Here at Argument Clinic we are trying to eschew ableist invective, since it is almost always inaccurate and causes “splash damage.” Our recommendation to the huddled masses is to resort to using the most deadly insult of all, namely: Truth. But what do we do with ‘Stupid’?
We know you need our guidance, but we have to admit that we are transfixed in Lovecraftian dread at the tendrils of doubt that are wrapping tighter and tighter around our left ankle.
“Stupid” is tricky. First off, it’s a lovely word – you can slide it subtly into a sentence, or you can make it the center-piece of a really good epithet and spit it out like venom; the lead-in hiss, the focal plosive ‘p’ and the dramatic plunking ‘d’ at the end. “That’s stupid.” Boom. You can go around calling things ‘Stupid’ and pretty quickly you’ll be a celebrated new atheist, right up there with Harris and Dawkins. The problem is implication: if someone has a stupid idea, the person with the idea is stupid.
We have no good options for using the word. On one hand there are, certainly, stupid ideas. For example, attempting to drive a dirt-bike down a ski-jump is almost certainly a stupid idea – except for when it’s not. But, in those mitigating circumstances, then it is no longer a stupid idea, it’s merely dangerous, risky, possibly fatal, or whatever. Suppose we have a stunt-person who is offered a great deal of money to drive a dirt-bike down a ski-jump; they are doing their job. They are not stupid to do this thing, it may be a rational choice. The person having the stupid idea may not even be the stunt-person – the stupid idea is the product of the venal crowd-pleasing Lanista (master of gladiators) and the crowd they are trying to please. On the other hand, we have the Jerry Springer Show: perhaps there is no circumstance in which anyone involved in it is being stupid. Everyone involved is deliberately choosing self-debasement, even the audience. The show is not “Stupid” – we do not fully understand the situation.
Avoid, therefore, calling an idea “Stupid” because you are walking into a maze in which you can make a mistake as to the origin of the idea. Perhaps the only idea you can safely call “Stupid” is one of your own. But, more likely, you are wallowing in various degrees of mistaken, blundering, misunderstanding, or making a bad choice.
Another problem – if we announce that an idea is stupid, it may be an idea originating from someone who has suffered a neurological catastrophe, and the dirt-bike rider was trying to humor them by riding down the ski-jump. Perhaps, given our example, “splash damage” is the wrong expression to use – but you get the point.
When verbally cornered, fight like a cornered rat. We have one lifeline if we accidentally call someone or something “Stupid” and that is to attempt to fine-slice the dictionary definition. Oh, I was not wrong to call Richard Dawkins “Stupid” – I meant “Stupid in the sense that he is Obtuse.” And then you must rush to establish your defensive line behind “Obtuse”, which probably makes you Obtuse, too.
Keep “Obtuse” in your back pocket but try to avoid the problem entirely.
Our colleague, Nathan Hevenstone [athe] challenges us to stop using ableist insults, and “Stupid” is one of them. We agree with his initiative:
For one whole month, drop every ableist slur from your vocabulary. Find other ways to say what you mean without resorting to these easy, lazy slurs. Then get back to me.
So I very badly want everyone to at least attempt this challenge. For just one month, stop using “stupid”, “moron”, “idiot”, “dense”, “crazy”, “insane”, and similar words, and stop using the diagnostic names of actual conditions (“deaf”, “dumb”, “blind”, “autistic”, “schizophrenic”, “sociopathic”, “bi-polar”, etc) as slurs, as well.
On aesthetic grounds, alone, we ought to be able to deploy invective more effectively and precisely; if we’re going to be cruel, lets do it right. If you wish to hurt someone, don’t lob area weapons at them (unless you are the US Air Force) – put a well-placed verbal dagger in their kidney. Use Truth.
So, let’s suppose your friend announces their intention to ride a dirt-bike down a ski-jump. What do you do? Your obvious first maneuver is to say something friendly and supportive like, “good god, why?” This allows you to simultaneously stall while gathering more information (tactical battlefield intelligence). Then perhaps:
- “That is the worst idea I have ever heard from you. You have outdone yourself.” (golf clap)
- “Are you planning to monetize this on Youtube? Because it may be too messy for their terms of service.”
- [Desperation stall] “Wait, tell me more.”
- (consults Magic 8-Ball) “Signs point to no.” [Note: that is a blatant appeal to authority]
As we have claimed all along, nothing stings like precise application of The Truth. [stderr]
What are some other situations in which you would formerly have called something “Stupid” or someone “Stupid” and what are you going to use, instead?
I assume there is a “Magic 8-ball App”