I work for a nonprofit that serves people with disabilities. It has been an enormous educational opportunity for me, in the mind and the heart, especially the last few years as we’ve been putting more internal focus on understanding the history of disability rights and models of “dealing with” people with disabilities. This has had the added benefit of broadening my awareness of ableist language online and in print. (Y’all know I’m a word nerd.) Like every time another layer of scales is removed from my eyes, it’s a positive, but still mixed, blessing. Not mixed: recognizing the irony when a woman criticizing what she perceived as a fat joke on The Onion’s twitter feed called it offensive and “lame.” Taking the moral highground requires a bit more diligence, ma’am!
A word called out as having potential to offend folks with disabilities and their friends and associates is “idiot”. If you’re not deep diving into disability or etymology, you probably define this as something like “a person who is not smart” and something idiotic as “unwise”. The fact is, these common definitions of the words idiot and imbecile long precede the so-called medical classifications below. I don’t believe any words should be expunged from the language, certainly not because they were once associated with wrongheaded medical terms. But I do think one should know whereof one speaks, so to that end, here is the bullshit ranking of “defective mental development” from a little over a century ago.
Idiots. —Those so defective that the mental development never exceeds that or a normal child of about two years.Edmund Burke Huey, Backward and Feeble-Minded Children, 1912
Imbeciles. —Those whose development is higher than that of an idiot, but whose intelligence does not exceed that of a normal child of about seven years.
Morons. —Those whose mental development is above that of an imbecile, but does not exceed that of a normal child
You may also be familiar with the illustrious Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ infamous statement in Buck v Bell (1927) that granted the right to ultimately sterilize thousands of people without consent: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
You can understand the painful potential of these words. But at the risk of appearing insensitive, the pain is not my primary issue. The Right Speech element of Buddha’s Eightfold Path encourages you to consider the following questions before you speak (… write, tweet, post):
- Is it true?
- Is it helpful?
- Is it kind?
- Does it contribute to harmony?
- Is the timing right?
(Folks mostly refer to the first three. Harmony is a tough one to determine, but as a standup comedy aficionado, I love that timing is included.)
My objection to the way I hear these words being used today (and have used them myself) is less about kindness and more about truth. The too-common and too-casual use of the term Idiot to describe people we don’t agree with is increasingly grating on me. I admit I don’t always fight it, in part because it’s so pervasive and slips so easily into casual conversation, but I do balk when friends refer to anti-vaccers as idiots, for example. Because I think it’s inaccurate. People who believe a certain thing, as illogical as that thing may seem to us, don’t believe it because they have some overall intellectual failing. They believe it because people around them believe it; the sources they go to for information believe it; they don’t trust the people who are trying to convince them otherwise; or sometimes, maybe, because they were never taught critical thinking skills. But none of those circumstances are examples of stupidity: they’re examples of humanity, or bad luck. There is nothing inherently lacking in those people – they came to their beliefs by accidents of location, wealth, association, etc. just like all the rest of us. It’s also illogical that “stupidity” would have led folks to one belief unless “intelligence” likewise led all other folks to the opposite belief. There are widely varying degrees of intellect and comprehension on all sides. If you don’t think there are sheep-like, intellectually lazy Democrats and Progressives, you’re choosing not to see it.
Would any of this matter if it were just namecalling? Maybe, but not enough for me to be writing about it. The misapplication of these and similar words is both irresponsible and false. That is, it fails to recognize our inherent interconnectedness and removes us from responsibility for our fellow humans. If we write off Trump supporters or people who don’t see racism or flat earthers as inherently flawed, we fail to recognize the elements of our society and our humanity that encourage the groupthink or lack of intellectual rigor that we have decided they exemplify. If people don’t know how to recognize an illogical statement, it’s probably because the elements of logic weren’t discussed at home or in school. If they believe what they believe because their social group believes it, that’s no different from everyone else. Humans are evolutionarily designed to conform to their society – that’s what keeps us alive in a collective, thus we feel good when we agree with others and they agree with us. If people fail to easily recognize racism, it is in large part because our country has worked incredibly hard to hide blatantly racist policies and practices for the last 55 years, in particular, so that we will believe that everyone got where they are through intelligence, hard work, and good character, or didn’t get anywhere through some combination of failings in those areas. If some working class White guy with a public high school education born and bred in a rural, White area is told that Black people are discriminated against when he sees a Black President, a Black VP, Black sports stars and actors and business leaders, should we surprised when he laughs it off?
If there is a defining characteristic, a character flaw that should be called out in folks who cling to what many of us see as indefensible ideas, it is a refusal to change, to learn, to allow their assumptions to be questioned, to listen with the brain and the heart instead of the ego. Let’s call them rigidots. It’s free of any connection to disabilities in development, verbalization, or learning, and describes only a temporary state of being, not an inherent lack. And all of us are rigidots at one time or another. I’m a rigidot at least three times a day, perhaps only better than I used to be in that I often recognize it and try to soften when I do. There are antidotes to rigidocy any time folks with different ideas and perspectives can talk to the temporarily rigid like they’re not idiots, to approach them with compassion and curiosity and communal responsibility, instead of writing them off as sub-human or enemies. All terms that separate us, that mark groups of people as Others, reinforce our illusion of separateness and put another brick in the ego wall that keeps us apart.