You wouldn’t use “uneducated” as an insult

Several bloggers on FTB and The Orbit brought to my attention the ableism challenge, which is a call to sympathetic bloggers to try, for one month, to stop using ableist insults. The list of insults includes “stupid”, “crazy”, and “blind”.

I’m going to say a few mixed things about this. First, I’ll say why I’m critical of calls to taboo words. Then I’ll say why I’m more sympathetic to this ableism challenge. Then I’ll explain why I personally don’t use ableist insults.

In social justice activism, I am unenthusiastic about tabooing problematic words. For one thing, taboos get abused. The arguments around “bisexual” are an example. Another example are the many words for people who aren’t asexual. Sure, words can be problematic, but people seem especially motivated to find problems when a word is used by a group they don’t like.

Second, tabooing words is clearly difficult. Few other kinds of social justice activism inspire such resistance. Social justice activists often think this means we need to push harder and harder–resistance means we’ve found a load-bearing stone in the temple of the patriarchy. But maybe that resistance should be taken at face value. Maybe tabooing words is in fact difficult, in disproportion to how important it is?

Third, I really don’t like etymological arguments, which say that a word is bad because its history is bad. I believe that the meaning of a word is found in its usage. The history of a word is only important if its usage frequently references its history. If you keep on referencing a word’s history in order to complain about how that history is terrible, I feel like you are creating the same problem that you are trying to address. Additionally, if you say that “stupid” is a bad word because of its history, you only encourage people to look for synonyms, which is missing the point.

However, I have nice things to say about Ania Cebulla’s ableism challenge. She recognizes that changing language is difficult. Challenging yourself to avoid ableist slurs for a month is in fact a practical tool to overcome that difficulty, if you are willing. Second, she does not rely on etymological arguments, instead referring to current usage.

I’m proud to say that I have already passed this challenge. Based on searches, the last example in my blogging was in February, when I referred to stupidity on the internet. Prior to that, I used “stupid” in November, and in that case I was giving voice to a hypothetical person whom I was disagreeing with. Obviously I haven’t purged “stupid” from my vocabulary completely, but apparently I use it sparingly.

The truth is that I’ve had a lifelong impulse to think of certain people as stupid, and I’ve long made an effort to reject that impulse as discriminatory. When people seem stupid, the pattern I’ve found is that really they’re just lower class, and they didn’t have as good an education.

If someone lacks basic background knowledge, or they’re failing to draw the obvious inference, or they’re coming up with nonsensical ideas, I try to say that. But to call someone stupid feels to me like calling someone uneducated, or poor.  So we live in a world where life is unfair, but I will not gloat over my own fortune!


  1. sonofrojblake says

    I believe that the meaning of a word is found in its usage.

    In 1997 or so I was chatting to a bloke about snowboard bindings, with particular reference to the then-new-fangled “Flow” bindings, which rather than tediously buckling up in the conventional manner instead just kind of slipped on and secured the boot with a cammed clamp on the highback. Blah blah, whatever. His considered opinion was that they were definitely quicker and might very well be good, but that “they look gay”. I was baffled. Snowboard bindings are a manufactured object. They don’t reproduce, they don’t have gender, they don’t have sex. How could they “look gay”? He couldn’t explain it. It was my first encounter with the idea that the word “gay” could be used in a context with no possible reference to sexuality to simply mean something pejorative.

    In the two decades since I’ve heard the word used by children for whom “gay” really does have only one meaning – “rubbish”. It appears (from usage) to be completely divorced from any former meaning. I’ve seen SJW arguments that this usage isn’t acceptable, and I can entirely understand why.

    But the word has already undergone a fundamental change of usage once. “Gay”, to me (born 1969) has only ever meant “homosexual”. Sure, I’m aware from historical sources that it used to mean “carefree”… but not in my lifetime. Nobody younger than me ever uses with that meaning other than as a weak joke. My generation has settled on a usage for those three letters. But the usage is changing, or for the next generation it seems it has already changed. If you’re gay, and used to that word meaning something that defines you, that changed usage is (I’m guessing) insulting.

    Do you accept that usage of “gay” defines meaning? Or is it preferable to make an effort to preserve what, to me, is the “current” meaning?

  2. sonofrojblake says

    A second, unrelated comment:

    When people seem stupid, the pattern I’ve found is that really they’re just lower class, and they didn’t have as good an education

    “Lower class” = “poor education” only really works in countries where there’s no free education system, or if there is one, it’s objectively rubbish (rather than just not quite as good as the system you’d get if you could afford to pay).

    I went to a comprehensive school in the UK. That is to say, there was no entrance exam and no fee. I received the same standard of education as the other kids in my class, who were without exception working class. One of the kids in my class is now a senior lecturer in haematology at a world class university. One of the kids in my class died last year of a drugs overdose in a car park a few weeks after making the national and international news for being arrested for trying to sexually assault a postbox in a shopping centre in broad daylight.

    It seems uncontroversial to me to suggest that one of those two people could reasonably be described as “stupid”. Class and education cannot be used as any excuse.

  3. anat says

    In traditional Jewish culture an accusation of ignorance is in fact used as an insult. I grew up with it, both my father and my teachers occasionally used it where relevant. I didn’t perceive it as a big deal, but it could be different for someone who in fact was learning disabled. But then, my teachers would have known if anyone in the room had an actual disability (as defined at the time) – so would it have been OK for them to use? At least ignorance can be cured by learning, in contrast with disability.

  4. says

    Your discussion of “gay” has a couple ambiguous antecedents so I don’t understand what you’re asking. However, even if we don’t like a particular meaning of a word, we can admit that it exists. And sometimes a word has different meanings for different populations.

    I wouldn’t have thought to insult the poor kid who died of an overdose. That’s just sad.

  5. anothersara says

    I have mostly removed words like ‘stupid’ from my vocabulary already. I made the effort years ago because I wanted to reduce the ableism in my language, and it did make me think more critically about what it means to say somebody/something is stupid. I now favor more specific words like ‘nonsensical’ ‘incompetent’ ‘uninformed’ etc. which make my intended meaning clearer than a word like ‘stupid’ anyway.

    A search on my blog finds that the word ‘stupid’ is only used when I am quoting somebody else.

    That said, even before I excised ‘stupid’ from my personal vocabulary, I did not associate it so strongly with ‘uneducated’ or ‘poor’. Probably because I have met a lot of people with a high level of formal education and/or had upper middle class privilege who were still thoughtless, incompetent, uninformed, were bad at analysis, said/did nonsensical stuff, etc. … in other words, had the traits which I associated with ‘stupid’ when I was still inclined to use that word.

  6. says

    This is why I always liked you, Siggy. You look at things from all sides instead of just saying, “I’m right, you’re wrong, get used to it.” Maybe that’s why we get along so well.

  7. birdterrifier says

    You might be passing this challenge so swimmingly because you don’t rely on insults in your blogging.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    the poor kid who died of an overdose

    … was forty five years old, if I didn’t make that sufficiently clear. And yes, it was sad and more than a bit depressing.

    The point, however, was that you can’t use class, background or access to education as an excuse for his sad end or for the choices he made that got him there.

  9. says

    The class/education association was just my personal association and rationale. In cases that have nothing to do with class or education, it only seems all the more inappropriate to call people uneducated–so I’d avoid calling them stupid too.

  10. Numenaster says

    @sonofrojblake #1,

    You said “But the usage is changing, or for the next generation it seems it has already changed. ” My son, now 33, is part of this “next generation” you reference. The first time he used “gay” in the sense of “bad” in my house, I asked him to find another word to convey his meaning with. He made the argument you do here: that the meaning has changed. I replied “Are you seriously trying to tell me that the new meaning has nothing to do with the old meaning?” We didn’t have to have that conversation again.

    New meanings do not generally accumulate onto words without some link to existing meanings. In this case, “gay” easily became a simple synonym for bad because of the preexisting association of homosexuality with bad things. If “gay” had continued to mean “carefree”, you can bet that something else would have become the new version of “bad”.

  11. sonofrojblake says

    @Siggy, 9:
    What would you call them? I mean – wouldn’t you condemn someone for violent, anti-social and self-destructive behaviour, wilful ignorance and deliberate rejection of help? Wouldn’t you hold them responsible for their actions? When someone is offered all the advantages of a free, good education and has available to them all the benefits (figurative and literal) of a modern civilised social democracy, and rejects those in favour of a life of crime and squalor, doesn’t “stupid” function very well as a concise description of their character?

    @Numenaster, 10:

    We didn’t have to have that conversation again.

    Yeah, in his place I wouldn’t have bothered trying to explain it to you any further either. I note you didn’t say “I changed his mind.”

  12. says

    I know little about this person except that you called him stupid. Which I note, conveyed so little information that you feel compelled to keep on saying more about him.

  13. sonofrojblake says

    I didn’t call him stupid. I did suggest that most would regard it as uncontroversial to do so.

    How would you describe him, given that “poor” applies but is demonstrably irrelevant and “uneducated” does not?

  14. Numenaster says

    @sonofrojblake, my goal was not to change his mind. Based on later conversations I think I did so, but my goal was to not have to listen to “gay” as an insult. Mission accomplished.

  15. says

    The ableism challenge is about how sympathetic bloggers can modify their language. I am not trying to police your language (although it seems that you yourself are not calling this guy stupid, merely defending other people who do?).

    But I would question whether “stupid” is truly apt in the case you describe. I don’t even know what is meant by that. Does that mean people pity him? Or that something was wrong with his brain (not ableist at all!)? Is it about his moral character (because the UK is sufficiently equal opportunity, that any difference in fortune must reflect on people’s moral character?)? I dunno, talking about some guy I only heard of third-hand does not seem like an especially productive exercise.

  16. sonofrojblake says

    Is it about his moral character (because the UK is sufficiently equal opportunity, that any difference in fortune must reflect on people’s moral character?)

    In short – yes.

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