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.
So, the last post in this series was basically about the history of intelligence and the IQ test, and began the argument for why “stupid” is, indeed, an ableist slur. I want to continue that argument here. There is a very strong (in my opinion, anyways) case to be made for dropping “stupid” entirely from our vocabularies.
But before I do that, I want to say this:
I cannot tell you what to do. I can’t police your language and I have no interest in doing so. I am simply putting forth an argument for why I have dropped words like “stupid”, “dumb”, “deaf”, “blind”, “crazy”, “idiot”, “moron”, etc from my vocabulary as slurs against people. I will even put forth an argument for why using “stupid” as a slur against actions or ideas is… well… iffy at best. It’s up to you to decide whether I’ve put forth a good argument, or at least my sources put forth good arguments.
What I’m not doing, here, is demanding changes to laws that would violate anyone’s free speech. I’m not saying that these words should be illegal. I’m asking that you really think about what I have to say. I do strongly believe that these words are ableist, and as such I strongly believe it’s a good idea to try not to use them. But I can only speak for myself.
I want to give Jenny Crofton at The Body is Not an Apology the floor for a moment to talk a little bit more about the word “stupid”…
Conflating harmful actions with lack of intelligence does everyone a disservice. To suggest that “stupidity” that is what makes people act badly undermines any real accountability. The causes of problematic behavior rarely have anything to do with mental acuity, and we can’t properly address harmful behavior while being so reductive about its causes. Carelessness, bias, hatred, greed, closed-mindedness, indifference – these are the traits that lead to oppression. Our intelligence is not the issue so much as our sense of compassion and justice.
A person can be unintelligent and still know right from wrong. There are people with cognitive disabilities who I respect a thousand times more than those who are supposedly more abled. They have stronger principles, seek to better themselves, and are committed to being good people. They are just capable of being sensitive and caring as everyone else. To imply that they aren’t is outrageous.
Ultimately, “stupid” is a word that can easily be replaced with so many other words. It’s one of those words where, even if you remove the fact that it’s an ableist slur, it’s entirely superfluous. It serves no purpose since it really doesn’t elucidate… well… anything. It’s a lazy word.
And it’s still ableist. Back in 2014, ischemgeek made a case that it’s actually a euphemism for another ableist slur: “retarded”…
So, we’ve established that it has an ableist definition. Now I’m going to talk about my case that it constitutes a euphemism for one of the most vile ableist slurs out there. The first part of my case is to look at the synonyms of that slur. It includes many of the same words as the list of synonyms for stupid, and even includes the word stupid itself. If you look at the definition, a common slang use is as a synonym for stupid or foolish – this is the ableist slur usage we’re so familiar with.
In other words, even dictionaries, which are notoriously slow to accept changes in language usage, recognize that stupid is synonymous with that slur. Dictionaries exist to document current language usage patterns, not to stay on top of slang fads. Hence, for something to be placed in a dictionary as an accepted definition, it must be both 1, common usage (technical definitions almost never make it into general English dictionaries) and 2, old enough for the dictionaries to recognize it’s not a one-year fad like the neologism “ruly” was in my childhood.
Does “stupid” being a euphemism for a much worse word make it ableist?
By itself… maybe. But when taken with everything else I’ve argued in the previous post and this one so far, I’d argue the case against “stupid” is very strong.
Ania, over at ‘Splain You a Thing, put forth a challenge to bloggers, and went into a very wonderful explanation for why “stupid” was on her list. She says much of what I’ve said already, but I still want to quote two separate paragraphs, while imploring you to read the full post at the link…
We form a picture in our minds of someone who is cognitively impaired and we combine it with that of someone who is willfully ignorant and/or bigoted. But at the same time there is a second picture. That picture is every single neurodivergent child who was called stupid because they learned differently than other kids. To them, the picture of someone who is stupid is themselves.
We as a society have proven that we are incredibly bad judges of what is considered intelligence, but we treat those we falsely assume to be less intelligent as also being less human. The measure of perceived intelligence has been a justification in denying people of colour their rights. It was used as a justification for denying women their rights. And it is again being used as a justification to deny people with disabilities their rights by implying that a false measure of intelligence is in any way an indicator of humanity and personhood.
Taken with my last post, these are all why I have tried to drop “stupid” from my vocabulary. Now I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t hard. I’ve slipped up recently. Of every slur I’ve ever used that I then chose to remove from my vocabulary, “stupid” has been the hardest one to drop. And there’s good reason for that… the same reason that so many defend its use in the first place. It’s perhaps the single most ubiquitous slur used by human beings. It’s an easy word to reach for, with a meaning everybody understands.
Except we don’t. When pressed, most people will tell you that “stupid” means “willfully ignorant”, not “cognitively impaired and/or unable to communicate”. But when we use the word, we absolutely use it with the second meaning implied. You may not even realize it, but that is the implication of its use.
So what about situations? Can situations, actions, ideas, etc be stupid? Maybe Ray Comfort isn’t “stupid”, but isn’t Young-Earth Creationism?
So… first off, I want to use this to drop a little conspiracy theory of mine. Those “famous” YECs? Your Ray Comforts, Kent Hovinds, Ken Hamms, etc? They’re snake-oil salesmen. They aren’t “stupid” at all; in fact, they’re quite “intelligent”. Because they know they’re full of crap. They know YEC isn’t true; they know evolution is a fact. But look at how much money they make off of this. That’s not “stupidity”. It’s actually quite smart. Unethical and dishonest, yes, but smart. Second off…
(ETA: sonofrojblake [comment #1] is actually right. I should have thought about this more before writing it. It is arrogant and very much entirely unevidenced. I guess the idea of them being snake-oil salesmen makes sense to me simply because we live in a country where snake-oil salesmen are everywhere [Deepak Chopra, John Edward, Dr. Oz, etc] so people using YECism to make a buck even though they knows it’s BS fits in with that. But that’s not enough to actually put forth the idea as fact, so I’ve crossed it out. I’ve also added a bit more about YECism to make my point clearer. Thanks for pointing it out, sonofrojblake.)
Ideas, actions, and so on come from people. Despite popular belief, calling a person’s idea “stupid” can actually be just as harmful as calling them “stupid”.
Because “stupid” isn’t constructive. You’re not criticizing… you’re just denigrating. The other person can’t learn anything from being told that their idea is “stupid”. Like I said before… it’s lazy. It elucidates absolutely nothing.
Instead, you could be constructive. You could say “that’s a bad idea, and here’s why” or “I think you made a big mistake there. You should have done this, instead” or “I don’t know if I like that choice. Here’s a better one.” Explain why you don’t like whatever it is, instead of just calling it “stupid”.
Don’t have the time to go into specifics? It’s still better to just say something like “nah, that’s a bad idea” or “you know what? No. I’m against that” and move on than to say “that’s stupid”. Even when you’re using it against ideas or actions or such, there’s still splash damage.
So YECism? It’s wrong. Factually wrong. It’s proven wrong. But that doesn’t make it “stupid”.
The argument I’ve made against “stupid” here easily applies to words like “moron”, “idiot”, “fool”, and so on, as well. The entire concept of intelligence itself is flawed at best, extremely bigoted at worst. Attacking people based on their perceived “cognitive impairment” and “inability to communicate” is, quite frankly, extremely ableist.
What about using words like “deaf”, “dumb”, and “blind” as slurs? This one should be self-explanatory. These words are actually the names of actual conditions that people suffer from. Remember the quote I took from the Ableist Word Profile in part 1? The author said this about “stupid”:
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.
“Deaf”, “dumb”, and “blind” are exactly those types of conditions. They cause us, who can hear, speak, and see to adjust the way we communicate in order to communicate with people who can’t do those things. So people who have these conditions are often deemed “stupid”.
I’ll quote from Ania here again…
I feel like this is should be self-explanatory, but when you use something like a condition that people actually experience as a pejorative you are making it clear that having that identity is negative. That there is something wrong with being blind, or being deaf, or lame, or autistic, or bi-polar, etc. We can argue until the cows come home about whether there is something inherently bad with any of those things, so I will just summarize with unless you are any of these things you don’t get to have an opinion on it, end of story, but ultimately that it irrelevant. Because ultimately regardless of whether there is something wrong with say, being autistic, the fact is that it translates into there being something wrong with being an autistic person. Hate of the thing becomes hatred of the person living with it. And this translates into dehumanization, devaluation, and death.
Does that seem like blowing things out of proportion to you?
Obviously calling someone or something “dumb” doesn’t actually directly kill anyone. But it’s a microaggression that contributes to a society that devalues the lives of people who are neurodivergent and/or disabled; a society that allows them… allows us (because I am neurodivergent) to die. This goes the same for using any diagnostic name of a condition as a slur… “autistic”, “lame”, “sociopathic”, “bi-polar”, etc. These are actual conditions… they should not be used as slurs and pejoratives.
Now, there is an argument with the word “blind” that says it’s not ableist at all because it refers to a “lack of sight”, and that’s not only referring to actual sight (“blind driveway”, for example). The problem, again, is that “blind”, here, is being used as yet another stand-in for “stupid” or “retarded”. It is a condition, and it’s use as a slur is using that condition as a weapon. That’s what makes it ableist.
And that’s why words like “crazy”, “insane”, and so on are also ableist. Yet again I have to quote from Ania…
This one is a twofer (two for one) being both ableist and sexist. This particular insult is often hurled at women, often in an effort to gaslight them into believing that they are imagining things or over-reacting. Even those instances when it is not aimed at women it maintains some of its gendered component since mental health is often erroneously believed to be a woman’s concern.
Using crazy as an insult actually adds to a lot of the stigma surrounding mental health. There are people living with, for example, who are schizophrenic who are perfectly reasonable individuals and in no way bigoted, scary, or dangerous. For some time I lived next door to someone who was a paranoid schizophrenic. They were one of my best neighbours; courteous and helpful. Not once did we have a problem with this person. Yet for many people, the idea of having a paranoid schizophrenic next door is a worrisome one. Homes for people with various such conditions often have a difficult time finding acceptance in their neighbourhoods. They residence can find themselves accused of all sorts of things from light vandalism to more serious crimes, often without any actual evidence and with the residence in fact being completely innocent.
So “crazy” gets the added bonus of being a slur against women.
It’s use as a positive word has been… interesting… to me, to be entirely honest. But it doesn’t change the fact that the word is ableist. There are other, more descriptive words that can be used. I, personally, choose to use them, instead.
I would like to say one last thing, here. I want to make the argument against “stupid” a little personal…
Those of you who follow me might know that, as a young teenager, I was suicidal. The biggest reason for that was because I thought of myself as “stupid”. I genuinely believed that if you put a picture of me next to the word “stupid” in the dictionary, people would understand what it meant. I believed this because that is how my peers in school used it against me. I genuinely believed what they said about me, and I felt my biggest problem was that I was “stupid”, because that’s what they said. The word hurt me. And yet I used it against others without ever thinking about it. I don’t like doing to others what I wouldn’t want done to me. And that is yet another reason why I’m trying to drop it from my vocabulary.
In part 3, I’m going to echo Ania’s own blogging challenge (which I’ve already quoted from 3 times in this post), and provide y’all with several lists of alternative words and phrases you could use, instead.
Please remember… these slurs may only be used in the service of discussing them… they may not be used as slurs, unless you are quoting something to refute it. Please engage respectfully and in good faith. Do not attack each other. And… please… genuinely consider the argument, here. I think it’s worth talking about, at the very least, and I’d like to see more people think about this stuff.