On anger over the word "stupid"

Anti-social-justice folks are attempting to stir the pot and get so-called “big names” to throw down with one another right now. There’s a definite sense of glee coming from certain parts, parts wherein people are evidently incapable of any sort of nuanced argumentation, where all they live for is the “drama” of people disagreeing with one another. It’s the “let’s you and him fight” sort of instigation you expect in high school. And it needs to be pointed out that this is happening, precisely because there is always some manner of painful growth necessary within our movement.

This is exactly the sort of thing they’ve been asked to do and have refused, and are now relishing the moment that the people who asked them to do that sort of growing are themselves being called out for language that has done splash damage. Except, the configuration of this particular fight isn’t quite exactly right for the sort of lines-drawing that we’re doing.

Trigger warning: discussion of slurs in just about every class of such, including and especially ones that are considered ableist since they are at the heart of the current conflagration.

When I was growing up, my mother genuinely mistreated — dare I say it, abused — my father. I don’t consider my father a saint either, mind you, but I do know that in the relationship between the two of them, there was a lot of very one-sided abuse.

Most of that abuse was verbal — my mother liked to call my father stupid. He was not particularly well-educated. He’d dropped out of high school and got a job at Canadian Tire when he’d married her; he moved from that job to a job at the Brunswick Mines where he’d worked as a rock bolter, a general labourer who helped build tunnels underground. He was Acadian French, and mostly only learned his broken English to communicate with my mother, who barely spoke any French and evidently loathed that she had to learn. They had decided to raise my sister and me as English, though in retrospect this seems almost certainly a demand by my mother that was acquiesced-to by my father.

During their relatively frequent fights, my mother hurled abuse at my father. My father, for his part, liked to drink; he was a sloppy sappy drunk and when he came home and fell asleep on the couch with a beer in one hand and a Supertramp or Cat Stevens record playing, my mother would retire to their bedroom and lock the door. Some nights, though, she would confront him angrily over this habit. I recall one time where they came to blows, and my father was the one with the physical evidence of such — a matrix of pinprick holes on his face where my mother had slapped him with a hairbrush.

But of all that abuse, the “stupid” meme stuck with me most, and evidently my father as well — my mother had repeated it so often that he’d obviously internalized it. He’s used his self-perception of being “stupid” to defend his being unable — or more likely, unwilling — to learn new things, to break habits, to fix crystallized behaviour that others have pointed out was hurting him or others.

There are certainly words that are insults, that only serve to do one thing: express displeasure with the target. An insult that has been used to dehumanize and break down a victim’s resolve over time, by calling to mind all the times that that insult has come with threats of or actual violence, can eventually graduate to the level of “slur”, especially when that word is used to hurt any of a whole class of people interchangeably. There is not, however, a hard, solid, bright line that once one crosses, it’s obvious to all parties that the word has graduated to the upper echelons of hurtful insults.

An argument can absolutely be made that the word “stupid” can be used to cause grievous harm to an individual, and I’d be extremely sympathetic to that argument. However, I had stopped using the word myself some years ago, not specifically because of its ableist connotations that a person is only of value if they are traditionally intelligent, or even just neurotypical — rather, I stopped using the word because it is maddeningly imprecise. On the insult scale, it is the polar opposite in my mind to the word “nice” — it means something generally bad, and generally about either the target’s intelligence or the intelligence of the person who designed the object. It doesn’t specify whether that bad thing is inherent in the nature of the object or person; it doesn’t specify whether that bad thing could be rectified or not. Neither does it define the scale or scope of the problem, or whether it’s compounded by a will to stay in its deficient state or a defense of said state as the preferred over the alternative.

To make matters worse, the word “stupid” has been used — along with a number of other words — to dehumanize a class of individuals who are born neuro-atypical. Its prevalence and casual use might serve as microaggressions to people who have been on the receiving end of the insult in matters over which they have no control. They know better than I exactly in what context their lives have been filled with that sort of talk.

But while the word “retard” might have fallen out of general use in pretty much every other context except as a slur against people with Down’s syndrome or who are on the autistic spectrum, the word “stupid” is still largely used as a grossly-generalized and largely mild insult when directed generally. And when the word is used against a specific person, it can mean anything from lacking education (which leads into a socioeconomic argument), to willful ignorance, or obtuseness, imprudence, or even duplicity. It can mean lacking reading comprehension skills, it can mean lacking clear judgment, it can mean arrogance or lack of foresight, and it can mean lacking in empathy. And yes, it can absolutely be intended as a slur against a person for being neuro-atypical. There are simply too many meanings rolled up into a single word for that word to have any utility, simply because the word has gained ubiquity and through that ubiquity, too much cultural baggage around too many contexts.

Intersectionality — of the sort that people here at Freethought Blogs, and Skepchick and the Atheism Plus forums, and that every other sympathetic humanist skeptical blogger espouses — implicitly demands an extremely high level of empathy. We have to be willing to put ourselves in others’ shoes and recognize that the language used against them may carry too much cultural baggage in one specific direction, and recognize that their fights should also be our fights if we imagine ourselves to be any sort of decent humanists. Therein lies the problem. We are supposed to be empathetic individuals — how dare we not have empathy for every fight?

But there are, in fact, ridiculous fights that we should abstain from empathizing with — ones where a person does not wish to be ridiculed for their otherwise ridiculous beliefs, like religiously motivated bigotries, for instance. Ones where a person is unwilling to actually examine the cultural baggage and sociological impact of their beliefs, their actions or — yes — their words. I recognize that some people might be made to feel bad if they are told their liberal use of “cunt” and “bitch” is misogynistic; I recognize that people saying that this-or-that-bad-thing is “gay” might be put out by your telling them that using the word as an insult is demeaning and systemically dehumanizing to homosexuals. I totally empathize with the discomfort caused to a person who cannot examine how their words or deeds affect others. But I cannot call for tolerance of, say, your average homophobic preacher who, despite never committing any direct violence on a gay person, still teaches their flock that hatred of gays is perfectly acceptable and that anyone trying to stop them is just striving for “political correctness”.

Remember, the people crying “you just want to ban words so you can be Politically Correct” are desperate to hold onto language that they personally enjoy using, and they do not wish to have to withstand the discomfort of changing their ways to avoid causing damage to others. In fact, they often don’t care about the damage, because they actively see these classes of people as Less Than. These people almost certainly lack any sort of empathy for their targets. And in most cases, in their calculus, they have determined that the people complaining about being called a certain name are simply too sensitive, and that they are in the right.

As a sidebar, I feel that in that sense, the word “cunt” — as culturally ubiquitous in England as being a contemptible person as it is here as solely being a slur for a woman — is in a similar position in England as the word “stupid” is here. “Stupid” is not, however, as amplified in its slanderous implications as the word “cunt”. In England, the word definitely does still refer to a woman’s genitalia, and it’s even in the upper tier of unacceptable-on-television words (though you’ll see it in movies now and again, but those are going to be rated). The contempt even in England comes almost exclusively from the misogyny that ran through the word; here, it’s retained all of it and is reserved almost exclusively to refer to women. In North America, “stupid” has crossed that same critical mass point — or rather, it’s always been past that point. A closer analogy to “stupid” might, in fact, be “twat” — where in England, the word seems to mean what “twit” or “fool” means here. You’ll notice that the people rushing to defend their use of misogynist slurs in North America never rush to the less-offensive of the pair, though.

In our culture, we’ve valued (and thus privileged) being neurotypical systemically for a very long time. Anyone who was considered neuro-atypical was of less value to society, and any excuse was given to send them to Bedlam. Today, we understand the situation better, and we can actually as a society help provide a good quality of life for people who are neuro-atypical, and in fact, a great many sorts of atypical neurological configurations are perfectly capable of being functional, contributing members of society even without any special help if only we get out of their way and stop telling them they’re not capable.

But that’s how privilege works. The institutions that allowed the word “stupid” to be common parlance rather than a slur, do in fact allow microaggressions against people who are fully-realized, fully-functional human beings because we as a society have always privileged contributing to society as a whole, over people who cannot contribute to society to the same degree or at the same level.

Hell, I’ve even gotten some of this acrimony over taking an Arts degree, rather than a “hard science”. The casual slander that “those who can, do; those who can’t, take Art History” was a meme that could be and was just as easily pointed at Music students, English students, and basically anyone outside the Computer Science school; I’ve even seen it leveled at people taking Sociology or Psychology, and by the same sorts of people who have decided that their preferred vocations are the only ones of use and the only ones that count as “science”. I even see the same sort of bigotries today against sociology within the skeptical and atheist communities. People have decided that certain roles are contributing, and others are not; and it’s always the privileged who make those decisions. I entirely get where a neuro-atypical person might be frustrated with an intractability with regard to ableism in our community and with just about every other.

Ultimately, though, I think the word “stupid” is too ubiquitous and too defanged and too vague to get particularly angry at people who are using it, despite the implications on society’s privileging of neurotypical folk in general. I do think that some people have ascribed the word “stupid” even more meaning than it already has, as suggesting that this lacking quality in the target is somehow immutable. The word simply doesn’t do that, though — certainly not in the same sense that the word “retarded” definitively has, where I’d place “retard” almost as high on the slur-o-meter as “fag”, “trap”, and the whole gamut of racial slurs we humans are so fond of inventing to the end of othering whole classes of human beings and making it so they are more likely targets of physical violence. The word “stupid” simply does not rise to that level. Not every pejorative rises to the level of slur. The context of every use of the word can help determine what is meant, but it is very likely that what you mean and what the target understands is entirely different.

I’ve attempted to give up using the word, though, because of that maddening impreciseness. Henceforth, if I see someone using it, I will ask for clarification of what exactly is meant, and suggest they use a better word instead, but I’m not particularly angry at or calling anyone out over its use. I’m sorry if that hurts anyone.

In my eyes, this isn’t a matter of oversensitivity, or undersensitivity, or privilege-blindness. It’s a matter of the evolution of language, and of context; of empathy, and knowing your audience and your audience knowing you. I genuinely believe that with regard to who actually cares about ableism, you’re going to find a little more empathy on one side of the “great divide” than the other; you should likewise empathize with the person who’s using a phrase that they didn’t know might trigger you, and give them the benefit of the doubt because in this specific case, the word is too doubtful. But by all means, ask for more precision and rip them a new one if they’re demonstrably being ableist and that’s stepping on your or anyone else’s toes.

I had a lot more to say, but I cut out a good-sized chunk of this, as this was already over-long. I expect some of that will come out in discussion or perhaps in a future post. I also expect the most-interested parties are already raw over this topic. Please understand this is not an attempt to dismiss anyone’s concerns. There’s a definite discussion to be had about how we got to this state as a society, but throwing away hard-won friendships over use of an all-too-common word is in my mind both premature and damaging.

On anger over the word "stupid"

81 thoughts on “On anger over the word "stupid"

  1. 1

    I think it’s worth noting that “stupid”, by itself, wasn’t the point of contention. It was that, combined with “idiot” (which is far more obviously ableist), combined with “I’m surprised you remember to breathe”, which was the real sticking point.

    Remembering to breathe is actually something that people with various disabilities can have problems with. For instance, some forms of epilepsy can, in the postictal phase after a tonic-clonic seizure, cause severe depression of the autonomic breathing reflex, causing shortness of breath and requiring the sufferer to consciously force themselves to breathe.

    Another example would be traumatic brain injuries; the details can vary wildly with the injury, but one common side effect of repeated concussions is central apnea, in which the autonomic breathing regulation of the medulla shuts down during sleep, causing hypoxia which in turn leads to the higher brain rousing the body out of sleep in order to force breathing. This leads, needless to say, to very poor sleep, and sufferers need a full bi-pap breathing machine in order to get restful sleep. The brain literally forgets to breathe during sleep.

    Then there’s the loss of breathing control during panic attacks for severe sufferers of anxiety and PTSD, issues with breathing in people with chiari malformations when the medulla gets “squished” and functionality is impeded, similar issues with “cranial settling” in Ehlers-Danlos syndrome…there’s a variety of organic and functional disabilities which can lead to “forgetting to breathe”, without necessarily meaning the person has low mental acuity.

    So, yeah. That was where the major splash damage hit. The word “stupid”, by itself, was the least damaging part.

  2. 2

    See, I took out a thousand-plus words over the specific phrase used. One passage of which was:

    In the specific context of the post at Skepchick regarding our recent DDOS attack, wherein Elyse defiantly proclaims that the people who took us down are particularly unintelligent in a specific way — that she is surprised that they remember to breathe — almost certainly refers to the fact that they could not out-argue any of our ideas so they resorted to silencing us outright, despite the fact that the people responsible almost certainly believe they are the intellectual and moral superiors to the “feminist ideology”, given their targets. Remember, they’ve positioned themselves against feminism, and if you trust any of the antifeminists, it’s because they see us as dogmatic adherents to a flawed ideology and incapable of nuanced argumentation or scientific defense of our postulates, regardless of the evidence otherwise. And yet they cannot actually confront our ideas on their merits, so some of them resort to thuggery. In a community defined as it is by being able to communicate and argue points — let’s face it, the internet blogosphere is Debate Club writ large, even where some parts of it were never intended to be so — they’ve definitely failed. Saying they’re incapable of defending their points is objectively true. It’s just not “intelligence” they’re failing at.

    In reference to the specific quote used, however, I recognize that there are actual mental conditions, such as Ondine’s Curse, where autonomic nervous system responses like breathing are not dependable, and that some people with such conditions actually DO need to “remember to breathe”. I recognize that in the specific, that phrase could be a trigger for that person or their loved ones, people who have experienced the abuse directly or indirectly, and thus the specific phrase inadvertently added to the fabric of prejudice against them.

    But honestly, there are a lot of such phrases. I can think of dozens of common phrases and idioms that, in a certain context, could actually be in bad taste — like if you were to proclaim that some effort by a person with dwarfism had “come up short”, for example. Or saying “don’t you see what’s wrong?” to someone who’s blind. There are absolutely some phrases that are in bad taste in the presence of specific individuals, and I know that there are people within our communities for whom “stupid” is one of those words that have been used to hurt them specifically.

    When around these people, I will especially avoid using those phrases. I have made a great deal of effort to recognize that mental illness, despite society’s programmed stigma, is not something to be stigmatized, and that one must be considerate of these people because the vast majority of them are fully-realized human beings.

    But that’s an empathy thing. It’s not a slur against people with Ondine’s Curse.

  3. 4

    Fair enough. I think where I come down on things is this: it’s true that some phrases and words, like “stupid”, may not be inherently oppressive. But it is, as you say, very imprecise. I would argue that that imprecision is itself problematic, though, since it leads to the greater possibility of splash damage.

    Fortunately, he English language is one of the most expressive in the world, with one of the largest and most diverse vocabularies. We have at our disposal so many more precise terms, and ones less likely to do collateral damage, that we can call upon for situations like this.

    In fact, I think I’ll give a few of my favorites.

    First we have disingenuous, willfully ignorant, obtuse, thoughtless, blockheaded*, irrational, and so forth , which are excellent descriptors of an argument. Someone can be a douchebag, a douchecanoe, or a douchetanker, if you want (I don’t think the use of the word “douche” as a bad thing is problematic). I get much mileage out of “asshat” and synonyms, such as “rectal haberdasher” or “anal milliner”, and “asshattery” is a wonderful descriptor of behavior (modify the other variants likewise for fun and profit).

    Then we can assess someone’s ability to reason correctly with something like “can you try using Earth logic?” or “that is so completely irrational it’s almost dadaist”, or one of my favorites, “you have your head shoved so far into your rectum that you are effectively a walking Klein bottle”.

    I also once referred to someone as a “walking polyp shat from the colon of a leprotic demon”. I was, in that case, referring to Tim Lahaye, fundie preacher and author of the “Left Behind” series of toilet paper.

    I mean, if nothing else, abandoning facile and common insults like “stupid” is an excuse to stretch your creativity at insults!

    * I love “blockhead” and “blockheaded” because A) they call to mind stubborn hardheadedness and unwillingness to think, and B) Lucy Van Pelt.

  4. 6

    A lot of it seems to be people with good intentions allowing those intentions to trump context, critical thinking, and common sense. Sad to say, these arguments make one side of the argument look sanctimonious and holier-than-thou to the point that they almost seem insincere. Looks a little power-trippy too, because it seems less about being more polite and decent to people and more about being a scold and forcing people to agree with you or else you’ll totally shit on them.

  5. 7

    Thanks for this. Beautifully reasoned and nuanced.
    I also think, that while it’s important to point out if we think that someone has gone wrong, we also need to give them time to process criticism. I see a lot of times someone will respond with a “wow. ok. noted, need to think about it.” and be accused of a not-pology. In my mind this is different. I take time to process even positive comments. For things that are bound to kick off involuntary internal defenses, or even just require time to think through and evaluate arguments, it’s ok to give people that time when they ask for it. Especially when they have a history of being well-meaning and receptive.

  6. 10

    A lot of it seems to be people with good intentions allowing those intentions to trump context, critical thinking, and common sense. Sad to say, these arguments make one side of the argument look sanctimonious and holier-than-thou to the point that they almost seem insincere. Looks a little power-trippy too, because it seems less about being more polite and decent to people and more about being a scold and forcing people to agree with you or else you’ll totally shit on them.

    It’s funny that you say that. I’ve heard similar rhetoric before, from the more “civil” Slymepitters, when talking about feminism.

  7. 11

    I think trying to portray as outside agitators trying to split the movement in your opening comes across as mighty dismissive of the people who were upset in the first place.

  8. 13

    I think trying to portray as outside agitators trying to split the movement in your opening comes across as mighty dismissive of the people who were upset in the first place.

    I believe you misread that. My read of the post intro was “the Slymepitters are rubbing their hands with glee because two groups of people they hate are arguing with each other”. In other words, not the people who were upset, but the rectal haberdashers who wait on the sidelines to come kick people when they’re down, like vultures. Hmm…my analogies need work.

  9. 15

    Aaaand we have conflation of “what you did” with “who you are”. Joe, you’re capable of more nuanced thought than that. I was noting that the words you said sounded rather Pitty, not that you were just like the Slymepitters.

    Now, two questions for you:

    First, what on Earth makes you think this is about “gatekeeping of allowable words”? I think that’s more than a bit hyperbolic, as well as shifting the focus away from where it should be, i.e., empathizing with people’s hurts, and onto some kind of “freedom of speech” tangent.

    And second, why do you dismiss the notion that the people who objected to ableist language were being sincere, and may well have a point? Why do you immediately jump to “lack of logic and common sense”, “sanctimonious and holier-than-thou”, and “power-tripping”? That’s disingenuous.

  10. 16

    Well, I have to say it, but, yes indeed, it is fun watching you folks, and the Skepchick and A+ crew, hoisting yourselves by your own fanatically politically correct language policing policy petards.

  11. 17

    I submitted this to fark with the headline

    How many tards would a fucktard fuck if a fucktard could fuck tards.

    Then I submitted it with the headline

    Fucktard fucktards fucktard Fucktard fucktards.

    I’ll let you know if any of those go green.

  12. 18

    I have been thinking along this line for a while and realized that, really, insults’ power comes from invidious comparison. You’re either outright lying: “You, sir, are a Trash Can!” Um, no, I’m not. Or you’re comparing someone somewhat plausibly to something else that has ‘bad’ properties. Calling a pig a “pig” is not invidious comparison whereas calling a cop a “pig” is. There really is no way to make an invidious comparison without first assuming that the thing being compared to is somehow bad. I don’t think it’s actually possible to use an insult, unless that insult is the truth. If you were to say “Hey, Marcus, you could stand to back off on the cheezburgers” I’d ruefully agree with you, and ask you whether you just said that to be mean to me (in which case: fuck you) or if you really cared (in which case: probably fuck you anyway)

    I’ve been trying to use descriptive ‘insults’ that are accurate, now. So when someone voices an opinion that I think is fascistic or racist, I simply go straight for it and say, “hey fascist bootlicker” or whatever. So no “stupid” but perhaps “your education seems to be sorely lacking” methinks cuts better since it has more of a chance of being true.

  13. 20

    Joe, I’ve mostly tried to keep out of this discussion, but I think the distinction here is not that there are gatekeepers for acceptable words or (quelle horreur) the ‘word police’, but as Jason has often used this phrase to good effect, we should be looking to try to limit splash damage, even the unthinking inadvertent kind.

    splen, if you really think Jason’s drawing an exact equivalence between “stupid” and “retard” then presumably you didn’t read the paragraph where he doesn’t suggest there is one: it’s the para that starts with the word ‘Ultimately’. Yes, you should try again.

  14. 21

    I am, below, going to quote people using potentially offensive words.

    In a reply above, Jason, you said,

    ‘I can think of dozens of common phrases and idioms that, in a certain context, could actually be in bad taste — like if you were to proclaim that some effort by a person with dwarfism had “come up short”, for example. Or saying “don’t you see what’s wrong?” to someone who’s blind.’

    The word “could” is, I believe, the most important. I mean no dismissal of the effect words have on others, but I am thinking of my dear friend, a blind person, who when we would part would say, “See you later,” in the sense that it is meant in everyday language; at least one person with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, or other, who uses the phrase, “Well, that’s just crazy,” in its everyday sense; and Deaf friends who will describe actions, or events, as “dumb,” meaning its everyday sense. Sure, by “everyday sense” I am referring to the snapshot of time that they and I occupy, and the language accompanying that snapshot, but these uses happen, including by those who might have the most right to take proper offense. I am, finally, thinking of a lesbian feminist friend of mine who had a sticker on the back of her vehicle that read “Man Up, Bitch!” created by a company founded by, according to her, lesbians.

    Not a huge point to be made here, but these conversations have been very interesting to read, and have given me a lot to consider in terms of my own language use. Thanks to you, and to Skepchick, for providing the fora where they might happen.

  15. 22

    I keep wtfwhateverd00d around mostly because his every utterance makes the point much more clearly and much more succinctly than I could that there are terrible human beings within our community who only want to see it burn.

  16. 24

    I think there has been a lot of nastiness on both sides. I wish that some people–NOT everyone involved, and I am mostly referring to what’s been said on Facebook where I’ve seen a lot of this play out–were more receptive to those people who are truly upset with the use of the word “stupid”. Yeah, absolutely, there are people trying to stir up drama, but this also isn’t some totally unheard of concern pulled out just to troll. I’ve seen a lot of debate in social justice communities over the use of the word (and a lot of other common insults that some people consider to be ableist). I know several very committed activists who feel strongly that we shouldn’t use that word. So there are people who honestly feel this is an important issue, and I think they deserve to be respectfully listened to. And not just listened to–the points they bring up, including personal stories, should be thoughtfully considered, not brushed aside as “obviously” ridiculous. I used to think people who complained about the word “bitchy” were totally silly, until I listened and learned about the social context of the word (and, no, I am not saying that “stupid” is as equally problematic as “bitchy”). Not that you necessarily have to agree, but you should honestly think about it before disagreeing.

    That said. I also think that we need to be more understanding and respectful on the other side. People who are just as committed to social justice as we are, who might even be disabled or have family members with cognitive disabilities themselves, are not always going to agree. Especially on something as fluid and ultimately personal as language. I’m astonished at the level of anger–and, frankly, abuse–directed towards people who a couple days ago would have been considered allies and friends. (Although, I think the way that some dismissed or outright mocked their concerns contributed to that anger.)

    For a long time, in many progressive and activist communities (this certainly isn’t an atheist/skeptic thing), I’ve been disturbed by the insistence on total moral purity, an unwillingness to allow differences of opinion, and that instead of seeing someone who disagrees as just a person who sees the issue differently, they are seen as an essentially bad person. It reminds me of the fundamentalist, quiverfull church I grew up in, quite frankly. Any deviation from total outward moral purity is immediately, harshly, and publicly punished.

    I know this is getting long, but I want to add one thing, specifically on the word “stupid”. Like Jason, I understand people who find the word triggering and hurtful. My younger brother is autistic and has some pretty severe learning disabilities. Unfortunately, before we realized what was going on, he had a first-grade teacher who used to mock and berate him for having trouble. He also had to deal with other kids making fun of him. Especially because it happened so early on, he totally internalized it. He would periodically fall into periods of depression and hopelessness, feeling there was no point in trying because he was just “stupid”. So stupid is a no-no word at our house. We don’t even use it for ourselves (like, “Oh, I forgot my keys, I’m so stupid!”), and we ask that people not use that word when they are in our home.

    Also, in my home, we don’t use god’s name except in prayer. (So, y’know, no “goddamnits” or whatever.) Even those of us who don’t believe it’s wrong. My parents feel strongly about “not taking the Lord’s name in vain” and so out of respect for them, we don’t.

    And this is my point. It is totally okay to set boundaries in your personal space. It’s important to make your home a safe place for you and your family. Translating that to the internet, I have no problem with people setting rules for their blogs, facebook walls and comments, etc. I don’t use “stupid” in the comments sections for people who I know have a problem with word. Hell, it’s totally okay to ask someone not to use a word, or to write a blog post about why you think it’s wrong, etc. (And I think that those who claim to be progressive, who care about treating people with empathy and respect, should listen and think when the issue is brought up, even if at first you think it’s silly.) But ultimately, I think that we should also be okay with disagreeing. And we shouldn’t throw out all the other work a person has done–or the person!–because he or she doesn’t live up to every one of our expectations for Good Behavior.

    (And please, don’t respond with something like, “Well what about someone who uses the N-word, huh?” I’m talking about disagreements between people with an established history of caring about intersectionality and social justice.)

  17. 25

    The imprecision/vagueness of “stupid” is part of its usefulness, IMO.
    When someone does or says something very, very wrong, there are many possible reasons for this:
    Do they lack good information?
    Do they possess bad information?
    Are they unable to understand, properly process or contextualize the information they do have?
    Are they experiencing cognitive dissonance?
    Are they being deceitful/disingenuous?
    Are they being malicious?
    And so on…
    While it may be better to be precise when possible, one cannot always discover the underlying motivation, error, or limitation. I think it’s reasonable to have some umbrella-type words in our lexicon.

  18. 26

    While it may be better to be precise when possible, one cannot always discover the underlying motivation, error, or limitation. I think it’s reasonable to have some umbrella-type words in our lexicon.

    Alright, then. You’re being a real umbrella.

    How’s that?

  19. 27

    Just a side note:

    Regarding “twat”, the meaning can vary by region. I say this as an Irish guy, in the circles that I moved in, that it was simply a variant of “twit”.

    However, amongst certain other folk (in England, and (to a lesser degree) in Ireland), it was taken to be a variant of “cunt”.

    I would strongly advise against using “twat” unless you know your audience, and you know they’re going to taken the former interpretation, rather than the latter. I never enjoyed having to dig my way up when I ended up in that particular situation.


  20. 28

    OMG, I was soooo embarrassed when I found out that twat had another meaning! I grew up in CA (fairly sheltered, actually) and as a kid, “twat” was used, as you said, like “twit.” I think I was out of high school when I finally learned that, for a lot of people, it was a pretty dirty word! I didn’t use it all the time, but enough that I wonder how many people I met who never said anything, but thought that I was a crude, foul-mouthed little girl?

  21. 29

    I was watching a British TV show where a woman gave birth, and the young man who observed the event said something like, “A baby came out of your twat!” Is there REALLY that much confusion on the meaning of the word? How is this possible?

  22. 30

    I’m trying to sort out how I feel about this mess…

    Some of the arguments I read seemed (to me, at least…) to be making the claim that any term ever used to insult someone with some condition renders that term exclusively ableist.

    I’m pretty sure I get why terms like ‘retarded’ (and variants) and ‘lame’ are not considered acceptable as insults. I’m just not sure I got much of the reasoning on that big list of ableist slurs someone had linked to.

    I also don’t quite get why some terms are considered acceptable (slow, dull, thick, dense), when they seem to be just less popular synonyms for the terms causing so much distress.

    *shrugs* I dunno… I always thought someone calling someone with a cognitive condition ‘stupid’ was wrong (as well as being insulting, hurtful, and unnecessary). Not for using a slur, or ableist language, but because they were wrong – but that might be due to my personal idea of what the definition of ‘stupid’ is.

    I’ve frequently seen ESL speakers described as ‘stupid’, which to me seems somewhat similar – the person doing the insult is actually the cognitively lazy/deficient/wrong one, and who I think is actually more deserving of the term ‘stupid’…

  23. 31

    Is there a useful distinction between calling people stupid (or whatever other adjective is appropriate to the situation) and calling someone’s actions stupid? Because I’ve long (as in: decades) operated on the assumption that there is. Even quite intelligent people do stupid things from time to time.

  24. 32

    I feel like stupid is just not a word worth fighting for. Enough people feel strongly enough against it that I think it can’t be dismissed as an idiosyncrasy. That in itself, for me, is enough to stop using it even though I wouldn’t file it under the heading of slur.

    But beyond that, like Jason pointed out, it’s incredibly imprecise. When you call something or someone ‘stupid’, you really haven’t said a damn thing about what the actual problem is. It has no explanatory value at all. So there’s not even an argument to be made about the trade-off between not hurting people and giving up a word with useful, descriptive value.

  25. 33

    Most insults work by comparing the target to some other object that’s held to be ridiculous or contemptible. The problem comes when you’re that other object.

    The rule when choosing an acceptable insult is to sever any link between your target, and the group of people that the insult hurts in its most extreme form. It’s tempting to dilute the word “retard” to some acceptable version (I fully admit I’ve done it myself), but from listening to people who have been deemed “retarded” due to some learning difficulty, the word “stupid” fails to break this connection. In one case, it was merely the word that bullying classmates switched to when a teacher was listening.

  26. 34

    Marcus Ranum is right: the power of insults comes from comparison.

    And the stupid, idiot, surprised you remember to breathe trifecta? They insult people by comparing them to people with developmental and cognitive disabilities. Stupid done that for the full length of its history as a word. Idiot used to be a medical term, rather like “mongoloid” was for Down syndrome, and was created to name a category of cognitive and developmental disability. Surprised you remember to breathe, like stupid, has existed to compare people negatively to those with disabilities. All three of them say that being someone like me is something bad, something that any “normal” person should be ashamed of acting or looking like.

    Is it any wonder I and people like me get upset by that?

    As well, I absolutely disagree that a word’s common use should be a reason against calling out its bigotry. In my region, it’s common parlance to say someone “gypped” you if they ripped you off, which is a racial slur against Roma people. Being a Romani person is synonymous with being a thief in my region, and across a lot of North America and Europe. Should we ignore the word’s harmful effects against Roma people just because it’s used so often?

    What about pussy? That exists to insult people by comparing them to women. It’s also argued that it just means weak and cowardly, nothing to do with women at all. Some people have claimed to me with a straight face that because it can mean cat, it’s not a slur. And it’s used very widely. Should we ignore that word’s misogyny because of its wide use?

    Why is it okay to treat cognitive and developmental disability as something people should be embarrassed to be compared to? Why is it okay to dismiss the harmful effects of words that stigmatize cognitive and developmental disability when you wouldn’t do that for a word with similar spread along a different axis of privilege? Why is it okay to minimize the effects of stupid, idiot, and “surprised you remember to breathe”, when you wouldn’t do it for harmful words and phrases along other axes of privilege?

    Think about it. Please.

  27. 35

    I should add that there are some great insults to be had, just from describing the target’s position.

    In the context of anti-trans hate, the acronym TERF (trans-exclusive radical feminist) is used to describe transphobic women who dress up their bigotry in the guise of feminism. They get all upset when you call them this, and accuse you of using some horrible slur. Which is excellent.

  28. 36

    As well, there might be an argument for language evolution… if these words and phrases didn’t have pretty much exactly their original meanings. Going from stigmatized medical term to stigmatized insult does not significant language drift make.

    What makes significant language drift? The word nice.

    Nice used to be an ableist insult, believe it or not. It meant something along the same lines as stupid. Language evolution turned it into a compliment.

    Another example, one that’s ongoing right now: The word special. It used to be a compliment. It’s morphing into an ableist insult (eg “you’re special!” and “That’s special!” used derogatorily) as a result of the use of “special needs” as a euphemism for disability in schools. This one is one wherein a context argument would hold some water: if someone is using special as a compliment, that’s obviously not ableist. If they’re using it as an insult, they’re comparing something to disability for the purpose of insult and it’s pretty obviously ableist.

    This trifecta has existed to insult people by comparison to those with disabilities for the better part of a century or longer, depending on the one in question.

  29. 37

    This goes for anyone who claims to be open to reconsidering: If you actually are open to re-evaluating your position, look up Ollibean, Autistic Hoya, Disability and Representation, and Down With Dat and search “ableism” and “ableist language.” All of them are disability rights websites with some very good articles on ableist language. Listen to people with cognitive and developmental disabilities before you pass your judgment on whether or not that language is harmful.

  30. 38

    ischemgeek and others:

    I am not going to make a full-throated defense of the word “stupid”, where it’s definitely problematic. Nor am I going to suggest that ableism is not deeply ingrained into our society — it DEFINITELY is. I am, however, going to abstain from doing anything but asking for precision in language when someone uses the word — and in so asking, we can expose whether the person actually has ingrained ableist tendencies, determining someone’s actual value to society based on how close to neurotypical they track, or if the person is just using a really vague and culturally-accepted mild insult when a more specific word would work better.

    Nor am I going to assume that people using the word stupid do not understand its vagueness, but because of its ubiquity, I WILL assume that they do not understand that it has been used to hurt people who are simply not neurotypical. It may be a microaggression for these people, but it doesn’t necessarily imply anything about intelligence in and of itself because that’s simply not how the language is used.

    The word “stupid” is far, far more prevalent than ANY use of the word “pussy”, even including the times used to refer to domesticated cats. It is almost certainly, as I’ve argued, closer to “nice” than any of those other words.

    Google Ngram of these words

  31. 39

    I try to avoid the word “stupid” for all the reasons you mentioned Jason.
    I find I actually have more trouble cutting out the word “retard” in conversational speech because it is a bad habit that I have had trouble breaking. I never used “stupid” in conversation much to begin with.

    I find being conscious of language is much easier in the written form than the spoken form, because I have more time to parse my words and not speak “off the cuff”. My preferred word when someone forwards a very poor argument is “ignorant”, though you would be surprised (or not) how often that word makes people more angry than calling them “stupid”.

  32. 40

    I make a distinction between attributing stupidity to an individual and to an idea. The former is capable of emotion so one avoids causing offence by using such a term. The latter however is not so the same degree of reluctance can be disregarded. Though avoiding causing offence as a natural default position is not something I agree with. Ones emotional reaction to the words of others is only something one is in control of and no one else. This is because offence can never be given only taken. Even if the one supposedly giving it is being deliberate in order to elicit a particular reaction in the first place. But nonetheless I would still never say that someone is stupid. That however is not the same as saying that something they said is stupid. The distinction may be a subtle one but it is one nonetheless and an important one too

    On the general point of political correctness and the use of language as such : I am more than happy to be enlightened on what is and is not acceptable. But the ultimate responsibility for what I say or write stops with me and no one else. I take this so seriously I would be prepared to die for it because freedom of speech is that precious. With absolute freedom comes absolute responsibility. I accept that and unequivocally so too. I wonder how many others who believe in freedom of speech would actually be prepared to die for it too ? I suspect the figure is somewhat less than the number who actually exercise it now

  33. 41

    Excellent post, Jason. My thoughts (TW for various terms people dislike for various reasons):

    So I have extremely minor (at this point) PTSD resulting from getting hit by a car while on my bicycle. My trigger is oncoming headlights – I was hit at night by an oncoming car. For six months after the accident, the sight of oncoming headlights would instantly trigger panic attacks – heart racing, sweating, full flight-response panic attacks. A year and a half later, the severity had decreased to minor twinges I could actively suppress. Today, I’m rarely noticeably triggered, though every once in a while I’ll still get flashes of panic in response to oncoming headlights. I’m providing this narrative for reasons that will hopefully be clear in a minute.

    The problem I have with a particular variety of word-policing – broadly what Jason identifies as policing of words that are not actually slurs, as he defines them – is what Improbable Joe points out in comment #6, the refusal to even look at context. It bothers me becasue context is ultimately what creates meaning for ALL language, but beyond that, it bothers me becasue it’s functionally a call for all speakers to pay attention to elements of context they couldn’t possibly know while refusing to consider elements of context to which everyone has access. In theory, any given person could have negative or triggering associations with any word, sound smell, sight, whatever. Certain words are clearly more likely than others to be triggers for people or experienced as slurs, but short of one telling me what zir specific trigger/slur terms are, I can’t possibly know, becasue I have not lived that person’s life. The insistence that people generally* stop using particular words that are triggering (or otherwise interpreted as intrinsically harmful) to a small group of people is fundamentally an insistence that other people take the context of one’s personal history into account – something they have no way of knowing until/unless one tells them – while simultaneously refusing to take account of the particular context and way in which the word is being used. I don’t have much patience for that sort of hypocrisy.

    This brings me back to my particular situation. The fact that I personally had and occasionally still have an extremely negative reaction to oncoming headlights is not a sufficient justification for insisting everyone stop driving cars at night. Technically, almost everyone has alternative options – walking, bicycling, public transit in various forms, or, in the extreme case, simply not going some places at night. It would be entirely possible for no one to drive a car at night, but it would be seriously inconvenient to many, many people to have to change their behavior in order to accommodate me. So instead of insisting people stop driving, I simply took precautions myself. I avoided traveling at night and I sat in the back seat of cars and blocked my view out the windows when I had to do so. It’s entirely unfair that this was necessary – the driver who drove into me should never have crossed over into an oncoming traffic lane, ultimately resulting in PTSD for me – but it’s also unfair of me to insist people generally stop driving cars (even though driving is harmful in ways beyond simply triggering me). I recognized that people weren’t trying to trigger me, were probably completely ignorant do the fact that they might possibly be triggering me, and were simply using the most convenient tools they had available to go about their lives. There is certainly some line where such behaviors become problematic enough to a sufficient number of people to universally condemn – hell, driving cars may be one of them, given the threat of climate change, and I never use the words “bitch” or “cunt” or “fag” or “nigger” (among others) to describe people because I think they are clearly across that line – but where exactly that line exists with respect to any particular word is not altogether clear and is itself dependent upon context. I am not convinced that “stupid” or “crazy” – the other term to which I have been seeing a lot of objection that I consider not-entirely-reasonable – are across that line.

    I also have some very serious objections to the concept of “ableism” as it is often deployed and as it has been deployed at points in this discussion thread (scare quotes to indicate the use of the particular term to refer to things that are not at all ableism, as far as I’m concerned, not to a categorical rejection of the concept of ableism). I don’t have time at the moment to dive in, but I might later. The really, really, brief version is that “ableism” only applies to situations in which someone’s lack of ability isn’t relevant to the topic of discussion or in which lacking ability is posited as a moral failure or as rendering someone of no value at all; it does not apply to situations in which someone’s lack of ability is relevant to a particular task. Using “lame” to mean boring is a spurious comparison, so it’s ableist, as people with impaired leg function may or may not be boring at the same rate as the rest of the population (it takes the lack of a particular ability as a stand-in for some other, unrealted disfavorable feature), but saying that an abortion ban “hobbles” our ability to expand abortion access is not, since leg injuries certainly impair one’s ability to move forward.

    As a side note, I was never a big fan of “retard” as a noun applied to people, but I do find the word to be of particular utility for expressing that something slows something else with the connotation that it may slow the thing to the point of stopping it entirely, a nuance the word “slow” itself lacks, and the hyper-vigilant policing of “retard” irrespective of usage irritates me as a result. “This pill slows growth,” strongly implies that growth continues, while, “This pill retards growth,” indicates it could stop growth entirely, though it does not necessarily do so.

    *If you want to insist that people stop using particular words around you, and consider them assholes when they won’t, I think that’s completely fair.

  34. 42

    “how dare we not have empathy for every fight?”
    Hasn’t empathy been demonstrated to be a finite resource available to the brain? Exercising choice in marshaling it for the most important or most immediately personal (as in life outside the internet) causes would seem to be an unavoidable consequence of that limitation.

  35. 43

    The issue is invidious comparison. If you’re comparing someone to something bad, because you ‘know’ it is bad, you’re either telling a truth or a falsehood.

    It’s that simple.

    If you say “you smell like shit” you may be being unfair to me.
    If you say “you smell like Marcus” you may be being unfair to someone else.
    If you say “Marcus smells like shit” I can verify whether or not I smell like what you say.

  36. 45

    The issue is invidious comparison.

    Actually, I think it’s a bit more than that.

    The issue, I think, is twofold: first, when we make invidious comparisons, are they reinforcing the marginalization of people who are already marginalized?

    Disabled people are used to being told by society that they don’t matter, that they are inferior. The words and phrases that tell them so are ones that exist in order to do so, and people use them indiscriminately as insults without necessarily knowing or caring what they really mean, or why. These words and phrases exist for the same reason that racist, sexist, homophobic, and other slurs exist: to reinforce hierarchy and remind the supposedly inferior of their place.

    But that’s only part of it. The other, and I think bigger, part of the question, is this: if we make an invidious comparison that turns out to do splash damage to a marginalized group, do we apologize and correct our mistake, or do we insist that we were not wrong to do so, and the people who complain of splash damage are being oversensitive, coopting proper social justice, power-tripping, looking for reasons to get offended, and so forth?

    I think the general consensus in social justice circles is that the latter is considered a major fail, to slip into Tumblr style for a moment. It’s something that people on this blog network, as well as at Skepchick, have rightly called out in others before, when the language in question was damaging along another axis of oppression, such as race, sex, orientation, class, or gender identity. Why is disability different?

    Now, we could argue about whether or not words that people with disabilities identify as ableist, really are slurs or hurtful…I mean, we could. We could also argue about racial slurs, or sexist words, or the like, but are we serving the cause of social justice by doing so, or merely our own comfort? After all, one of the things about slurs is that the decision on what constitutes a slur is best made by the people targeted by it, as they are the best qualified to judge what harms them.

    So, I’ll just close with this question: if words like “stupid”, mild though it is by comparison to some other ableist terms (the one starting with r comes to mind), are really “no big deal” to use, then surely it’s no big deal to not use them either, right? If the words don’t matter, and don’t really have any power, then there is no harm in choosing others, yes?

  37. 46

    P.S. Marcus, I only used your comment as a jumping-off point. I was not trying to imply that you personally held the positions that I was calling problematic.

  38. 47

    We’re pretty far past the meanings of words, and no one big seems to be talking about the real issue:

    Rebecca said in the comments, “Are you just looking to be offended?” and accused people speaking up of being a 4chan false flag attack.

    I get it, she gets attacked a lot, maybe it was a false positive.

    But that behavior is FUCKING SHITTY even if it was a false flag attack.

    (But its not a false flag attack.)

    Basically, Rebecca and Spokesgay behaved in ways that are very evocative of abusive behavior – dismissing people’s hurts, accusing them of not being real, gaslighting, etc etc.

    This behavior NEEDS to be called out.

    LousyCanuck, will you do so? Will *anyone* do so?

  39. 48

    Sally Strange @ 29
    My experience was the same as the others. Grew up with it as a synonym for twit with absolutely no connection to body parts. Learned in college that it was also a synonym for vagina. Learned in the last few years that I didn’t want to use words like that.

  40. 49

    My understanding is that this is less about specific words and more about the all too common attitude toward disabled folks as being less than. Think for a moment about how many conditions are insults when directed toward CAB folks. Language is only one of the myriad of ways that PwD are reminded they lack worth in the eyes of society. Accessibility fails are another. A bunch of CAB people getting together to debate against PwD about whether or not those PwD have a right to be angry about the way they are treated and whether their complaints are polite enough to be taken seriously, that’s another still.

    Some of this is reminding me of ordinarily well intentioned people who throw up their hands and exclaim,” I stopped calling women “bitches,” and now you want me to stop calling you “girls,” too? Is it ever enough for you people?”

    Is it solely about the words themselves, or is it about the dominant social attitude that those words represent?

  41. 50

    when we make invidious comparisons, are they reinforcing the marginalization of people who are already marginalized?

    That’s a consideration but it’s compounding the fact that the comparison is wrong – otherwise it’s not insulting. So, I think it’s a “full stop” right there. Assessing how bad the splash damage is, is simply measuring how many other people might be hurt by what we’ve already agreed is a lie.

    This has been a problem I’ve been thinking about for a while, and I’ve been trying to avoid making invidious comparisons entirely, in favor of pointing out (what ought to be) painful truths, instead. For example, there is one commenter on FTB who I think is a tribalist and possibly a racist as well. So I call him (ta-da!) that! This is actually more useful than calling him an “!&#^!*!*#&!” or whatever because I believe it to be true, and I’m able to defend the position that he actually is a tribalist and a racist. It’s harder to dismiss too because , it’s (presumably) based on facts and if he wanted to engage me on those points it’d be a lot more publicly painful for his self-love if I started supporting my position.

    In short, I recommend that people avoid using invidious comparisons entirely because (in approximate order)
    1) They are not an argument
    2) They lack the strength of fact
    3) Therefore they are easier to dismiss (“No, I am not a ‘poopyhead’ whatever that is”)
    4) They cause splash damage
    5) The splash damage is exacerbated by its truth (if I call someone a “poopyhead” and make invidious comparison to those who choose to put poop on their head, I have made a statement of fact that being a “poopyhead” is inferior to, presumably a non-poopyhead. But the poopyhead who I’ve used as a punching-bag in my invidious comparison must, in fact, have a poopy head)

    I share the expressed concern about marginalization but I think the argument that name-calling is poor strategy is more important. Just to stick within the framework of this example, I note that we are already well on our way to establishing that using terms that come with splash damage is a behavior that reflects poorly on them. Thus, I might call such a person a “splash damager” – as in:
    “You’re a splash damager who appears to lack empathy; what’s wrong with you? Can’t you make an argument and defend your position?”
    doesn’t splash, and is pretty hard to refute if it’s a statement of fact.

    PS – I tried to be a bit silly with the “poopyhead” since I needed an example. I do not recommend calling people “poopyhead”

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