“Stupid” Is The New “Gay”

CN: This post includes examples of ableist and homophobic language used to illustrate my points.

In modern English speaking cultures (and I suspect many other languages too) we often use ableist words as shorthand for other ideas. When we encounter an idea that we don’t agree with we may say “that’s stupid.” In having this response we haven’t given much actual information about what the problems are with the idea expressed, but we have made our disdain for that idea clear. We will often also make our disdain for the person expressing it clear with “You’re an idiot.”

This is a similar (but more persistent practice) as expressing our dislike of an idea with “That’s so gay” or our disagreement with a person with “You’re so gay.” During the last few decades this practice grew, became deeply ingrained in many people’s daily language, and then has largely died out as homophobia has become far less socially acceptable. While some still use it, it is generally seen as outdated and clearly coming from a place of prejudice. I haven’t heard it in public for awhile.

In both cases people are expressing distaste by comparing something or someone to a group of people we see as lesser in some way. In both ways they are degrading both the specific idea or person we dislike, and the group of people they’re comparing them to. What they are saying is “This idea is so bad it must have come from someone who is cognitively disabled” or “You’re so disgusting to me you must be similar to a gay person.” These statements assume disabled people and queer people are the bad thing people don’t want to be compared to.

Unfortunately, as we effectively encouraged people to stop calling things “gay” when they didn’t like them, we often encouraged them to use cognitive slurs instead. “Don’t call things gay when you really mean stupid!” is basically what I said all through the 90’s and early 00’s. I didn’t see that I was asking my peers to replace one group of people as the target of ridicule with another.

I did this because I believed that I was trying to get people to correctly identify what the problem was with the thing they objected to. I thought that the real problem with a bad idea WAS that it was stupid. I have a much better understanding now, and wish that instead we could actually properly identify what is wrong with a thing or idea. Instead of either “That idea is gay” or “that idea is dumb” it’s more accurate and less harmful to say “that idea is wrong” or “that idea is hurtful” or “that idea is mean.”

“Stupid” Is The New “Gay”

8 thoughts on ““Stupid” Is The New “Gay”

  1. NFQ

    Hey, thanks for your “go for it” on this comment. I want to be clear up front that I’m trying not to be ableist (or, I understand that my thinking includes ableism and I’m trying to make it be less so). I have a few questions/points of confusion that have been rattling around in my head for a long time and I haven’t been able to get answers to, and I appreciate the opportunity to try here. I hope any of your readers who see my comment/s will understand them in the earnest spirit that they’re intended.

    Also, obviously, potentially offensive terms incoming (as examples)…

    A big challenge with words like idiot/dumb/stupid/retarded/etc. is that every time we taboo one, something new comes in to take its place in colloquial speech. (We get terms like “special,” “ride the short bus,” or whatever.) Several (most?) of these words are new medical jargon created when old medical jargon became a colloquial insult … but the cycle keeps churning. And I think that’s because people really are trying to say not simply “that idea is wrong,” but something like what you wrote: “This idea is so [wrong] it [could easily] have come from someone who is cognitively disabled.” That is, they’re literally describing a situation where someone has demonstrated that they are not synthesizing new information well, not understanding basic instructions, not drawing logical conclusions, not applying abstract reasoning, etc. This seems like a different case than “gay,” where people weren’t/aren’t usually trying to say anything about same-sex attraction specifically, but just using it as a generic synonym for “horrible.” Do you see the distinction I’m talking about?

    I don’t think people have more moral weight or are more deserving of basic dignity if they are smarter. But don’t you think it’s better [read: preferable on balance] to be smart than it is to be … not? Is it ableist to compliment people by saying, “What you said was really clever!” or “That was so brilliant!” or “You’re a genius!”? I’ve never heard/read anyone come out against those terms, although they seem equally reductive to me (rewarding people for their genetic lottery results, rather than criticizing them for it).

    The intelligence issue is kind of an odd one because I think people really are just literally talking about the thing they’re using words for, and it’s shorter to say “that’s stupid” than it is to say “that demonstrates your lack of abstract reasoning ability and shows that you haven’t effectively synthesized the readily available evidence.” But there’s this other issue about analogies, too, and I’m going to put that in a separate comment…

    1. 1.1

      I think it’s fine to praise various forms intelligence in the same way that it’s fine to praise athletic ability. I’m impressed with my friends who are professors and I’m impressed with my friends who are great at movie trivia and I’m impressed with my friends who run marathons and I’m impressed with my friends who can juggle. I can’t do any of those things though. I might be able to learn to juggle if I tried, but no matter what I’ll never be a professor or a marathon runner. People’s abilities are obviously different and we do (on an individual and cultural basis) praise impressive abilities that many people don’t have.

      I DON’T think it’s okay to think that the marathon runner friend is a more important or valuable person than the friends I have who use a wheelchair every day. I don’t think my professor friends are worth more than my friends with GEDs. That’s where insults come from. When we say “You’re stupid” we mean “You’re bad and stupid people are worthless.”

      When people equate bad ideas with the thinking of intellectually disabled people they’re not really going after the ideas themselves. People aren’t wrong because they’re like someone who’s less smart (however you define smart, that’s a different conversation). Smart people have terrible ideas, make bad decisions, and believe incorrect things all the time. People who are perceived as less smart are often RIGHT about things. It doesn’t actually make sense to equate bad ideas with “stupidity” because frankly the most harmful bad ideas come from “smart” people a lot of the time. The thing you’re talking about, where people THINK they’re talking about a situation where someone is thinking like a “stupid” person, is actually exactly the kind of bias I’m talking about.

      Talk about why the idea is bad, or why the information is wrong. Going after the intellect of the thinker doesn’t help your argument at all, and does splash damage.

      1. NFQ

        Hey, thanks a lot for your serious answer. I think you make a really important distinction here between insulting a person and critiquing an idea. I 100% agree that it is never appropriate to call a person stupid. Insulting a person is unkind, and there’s no context in which “you’re stupid” is the beginning of some kind of constructive criticism.

        I definitely hear you when you say, “The thing you’re talking about, where people THINK they’re talking about a situation where someone is thinking like a ‘stupid’ person, is actually exactly the kind of bias I’m talking about.” You’re of course right that “smart” people can be wrong (and dangerously so). But if I had to put odds on the “right answer” to some sort of complex problem coming from someone smart or someone who wasn’t, I’d bet on the smart person, because my understanding of what smart means implies that smart people are more capable of getting right answers: they’re retaining information well and retrieving it appropriately, synthesizing that information and extracting abstract rules from concrete examples effectively, and so on. Which is why I understand “stupid” to mean the opposite (doing those things badly/ineffectively/not at all). Where do you think I’m going wrong in this?

  2. NFQ

    So the other thing I’ve been trying to figure out is kind of tangential to your post, but if you’re okay with the discussion here, I’d appreciate being able to explain it…

    I feel like I grok why calling something “lame” is ableist. It feels bad to use “lame” as a generic negative word, and it even feels weird to use “lame” to describe a physical disability if I’m not talking about, say, livestock. At the same time though, the English language uses standing/walking/running as an analogy for success. We say things like “take that idea and run with it!” or “that [concept] can stand on its own two feet” or “walk the walk.” I have never heard anyone get upset about exhortations to “stand up for what you believe in!” because that implicitly excludes people who are unable to stand. Am I just missing that sort of thing in my Googling? What I often find instead is people using these sorts of expressions in introductions to lists of ableist terms.

    Ditto for “blind.” I know it’s widely understood to be rude to say, “Are you blind?” to a sighted person who’s just crashed into you, or who can’t find the object right in front of them. But all the time we say things like, “Do you see what I’m saying?” (I inadvertently wrote one in my comment above.) We talk about “seeing the light” or “seeing the writing on the wall” and we even say “see you later.” Is that wrong, because it excludes the blind and visually impaired? And if it is okay to use “see” metaphorically to include all kinds of observing or stand/walk/run metaphorically to express stability and progress, what’s so bad about using “blind” or “lame” to express the opposites?

    Or perhaps, is it only okay to say positive things, and not okay to say negative things? (To bring it back to what I said earlier about “brilliant” and “genius” vs. “stupid” and “idiot.”) This feels to me like the rule that explains what I’ve observed, but it also feels absurd and Orwellian.

    1. 2.1

      Yes, basically the goal is to avoid associating disabilities with negative things. I went after some pretty clear and obvious sluring in this article because it is so common and honestly it seems a pretty clear case to me.

      Trying to change our language to be less harmful often feels absurd because we’re working on deeply held biases here. The idea of getting rid of any deeply held bias from the culture seems absurd at first. The bus boycotts seemed absurd. Stonewall seemed absurd. The inclusion of disabled students in schools and colleges seemed absurd. Today a lot of things we do to fight prejudice still seem absurd, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do them.

      1. NFQ

        Today a lot of things we do to fight prejudice still seem absurd, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do them. Phew. Well, yes, of course.

        But that’s sort of a strawman of what I’m saying. I’m trying to say, it seems like the party line on ableist language is, “It’s okay to use standing, walking, and running as analogies for progress and success. No one ever objects to that. But once you make the logical extension of those analogies to say that not standing, walking, or running means not making progress or not being successful, you’re being bigoted and horrible!” But … it really seems to me like these ideas are logically equivalent. I mean, I assume you wouldn’t say, “It’s not okay to use dark skin as a metaphor for badness, but it’s fine to weave metaphors about the majesty of the white race into all the rest of your speech.” That would be absurd. Right?

        So I see two paths out of this. One is to try to remove all metaphorical language about physical movement, attributes, and senses from our speech. No more “give me a hand with this” or “do you see what I’m getting at?” or “that doesn’t pass the smell test” or “we had a good run.” We try to convince everyone that using these metaphors excludes people who lack those abilities or otherwise implies that people with disabilities are “less than.” … The second path is, we acknowledge that speech is rife with metaphor, that it ultimately makes our communication more nuanced and more interesting, and we accept the occasional negative metaphor along with all the positive ones.

        Both of these paths seem unsuitable, to me, for different reasons. But I’m hoping there’s just something I’m missing in my premises which other Social Justice Warriors/Mages/Paladins who have leveled up higher than I have could help clear up for me. Is there something that makes “walking=progress” not imply “not walking=failure”?

  3. 3


    A big challenge with words like idiot/dumb/stupid/retarded/etc. is that every time we taboo one, something new comes in to take its place in colloquial speech. (We get terms like “special,” “ride the short bus,” or whatever.)

    I understand what you mean. I think the key here is making sure that whatever new terms enter colloquial speech, that they aren’t words that weaponize actual or perceived cognitive (dis)abilities (nor other aspects of peoples’ identities like race, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity). These words are problematic because at their core they are about cognitive ability or the perception of such. When you (general “you”) call someone “st*pid”, you referring to their cognitive ability. Same with all the other terms. But someone actual or perceived cognitive ability should not be the basis for an insult bc you then you are drawing a direct negative association between a group of people (in this case, people with mental disabilities or mental illnesses) and undesirable behaviors or attitudes. Instead of going for the shorthand words that are often bigoted, we should simply call out those undesirable behaviors or attitudes for what they are. Additionally, if one were to say “POTUS45 is on Twitter again being an id*ot”…think about what is being conveyed there. Implied in that sentence is that he has said something on Twitter that someone does not like or agree with and that something is connected to his cognitive ability. Chances are the things he said were bigoted in some fashion, or just completely ignorant. But ignorance and bigotry are not borne from cognitive abilities. So they shouldn’t be associated with them.

    1. NFQ

      Fair enough. I definitely agree that name-calling isn’t appropriate — the same way I wouldn’t say to someone “you’re bad at basketball,” because that’s just a rude and aggressive way to talk. Even in a situation where I was there to give constructive feedback, that’s not a productive or kind way to frame it. I wrote that and some stuff in comments above that is responsive to what you wrote, and I’m definitely curious about your answers to the kind of questions I wrote up there too. Such as: what do you think “smart” means? Is it okay to call someone “smart” or say that something someone said/did is “smart”?

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