Anti-social-justice folks are attempting to stir the pot and get so-called “big names” to throw down with one another right now. There’s a definite sense of glee coming from certain parts, parts wherein people are evidently incapable of any sort of nuanced argumentation, where all they live for is the “drama” of people disagreeing with one another. It’s the “let’s you and him fight” sort of instigation you expect in high school. And it needs to be pointed out that this is happening, precisely because there is always some manner of painful growth necessary within our movement.
This is exactly the sort of thing they’ve been asked to do and have refused, and are now relishing the moment that the people who asked them to do that sort of growing are themselves being called out for language that has done splash damage. Except, the configuration of this particular fight isn’t quite exactly right for the sort of lines-drawing that we’re doing.
Trigger warning: discussion of slurs in just about every class of such, including and especially ones that are considered ableist since they are at the heart of the current conflagration.
When I was growing up, my mother genuinely mistreated — dare I say it, abused — my father. I don’t consider my father a saint either, mind you, but I do know that in the relationship between the two of them, there was a lot of very one-sided abuse.
Most of that abuse was verbal — my mother liked to call my father stupid. He was not particularly well-educated. He’d dropped out of high school and got a job at Canadian Tire when he’d married her; he moved from that job to a job at the Brunswick Mines where he’d worked as a rock bolter, a general labourer who helped build tunnels underground. He was Acadian French, and mostly only learned his broken English to communicate with my mother, who barely spoke any French and evidently loathed that she had to learn. They had decided to raise my sister and me as English, though in retrospect this seems almost certainly a demand by my mother that was acquiesced-to by my father.
During their relatively frequent fights, my mother hurled abuse at my father. My father, for his part, liked to drink; he was a sloppy sappy drunk and when he came home and fell asleep on the couch with a beer in one hand and a Supertramp or Cat Stevens record playing, my mother would retire to their bedroom and lock the door. Some nights, though, she would confront him angrily over this habit. I recall one time where they came to blows, and my father was the one with the physical evidence of such — a matrix of pinprick holes on his face where my mother had slapped him with a hairbrush.
But of all that abuse, the “stupid” meme stuck with me most, and evidently my father as well — my mother had repeated it so often that he’d obviously internalized it. He’s used his self-perception of being “stupid” to defend his being unable — or more likely, unwilling — to learn new things, to break habits, to fix crystallized behaviour that others have pointed out was hurting him or others.
There are certainly words that are insults, that only serve to do one thing: express displeasure with the target. An insult that has been used to dehumanize and break down a victim’s resolve over time, by calling to mind all the times that that insult has come with threats of or actual violence, can eventually graduate to the level of “slur”, especially when that word is used to hurt any of a whole class of people interchangeably. There is not, however, a hard, solid, bright line that once one crosses, it’s obvious to all parties that the word has graduated to the upper echelons of hurtful insults.
An argument can absolutely be made that the word “stupid” can be used to cause grievous harm to an individual, and I’d be extremely sympathetic to that argument. However, I had stopped using the word myself some years ago, not specifically because of its ableist connotations that a person is only of value if they are traditionally intelligent, or even just neurotypical — rather, I stopped using the word because it is maddeningly imprecise. On the insult scale, it is the polar opposite in my mind to the word “nice” — it means something generally bad, and generally about either the target’s intelligence or the intelligence of the person who designed the object. It doesn’t specify whether that bad thing is inherent in the nature of the object or person; it doesn’t specify whether that bad thing could be rectified or not. Neither does it define the scale or scope of the problem, or whether it’s compounded by a will to stay in its deficient state or a defense of said state as the preferred over the alternative.
To make matters worse, the word “stupid” has been used — along with a number of other words — to dehumanize a class of individuals who are born neuro-atypical. Its prevalence and casual use might serve as microaggressions to people who have been on the receiving end of the insult in matters over which they have no control. They know better than I exactly in what context their lives have been filled with that sort of talk.
But while the word “retard” might have fallen out of general use in pretty much every other context except as a slur against people with Down’s syndrome or who are on the autistic spectrum, the word “stupid” is still largely used as a grossly-generalized and largely mild insult when directed generally. And when the word is used against a specific person, it can mean anything from lacking education (which leads into a socioeconomic argument), to willful ignorance, or obtuseness, imprudence, or even duplicity. It can mean lacking reading comprehension skills, it can mean lacking clear judgment, it can mean arrogance or lack of foresight, and it can mean lacking in empathy. And yes, it can absolutely be intended as a slur against a person for being neuro-atypical. There are simply too many meanings rolled up into a single word for that word to have any utility, simply because the word has gained ubiquity and through that ubiquity, too much cultural baggage around too many contexts.
Intersectionality — of the sort that people here at Freethought Blogs, and Skepchick and the Atheism Plus forums, and that every other sympathetic humanist skeptical blogger espouses — implicitly demands an extremely high level of empathy. We have to be willing to put ourselves in others’ shoes and recognize that the language used against them may carry too much cultural baggage in one specific direction, and recognize that their fights should also be our fights if we imagine ourselves to be any sort of decent humanists. Therein lies the problem. We are supposed to be empathetic individuals — how dare we not have empathy for every fight?
But there are, in fact, ridiculous fights that we should abstain from empathizing with — ones where a person does not wish to be ridiculed for their otherwise ridiculous beliefs, like religiously motivated bigotries, for instance. Ones where a person is unwilling to actually examine the cultural baggage and sociological impact of their beliefs, their actions or — yes — their words. I recognize that some people might be made to feel bad if they are told their liberal use of “cunt” and “bitch” is misogynistic; I recognize that people saying that this-or-that-bad-thing is “gay” might be put out by your telling them that using the word as an insult is demeaning and systemically dehumanizing to homosexuals. I totally empathize with the discomfort caused to a person who cannot examine how their words or deeds affect others. But I cannot call for tolerance of, say, your average homophobic preacher who, despite never committing any direct violence on a gay person, still teaches their flock that hatred of gays is perfectly acceptable and that anyone trying to stop them is just striving for “political correctness”.
Remember, the people crying “you just want to ban words so you can be Politically Correct” are desperate to hold onto language that they personally enjoy using, and they do not wish to have to withstand the discomfort of changing their ways to avoid causing damage to others. In fact, they often don’t care about the damage, because they actively see these classes of people as Less Than. These people almost certainly lack any sort of empathy for their targets. And in most cases, in their calculus, they have determined that the people complaining about being called a certain name are simply too sensitive, and that they are in the right.
As a sidebar, I feel that in that sense, the word “cunt” — as culturally ubiquitous in England as being a contemptible person as it is here as solely being a slur for a woman — is in a similar position in England as the word “stupid” is here. “Stupid” is not, however, as amplified in its slanderous implications as the word “cunt”. In England, the word definitely does still refer to a woman’s genitalia, and it’s even in the upper tier of unacceptable-on-television words (though you’ll see it in movies now and again, but those are going to be rated). The contempt even in England comes almost exclusively from the misogyny that ran through the word; here, it’s retained all of it and is reserved almost exclusively to refer to women. In North America, “stupid” has crossed that same critical mass point — or rather, it’s always been past that point. A closer analogy to “stupid” might, in fact, be “twat” — where in England, the word seems to mean what “twit” or “fool” means here. You’ll notice that the people rushing to defend their use of misogynist slurs in North America never rush to the less-offensive of the pair, though.
In our culture, we’ve valued (and thus privileged) being neurotypical systemically for a very long time. Anyone who was considered neuro-atypical was of less value to society, and any excuse was given to send them to Bedlam. Today, we understand the situation better, and we can actually as a society help provide a good quality of life for people who are neuro-atypical, and in fact, a great many sorts of atypical neurological configurations are perfectly capable of being functional, contributing members of society even without any special help if only we get out of their way and stop telling them they’re not capable.
But that’s how privilege works. The institutions that allowed the word “stupid” to be common parlance rather than a slur, do in fact allow microaggressions against people who are fully-realized, fully-functional human beings because we as a society have always privileged contributing to society as a whole, over people who cannot contribute to society to the same degree or at the same level.
Hell, I’ve even gotten some of this acrimony over taking an Arts degree, rather than a “hard science”. The casual slander that “those who can, do; those who can’t, take Art History” was a meme that could be and was just as easily pointed at Music students, English students, and basically anyone outside the Computer Science school; I’ve even seen it leveled at people taking Sociology or Psychology, and by the same sorts of people who have decided that their preferred vocations are the only ones of use and the only ones that count as “science”. I even see the same sort of bigotries today against sociology within the skeptical and atheist communities. People have decided that certain roles are contributing, and others are not; and it’s always the privileged who make those decisions. I entirely get where a neuro-atypical person might be frustrated with an intractability with regard to ableism in our community and with just about every other.
Ultimately, though, I think the word “stupid” is too ubiquitous and too defanged and too vague to get particularly angry at people who are using it, despite the implications on society’s privileging of neurotypical folk in general. I do think that some people have ascribed the word “stupid” even more meaning than it already has, as suggesting that this lacking quality in the target is somehow immutable. The word simply doesn’t do that, though — certainly not in the same sense that the word “retarded” definitively has, where I’d place “retard” almost as high on the slur-o-meter as “fag”, “trap”, and the whole gamut of racial slurs we humans are so fond of inventing to the end of othering whole classes of human beings and making it so they are more likely targets of physical violence. The word “stupid” simply does not rise to that level. Not every pejorative rises to the level of slur. The context of every use of the word can help determine what is meant, but it is very likely that what you mean and what the target understands is entirely different.
I’ve attempted to give up using the word, though, because of that maddening impreciseness. Henceforth, if I see someone using it, I will ask for clarification of what exactly is meant, and suggest they use a better word instead, but I’m not particularly angry at or calling anyone out over its use. I’m sorry if that hurts anyone.
In my eyes, this isn’t a matter of oversensitivity, or undersensitivity, or privilege-blindness. It’s a matter of the evolution of language, and of context; of empathy, and knowing your audience and your audience knowing you. I genuinely believe that with regard to who actually cares about ableism, you’re going to find a little more empathy on one side of the “great divide” than the other; you should likewise empathize with the person who’s using a phrase that they didn’t know might trigger you, and give them the benefit of the doubt because in this specific case, the word is too doubtful. But by all means, ask for more precision and rip them a new one if they’re demonstrably being ableist and that’s stepping on your or anyone else’s toes.
I had a lot more to say, but I cut out a good-sized chunk of this, as this was already over-long. I expect some of that will come out in discussion or perhaps in a future post. I also expect the most-interested parties are already raw over this topic. Please understand this is not an attempt to dismiss anyone’s concerns. There’s a definite discussion to be had about how we got to this state as a society, but throwing away hard-won friendships over use of an all-too-common word is in my mind both premature and damaging.