Never Let Me Go is a book about a bunch of unusual kids, who grow up without really understanding how unusual they are. They go to a special school, and the school is particularly intent on having the kids show creativity, and produce artwork. The reason the school wants artwork is… oh, I shouldn’t spoil it. The kids don’t really understand why. All they understand is that to have an artwork chosen by the school officials is an honor.
And therefore it is a basis for social hierarchy.
To the kids, art isn’t an outlet for creativity, it isn’t a matter of amusement, but a matter of achievement. There’s one kid who drew a silly picture one of an elephant one time, and as a result the kids perceive him as lagging behind. For years, he gets teased, pranked, and throws huge tantrums. He finds peace when a teacher takes him aside and tells him it’s okay to be less creative. The other kids are scandalized by the very idea.
I’ve been thinking about this story, and how it resembles our own situation. The truth is, we grew up into a system that we didn’t really understand, but where we understood that being smart was an achievement. We’ve had personal experience building social hierarchies around perceived intelligence, before even understanding what a social hierarchy is, or why intelligence is important. We’ve pinned the labels “smart” or “stupid” on other people, and had them pinned to ourselves, often on flimsy evidence, and these labels have governed the early years of our lives.
One difference is that in Never Let Me Go, the kids eventually leave the school, and the value of “creativity” doesn’t really get reinforced anymore. In the real world, “intelligence” gets reinforced over and over, because communicating, reasoning, and decision-making continue to be valuable skills, at least until we retire. But does that necessarily make the hierarchy based on intelligence more justified? If the kids in Never Let Me Go spent most of their lives in that special school (trying to avoid spoilers here *wink*), would that mean that their “creativity”-based hierarchy was justified?
I have no problem with passing judgment on a person’s reasoning, just as I might pass judgment on a person’s artwork. It is important for society, as a whole, to be productive, and creative, and wise. This requires that we have a healthy tradition of criticism. But I do not think it is necessary to give ourselves so much grief over it. The value of a person does not come from their productivity, does not come from some “intelligence” that supposedly determines the quality of their work. We do not need to erect complicated social hierarchies based on intelligence.
Nate Hevenstone recently had a series about intelligence and ableism, starting with a history of the concepts, and ending with Ania’s Ableism Challenge. The Ableism Challenge asks writers to try, for one month, to stop using a set of words, such as “stupid” and “lame”. I responded to this challenge a few years ago, and was proud to find that I personally didn’t use the words very much to begin with.
Over the years, my thoughts on this have developed more. I think the challenge is a useful exercise, that can help writers better grasp the issue. But I don’t think the end goal is really to excise these words from our vocabulary. The end goal is to excise the concepts from our vocabulary.* No synonyms for “stupid” will do. The problem is not in the specific word or its history, the problem is that we need to stop invoking the hierarchy that we’ve been inculcated into since we were kids.
*To add some wrinkles, I would not say that this is true of every word on Ania’s list. For example, I think “lame” is bad specifically because of its history. There isn’t any inherent problem with a mild pejorative that has “lost all colour from overuse”. Seriously, whatever. I don’t use “lame” because sometimes it refers to people with mobility impairments, not because I think it’s uncreative.
Again, it’s fine and even necessary to criticize people’s work. Some people, like our president, produce evil work of such magnitude that it absolutely impacts their value as human beings. But the evil of Donald Trump is not remotely equivalent to the kids who had “stupid” answers to the teacher questions.
I can’t blame people who aren’t up to the Ableism Challenge. It is very difficult to escape the social hierarchy of intelligence that we all grew up in. But I think it is worth it to try, not only to fight ableism, but for our own personal growth.