Content Note: This series discusses ableist slurs. Many of them will be used in full. You are also allowed to use them in the comments only if it’s for the purposes of illustration and discussion. That is, you may use the words to talk about them. You may not use them as slurs in the comments. This note will be repeated on every post in this series.
There’s a few slurs most people agree shouldn’t be said. For example… it’s largely agreed that white people don’t use the n-word, just as it’s largely agreed that straight people don’t use the f-word (not “fuck”). And the r-word is largely considered inappropriate for polite company as well, now, although its use is still ubiquitous in some places (like YouTube comments, for example). Some slurs are a bit more controversial, such as gendered slurs, although I’ve no doubt my readers will largely agree that female-gendered slurs are bad, at least when used by dudes. But there are certain slurs that are so ubiquitous, even the most social-justice-minded of us will defend their use, insisting that they aren’t slurs at all.
I was like this, as well, for the longest time. The slurs in question were slurs that I used all the time. It took me a long time to consider how the entire idea of intelligence, and associated slurs like “stupid”, “idiot”, “moron”, “dumb”, “dumbass”, etc were extremely ableist. In fact, when I first set up my blog at its old home, one of my statements was “I love making fun of stupid people”. This got a response in a comment on a post I put up called An Open Letter to the Secular Community and its “Leaders”…
Honestly, this has me a bit worried about your sincerity regarding ethical treatment of others. You come off like a smug hypocrite.
“I love making fun of stupid people.”
According to Wikipedia, stupid is ‘a pejorative appellation for human misdeeds, whether purposeful or accidental, due to absence of mental capacity.‘
You use the phrase many times in this post and in your bio. Frankly, it’s way beyond the realm of a ‘gaffe’, humor, hyperbole, or ironic usage. You actually claim to *enjoy* making fun of stupid people. Did you also enjoy picking on idiots, dumb people, mentally disabled people when you were in school?
You are not referring to regrettable actions (e.g.: ‘deleting that file was stupid.’)
You are not expressing frustration with an object (e.g.: ‘stupid frickin’ door won’t open!’)
You are not referring to a less tangible concept, (e.g.: ‘there are no stupid questions’.)
You are clearly talking about *people* who have reduced mental capacity (e.g. ‘I love making fun of stupid people.’)
Even referring to a person as stupid could be more palatable. (e.g. ‘everybody knows that the world is full of stupid people’… ‘I was being stupid’ etc.) However, your stated intentions are repugnant, and not merely descriptive of a person’s behavior. Simply making fun of a ‘stupid person’ is derogatory and discriminatory.
So could y’all stop being ableist, please?
Instead of getting defensive, I decided to do some research to try and understand where the commenter was coming from. Over time, I learned more and more about ableism, ableist slurs, intelligence, the IQ test, and several other related subjects. As a result of my research, I’ve worked on dropping words like “stupid” from my vocabulary. And I’d like to share with all of you why.
First, let’s look at the history of the concept of intelligence and the IQ test.
The concept of intelligence has been around for a very long time. According to Wikipedia…
The term “intelligence” derives from the Latin nouns intelligentia or intellēctus, which in turn stem from the verb intelligere, to comprehend or perceive. In the Middle Ages, intellectus became the scholarly technical term for understanding, and a translation for the Greek philosophical term nous. This term, however, was strongly linked to the metaphysical and cosmological theories of teleological scholasticism, including theories of the immortality of the soul, and the concept of the Active Intellect (also known as the Active Intelligence). This entire approach to the study of nature was strongly rejected by the early modern philosophers such as Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and David Hume, all of whom preferred the word “understanding” (instead of “intellectus” or “intelligence”) in their English philosophical works. Hobbes for example, in his Latin De Corpore, used “intellectus intelligit” (translated in the English version as “the understanding understandeth”) as a typical example of a logical absurdity. The term “intelligence” has therefore become less common in English language philosophy, but it has later been taken up (with the scholastic theories which it now implies) in more contemporary psychology.
The definition, however, is quite controversial. In the Proceedings of the 2007 conference on Advances in Artificial General Intelligence, Dr. Shane Legg and Dr. Marcus Hutter published a paper collecting 70 different definitions of the term (<- link is a Mega.NZ link to download the PDF… yes it’s safe; I verified it myself when I downloaded the PDF from a similar link, then reupped it to my Mega account).
Of course, we should turn first to the dictionary. Merriam-Webster has a nice little collection of definitions for the term, none of which are all that elucidating…
1. a (1) : the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations : reason; also : the skilled use of reason (2) : the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (such as tests)
b Christian Science : the basic eternal quality of divine Mind
c : mental acuteness : shrewdness
3. : the act of understanding : comprehension
5. : the ability to perform computer functions
As we know, however, the purpose of a dictionary is merely to collect popular definitions. It is not a definition bible, and is always missing several definitions of all words.
Back in 1994, an op-ed was published in the Wall Street Journal (PDF), signed by 52 researchers (131 were invited to sign). The definition given for intelligence in that article was this:
A very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings—”catching on,” “making sense” of things, or “figuring out” what to do.
That article was a response to the outcry over the publishing of The Bell Curve, and was meant to defend it. For those who don’t know, The Bell Curve was published in 1994, and of the many controversies it stirred, perhaps the most prominent one is the book’s re-popularization of racial group differences on IQ tests and the consequences of that. I’ll be getting into how the concept of “intelligence”, and IQ tests specifically, have an extremely bigoted, and not just ableist, history later on in this post.
Another definition of “intelligence” was offered in 1995 in a report published by the Board of Scientific Affairs of the American Psychological Association called “Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns” (yet another attempt to defend/explain The Bell Curve):
Individuals differ from one another in their ability to understand complex ideas, to adapt effectively to the environment, to learn from experience, to engage in various forms of reasoning, to overcome obstacles by taking thought. Although these individual differences can be substantial, they are never entirely consistent: a given person’s intellectual performance will vary on different occasions, in different domains, as judged by different criteria. Concepts of “intelligence” are attempts to clarify and organize this complex set of phenomena. Although considerable clarity has been achieved in some areas, no such conceptualization has yet answered all the important questions, and none commands universal assent. Indeed, when two dozen prominent theorists were recently asked to define intelligence, they gave two dozen, somewhat different, definitions.
So what about IQ and the IQ Test?
The Intelligence Quotient is meant to be a total score derived from several standardized tests. According to the National Council on Measurement in Education’s Glossary of Important Assessment and Measurement Terms…
[The intelligence quotient is,] [h]istorically, a score obtained by dividing a person’s mental age score, obtained by administering an intelligence test, by the person’s chronological age, both expressed in terms of years and months. The resulting fraction is multiplied by 100 to obtain the IQ score.
A person’s “mental age score”, according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, is…
a numerical scale unit derived by dividing an individual’s results in an intelligence test by the average score for other people of the same age. Thus, a 4-year-old child who scored 150 on an IQ test would have a mental age of 6 (the age-appropriate average score is 100; therefore, MA = (150/100) × 4 = 6). The MA measure of performance is not effective beyond the age of 14.
I… can’t remember what my IQ was. I’m sure I had to take one of those tests as a child, but I can’t remember the results. It’s been very many years since I asked about it.
There have always been attempts to classify humans into “intelligence categories”. Before the IQ test, it was mostly about observing behavior. It was the English statistician Francis Galton who made the first attempt to create a standardized test. He thought that there should be correlations between intelligence and head size, muscle grip, and reflexes. When he failed to find such correlations, he abandoned the research. In 1905, Alfred Binet, Théodore Simon, and Victor Henri published the Binet-Simon Test. It was later revised by US-American psychologist Lewis Terman, and it remains the most popular intelligence test in the United States.
What’s interesting is that the test was not designed to measure intelligence. It was actually designed to find out which children needed extra help in school, because of what Binet called “developmental delay”. It was Terman, in his revision, that changed the Binet-Simon Test from a means of discovering children who need help to a means of classifying humans into “intelligence categories”.
This test was revised again when the US entered World War I by Robert Yerkes, in order to determine if soldiers were “mentally fit” to perform the tasks required of them. This version of the test relied on the idea that intelligence was heritable and… I mean… y’all know where this is going, right? The results of this version of the test were used to support jingoist and racist narratives, which, in fact, led to the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 which, according to Wikipedia…
…set quotas on the number of immigrants from certain countries while providing funding and an enforcement mechanism to carry out the longstanding (but hitherto unenforced) ban on other non-white immigrants. The law was primarily aimed at further decreasing immigration of Southern Europeans, countries with Roman Catholic majorities, Eastern Europeans, Arabs, and Jews.
The IQ test was further appropriated by supporters of Eugenics. Henry H. Goddard, who published a translation of the Simon-Binet Scale in 1910, was a eugenicist who believed in “eliminating ‘undesirable’ traits”. Of course we can see why the Simon-Binet Scale was so attractive to him. For Goddard, and very many eugenicists to this day, the test was the perfect mechanism by which you could weed out said “undesirable traits”; what Goddard called “feeblemindedness”. Goddard’s version of the test was used by eugenicists to push for forced sterilization of the poor, people who were neuro-divergent, and people who were disabled. Luckily, eugenics fell out of favor after World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, but its specter still rears its ugly head today.
Obviously, we’re only up to 1910 (well… okay… 1924), and we can already see how the IQ test has been used and abused by people specifically to discriminate. Its history is one of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and yes, ableism.
So what about intelligence itself? Is intelligence even a “thing” in the real world?
We’ve all grown up into the idea of intelligence. We are convinced that there are measures and levels of intelligence that can be objectively tested for. We all know that Albert Einstein is a genius, while the confusing jumble of letters known as “covfefe” can only have come from the mind of someone who is “stupid”. But what does this even mean?
Albert Einstein is considered a genius because of E=mc2 (okay yeah, that’s simplifying it, but still). So… what is a genius?
Well, according to an article published back in 2010 in Psychology Today by Andrew Robinson…
The word genius has its roots in Roman antiquity; in Latin, genius described the tutelary (guardian) spirit of a person, place, institution, and so on, which linked these to the forces of fate and the rhythms of time. Among the Romans, the idea of genius had no necessary relationship with ability or exceptional creativity.
Not until the Enlightenment did genius acquire its distinctly different, chief modern meaning: an individual who demonstrates exceptional intellectual or creative powers, whether inborn or acquired (or both). Homer, despite two millennia of veneration as a divinely inspired poet, did not become a ‘genius’ until the 18th century. This later usage derives from the Latin ingenium (not from genius), meaning ‘natural disposition’, ‘innate ability’, or ‘talent’.
In other words, much like “intelligence” itself, there is no precise definition of the word “genius”. It also clearly applies more easily to work rather than to people.
And that, really, leads me to my first point. Intelligence is not a definable thing that some people have. It all depends on the subject you’re talking about. I wonder… Albert Einstein was certainly a genius physicist… but what would happen if you sat him down in the driver’s seat of a car. He never learned to drive. So… perhaps… would he suddenly appear less like a genius and more… I don’t know… “stupid”?
So let’s talk about “stupid”, now. That’s really what’s spurred all of this.
“Stupid” is perhaps the most widely used slur today. For the definition, I’m just going to quote Wikipedia again (well… for “stupidity”, but it applies here):
Stupidity is a quality or state of being stupid, or an act or idea that exhibits properties of being stupid. In a character study of “The Stupid Man” attributed to the Greek philosopher Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BC), stupidity was defined as “mental slowness in speech or action”. The modern English word “stupid” has a broad range of application, from being slow of mind (indicating a lack of intelligence, care or reason), dullness of feeling or sensation (torpidity, senseless, insensitivity), or lacking interest or point (vexing, exasperating). It can either imply a congenital lack of capacity for reasoning, or a temporary state of daze, or slow-mindedness.
In Understanding Stupidity, James F. Welles defines stupidity this way: “The term may be used to designate a mentality which is considered to be informed, deliberate and maladaptive.” Welles distinguishes stupidity from ignorance; “one must know they are acting in their own worst interest. Secondly, it must be a choice, not a forced act or accident. Lastly, it requires the activity to be maladaptive, in that it is in the worst interest of the actor, and specifically done to prevent adaption to new data or existing circumstances.”
That is very close to what my understanding of the word used to be. “Stupid”, I used to think, wasn’t a built-in trait. “Stupid” had no excuse. Someone who had a learning disability wasn’t “stupid” to me. It was people who had every reason to know better. Young-Earth Creationists and Flat-Earthers, for example, were people I considered to be “stupid”, because the ideas themselves were such.
I remember a girl in high school from a math class. I remember how we all used to make fun of her because she was so… so… “stupid”. One example was when the teacher would read out a word problem from our math books (after telling us what page and number we were on) and write the numbers from the problem on the board. Then the teacher would ask us a question to get us thinking about how to solve the problem. This girl would raise her hand and proceed to ask the teacher where she got the numbers.
In the book, of course! The teacher just told us where we were and read the problem as she wrote the numbers on the board! How could this girl be so… “stupid”?!? Worse, our teacher accommodated her! She would answer the questions and sometimes even walk over to her desk to point out exactly where we were.
Several years later, when I discovered that this same girl (by this time a woman, obviously) was attending the same college as me, I found out that she wasn’t at all “stupid”… in fact, she finished that semester of college with a 4.0 average and I believe graduated with a 3.9 or 4.0 average, if I recall correctly. The truth was that she had both dyslexia and dyscalculia (though mild cases for each), and had ADHD. She wasn’t “stupid” at all. And when she had guidance, she was able to follow along in a normal class. And thinking back on it, she never did disrupt the class that much… and she told me that she did really well on the tests in that class. I apologized to her for how we treated her; how I treated her. She accepted my apology, and we ended up becoming friends.
That little anecdote is meant to raise a very important question… how do you know? How do you know who’s being deliberately, willfully ignorant and who has a learning disability? How can you tell? And that, ultimately, highlights the problem with “stupid” and why it’s ableist… because you don’t know. And the assumption that someone is “stupid”, when that most likely is far away from the truth, is a messy, gross, and potentially insulting assumption to make.
I want to end this first post on the subject by quoting from the Ableist Word Profile on Intelligence:
And here’s where we really get into why intelligence is an ableist concept: Stupid is a perception, usually based on the perceived ability to communicate. A person with communication impairments is going to be perceived as stupid. The same word means ‘stupid’ and ‘unable to speak’ for a reason. (It’s one I’m trying to excise from my vocabulary. It’s a process.) Someone with cerebral palsy who requires that the rest of us slow down and wait for xer to communicate at xer speed is going to be perceived as unintelligent. Someone who can’t speak under stress (I stammer and eventually become dysphasic on bad days) is going to be perceived as unintelligent at those times. Deaf people are perceived as unintelligent. None of these conditions have a damn thing to do with cognition and everything to do with communication.
Except we don’t have to do any of this the way we’re doing it. We can talk about abilities like spatial reasoning, social adeptitude, and mathematical skills and needs like a school environment that accommodates one child’s ADHD variation, another child’s mathematical intuition and xer need for challenging material presented at xer pace. We can talk about good decisions and bad decisions, either of which can turn out well or badly. We can accommodate variations in cognitive ability — and consider it ability and not get stuck on what a person can’t do. We can learn (sometimes painfully for those of us privileged with the ability to communicate more or less as the majority of people do, but the examination of privilege is never guaranteed painless) to accommodate the needs of those who communicate differently. It’s not their responsibility to communicate in ways that don’t make us have to work.
It does mean we would have to jettison the hierarchy of intelligence. Nobody gets to be geniuses, nobody has to be idiots. We’d stop marking whole people as intelligent or stupid. On the plus side? People could stop thinking of themselves as stupid. Wouldn’t that be revolutionary?
And for fuck’s sake there wouldn’t be any cognitive tests anyone would have to pass to be considered human.
In my next post on the subject, I want to talk more about “stupid” as an ableist slur, about whether or not ideas can be “stupid”. I also want to discuss words like “deaf”, “dumb”, and “blind” used as slurs, as well as words like “moron”, “idiot”, “crazy”, “weird”, and so on. Then, I’ll do a third post breaking down ways we can all challenge ourselves to do better, to think about ableism, and to challenge and expand our own vocabulary by finding ways to express our own rage at people being willfully ignorant without being ableist in the process. I also think I may finish the series (well, probably more a trilogy) up with an addendum that ends up being a rant about the whole concept of “sapiosexuality”…