belabor the point. I just wanted to remind people of the point here.

  7. Smhll says

    Within the realm of skepticism, it’s probably more important to say of something “that isn’t true” or “that isn’t proven”, than “that’s stupid”. I guess in common English usage we often use the word “stupid” in rather sloppy way.

  8. Pen says

    insults are appropriate when they are genuinely appropriate (because, in short, human happiness would be destroyed if we didn’t marginalize that which can destroy it)

    I used to believe this, but I don’t any more, mostly on the grounds that it is ineffective. I don’t believe the insulted person is likely to change their ways and this style of marginalisation leaves them loose and likely to continue in their ways or even intensify them in revenge. I believe there is research suggesting that even the most harmful people are not conscious of their badness, and tend to rationalise their behaviour. As such they can’t distinguish themselves from people who have been insulted wrongly and they react accordingly. Some people or behaviours are so dangerous to human happiness that they need to be marginalised by physical isolation or forbidden by rules or other restraints. But like physical abuse, verbal abuse is not justified or effective. I hope you will consider this possibility.

    • says

      First, you are committing a fallacy of false generalization: just because there are people who don’t realize their error or don’t feel shame, does not mean no one does. Especially when someone comes upon shaming behavior repeatedly from multiple sources over time. This is going to eat at them eventually. Or it will marginalize them by driving them away. Either is a win.

      Second, insults do not only serve the purpose of changing the target. Insults serve several other social functions, as I have discussed in comments upthread. See, for example, my discussion here.

      Third, punishments have to be proportional. We can’t go from zero consequences directly to jail or execution. There is a whole continuum of social punishment in between, and insults and ridicule are a part of that spectrum, and especially appropriate when nonviolent protest is desired, not physical restraint or any other use of force.

  9. says

    This all seems too convoluted and too easy to screw up. I would rather (and using the Nazis as an example here) take the tactics Albert Camus uses in his “Letters to a German Friend” (Resistance, Rebellion, and Death), and calmy and politely explain why destructive people and their destructive belief systems are in fact wrong and destructive. It’s like arguing with spouses and coworkers: the second they get you mad and spewing venom, they’ve won the argument in the eyes of most bystanders, no matter what happened before that. People are illogical and it sucks, but *sigh* that’s reality. Why not take the opportunity to demonstrate emotional, moral, and intellectual superiority when dealing with opponents?

    • says

      This all seems too convoluted and too easy to screw up.

      Welcome to life. Moral reality is complicated. It’s usually the religious who falsely imagine moral decisions are always simple.

      Social interaction in general, and moral behavior specifically, is a complex social skill that must be studied and trained at and habituated over time.

      Once you realize that, you can get to work on developing that skill, the same way you would any other, from cooking to accounting.

      As to “taking the opportunity to demonstrate emotional, moral, and intellectual superiority,” by all means, go for it. When you think it will actually work, or is actually applicable to the case.

  10. Jim says

    “(1) What you are ridiculing must actually be true.
    (2) What you are ridiculing must actually be ridiculous.
    (3) Ridicule must be judicious and selective and not overdone.
    (4) The context and venue must be appropriate.”

    These are all massively subjective. As such, as guidelines they are utterly useless. You might as well replace them with a single principle.

    1. Whatever I think is okay to insult/ridicule is okay and whatever I don’t think is okay to insult/ridicule is not okay.

    There’s absolutely no way you can take these guidelines, apply them to a circumstance and come to a consistent conclusion independent of personal preference.

    • silent_observer says

      Of course, that is what he has been doing all the while. Calling people “dicks” while taking offense at “cunts”. What he feels is okay should be okay in general, but what others say or do is very very obnoxious and *choose from privilege/misogyny/abusive/hateful* :-|

  11. canikickit says

    A very good post. Some of it will require further contemplation on my part, but in general I agree with what you have said. I think that one of the reasons many of these terms are thrown about with wild abandon is that passionate discourse often leads to punitive communication rather than constructive communication. I am certainly guilty of this as well, especially when dealing with extremely reprehensible ideas; it is generally easier and faster to condemn the person (using insults that do not conform to the rules) rather than invest a significant amount of time to convince them to change their mind, (which is a low probability outcome to boot). Anyways, thanks for the post.

  12. hoary puccoon says

    Having hemiplegic cerebral palsy, I have sometimes been hit with, “cripple,” “gimp,” and– a word I really loathe– “spaz.” I never thought “lame” in the context of, say, “a lame excuse” referred to anything physical, about me or anyone else.

    The interesting thing to me is, though, my CP is mild and usually people just ignore it. When people start harping on it, it *always* means there’s something else going on. I got hit with some extreme ableist prejudice when I was finishing my PhD dissertation. My tormenter was a man who was *not* finishing his own dissertation. His inability was going to have drastic consequences on his career and life, too.

    So, all of a sudden, the important thing he wanted everyone to see about me was that I had a funny walk. The fact that I was completing a dissertation the faculty admired, and doing it in a timely manner supposedly had nothing to do with it.

    And that’s the nasty thing about slurs. They’re so instrumental. Calling a woman ugly means you don’t have to listen to her logic. Calling the minority group member by a slur word means you don’t have to admit they have a point.

    People *may* use slurs innocently, because they’ve never thought about it. But when they keep it up, it always, *always* means they’ve got some other agenda.

    • says

      That’s well worth pointing out.

      I have a tangential question, since you bring up the word “spaz”: if I suddenly do something really clumsy, someone might playfully exclaim “spaz!” Would that affect you if you were present? Or would you see it as, not being directed at you, just playful banter? Or something else? I don’t generally use the word myself, but I know people who do, who probably have no conception of it even having anything to do with CP, so it would be helpful to have insider input about that.

  13. dorfl says

    Overall, I agree with this. Especially about “stupid”, “moron”, etc being ableist terms, even though they’re terms most of us are accustomed to using.

    I have one objection/question, though: does your distinction between “insult” and “slur” match how most people actually use those words? I’m not a native English speaker, so I could be completely wrong, but I’ve got the impression that those terms tend to be used more or less interchangeably, and you usually argue that we should try to use words the way they’re defined in everyday language.

    • says

      Those words will have numerous connotations, yes. And they are frequently interchangeable, as you detect. Although “slur” is sometimes used to mean an unwarranted insult (i.e. a slander), or a vulgar insult (and in either connotation would be a subset of all insults), or either (making a combined subset of all insults). I’m using “slur” in a subset of that latter sense: an unwarranted or vulgar insult that is associated with bigotry. I did that for lack of any other word to use and its proximity to the use I already had in mind. But my definition probably falls under what I call stipulation more than lexical reference (Sense and Goodness without God II.2.2.1, pp. 35-37). You needn’t use it that way; it’s just a convenient placeholder here for whatever word would have been better, had there been one.

  14. Tanya2 says

    Unfortunately, Dick, you delted your insulting commens.

    You did this to cover your tracks so if any of these posts are looked at later readers won’t get the full iimpact of what you did.

    That was Willfully Intellectually Dishonest.

    Do you seriously think people don’t see this?

    • says

      Since I left up posts saying what I did, and apologizing for it, and even posts quoting the examples, you are clearly the one keen on lying. I have not covered up anything.

      I only edited (not deleted) the insults themselves because that was the right thing to do. Those words were inappropriate, as this very article explains, and should be replaced with more appropriate vocabulary.

  15. Orion3T says

    Good post. I personally disagree with your overall position on using insults and ridicule – in the sense that I’m not sufficiently convinced of their utility that I will deliberately use them myself. But for now I want to concentrate on ‘lame’.

    Firstly, I should point out that your defense of the word seems to rest on its use when describing an argument, yet you did actually use the word when referring to a person (Will.i.am) as well. So I think you would have to accept that you actually do (or perhaps used to) apply it more liberally than you are/were perhaps aware. Moving on…

    Our basic disagreement here seems to be that you think it fits in the same category as ‘blind’, such that when used to refer to someone’s visual or observational acuity is correct and reasonable use of the term according to any definition we have heard of. If there’s any conflation there (e.g. moral blindness vs visual blindness), it’s slight*. If I understand you correctly, you would contend that ‘lame’ similarly has a clear definition which can correctly and accurately be applied to both people or animals with mobility issues, and to arguments.

    I would contend that the word ‘lame’ is being used in 2 different definitions, and that the latter definition originated due to ableist assumptions and stereotyping and should be considered unacceptable. The several online and physical dictionaries I have checked support this contention.

    A quick online reference: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/lame

    My Collins dictionary more precisely states:

    1. Lame: 1. Disabled or crippled in the legs or feet. 2. Painful or weak. 3. Weak:unconvincing.

    And a medical definition:

    lame (lām) incapable of normal locomotion; deviating from normal gait.
    Dorland’s Medical Dictionary for Health Consumers. © 2007 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.

    So my contention is that there are different definitions which are being conflated. In one sense the word has a fairly specific medical application which affects many people with mobility issues. In the other sense it can be used to mean weak, ineffective, useless and so on. I also believe the latter definition developed because people to whom definition 1 was applied were stereotyped as ‘useless and ineffective’. But I’m not a linguist, so while this seems highly plausible to me I don’t have evidence to support it offhand.

    Which of these definitions are you (or anyone else who uses it similarly) really using when you say “That argument is lame”? There is certainly no physical impairment going on here, no legs or feet are involved. The medical definition is excluded. But I think you mean more than just ‘unsatisfactory’ too. You mean “weak or less able to get from here to there”.

    In other words you have conflated definition 1 with definition 3, or are giving the latter definition precedence over the first (as in, we describe people as ‘lame’ because their leg/feet are ‘weak and unconvincing’ which seems problematic to me). And that’s the exact reason that people who are medically lame (not just ‘lame in the leg’ because lameness by itself specifies leg or foot mobility) are being wrongly and unfairly associated with bad ideas and bad arguments. In your words, this breaks Rule 5. Certainly when you suggest people might consider Will.i.am to be ‘lame’, but also when you indirectly associate their medical condition with bad arguments and ideas.

    Now I accept this is not absolutely clear and decisively argued, but I think it at least should give grounds for concern. We could go into dates and Old English roots and so on but I really don’t think this is necessary, nor am I qualified to do so.

    Here’s why we shouldn’t need to:

    1. Describing an argument or idea as ‘lame’ is vacuous, in that it just says you think it’s a bad argument/idea but gives no indication of why. There are many far better words which will convey not only that an argument is bad, but why it’s bad. e.g. Fallacious, vacuous, incoherent, impractical or perhaps just ‘bad’ or ‘unconvincing’, no doubt there are many more I haven’t thought of. If you were to contend that you wanted to insult or ridicule the argument/idea, then your defense of ‘I’m using the word literally’ falls apart – you are using a medical term purely to insult and ridicule. And if you really can’t easily think of a more precise and accurate way to describe why you reject an idea/argument, then that might be an indication you need to take the argument/idea more a bit seriously than you are immediately inclined.

    2. Whether you or I find it offensive or not, and no matter how we use the word, it IS used to bully people with genuine disabilities, by people who see the word used all the time and think nothing of it. Do you think the kid in the playground who has a limp won’t get called ‘lame’ and find it hurtful? Where do the other kids using the word hear it and think it’s OK? Why do their parents use it? Do you think nobody who reads your blog has been bullied by the use of that word and would rather not see it repeatedly used to describe bad arguments? (to say nothing of it’s use referring to people)

    When someone proudly assures me that words like “lame” and “dumb” and “r#tarded” are never used to describe actual people with disabilities, I’m fairly certain I’m talking to one of the currently non-disabled. Currently non-disabled readers, I’m here to tell you: those words, and any similar words you think are “archaic” and not used anymore, are used all the time, as taunts and insults towards people with disabilities, and in some cases as official diagnoses.

    http://disabledfeminists.com/2010/05/24/ableist-word-profile-why-i-write-about-ableist-language/

    I think the reasons I have given are more than sufficient to convince me to avoid the term in conversation, to not use it as an insult, and to seek better more precise and descriptive terms when writing. And I really don’t see a good defense to the contrary. I see excuses and rationalizations to continue using a particular word because it’s easy and doesn’t require much thought.

    Sorry for the textbomb, thanks for reading.

    *I think ‘blind’ and ‘blinded’ could also be misused, but that’s less clear to me… along with other ‘sight’ references they are really deeply embedded into our vocabulary. So lets examine one thing at a time.

    • says

      Which of these definitions are you (or anyone else who uses it similarly) really using when you say “That argument is lame”? There is certainly no physical impairment going on here, no legs or feet are involved.

      Nor are there any eyes or photons involved in moral or ideological blindness.

      Describing an argument or idea as ‘lame’ is vacuous, in that it just says you think it’s a bad argument/idea but gives no indication of why.

      Context is usually clear, so it is not vacuous at all. See the Urban Dictionary link I provided.

      Do you think the kid in the playground who has a limp won’t get called ‘lame’ and find it hurtful?

      Likewise if they are called loser, douchebag, ugly, dufus, dork, and various other words that rightly have valid uses in other contexts. The mere fact of a word having a hurtful use does not make it wrong to ever use it.

      “He can’t play with us, because he’s blind!” can be said with just as much malice and be just as hurtful. That does not condemn the word “blind” to the status of “retarded.”

      Even when “lame” is used in the sense of “boring/square” (as when people call Will.i.am lame) there is no connotation of malice or denigration of people with a limp and the word is not as pointlessly triggering as “retarded.”

      We must also remember that there is a difference between a word used as an insult, and a word used in some other context and connotation.

      Hence, as I said, usually “there is simply nothing reprehensible about being lame, even metaphorically,” i.e. that some people think “Will.i.am lame is lame” does not mean they think he is a bad person or less than human or any such thing, it just means they think he’s a square, and thus uninteresting. Does that mean they think, or are even implying, that people with a limp are boring or uninteresting? No more than they think or imply that blind people are also morally and ideologically blind when they use metaphors of moral or ideological blindness. Which is to say, not at all.

      By contrast, calling someone (or even something) “retarded” does imply that being retarded (in the clinical sense) is bad or less than human (which is why it violates rule 5). “Retarded” also has a much harsher history of abuse (like gimp or crip, which are now to lame as retarded is to dumb or stupid, and yet even dumb and stupid are harsher than lame). And it references the trait of being intellectually disabled, and thus attaches denigration to a lack of intelligence, a quality of a person as a person, not a mere limp. Reminding someone that they are lame is not insulting (or ought not be, any more than reminding someone they are blind). Needlessly reminding them that they are intellectually disabled, however, can be.

      The word “retarded” is also widely abused: being used of people who aren’t in fact intellectually disabled (such as people who “look” a certain way or have other mental disabilities or quirks) and in the actual intended sense of intellectually disabled, i.e. people with autism will be called retarded, fully intending that to mean stupid, which is simply false. Much of the awfulness of the word’s reputation also comes from this use, which especially hurts because it is false, and communicates that people think false things about you. Lame does not have such a use (people who are not lame are not usually maliciously insulted as being physically lame when they are not).

      It is for all of these reasons that “lame” is simply not equivalent to, for example, “gimp” or “crip.” Which words also, obviously, have no normal non-pejorative meaning (unlike lame, e.g. “a lame horse” is not a pejorative), and non-pejorative metaphors can legitimately derive from non-pejorative usages.

      Some words are just worse than others, by the happenstance of historical contingencies and logic of use. And reasonable people must take this into account.

  16. Moderatating voice says

    Nice to see you stepping back from hurling abuse at anybody who questions the FtB party line. Will your fellow bloggers stick to this do you think?

    • says

      If you genuinely care, then if ever you think they don’t, then in a reasonable and polite way show them how they have transgressed one of the six rules (directing them to this blog for those rules) and begin a discussion about whether they agree with those six rules or that they transgressed them. Then continue reasoned debate from there.

      But the key step is demonstrating they have transgressed a rule. Not just claiming they have.

  17. Lue C says

    One of the criterion assembled is prone to individualistic interpretation, for example: “What you are ridiculing must actually be ridiculous” is incredibly ambiguous, it could be restated to be a follow-on from a statement that goes against evidence or fact rather than, from what it appears, to be in contrary to your own degree of ridiculousness. Almost analogous to an individual’s opinion on art. I know that’s bordering on fatuous but that may be an objection.

    In terms of using insults against an opponent or a fellow debater, I can’t see the benefit in doing so without either denigrating their sense of respect (if there is any present) for the content of your argument which is an inverted form of poisoning the well, or forfeiting one’s own ability to control oneself. There’s a very fine line and you have put it eloquently when offence can be taken at any phrase which may have once been a slander or is currently used to demonize or put down another person, be it for a physical or mental disability which may or may not be present in the person.

    It’s best, rather than hurling abuse or insults at the opponent, to focus on the argument and there are ways to ridicule the opponent through his use of argumentation. The use of reductio ad absurdum is a suitable choice that can resonate with the opponent but doesn’t offend him/her personally or from which he/she could use to slander your character rather than the argument. It’s less hassle to just handle the argument rather than highlight the faults of the person because there is hardly any good that can come from it. The ‘AmazingAtheist’ is often charged with offending people using vulgar words or phrases and this can detract the effectiveness of his argumentation which is often quite sound.

    This is rather innocuous response but I’m just giving my opinion on matters such as these.

    • says

      If there is an actual reasonable argument to address, certainly. Insults then violate rule 4. But as you’ll see from comments upthread, that’s not the context we’re always in.

      However, the irrational move of rejecting an argument because it employs colloquial language like “fucked” (for example) is not commendable and such irrationality is something we ought to combat, not acquiesce to.

      The world will be a better place without language taboos and classist assumptions that people who use f-words (etc.) are uneducated or unintelligent or not making sound arguments just because their argument contains a particular syllable.

      Sometimes we need to war against irrational assumptions.

  18. says

    Good post, thank you for breaking this apart and starting this conversation.

    I disagree with you here:
    “When I say someone is lame (or being lame or doing something lame), I am not saying they are physically lame, nor am I insulting people who are physically lame, since I am using the word in the connotation relating to quality of thought or argument (or art or style), not physical ability–I’m not even referring to the disability at all; a lame thought is not a lame leg.”

    To my ear, calling someone “lame” is a generic insult that they are undesirable in some unspecified manner, to be inferred from the context. It is equivalent in meaning, in this context, to “you suck”, “you’re gay”, “that’s retarded”, and so on. Used as generic insults, these words are stripped of their specific meanings, either partially or entirely, and instead mean only that this person or thing is undesirable. This implies to lame people that they are generally undesirable, in the same way that calling bad things “gay” does.

    You compared it to “blind”. Saying “you’re blind” is not stripped of specific meaning, it does not imply that the person is generally undesirable, only that they are metaphorically not seeing something. Likewise, “child” does not imply general undesirability, but some lack of maturity specifically.

    It is the ability to use “lame” as a generic insult that makes it a slur in my opinion unless it is clear from the context that only an impairment of actual or metaphorical mobility is implied. “Their PR representative was inept at public relations, and singled-handedly rendered their movement lame.” Not a slur. “That movement is lame.” Slur. You might have meant that the movement is metaphorically impaired, but that isn’t clear, and the statement could just as easily be equivalent to “That movement sucks.”

    Thoughts? Also, how do I create the quote block thing on these forums?

    • says

      [Lame] is equivalent in meaning, in this context, to “you suck”, “you’re gay”, “that’s retarded”, and so on.

      This is not proper commutative logic. “Gay” and “retarded” are bad for reason A, and reason A does not apply to “lame.” The fact that “your argument is irrational” and “your argument is retarded” are equivalent in meaning does not commute the injury of “retarded” to the word “irrational.” The entire English language would be abolished by such reasoning.

      It is also incorrect to over-generalize a meaning and then use that to make another improper commutation. For example, being “morally blind” and being “retarded” (when used as an insult) are both used in the sense of “bad,” but you cannot use that conjunction as grounds to condemn the phrase “morally blind” as being just like “retarded.” By that logic, you can never say anything is bad, since all declarations that something is bad about someone are equivalent to calling them “retarded.” That’s a false equivalence.

      In contrast:

      You compared it to “blind”. Saying “you’re blind” is not stripped of specific meaning, it does not imply that the person is generally undesirable, only that they are metaphorically not seeing something.

      Saying “you’re lame” is not stripped of specific meaning, it does not imply that the person is generally undesirable, only that they are metaphorically not doing something well.

      See how that works? Note my other comments on this subject upthread, too.

      P.S. On how to quoteblock: your browser should show you the “reply” text-entry box with a list above it of usable HTML codes, among which is: blockquote cite=”” (in angle brackets). That is gratuitous (and IMO just makes people more confused), since you just need the word “BLOCKQUOTE” in angle brackets. You put that at the front of the quote, and then at the end you repeat that code string only with a / in front of the word (the symbol for “close” or “end” as in “close blockquote” or “end blockquote”). You can also use the I in angle brackets for “italics” and so on.

    • says

      That happened here.

      Although I suspect you mean by “reprehensible behavior” only behavior you don’t like, and not just behavior that was actually demonstrably wrong. “I don’t like you, so you should apologize for that.” That’s not what I’m going to apologize for. But demonstrate I’ve transgressed my own principles, and I’ll apologize for it. (And just FYI, merely claiming is not demonstrating.)

  19. ACuriousMind says

    A well reasoned post as always, and mostly very on spot.

    There is one problem with the notion of “stupid” as an ableist insult, though, when combined with your reasoning on the usage of “lame”, “blind” and others, and I would like to hear your (or other commenters’) opinion on it:

    In all of public human discourse, and especially so in the discourse within atheist/sceptic/rationalist spheres, we expect all participants to be endowed with an ability to recognize good arguments and, as well, fallacies. This requires an non-neglegible mental capacity, an understanding of logical and scientific rigor, an ability to follow premises to their necessary conclusions. In short, we expect all people to be endowed with reason (or intelligence, I won’t quibble over minor semantics here).

    Truly “stupid” people – that is, those with an actual mental deficiency in their reasoning skills – are (to some degree) unable to provide that mental alacrity that is required for rational discourse. So, upon encountering someone who has evidently failed to grasp a well-presented, logical argument, would it not be just as justified to call him “stupid” as it would be to call someone who did not see something “blind”? Just as the one who has overlooked something is called “blind”, the one who has not shown reason is called “stupid”. One exhibited deficiency is physical, the other mental, but that should not make any difference in our assessment of the basic process of calling someone X, where X is usually used for an actual disability (or should it? If yes, why?).

    So, should all comparisons to disabled people be vilified? Should none? Or have I drawn a false analogy somewhere in here?

    • says

      Certainly “stupid” is less offensive than “retarded,” for example. So its abuse can be excused more often. And I’m sure I’ll fall into its use unthinkingly in oral conversation from time to time. But I’ll still try to police it.

      But that aside, generally, when you are accusing someone of being stupid you don’t really mean they lack the ability to reason, but that they are not using the ability to reason that they have. It is thus not really an accurate term even in that metaphorical context. Indeed, such a metaphor implies that the mentally disabled are at fault for not reasoning as well as you would like; whereas when calling someone “stupid” metaphorically, your assumed intention should actually be that the behavior can be corrected. Calling someone “stupid” instead seems to deny that possibility.

      There are also other issues, like word-use history, that make a difference. See my remarks here.

      And I should also mention again that there is a difference between contexts of insult vs., for example, private exclamations in select company, but even then perhaps we should try habituating ourselves into talking about people as “they are being stupid” or “what they are doing is stupid” rather than “they are stupid,” precisely to reinforce the distinctions you are talking about.

    • ACuriousMind says

      But that aside, generally, when you are accusing someone of being stupid you don’t really mean they lack the ability to reason, but that they are not using the ability to reason that they have. It is thus not really an accurate term even in that metaphorical context. Indeed, such a metaphor implies that the mentally disabled are at fault for not reasoning as well as you would like; whereas when calling someone “stupid” metaphorically, your assumed intention should actually be that the behavior can be corrected. Calling someone “stupid” instead seems to deny that possibility.

      Couldn’t you just say the same of “blind”? If someone does not find his keys which are right in front of him, or does not see the solution to a really easy problem, one would call that person “blind”, and certainly would not be implying that that person is lacking the ability to see, but that they are not using it. And I obviously would hope that their “blindness” can be corrected, very unlike real blindness. How can “blind” be accurate in such a metaphorical context (which it has to be in order to be justifiedly used, if I understand you correctly), but “stupid” not?

    • says

      The scenario you are talking about is (hopefully) not one of insulting someone, so it isn’t relevant here. I assume you aren’t condemning someone as blind in that case, but just ribbing them. Analogously, if you said “don’t be stupid!” in a similarly playful way, and not as an insult (“clearly you are too stupid to get the point!”), then it doesn’t fall under the context of my discussion (see the closing note in the article where I make this clear).

      The word “retarded” differs from stupid at precisely this demarcation point, since even as a playful rib it can cause serious harm to someone in earshot (for reasons I have explained in the article and even further in comments as well).

    • ACuriousMind says

      You are right, I somehow lost track of the fact that we are talking about insults here. Your explanations make perfect sense.

  20. mildlymagnificent says

    Coming as I do to FtB as a bit of respite from the climate wars, I’m inclined to view “mad as a box of frogs” or “dumb as a bag of hammers” as pretty acceptable insults for the incoherent ravings of some of the denialists. “All the charm of a sticky doorknob” sometimes comes to my mind but I’ve never seen it used.

    I’d be happy to see such expressions in posts by FtBloggers when describing some of the more outrageous pronouncements of some public figures. Not so sure how I’d view them in exchanges between and about commenters. Have to think more about that.

  21. says

    One word you use which always bothers me is “douchebag”. Sure, a douche is a medical implement which may be used to rinse any body cavity, but it usually is understood to refer to a vaginal rinse, and thus assumes, first, that owners of vaginas are reprehensible, and second, falsely, that a douche contains effluent rather than clean rinsing fluid (water+) and is therefore “icky”.

    That nitpick aside, I appreciate this post. You have set things out so clearly that I. too, am going to have to modify my vocabulary. (I’ve been yelling at unsafe, “owner of the road” drivers, “Idiot!” In the privacy of my car, of course, but still, it reinforces a pernicious habit of mind.) Thank you.

  22. Robert says

    Bravo, Mr. Carrier. It is quite a treat to see something so sensible written so well – and online, at that!

  23. Benjamin Cevantis Xavier says

    Hey Richard. Interesting stuff to think about.

    It made me think of what it would be like to be raised with white supremacist ideas. I imagine that being ridiculed and treated badly by people would just make me feel more solidarity with my own group and thereby less of an incentive to change what I think or feel. But isn’t it conceivable that some might change their mind when someone is empathetic about why they think the way they do, and engages with them on that level? Of course they wouldn’t change their mind right away – no one ever does, people just don’t work that way. But a gentle influence on someone can make a huge difference down the line I think.

    Then I thought of the people who ridicule them, because they find it offensive, and imagine that it will harm human happiness. My feeling is that if some guy down the street is a Nazi, I think he’s nuts, but I don’t want to insult him or anything, and I really don’t imagine that he will ever affect my happiness. If he did threaten me, then I’d choose another neighborhood to live in. In the grand scheme of things, he’s just a guy with crazy ideas, no?

    I suppose if crazy ideas gained prominence then things wouldn’t look as rosy as they do, but what makes crazy ideas gain prominence? My intuition tells me the lack of people ridiculing them is not REALLY it. I think the causation may be something akin to the reverse.

    Maybe the fact that for tens of thousands of years humans have lived in such small groups where the thoughts and consequent actions of those around us could affect us very significantly plays into it somehow. I think shame may have had a much more meaningful dynamic in that context – but the world has changed dramatically.

    Those are just my initial thoughts, but it’s something I’ll definitely continue to think about. Thanks for the post.

  24. says

    I would like to add that it always helps your insult/ridicule if they are actually funny and insightful. As the you imply in the title there is an Art to the Insult. One great way to tell if someone is a legitimate asshole or someone who can be reached is if you can, through your well crafted ridicule, get them to laugh at themselves.

    Also, self deprecation is the soul of all humor, if you can make ridicule to seem to include yourself you make it easier for others to take it in.

    Just my 2 cents…
    PS… you wrote all that overnight? What are you Richard, a Mentat? ;)

  25. SoulmanZ says

    I am happy you have come to the conclusion that ableist language is bad, but you sure used a lot of words to do it.

    A far simpler rule is “if someone from an oppressed group tells you to stop using a word you can easily replace, just do it”. What are you losing? By even making this a “I am dissecting the issue, rather than believing you oppressed people” you risk dismissing their concerns.

    It is really not hard. “That lame idea” becomes “that bad idea”. Everyone feels like they got listened to, in a movement that is aiming to be inclusive.

  26. AV says

    Ok, so now you have written out the guidelines how to proper insult people in the name of A+, nice. (Btw you do know you’ve stolen the symbol from Richard Dawkins’ Atheists help?) So it’s not ok to call people sertain names, but others are ok. Good to know.

    But the whole “We and them” approach is still a go? I can either join the bandwagon or I’m you enemy, better be out of your way or prepared to be fought? Then I wonder by what requirements is a person allowed on board. Who are the missfits, and who decides who to throw out or not? Are you the judge if I repented good enough for my sins, to be let in the enlightned halls of community or if I am deemed to the suers of darkness? By what standards has a person been convinced to be wrong and should change his/her mind, not to be told GTFO? Yours?

    You know seting up a higher standard to sort “the good guys from the bad” takes a lot of thinking, and I think your actions have run a little ahead of your thoughts. Lets take an example so you can judge my worthyness of glory.

    – I do care about social justice, but I might have other ways to adress isues in the society than you.

    – I do support women’s rights, infact I support mens rights as well. For an equal society we have to adress issues for both sexes. I do not support the new feminist way of blaming everything on “white previliged men” (“So STFU, you don’t know what it is to be oppressed”), victimizing all women as always acted upon. Sometimes boys/men is being act upon and women are them self to blame for their situation.

    – I do protest racism, from all sides. It’s not ok to attack white people either, just because most people on the top are white. Apex fallacy.

    – I do fight homophobia and transphobia. And I don’t accept prejudice against vanilla cis people either. I don’t care who people join bed with, so don’t make assertions about me for prefer the opposite sex as most people do.

    – I do use critical thinking and skepticism. Including statements from you and your analyses of the world and how to make it better.

    So did I make the cut or should I join the dark side with the filth at the bottom?
    Before you make your final judgement on my soul:
    I also coop very well with religious people who care for social issues. Even with marxists, anarchist, UFO watchers, right wing and others if we just can find a common goal to work for. I don’t have to aggree on everything to get along with people. I’m affraid that last one makes me a heretic, does it?

    So what’s the verdict? Am I in or out?

    Maybe I should join Groucho Marx: I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.

    • says

      This comment is not thread-relevant. That violates my comments policy. But I’ll let it through because I’m nice. Your answer is here.

      (For future reference, a comment like this belongs in one of the actual threads I started about Atheism+. General rule: think “what am I responding to?” then choose a blog post that’s about that.)

  27. says

    Can you elaborate on 2, “What you are ridiculing must actually be ridiculous?”

    How is it sensical to suggest that something can “actually” be ridiculous? To say something is “ridiculous” reduces to the fact that a person can or has ridiculed it. But, people can and do ridicule anything. So I guess my question is, who’s to say what’s “actually” ridiculous? I mean, you think the idea of God is ridiculous, but more people find atheism ridiculous.

    How do you approach these problems?

    • says

      In the meta-sense, it is, like you say, just what you find ridiculous.

      But in a reality-based sense, that which is properly ridiculous is only that which a rationally-thinking person will find ridiculous about what is factually true. The two pronged test is that you can’t be drawing fallacious inferences from the facts, and then ridiculing the target based on those false inferences; and second, you can’t be drawing inferences from falsehoods, and then ridicule the target based on those unsound inferences (even if what you are ridiculing is in all other respects true about them, e.g. they really are being x, and you are ridiculing x).

      So, for example, being irrational is properly ridiculous. But being reasonable is not. Because a rational person (firmly grounded in reality) will never find being reasonable to be ridiculous.

      (Well, I can think of an exception: in the course of a game in which the rules demand players be unreasonable or silly in some way, in which case being reasonable is ridiculous because it is actually unreasonable to be reasonable when you agreed not to be or are not supposed to be. But even then we would not “insult” a person breaking that rule in a shaming sense, we’d just make fun of them in a lighthearted way. Because that’s not reprehensible, it’s just funny.)

  28. Asa says

    Thanks so much for this post, Dr. Carrier. To be honest, I considered not even reading this post because I thought I knew where I stood on these types of issues, but when I read this, I felt challenged when you explained how we need to use insults that are actually true of the person we are insulting. I have used “stupid” and “retarded” to insult people in situations where I thought they were justified, but once I thought about it clearly, I noticed that I really wouldn’t despise someone for actually being stupid. I also thought about several close friends of mine who are not intelligent, but whom I do not deeply despise for being so. I had felt uncomfortable using words like this before, but I couldn’t piece together why I felt this way until now.

    From now on, I will make an effort to only mock or insult that which I am really criticizing (being hypocritical, causing harm, being selfish, etc.) without using words that are cruel to good, kind people that I know…

  29. says

    Are you familiar with Jonathan Haidt’s recent work that showed how demonization and marginalization are leading to problems in how people think?

    We have a bias called “the Halo Effect” where we tend to take people more seriously if we are already prone to view them as “one of us” or “one of the good guys” and we tend to be dismissive towards outsiders. This is magnified when we insult, marginalize, and demonize “outsiders.” The studies indicate that we need to try harder to not demonize and marginalize in general.

    I am not against naming and shaming. If someone does something you think is wrong, go ahead and let them know. But it is a safer bet to stay away from outright insults and so on. We tend to be wrong about those we think deserve such things. We tend to be very bad about knowing when it is appropriate.

    • says

      Haidt shows two different things: first, that shaming behavior works (in exactly the way you describe: it spreads social attitudes, and thus teaches people what to avoid and what to identify with, according to how they see society react to it), and second, that it is socially dysfunctional in the hands of a delusional worldview, e.g. demonizing things based on falsehoods or without rational ground, or substituting demonization for any interest in reasoned discourse or negotiation.

      That’s why it’s so important to train ourselves to think about and take seriously the six rules of moral insult and ridicule.

      It’s like any other technology: it can do tremendous good or tremendous evil, depending on how you use it. Even something so simple as the invention of steel can give us tools…or swords. Likewise, knowing how to emotionally manipulate people can be used for good (using art and rhetoric to stir appropriate emotional reactions to some fact, e.g. ginning up support for a cause we ought to have sympathy for) or evil (using art and rhetoric to lie or misrepresent, and thus stir emotional reactions contrary to fact, e.g. ginning up support for a cause we actually ought to oppose–and would oppose if left to rationally and dispassionately consider the facts).

      The art of insult and ridicule is the same. Indeed, it becomes amplified in the harm it does when it is not only misused, but overused, and worst of all, when it is overused to the exclusion of all other methods of effecting change or negotiating life with one’s fellow occupants of society.

  30. OlliP says

    One should also consider the possibility of a language barrier existing between people. This is most obvious in the case of ableist words like “lame” and “dumb”. Many if not most non-native english speakers will know only the colloquial meanings of such words. If one wants to be inclusive of non-native english speakers, it is appropriate to set the bar lower for correct word use when one cannot know is the speaker using her/his native language or not. For example in blog comments on the Internet, where you can’t hear a person’s accent. Because of this it is good to first politely educate a speaker about the offensive nature of a word, or ask them if they realize that a word has an offensive connotation.

    I understand that this can be tiresome to native speakers. But try to understand that non-native speakers are having to jump an extra hurdle to take part in conversations about deep and complicated topics, where it can be difficult to express oneself even in the native tongue. So please be patient with us non-native speakers when we use words that have ablist etc. connotations.

  31. John Q Public says

    The phrase, “Quit while your a head” comes to mind.

    Or am I missing the need to add endless labels and banners(which could be seen a exclusion or worst yet proselytizing) as something to hold up while “fighting the fight”?

    I find even the on going argument about this a kin to what Teddy Roosevelt wrote(NY times editorial) about putting “in god we trust” on money. In that it cheapens both…

  32. says

    Thank you, Richard. I am still personally on the fence about “lame” (and in social justice I think the fence should be considered ‘out of bounds’), but this is a shining example of the appropriate (even if it’s fairly extended) response to being called out for privilege-fail.

    You’re one of the best — and possibly the most under-appreciated — voices on FTB. Keep up the good work =D

    (And maybe come give a talk in Vancouver sometime, so that we can partake in your awesomeness? -kitten eyes-)

  33. Drew Hardies says

    I find that when people take offense at insults and ridicule, sometimes they are right to, but often they are relying in their judgment on mistaken assumptions, or are merely in the thrall of unjustified taboos (or are being insincere: claiming offense is a common tactic used in an attempt to silence, or shame or intimidate into silence, someone who says things you don’t like).

    This seems strange to me. Insults are offensive by nature. That’s their point.

    And ‘offense’ is “the state of being insulted or morally outraged”.

    Sometimes people are ineffective at being insulting. But I don’t see how someone can insult someone and then say, “how can you take offense merely because I tried to offend you?”

    • says

      Read the link by Fincke that I directed readers to for context. In the way he and I are using the word, there is a difference between being legitimately offended and not being legitimately offended.

      But certainly, if by “offended” all you mean is the experience of the emotion of taking offense, or the mere fact of something bad being said about you, regardless of whether that offense was deserved or not, then you are using the word differently than I was in the quoted sentence.

      (And in your different sense, then yes, the question would then be whether they correctly detected an insult or not. Which wouldn’t be relevant to the point I was making.)

  34. redpanda says

    I’ve noticed that often in debates online, my opponents will often use any insult at all (no matter how well it fits your criteria) as an excuse to dismiss the rest of my argument. As an example it is often pointless to link to blogs such as Orac or sciencebasedmedicine in a discussion on Alt-med, no matter how relevant or complete their discussion of a topic in question is, because they often litter their posts with insults about the people they’re disagreeing with.

    It often goes something like this:

    He’s an idiot because of A, B, and C. Additionally, he’s either ignorant about or purposely misrepresenting D because that’s not what the theory states at all.

    Rather than respond to points A through D, the response is invariably a sweeping generalization about insults being the only tools in [insert social group here]’s arsenal, and that if we actually had real arguments we’d make them instead of resorting to slander. It’s like people have a pathological inability to parse arguments for substance if they contain insults.

    It seems easier to just mention A B C and D and leave out the idiot/ignorant/liar part, because no matter how true or relevant they are it only seems to get the discussion bogged down and off on a tangent. My experience has been that insults simply make my arguments less likely to be taken seriously by people who aren’t already making an honest attempt to take me seriously.

    • redpanda says

      I guess I didn’t really include much of an argument or question in here, so let me add this:

      Do you find it useful or helpful to specifically point their evasiveness out? Usually when I try to do this the conversation gets so totally sidetracked that it’s difficult to drag it back to the original criticisms (perhaps as you say they are often just being insincere and only wanted to find something to disagree with, rather than actually engage in any meaningfully productive way).

      You clearly don’t have a problem using insults in debates, so I’m curious how you handle people reacting to the insults instead of your less emotionally charged criticisms.

    • says

      In response to your first point, if you are actually engaging in reasoned debate (or attempting to), insults are typically inappropriate. That violates rule 4.

      Insults are for when someone refuses to engage in reasoned debate, mocks reasoned debate, has persistently abandoned being reasonable, or you aren’t engaging them in debate or attempting to persuade them but instead signalling their moral or other failings.

      So I would say that if you have specific goals in mind, it’s not a good idea to use tactics that undermine them. Thus, insults should be used when they serve the goals you have in mind. And not used when they do not.

      But in response to your second point, the first solution is don’t use the self-defeating tactic yourself (so that problem is solved on your end and the situation you describe will never come up as a consequence of your own arguing), which leaves this scenario: person A makes insult-laden argument B and person C rejects B because it was framed as an insult, and you come along and point out to C that A was out of line but still had a valid point in B and and then you ask C “could you please respond to that point?”

      If they keep going on about the insult, just keep calmly repeating your same question (e.g. “Yes, that’s all well and good, but I’m asking you about B. What is your response to B?”). You needn’t address the fallacy they are resorting to. If you keep restating the simple question either they will eventually give up the fallacy or realize it’s a fallacy and go away in shame from the realization that they don’t really have a response to B.

      Note also that I do not use insults in reasoned debates, and certainly never in formal debates. The latter would be a very inappropriate venue (except in the most extreme and outrageous scenarios, which I’ve personally never found myself in). When I use insults, it’s usually because an opponent in a more informal setting (e.g. blog comments) has gone off the rails of reasoned debate and clearly is no longer interested in engaging in that way. Or something like that. Or I am not engaging in a debate, but judgment (as when I am just blogging about someone and what they said or did).

      Don’t confuse, however, insults with mere evaluations. If I say someone incompetently handled a source, I am not trying to insult them, I’m just matter-of-factly describing what I think they did wrong (and I will usually back that up with evidence that they did indeed handle the source incompetently). And that will then be (or be a part of) the actual argument I am making, and not something incidental to it.

      Which comes back to your first post: if person C rejects argument B because A calmly and matter-of-factly framed it as evidence of C’s incompetence (and actually made an argument for that incompetence), then C is being doubly-irrational, not only using the fallacy of “a word that I don’t like makes argument B false” (like you say, a complete non sequitur, which rather puts emotion in the place of reason) but also ignoring the argument for their incompetence. Obviously, if someone presents evidence of your incompetence, you should respond by addressing their argument, not just complaining about the fact that the argument was made.

  35. says

    Excellent post. I find it interesting that, at least to date, none of your detractors on the previous post have bothered to comment on this.

    • says

      I’m sure they will. I just haven’t gotten through the comments moderation queue yet. (The system tells commentators that their comments are awaiting moderation, but doesn’t tell other readers how many comments are awaiting moderation or even that any are, which in my opinion is a design defect of this blogging software.)

      Although, chronologically, none commented before you did. So even if I’d cleared the queue right away, you still would not have seen the kind of comments you are wondering about. But it was the weekend. They probably had more fun things to do.

    • Dana says

      I won’t jump up and down yelling “I’m First! HAHAHAH! In your FACE, other commentors!”, but you know I’m thinking it.

  36. says

    It seems strange that you said NOT to use the word “retarded” and then used the word “retarded” – as in “genuinely retarded people”.

    Did you mean developmentally disabled?

    Intellectually, learning or cognitively disabled?

    Of course, generally those terms aren’t even used much, but the specific diagnosis is.

    • says

      You must not have visited the hyperlink on my first use of “mentally retarded.” It is still a valid clinical term in medical use. My use in the case you mention is in that sense and not intended as an insult. And my link explains in detail the other point you wanted to make (that there are a lot of different kinds of disabilities covered by that umbrella term, and often not the kind of disabilities people who use the term as an insult even have in mind).

    • DanniHouse says

      I was just about to mention that your basing that on the DSM IV which was made in the nineties.

      Also according to the the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities,
      “Intellectual Disability is the preferred term [as opposed to “mentally retarded], it takes time for language that is used in legislation, regulation, and even for the names of organizations, to change.”

      The full statement by them is below as part of their FAQ.

      Is Intellectual Disability The Same As Mental Retardation? Why Do Programs Still Say Mental Retardation?

      The term Intellectual Disability covers the same population of individuals who were diagnosed previously with Mental Retardation in number, kind, level, type, duration of disability, and the need of people with this disability for individualized services and supports. Furthermore, every individual who is or was eligible for a diagnosis of Mental Retardation is eligible for a diagnosis of Intellectual Disability. While Intellectual Disability is the preferred term, it takes time for language that is used in legislation, regulation, and even for the names of organizations, to change.

      http://www.aaidd.org/content_104.cfm

      Also autism-help.org guide says this,

      “The term “Mental retardation” has acquired pejorative and shameful connotations over the last few decades and is now used almost exclusively in technical or scientific contexts where exactness is necessary. The term ‘intellectual disability’ is increasingly common, and used on this website where possible.

      http://www.autism-help.org/comorbid-mental-retardation.htm

      Yes this term is used in scientific contexts (although that has been changing) but there are other terms to use and if you are writing a blog that proposes being inclusive to marginalized populations (which I assume you are with your support of A+) my suggestion would be why not use intellectual disability from now on. I just don’t see why you want to use “mental retardation” when people have told not to because it is used pejoratively (and your intentions don’t change what it means to PWDs).

  37. Alice says

    Richard,

    WHY are we supporting a set of guidelines for ridicule??? Surely that’s the same as the Biblical rules for slavery? Ridicule isn’t nice, it isn’t compassionate, and it should aim to be avoided altogether.

    It isn’t a tool for change or progress – it’s a nasty thing to do, and if you do it, let’s hope that you can see the error of your ways and everyone can forgive you.

    Am I missing something here?

    • says

      I disagree. Not only do I disagree with the notion that we always have to be nice and be nice to everyone (we don’t), I also disagree with the notion that ridicule isn’t a tool for change or progress. To the contrary, historically it has been one of the most effective tools for change and progress ever used. It’s just not effective for certain specific kinds of purposes or in certain kinds of contexts.

    • Alice says

      I agree – we don’t need to be nice to everyone.

      I exchange and share with those who I get on with and I ignore the rest.

      Ignoring, blocking and excluding is how I would suggest is the best way to deal with percipient, conscious and aggressive sexism, racism, homophobia etc.

      Ridicule like any causal factor is a tool for change – but is it going to be progressive change?

      When we model ridicule as a form of communication for change that becomes an acceptable way of operating. This is not the sort of culture that I want to promote.

      You say that ridicule has been used as a successful tool in the past to initiate change. My question is regarding the methods we can use and the consequence of those methods – what are the pros and cons of each method vs effectiveness.

      Rewards and punishment are effective – so are bullying, harassment and trolling. They provide good short term outcomes, but the long term outcome is negative in terms of the culture that is developed.

      I prefer reasoning, compassion and perspective taking as better tools to use for short and long term outcomes.

  38. lcaution says

    I may be misinterpreting the purpose of your very thoughtful post, so I apologize in advance, but you are addressing something that has been bothering me since I first discovered the FtB blogs about 6 months ago, and I wanted to take the opening you seem to be offering to express myself. (I won’t mind if you choose to delete this comment.)

    I take a very simple, utilitarian perspective to the use of insults and slurs: they are uncivil, unnecessary and counter-productive. I don’t insult people face-to-face. I don’t do it online.

    Why? First, it’s simply not in my nature to do so. Second, although the insulter no doubt gets some emotional satisfaction (“see how smart I am”) from the insult, what about the target? What choices does the target have? Two. Fight or flight. Although online fights have the advantage of being bloodless, I find them both painful to read and a waste of time. I’m not interested in spending even 5 minutes following an ever escalating exchange of insults. Flight? That gets the target out of the line of fire and is fine for the insulter who only wishes to be validated and has no wish to engage in a converation, debate or convert.

    Do trolls exist? Of course. But the default reaction to any “unacceptable” comment or question on a number of FtB sites is that the poster is a troll. Maybe so. But what if the comment/question is sincere? There are better ways to handle trolls: ask the blog owner to block access or simply ignore the posts. After all, the goal of real trolls is to roil the waters, interrupt the conversation, get a reaction. Why feed them?

    Finally, I think it highly unrealistic to conclude that one can convert believers to atheism by calling them names or asserting that they are ignorant or worse. So, if the goal of the FtB blogs is to spread atheism, I think it is failing. If its goal is to provide a place where atheists can find validation, yes, they do accomplish that. But is it wise to create an environment that even some atheists will find unwelcoming?

    Lastly, please don’t misunderstand me. I do not object to thoughtful, even forceful discussions or arguments. But I think they should focus on content. Ad hominen attacks get us nowhere.

    • says

      I won’t mind if you choose to delete this comment

      Just FYI, I don’t delete comments that satisfy my comments policy. And reasoned arguments typically do.

      I take a very simple, utilitarian perspective to the use of insults and slurs: they are uncivil, unnecessary and counter-productive. I don’t insult people face-to-face.

      You can conduct yourself however makes you comfortable. But it’s incorrect that being uncivil is always unproductive or that it’s even properly uncivil to insult someone (watch British Parliament sometime). It’s also untrue that it’s socially unnecessary (embarrassment, shame, shock, discomfort are all emotions we evolved for a social utilitarian function) or that they are always counter-productive. To the contrary, they are often the only productive thing to do, and can even operate effectively in parallel to other modes of attack against irrationality (e.g. one person can have formal debates with people defending an irrational position, while a comedy troupe spreads social awareness and antipathy for the irrational position through ridicule of the very same position).

      Moreover, ridicule is not just a mode of changing social perception or generating shame, it can also be a means of increasing group cohesion, passion, and morale. The Daily Show for example uses ridicule very deftly to increase sympathy for and passionate support of progressive causes against right wing irrationality. It’s a means of ginning up emotion not only to generate outrage in the audience in the direction desired, but also to restore the sanity of the audience by relieving their sense of despair, by realizing they are not alone in finding these irrational things so outrageous and often so daunting. This increases a sense of community which can then more effectively and readily work together to combat the target of outrage.

      I think it highly unrealistic to conclude that one can convert believers to atheism by calling them names or asserting that they are ignorant or worse.

      First of all, converting believers is not always the primary aim of making arguments. You are primarily making arguments for the benefit of the audience (in various ways, to various ends; read some of my replies to other comments in this thread). Usually believers cannot be persuaded by any argument whatever, insulting or not.

      Secondly, if the context is “attempting to persuade person C of some argument B” then of course insults and ridicule are not suited to that purpose (this violates my rule 4). Those are not the contexts in which we use insults or ridicule. Unless what you are attempting to persuade person C of is that they are reprehensible or doing something reprehensible. Then insults target their propensity to embarrassment or shame, and as such are often effective, and even when not effective on the target, are collaterally effective at shaming others who might resort to the same behavior, and educating the public on what is reprehensible and how it will be punished (nonviolently, I might add), through strong and scathing social disapproval.

      Third, when insults are used morally (e.g. especially in respect to rules 1 and 2), as opposed to using them gratuitously or indiscriminately, they can effectively, over time, lead someone to realize they are indeed in a state of shame and ought to better themselves by getting out of it. Many people will remain shameless (and such people can never be persuaded by reasoned argument anyway, no matter how insult-free). But most will not. When you have behaved badly a dozen times and every time were socially punished for it with insults that were on-target, you either have no sense of shame or you will start to examine whether you are indeed behaving shamefully after all.

      Fourth, a major common aim for insults and ridicule is to marginalize–it is thus a deliberate way to get people to leave and stop dirtying the social environment with their reprehensible and disliked behavior. Thus, insulting trolls does not feed them. It frustrates them. And the more frustrated they get, the more it ceases to be fun, and thus eventually they leave. This is the more effective, the more different people insult them in the same place (thus creating a social-mass effect: once they are outnumbered and everyone is laughing at them, they will no longer enjoy being there and will leave, and once this keeps happening, eventually they will stop coming back altogether).

      There was discussion of many of these points on the Don’t Feed the Trolls panel at CONvergence, as well as this brief video by Ill Doctrine, Why I Will Feed the Trolls. And the Ashley Miller video I linked to in the article above covers some of the communications theory behind it, with some examples.

    • noen says

      RC said: “But it’s incorrect that being uncivil is always unproductive or that it’s even properly uncivil to insult someone (watch British Parliament sometime).”

      But they have entered into an agreement, tacit or otherwise, that such behaviors are allowed. I am sure that there are limits and rules which means that such behavior is “civil” as long as one is a member of Parliament. I doubt they act that way at diner parties. Context is everything.

      “It’s also untrue that it’s socially unnecessary […] or that they are always counter-productive.”

      You gave no evidence for your assertion. To the contrary I would claim that one is more likely convince others of the rightness of one’s cause through respect, validation and empathy rather than derision and insults. When people are attacked or perceive they are attacked they literally shut down their centers for reasoning and react emotionally in self defense. How are you going to succeed in rational debate under those conditions?

      “Moreover, ridicule is not just a mode of changing social perception or generating shame, it can also be a means of increasing group cohesion, passion, and morale.”

      Which, pretty much by definition, isn’t winning new converts to one’s cause is it? Ridicule only serves to validate ingroup membership. It does nothing to attract new members.

      “First of all, converting believers is not always the primary aim of making arguments. You are primarily making arguments for the benefit of the audience […] Usually believers cannot be persuaded by any argument whatever, insulting or not.”

      How does insulting those who cannot be persuaded make you look better in the audience’s eyes? At best all it does is send a message that you are a member of the group in good standing. See? I attacked an outsider! This is again unlikely to convince others you are right for reasons already given above.

      However satisfying it is to get that juice from your reptilian brain when the claws come out and you rip someone a new one it never really succeeds in getting us what we want.

    • says

      Context is everything.

      Which is exactly what I said.

      I would claim that one is more likely convince others of the rightness of one’s cause through respect, validation and empathy rather than derision and insults.

      1. Only when they are being reasonable. And when they are, rule 4 intervenes and insults and ridicule are inappropriate. Welcome to context.

      2. And convincing the target of ridicule is not always or solely your objective (others include social signalling of out-group disapproval and generating in-group action). Note this and this and this.

      How are you going to succeed in rational debate under those conditions?

      Moot question. When they are engaging in rational debate, the matter of insults and ridicule doesn’t come up. Rule 4.

      Ridicule only serves to validate ingroup membership. It does nothing to attract new members.

      I happen to know for a fact the opposite is true: a lot of the growth of the New Atheism movement, particularly among the young, has been the effectiveness of open ridicule and humor and honest (and funny) declarations of revulsion and chastisement. I know, because I have witnessed it, and heard it said by countless new members nationwide.

      How does insulting those who cannot be persuaded make you look better in the audience’s eyes?

      Insofar as that is the goal (it often isn’t, or isn’t the main goal), it works by inducing shame. That effect fails only with the utterly shameless. And the effect works by accumulated effect. A single instance of shaming won’t necessarily work, but when someone is shamed repeatedly by multiple different parties, it starts to affect them, and if they have any sense of shame, they start to self-reflect.

      Moreover, a secondary goal is to marginalize the unpersuadable: i.e. if they are unrepentantly irrational or reprehensible, a society that from all sides continually mocks and insults them will become uncomfortable and thus they will leave that company. They have thus been marginalized and their toxicity to decent society reduced or neutralized.

      A tertiary goal is social signalling: other people will start to mold their identities and characters according to what they see society praising and shaming. The more you ridicule racists, the fewer up-and-coming people who want to be racists. Result: less racism.

      A quaternary goal is in-group rallying: you dismiss this, but it’s actually also very important. Venting for sanity, signalling to others what group (and hence what values) you embrace, and inspiring more passionate and abundant action against the problem being targeted.

      And I’ve probably not even exhausted all the useful functions there are.

  39. noen says

    I saw this coming a long time ago. That is why I refuse to identify as an atheist and instead prefer agnostic or skeptic.

    The heart of the problem is that the New Atheism is based in anti-religious bigotry. This has attracted other bigots who have flocked to the null definition of atheism as the lack of belief.

    When you define a thing as a lack of a property you create a void into which anything can enter. And it has. Fascist reactionaries like Pat Condell are “good” atheists. Pro torture and anti feminists such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens respectively are also then “good” atheists. Why? Because when you define a thing by what it is not you have failed to define it and therefore *anything* which is “not that” can rightfully claim membership.

    Which is a pretty large set.

    Therefore I have abandoned atheism. I am a skeptic and an agnostic. I am not a humanist either because it posits something called “human nature” which is an unscientific belief and which I would claim does not exist.

    If y’all had listened to me a long time ago on the many many blogs I have defended my case you’d be better off now.

    • says

      I saw this coming a long time ago. That is why I refuse to identify as an atheist and instead prefer agnostic or skeptic.

      That’s an illogical argument. Either you are an atheist or you are not. “I don’t like some atheists, therefore I’m not an atheist” is obviously fallacious, and replaces reason with emotion.

      By that reasoning, I should refuse to call myself an atheist because I disagree with Marxism.

      I am not a humanist either because it posits something called “human nature” which is an unscientific belief and which I would claim does not exist.

      I can see no valid logic in this train of thought either. Even apart from the dubious claim that (in effect) there is no objective difference between humans and rats, plants or rocks (which is what denying a human nature entails), “there is no human nature, therefore I do not care about the welfare of humans” is just about one of the most illogical arguments I’ve ever heard from a nonbeliever.

      The heart of the problem is that the New Atheism is based in anti-religious bigotry. This has attracted other bigots who have flocked to the null definition of atheism as the lack of belief.

      I don’t follow the logical reasoning here. First you seem to equate all criticism of religious belief with bigotry (it’s not bigotry when you’re right; otherwise, we are anti-crime bigots, and bigoted against pedophiles and terrorists, and so on–obviously a ridiculous use of the word “bigot”). Then you make an un-evidenced argument that increasing the number atheists (an actual statistically demonstrated fact) has not proportionally increased the number of passionate humanists but has instead just increased the number of amoral nihilists (or something, you argument is not entirely clear).

      As for the rest of your arguments, besides being fact-challenged, the rise of the Atheism+ movement is a direct refutation of your conclusion.

    • noen says

      “That’s an illogical argument. Either you are an atheist or you are not. “I don’t like some atheists, therefore I’m not an atheist” is obviously fallacious, and replaces reason with emotion.”

      Fortunately I did not claim that because I disagree with some atheists I am therefore not one. “Agnostic” intersects with but is not not a subset of atheist. I belong to those who are neither atheist nor theist.

      “‘Even apart from the dubious claim that (in effect) there is no objective difference between humans and rats, plants or rocks (which is what denying a human nature entails)”

      Please don’t put words in my mouth. I did not say, in effect or directly, that there is no difference between humans and other animals. It does not follow logically from “human nature does not exist” that therefore humans do not differ from other species.

      ““there is no human nature, therefore I do not care about the welfare of humans” is just about one of the most illogical arguments I’ve ever heard from a nonbeliever.”

      You misquote me. I never said “there is no human nature, therefore I do not care about the welfare of humans”. That is your false attribution of what I said. I would prefer it if you would not misquote me and make it seem that I’ve said things I clearly did not say. I am sure you get a great many angry comments directed at you. This is not one of them and I would ask that you not take out your frustrations on me.

      “I don’t follow the logical reasoning here. First you seem to equate all criticism of religious belief with bigotry

      I did not equate all criticism of religious belief with bigotry. I equated New Atheist criticism as bigoted. The reasoning is as follows: The New Atheism claims that all religion is evil. Sweeping generalizations such as “All X’s are Y’s” are examples of bigotry. Therefore the New Atheism is bigoted with respect to religion. Surely not all atheists are but it is, I believe, a fair characterization of the movement.

      Then you make an un-evidenced argument that increasing the number atheists (an actual statistically demonstrated fact) has not proportionally increased the number of passionate humanists but has instead just increased the number of amoral nihilists (or something, you argument is not entirely clear).”

      Again, I made no such argument. Please provide for me the exact quote where I said “increasing the number atheists has not proportionally increased the number of passionate humanists but has instead just increased the number of amoral nihilists”. I can find it nowhere in my comment above.

      “As for the rest of your arguments, besides being fact-challenged, the rise of the Atheism+ movement is a direct refutation of your conclusion.”

      My argument is that the trials and tribulations the New Atheist movement is experiencing now is the result poor choices in the past. The choice to label all religion as evil. Your difficulties now are a consequence of that. Why is that? Because of this:

      “I find that when people take offense at insults and ridicule, sometimes they are right to, but often they are relying in their judgment on mistaken assumptions, or are merely in the thrall of unjustified taboos”

      It is a very poor strategy to win over people’s hearts and minds through insult and ridicule. Even if you are in the right it is poor form to insult someone and then expect them to respect you in return. Unless of course you don’t care in which case I don’t see what the complaint is about.

      It is an odd thing indeed to insult people and then wonder why they are upset with you.

    • says

      “That’s an illogical argument. Either you are an atheist or you are not. “I don’t like some atheists, therefore I’m not an atheist” is obviously fallacious, and replaces reason with emotion.”

      Fortunately I did not claim that because I disagree with some atheists I am therefore not one.

      No, you committed that fallacy with Atheism+. It’s called an analogy.

      (Although there is no logical sense in which you can really be neither an atheist nor a theist unless you insist on only very narrow, and generally not typical, definitions. But that’s completely irrelevant to my point, which is that you were being illogical about Atheism+. And still are.)

      Please don’t put words in my mouth. I did not say, in effect or directly, that there is no difference between humans and other animals. It does not follow logically from “human nature does not exist” that therefore humans do not differ from other species.

      It kind of does.

      ““there is no human nature, therefore I do not care about the welfare of humans” is just about one of the most illogical arguments I’ve ever heard from a nonbeliever.”

      You misquote me. I never said [that]…

      You effectively did. Humanism is concern for the welfare of humans. By definition. And you denied you were a humanist, and you denied you were a humanist “because there is no human nature.” QED.

      The New Atheism claims that all religion is evil.

      If by “evil” you just mean “bad.”

      Sweeping generalizations such as “All X’s are Y’s” are examples of bigotry. Therefore the New Atheism is bigoted with respect to religion.

      That is a non sequitur. Compare:

      Sweeping generalizations such as “All child molesters are bad” are examples of bigotry. Therefore denouncing child molesters is bigoted with respect to child molesters.

      If perhaps you could prove that there are some religions that are not in any way bad for people or the world, then you might have a point that atheists should exempt those particular religions from the declaration that they are bad. But then this trips you up on your fallacy of equivocation: you say “all religions are evil” when in fact New Atheists only say “all religions are in some way or another bad,” and that varies by degree.

      To see why even mild religions are at least in some way bad (which might not be in any way you yourself would call “evil”), read the chapters on liberal and progressive religions in Greta Christina’s Why Are You Atheists So Angry? and Malcolm Murray’s Atheist’s Primer.

      Please provide for me the exact quote where I said “increasing the number atheists has not proportionally increased the number of passionate humanists but has instead just increased the number of amoral nihilists”. I can find it nowhere in my comment above.

      You said:

      The New Atheism…has attracted other bigots who have flocked to the null definition of atheism as the lack of belief.

      And you said this is a “problem” that was somehow unique to New Atheism. But if the percentage of bigots in New Atheism is identical to the percentage in atheism generally, it cannot be a “problem” that New Atheism is “attracting” more bigots. So that cannot be what you meant. Your argument only makes any sense if you mean that somehow New Atheism is disproportionately creating or attracting bigots. Hence my rebuttal: there is no evidence of that.

      It is a very poor strategy to win over people’s hearts and minds through insult and ridicule.

      That is not always true [note this]. Hence rule 4 (in the article above). Nor is that the only aim of insult and ridicule [note this and this].

  40. says

    It can sometimes seem rather tiresome that we must be so careful about our language, and “political correctness” is often used pejoratively. But just stand back and look at the vastness of terms that are ethnic/racial, trait, or gender slurs. Yikes.

    I’ve always tried to be careful but this post really illuminated it. More good reasons to stick to the arguments and not attack the person.

    You might like this quote:

    Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.” ~ Thomas Jefferson, letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp, 30 July, 1816

    But I think the ridicule is to the proposition and not the person.

    • says

      I like that Thomas Jefferson quote. Hadn’t heard it before – it’s worth contemplating.

      I think ridicule can give power in situations where a person would otherwise lack it. For example, someone on Facebook called JT Eberhard a “faggot” as an insult, and then claimed he was calling JT a cigarette (as if). And I could have remained silent (after all, there’s always someone Wrong on the Internet), or gotten all hurt and asked him to stop. But instead I realized that this is the 21st Century and he’s purposefully being obstinate to moral expectations, so I went for ridicule via sarcastically fawning over his sheer brilliance in word choice. Did I change his mind on what is the most moral course of action to take in the future? Doubtful. Did I send a strong message that the next time he tosses that word around, there may be someone else waiting to ridicule him out of the conversation? Youbetcha.

  41. thetalkingstove says

    When I say someone is lame (or being lame or doing something lame), I am not saying they are physically lame, nor am I insulting people who are physically lame, since I am using the word in the connotation relating to quality of thought or argument (or art or style), not physical ability

    I have heard people defending their use of “gay” to mean “of poor quality” in exactly this way, arguing that it has come to have connotations relating to quality of thought, argument, product or critical worth and not sexuality.

    Is it really so hard just to not use ‘lame’? Is it such a great, important word that we can’t refrain from using it in case it does upset some people?

    • says

      Anyone who says what you report is wrong. “Gay” can only have those meanings if it were true that gay people lacked quality. Since gay people don’t lack quality in any such way, the term cannot mean that in any other context without insulting gays.

      By contrast, a lame horse actually can’t perform well–it does, in actual fact, lack quality. Thus, a lame idea is like a lame horse in precisely the way a gay idea is not like a gay man.

      Again, look at the use of “blind” in the same fashion (every one a valid metaphor from lack of sight): blind corner, blind alley, blinding light, blinders, how can you be so blind, are you blind, I was blind but now I can see, my situation blinded me to the consequences, etc.

    • Robert B. says

      Richard, you’re being very careless with the word “quality.” There are lots of qualities. Being gay, I lack a certain quality in that I am unable to reproduce via loving sexual relations. Being white, I lack another quality in that I am less resistant to sunburn. However, this of course does not justify heterosexism or racism (not that white folks are much victimized by racism.) The reason is that racism and so on assume other and more important differences than those trivial, peripheral ones. They are intellectually careless “package deals” in which a wide variety of quality differences are assumed of a large group of people, and these assumptions in practice perpetuate a power imbalance.

      The disabled and mentally ill are treated much the same way. The wheelchair-bound, for example, report that some strangers treat them as though they were children, cognitively impaired, or hard of hearing, even when they are neurotypical adults with the full use of their senses. The mentally ill are sometimes treated as though they were dangerous or unstable, when in fact only a small percentage are a danger to others. There is in fact a difference in quality – that’s what defines a disability or illness. But society takes that difference all out of proportion, assumes it in qualities that have nothing to do with the disability or illness in question, and objects to and marginalizes completely reasonable accommodations such as access ramps and psychiatric medications. The rational response is to be rigorously honest in how one considers disabilities, and to never associate them with qualities beyond their literal meaning. Society’s stock of metaphors, in the case of these words, is suspect, apt to carry the weight of unwanted bigotry.

      People with limited mobility, like gay people, in fact have significant differences in quality inherent in the definitions of the groups. But in both cases the differences are treated as being much larger, and of different kinds, than they actually are. “Gay” certainly doesn’t mean “bad in general,” and to use the word that way is to invoke a heterosexist “package deal.” In exactly the same way, “lame” doesn’t mean “bad in general,” and to use the word that way is to invoke an ableist package deal. This is so even though gay people lack an ability that straight people have, and even though people with limited mobility lack an ability that those with typical mobility have.

    • says

      Being gay, I lack a certain quality in that I am unable to reproduce via loving sexual relations.

      If trying to insult someone by calling them “gay” meant they were just somehow analogous to not being able to enjoy impregnating women, you might have a point.

      But since they don’t, you don’t.

      No one goes around mocking limping people with recitations of “Lame! Lame! Lame!” (certainly not as any sort of commonplace attempt to debase, the way “retarded” and “gay” are). And “lame” simply doesn’t have any connotations of mentally defective or anything else other than what it simply means: less functional at the designated task (ambulation). And it is routinely used in a clinical, ordinary way (“my horse has gone lame,” “I’ve been lame ever since I got that bullet wound in the war”).

      So the analogy simply doesn’t hold. At all. Trying to force it to sounds like desperation on your part.

    • Orion3T says

      Anyone who says what you report is wrong. “Gay” can only have those meanings if it were true that gay people lacked quality.

      Wrong – it will develop that meaning if people unreasonably stereotype gay men as being lacking in quality, and proceed to associate the term ‘gay’ with a ‘lack in quality’. Which is exactly what has happened, and why many people misuse use the word in exactly that way.

      Yes they are wrong to misuse the term, but they do it regardless, and this is how words eventually get redefined by common usage and incorporated into the language with a new definition. They are wrong in exactly the same way it is wrong to misuse the word ‘lame’ – by unreasonably (even if unintentionally) stereotyping a group of people, or perpetuating an existing stereotype.

      Since gay people don’t lack quality in any such way, the term cannot mean that in any other context without insulting gays.

      I agree. Caricaturing and/or stereotyping a certain group of people is unfair and insulting.

      By contrast, a lame horse actually can’t perform well–it does, in actual fact, lack quality. Thus, a lame idea is like a lame horse in precisely the way a gay idea is not like a gay man.

      The whole point is that ‘lame’ does label people with an unfair degree of ‘lacking quality’. The only thing they lack is a ‘normal’ degree of mobility. That does not equate to being generally lacking in quality.

      I think if you are honest, there is a good reason you chose to use a lame horse in your example and not a lame person, despite the fact that many people are, in fact, medically lame:

      “a lame person actually can’t perform well – ze does, in actual fact, lack quality. Thus, a lame idea is like a lame person”

      Doesn’t read so well does it?

      The reason is that you were forced to generalize from lacking in mobility, to a general lack of quality. At best it is an unfair exaggeration, and that’s if we generously grant that all people mean when they say something is lame is ‘lacking in quality’.

      No. I’m sorry but a lame idea is not remotely like a lame person once you remove the ableist stereotyping that a lame person ‘lacks quality’, when it may in fact only entail having a slight limp.

      And even if this is still not an absolutely watertight argument, there are so many better words which can be used. Is this word really so important?

    • says

      They are wrong in exactly the same way it is wrong to misuse the word ‘lame’ – by unreasonably (even if unintentionally) stereotyping a group of people, or perpetuating an existing stereotype.

      How is it a stereotype that the lame cannot walk well? That’s a fact, not a stereotype. The analogy with “gay” breaks down precisely there.

      Lame is analogous to blind: it is used metaphorically the same way. Lame is not analogous to gay. And it is precisely in respect to how it is not analogous to gay, that gay is not an appropriate slur.

  42. Alice says

    I agree – we don’t need to be nice to everyone.

    I exchange and share with those who I get on with and I ignore the rest.

    Ignoring, blocking and excluding is how I would suggest is the best way to deal with percipient, conscious and aggressive sexism, racism, homophobia etc.

    Ridicule like any causal factor is a tool for change – but is it going to be progressive change?

    When we model ridicule as a form of communication for change that becomes an acceptable way of operating. This is not the sort of culture that I want to promote.

    You say that ridicule has been used as a successful tool in the past to initiate change. My question is regarding the methods we can use and the consequence of those methods – what are the pros and cons of each method vs effectiveness.

    Rewards and punishment are effective – so are bullying, harassment and trolling. They provide good short term outcomes, but the long term outcome is negative in terms of the culture that is developed.

    I prefer reasoning, compassion and perspective taking as better tools to use for short and long term outcomes.

  43. Adam says

    Ridicule is not meant for the person you are arguing with, they are a lost cause by the time ridicule is used. The ridicule is used to frame the other position in a negative light to convince a third party.

    However in your last post, you actually were fighting a big strawman and your use of ridicule damaged you not you non-existent opponent. It is good that you recognize this and are trying to back-peddle you comments.

  44. says

    A problem I have had as a person who does try to be politically correct/not offend people is that the ‘acceptable’ words used to describe people with disabilities change so frequently in society at large. Is it disabled, differently abled, physically challenged or something else? Not only that, there is extreme variablity between individuals as to what constitutes the ‘proper’ word to use; as a med student, I have to interact with people of special needs frequently and have meet people who don’t mind being called handicapped, where as there are others who will tear you a new one if you used that word to refer to them or others with a similar condition.

    I guess what I am describing is what Steven Pinker called the ‘euphemism treadmill'; that words that are used to describe subjects that we deem to be unpleasent will become tainted by association and thus a new word will need to be used until it too becomes tainted.

    To summarise, my question to you Richard (or anyone for that matter) is do you see avoiding ableist language in insults as being a solution to this problem?

    • says

      It isn’t really that much of a problem. Try to imagine “disabled” becoming a slur and you’ll see why the “euphemism treadmill” is more myth than reality.

      Most slurs exist only as slurs (crip, gimp, nigger, tranny), except by reclaiming within the targeted community. And slurs that have other uses tend to have them only in limited linguistic contexts (mental retardation was never in common use by the general populace, the way lame or blind have been).

      Generally, words that by statistical use are commonly not slurs never become slurs, even when they can be used in the manner of a slur (as when a disabled person is insulted by being called a dork or a loser: it hurts, but only because of the context of the use; the frequency of use in other contexts establishes their use as a slur is unusual and an abuse of normal convention).

      As far as what best alternative words are, that takes time to negotiate. Historically, cultural innovations operate like evolution: you start with an explosion of alternatives that are experimented with, until one or two best options are selected out and the others increasingly fade from use. This process typically takes a standard time-frame of three generations (or roughly 60 years from inception of experimental innovations).

  45. michael says

    Hi, interesting article,
    I’ve got a couple of questions where it comes to the critique of work:
    a) with novels or art in general, are we actually allowed to ridicule or insult
    b) are creators for art (in the widest sense) by publishing their works not automatically allowing everyone to voice their opinion, even if it is insulting?
    c) are we only allowed to insult the work or also its creator
    d) can we get ‘personal’ without getting personal, i.e. insulting the ‘creator alter ego’ without actually meaning the real person behind it

    Let me explain why I am asking:
    I recently said about ab book (novel) I reviewed it sounded as if it was ‘written by a MILF’, referring to seems to be called MILF-fiction, i.e. fan fiction of literary questionable quality or based on questionable or rather arguable values (the details are not really relevant).
    I was, immediately, of course accused of being misogynist and making a personal insult to the writer.
    I am wondering how everyone else sees this?
    Of course, novels like most art, are hard / impossible to critique objectively, after all, ‘taste is not open to discussion’ as we say in German.
    However I felt that the insult under discussion was a mix of being insulting, while at the same time being funny and painting the right picture of what I was then elaborating further in my subsequent review…

    So, to rephrase my questions:
    a) with novels or art in general, are we actually allowed to ridicule or insult
    b) are creators for art (in the widest sense) by publishing their works not automatically allowing everyone to voice their opinion, even if it is insulting?
    c) are we only allowed to insult the work or also its creator
    d) can we get ‘personal’ without getting personal, i.e. insulting the ‘creator alter ego’ without actually meaning the real person behind it

    • says

      I don’t think your questions connect at all with your example. A MILF (“mother I’d like to fuck”) is a sexualizing epithet for a particular kind of fetishized woman. The fact that you want to have sex with a mother of children, or even the attractiveness of a writer, does not have any relevant connection to the quality or even motivation of what she may write. You were probably being pegged a sexist for that. Not for any of the things you ask about.

  46. AudreyHepburn says

    The reason people don’t like A+ is because so many of you come across as arrogant, and your blog entries are a great example. I mean no offense but I feel you’ve let down the A+ movement with your pompousness and apparent hypocrisy.

    I’ll show you what I mean. The A+ movement was first concieved by Jen McCreight because, to put it simply, she didn’t want to experience hatred and harrassment within the atheist community (she wanted a more inclusive wave of atheism). I respect her for that and support her 100% (although I don’t identify as A+). This is important because Jen McCreight herself had previously passionately argued against Richard Dawkins in defence of Rebecca Watson, taking a decidedly feminist stance. If you don’t know Watson was approached by a man in an elevator (he invited her for coffee) and that made her uncomfortable. She commented on this and Dawkins, in effect, criticized her for getting upset because the man had simply used words. Here is what I think is the most important part of Jen McCreight’s response to Dawkins:

    Words matter. You don’t get that because you’ve never been called a cunt, a faggot, a nigger, a kike.”

    WORDS MATTER.

    This is the fundamental premise that the entire A+ movement was founded on: that people should not be subject to harassment within the atheist community, that words hurt.

    And yet both this, your next post, and your previous “stab at defining A+” is filled with hateful words. In your third paragraph in your next post you call people “assholes and douchebags” instead of simply politely saying that you don’t wish to associate with them. I find this both hypocritical and also unfortunate as it undermines the legitimacy of the A+ movement among many that choose not to identify as A+. It’s childish.

    I honestly can’t believe you’ve taken all this time to come to your own defence – to justify you calling people names. Grow the fuck up. When you use these words you are not entertaining, funny, or clever, nor do you show signs of intellectual superiority by doing so (see: “Do Be a Dick”). You’re 42 years old and calling people names on the internet, and then writing a 4500+ word article about how they soooooooo deserved it. Jesus fucking Christ man.

    If you want to insult someone then do so in an entertaining, clever way instead of just calling them assholes like a 12 year old would.

    What would Jen think of this rubbish.

    • says

      Gee. Atheists coming across as arrogant and using words like “douchebag” and “dick” to describe people who behave badly. That’s never happened before now. So obviously it’s the fault of Atheism+.

      In my experience, when someone accuses someone of being “arrogant,” that is often cognitive-dissonance code for “I don’t actually have any reasonable argument against what you said, but I don’t like it, so I have to say something to justify my rejecting it.”

      Your comment is a case in point: at no point in it do you ever respond to what I actually argued in this article. You just make some ill defended blanket assertion that we should never use words like “asshole” or “douchebag” or “asshat” or whatever, not ever, against anyone, for any reason.

      Which if you actually believed that, why haven’t you been criticizing the whole atheist community for years before Atheism+, since they have been committing this crime in droves, and in fact haven’t even dialed up the volume. Nothing, on this count, has even actually changed.

      So your faux outrage doesn’t make any sense here. It just looks like pointless venting, to no purpose.

      P.S. What would Jen think of my argument in this article? I suspect she would agree with me.

  47. DownSonder says

    Richard, I know your heart is in the right place, but you’re contradicting your own reasoning when you defend your use of the word, “lame.”

    You say it’s wrong to use “gimp” as an insult, but only because it’s a word that was created specifically to insult people.

    By your use of the phrase, “By contrast,” it sounds like you’re saying it’s only ok to use “lame” as an insult because it’s an already-existing word that describes a disability.

    How do you reconcile this, with the fact (which you acknowledge) that it’s wrong to use “cunt” and “pussy” as insults because they are already-existing words that describe a woman’s anatomy?

    .
    “Cunt” is bad because it’s an already-existing word, but
    “lame” is ok because it’s an already-existing word?
    Sorry, but that just doesn’t compute.
    .

    Using “lame” as an insult is an ableist slur, for the exact same reason that using “cunt” and “pussy” as insults are sexist slurs.

    I’ve known two people with one leg shorter than the other because of birth defects, and a third whose leg stopped growing after an accident he had as a child. I’ve known another person with a leg that was extremely bowed, because it had been broken and was never set, due to lack of money for medical treatment. “Lame” describes their disabilities, as well those who have trouble walking due to arthritis, loss of cartilage, and other reasons. When you use “lame” as an insult, you are belittling these people, just as using “cunt” and “pussy” as an insult is demeaning to women.

    If so many people are complaining about the use of that word, maybe we should listen to them, instead of brushing them off when they feel like they’re being belittled.

    I hope you will give this some more thought, and post another correction in the near future.

    Thank you for your time.

    On a side note, Urban Dictionary?

    • says

      I’ve already answered this upthread. “Lame” is to “blind” in precisely the way that “cunt” and “pussy” have no analog. For example, “pussy” as an insult against cowardice is based on a falsehood: that women are cowards or that being a coward is being like a woman. By contrast, that an idea doesn’t work and is therefore “lame” is not a falsehood, but a true analog, just like saying someone is “blind” can be. Thus metaphorical blindness is analogous to metaphorical lameness. “Cunt” is more variable (since it can mean different things in different contexts), but is far more analogous to “pussy” than to “lame” or “blind.” Therefore they are not analogs at all.

      But if you know of anyone who is actually (physically) lame and is terribly hurt by the use of the word in metaphorical contexts (or indeed, blind people who are terribly hurt by the metaphorical use of the word “blind”), send them my way. I’ll hear them out.

    • DownSonder says

      Hi Richard,

      I understand your point about the falsehoods concerning “cunt” and “pussy,” and appreciate your acknowledgement of this.

      I’m still perplexed by your position on “lame,” though, when you say words like “stupid” and “dumb” should not be overused and can be replaced with “not too bright.” Although I am guilty of using those words myself, I don’t see how “lame” is any better than “stupid” or “dumb.” Wouldn’t it be just as easy to say an argument is weak, nonsensical, or flawed, instead of calling it lame?

      I haven’t talked to any disabled friends or acquaintances about this, but a quick Google search took me to this comment just now:

      “My husband’s aunt was disabled by polio many years ago and uses a wheelchair. One day in a conversation about people using words carelessly, she said that the word “lame” when being used to make fun of something, offends her. I think mostly because when she was a child and first disabled, the word “lame” was still used to describe disabled people.”

      Also noted above that comment was how “lame” is often meant as “uncool,” so by using the word in that manner, it seems to imply that lame people are uncool. Perhaps “blind” really is different in this respect, since people only say, “How can you be so blind,” to mean, “Why can’t you see that?” It’s a direct analogy, unlike the way most people use, “lame,” because when someone calls someone or something “lame,” they’re not saying this person or thing has trouble walking.

      I don’t know how many people are offended by the use of this word as an insult, but wouldn’t it be best to at least stop advocating the use of that word, for those who are offended by it?

      Thank you for your time and consideration.

    • DownSonder says

      I should probably add: I don’t know whether or not anyone who is actually blind is offended by phrases such as, “How can you be so blind?” but it would be very easy for anyone to substitute that with, “Why can’t you understand this?”

  48. DownSonder says

    Sorry, I wish I could edit a comment, but I had one more thought.

    When you refer to an idea as “lame,” how do you know that other people understand what you really mean by it, and don’t think you’re calling an idea stupid? Wouldn’t it be better to use a more descriptive term, like flawed or weak?

    Thanks again for your time.

    • says

      Sometimes I do.

      All language is to some degree ambiguous; that’s what makes it efficient. If we wanted to eliminate that ambiguity, we’d speak only in binary code. Which would be so inefficient as to defeat the purpose.

      As in every case, if someone misunderstands what I say, I correct them. Meanwhile, anyone who pays attention will know what I mean.

      And in this case, at least in the linguistic community I usually find myself in, “lame” is not used to mean “stupid” precisely because “lame” has been adopted as the word we use when “stupid” would be too strong or inappropriate to convey what we actually mean. Otherwise, we don’t say “lame”; we actually say “stupid.”

      In any other way the metaphor wouldn’t work.

  49. John Eagles says

    This entire post is basically just your justification for not showing others the decency and integrity that you demand of them, rather than an apology. Otherwise why still defend calling people lame, when people have already expressed that it is/can be offensive? Why not just exercise the possibility that it could be offensive, and use a term which everybody agrees cannot offend unnecessarily? Better yet, rather than using insults, why don’t you use your massively awesome rationalising skills to expose the other persons lack of rationality, without risking offending somebody? It’s much more liberating to genuinely be able to hold the moral high-ground, don’t you think? I guess not.

    • says

      I don’t understand what you are arguing. Are you arguing for a Spock-like Quaker world where no one ever uses humor or satire or vents outrage or calls it like they see it?

      I don’t want to live in that world. Even when I’m the but of the jokes in it, I’d rather live there than the weird robot world you seem to hope for.

    • John Smeagles says

      I am mainly trying to point out your hypocrisy, being part of a group which considers the word “cunt” offensive, but doesn’t have the same sensitivity when it comes to insulting people who really do have a disadvantage in life (you know, they lack those priviledges that you speak of, that you have). Working with the handicapped (yes Richard, I have a hands on approach when it comes to helping those who don’t have the priviledge I have :) ), I genuinely do find such an insult quite offensive (calling somebody a retard is really edgy, I bet you are fun to be around), and I would hate the families of those I work with to come in contact with somebody like you, who would be quick to shoot somebody down over, say, not describing themselves as a feminist, but it feels that it’s perfectly fine to make a statement which can genuinely hurt the feelings of a vunerable person (or somebody close).

      Why is it that when somebody makes an argument that you don’t really know how to answer, and still maintain your *ahem* ‘integrity’ at the same time, you suddenly fail to understand what they are arguing? Seems like a recurring theme amongst your replies to people, and I am not the only person to pick up on it. Hmm… (somebody has already pointed this out though on another of your blog posts comments section, or something to that effect anyway. But I’ll be fucked if I’m going to read through all of that again for the sake of this reply)

      By the way, I am certainly not convinced that you used your insults to be funny, but it seemed to be the over-emotional response of somebody who is becoming rather defensive. Again, I am not the only person to pick up on that either.

      How is driving people away doing for your “movement”, going well is it?

    • says

      You do realize you are posting this comment in response to an article in which I make the very same argument you are against the use of ableist slurs like “retard”? I mention this because it sure looks like you are confused on this point.

    • DownSonder says

      Richard, of course John realizes where he’s posting his comment. That’s WHY he’s posting it here, to point out your hypocrisy in using the word ‘lame,’ as though it somehow isn’t as hurtful to physically handicapped people as ‘retard’ is to mentally handicapped people. Why do you think it’s okay to use a physically ableist slur, when you acknowledge that it’s wrong to use mentally ableist, sexist, racist, and other slurs against marginalized groups? What makes physically handicapped people so unimportant to you that you don’t care about hurting them with your words? Or maybe you have something against elderly people who are physically lame, since they’re the ones who were bombarded with this particular slur on a regular basis while they were growing up.

      Please try to imagine a child growing up, being bullied on a daily basis for having a limp. “Hahaha, you lame-o little twerp!” Ok, I suck at schoolyard insults, but imagine the child trying to run away, but he can’t run fast enough because one leg is shorter than the other, or bowed, etc., and the bullies beat him up because he’s different. Because he’s LAME in one leg.

    • says

      Which all simply ignores everything I said in the post this is a response to (on the specific use of “lame” as well as in the general contexts and ethics governing when it is or isn’t appropriate to use insults and why), as well as in comments on these points thereafter. I have yet to see anything that actually addresses what I say in either place.

    • DownSonder says

      > contexts and ethics governing when it is or isn’t appropriate to use insults and why

      Ok, then WHEN do you think it’s ok to call someone a nigger, retard, or cunt? If the answer to this is, “never,” then please explain why you believe “lame” should be any different.

    • says

      Bummer. Those must have gotten dissolved. I can’t find back-versions in any of the net archiving systems either. If anyone finds them again or anything I can replace them with, let me know.

  50. says

    Maybe it’s a generational gap, but how do words like “stupid”, “idiot”, and “moron” have anything to do with mental disabilities? They are not like “retard”. A retard is a person with a certain kind of mental disability, literally someone who is slow. Calling someone a retard is inappropriate because it demeans those who have the condition of being mentally slow. But stupid, idiot, and moron are not like that. Idiots and morons are not disabled or handicapped people. Idiots and morons are not people lacking an ordinary human capacity for intelligence. Idiots and morons are people who either temporarily or regularly fail to use their capacity for intelligence and/or fail to show any kind of consideration for the people around them.

    • says

      I agree retard is far worse. But it’s not all or nothing. Words like “stupid”, “idiot”, and “moron” are used as attacks on kids with mental or even just physical disabilities, and thus can become triggering words for them as adults. They also have common connotations of mental disability in general (and even elements of classism, as the less educated are regarded as “stupid,” when in fact knowledge and intelligence are not the same thing). Thus, some caution is warranted in their over-use. For example, calling an idea stupid is very different from calling a person stupid, as the latter has connotations that are not only factually questionable (many an intelligent person has been sold on a stupid argument), but resemble (and thus sustain) the use of that device to harm innocent people.

      BTW, moron and idiot were actual medical terms for mental disability, and were only discontinued as such for precisely this reason (they became vehicles for attacking and dehumanizing and bullying; and are still used as such today, and still retain their hurtful connotations of mental disability). The word “stupid” has long been in similar use.

      There is a difference between what you intend by using a word, and what effect it has on others (what they take it to mean). So it does no good to try and redefine these words by fiat, as if you have the power to alter the brains of billions of people to conform to your will. You can’t change what words mean in the world. You can only change how you use them and in what contexts.

      For example, you would not buy your own argument from someone claiming “nigger” only means “black” (from the Latin niger), and therefore there is nothing wrong with it.

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