My employer required a handful of DEI-related readings this quarter. Definitely a good thing, and/but the selections made me confront something I’ve been pushing aside for a while. In the spirit of facing up to my shit, here we go.
The issue is the troubling origins of the words “moron” “idiot” “imbecile” etc. Pretty much all synonymous terms were medical or legal classifications for individuals who did not conform to whatever arbitrary standard for intelligence or behavior was enforced at that time. The classifications were utilized to take away people’s freedom to live where they wanted to live, participate in society, reproduce, vote. The words were consequential and did not just designate difference, but inferiority. Although the usage has changed, the sting still lingers for folks, so removing those words from pointed use seems reasonable.[i]
The question I’ve been avoiding is the one that always lingers in my mind when this group of words is broached,
“But what am I supposed to call stupid people?”
The appropriate response is, of course, “why do I need a name for stupid people?”
“Because there are stupid people out there, and I may need to reference them in writing or conversation.”
Do I, though?
I’ve argued in at least one post and an op/ed that writing off our perceived (often political) enemies as “idiots” is not helpful. It places a nearly impenetrable wall between us and them and, yes, the language itself fortifies the wall. If they are idiots, there is no reaching them, no reasoning with them, no point in concerning ourselves with their motives or wellbeing. If they are idiots, there is no point in trying to talk to them. I’ve argued against this usage with the ride or die Trumpers specifically, because holding fast to a belief in the face of contradictory evidence is something every one of us has done. Maybe it’s not over a political election, but rather in believing in superstitions, practicing harmful habits, defending the improbable innocence of people we happen to like. The belief that we are rational actors leads us to trust ourselves too much, and to trust others too little, and facing up to our universal irrationality may help us be a bit more forgiving.
I have come to believe that people may believe stupid things, perhaps, or make stupid decisions, but no one is an idiot. Do we need a demeaning word for someone who is incapable of thinking the way that we do? Perhaps you’re wondering about people with intellectual disabilities, diagnosed or not, apart from any ideologies you might have. Would you call those people idiots? I wouldn’t. Those words imply some element of will, not a different intellectual capacity, and all of the words synonymous with idiot have a tinge of insult and judgement that hang on them. It would never cross my mind to call someone with an intellectual disability an idiot. Besides, our definition of intelligence is far, far too narrow. Everyone who is conscious has some kind of intelligence, whether it be the ability to make something, to love well, to appreciate beauty. None of us excel in everything, and there’s plenty of variety to go around.
What if someone is unwilling to apply their intelligence? That makes them stubborn, right? Or willfully ignorant. Not stupid.
So do we need a word like idiot? Do we need a word that takes what we perceive to be the circumstantial inferiority of a person and turns it into their entire identity? Do we need a demeaning word for people with disabilities? Do we need a demeaning word for Black people? For gay people? For women?
How might the world shift if we did not have a demeaning word for people who are intellectually disabled or make harmful or ignorant decisions? Would it force us to look at them as people with flaws, like us, instead of demons? What would it look like if, instead of saying, “Those Trump supporters are idiots,” we said:
Those Trump supporters believe something that has been proven false, or
Those Trump supporters are being manipulated by greedy, ambitious people, or
Those Trump supporters are being led by their fear.
I immediately feel my compassion extend towards those people, in a way in which I wouldn’t with a mob of idiots. Which ones could you relate to? Who is worth caring for? Who might you be willing to talk to? Each one of those descriptions contains within it a clue to solving the perceived problem. Does that opening put too much responsibility on our shoulders? Is that what we’re trying to avoid?
An idiot is a person who is not like us, a person not worth considering. A person whose motives we don’t even need to think about, because even if they did have motives, why should we learn about them? They’re stupid, after all. We separate from them in word and deed. We lock them out of the human club by naming them as something other. Separation is a method to shut down compassion and a lack of compassion separates us from our companions in this journey.
I think I can live without it.
As for my use of crazy… that’s for the next therapy session.
I don’t argue that these or any words be removed from the language entirely. This is about mindful speech & writing.