“But Aren’t Some People Actually Stupid?”

I am pleased to see how many people are responding positively to my post Saturday on why I am against denigrating people’s intelligence with words like “stupid”, “idiot”, “moron,” etc. I want now to address a few common objections or caveats people want to offer.

The key question people want to raise is whether or not it’s just true that at least some people just are stupid. And in that case, shouldn’t we be allowed to say so?

There are numerous problems I have with this position.

First of all, I am unclear on what constructive good this is supposed to do? How does calling someone “stupid” help them? Are you trying to warn them to not trust their own judgment or something? It seems like the word’s utility is just to express your own frustration and contempt. Is that a good enough reason to keep the word around?

I don’t think so. If someone is genuinely unteachable, then it is unclear to me how they can be held to fault for not learning. If they are incapable of learning, why should they be subject to hostile derision and blame for what they cannot control? I believe in blaming people when it can do some constructive good. How does venting our frustrations at someone’s weaknesses do them or us any good? Should we also hurl abuse at people who cannot walk or who suffer from neurological disorders?

One thing we have to remember is that calling someone “stupid” is not the same thing as simply saying they are unteachable. Some words are not simple descriptors but carry with them emotional valences or convey attitudes, or perform actions when they are said to others in usual contexts. When you call someone stupid you do not just describe them as unteachable, but rather, in a bullying sort of way, you emotionally convey your hostile contempt for them. Calling someone “stupid” inherently expresses hostility. It is a word well known to hurt people and its use expresses either a cruel intent to harm or a callous indifference to harming. It is a word for venting at people or for trying to make them feel bad about themselves. These performative, hostile components to the word simply cannot be ignored. If you want to simply suggest someone is unteachable, then use that less hostile word.

I also think the word “stupid”, in the sense of “unteachable”, is rarely ever true anyway. There are many many distinct kinds of mental tasks that humans engage in. Some of us are better with some of them and others with others of them. The word “stupid” too broadly dismisses someone’s entire intelligence in every domain of cognitive performance. It’s not a rationally proportionate judgment.

Say for example that a given creationist who you wanted to call “stupid” was truly unfit for understanding biological concepts and therefore truly “unteachable” with respect to biology.

Even this I find to be an unlikely hypothesis in the case of the vast majority of creationists. Clearly they are obtuse to the truth of evolution because of deep social, emotional, psychological, and theological commitments to their faith, and not because of any unusual level of incompetence with biological concepts. Do we really think it’s a coincidence that there’s this set of people who are just cognitively incapable of ever understanding biological concepts and they just happen to be the same people with preexisting religious commitments that preclude proper biological understanding. No, most creationists can learn biology (at least as much as anyone else can) but simply have theological commitments that prejudice how they look at (or whether they look at) certain evidence. In fact, many people are probably very good at biology–except when it comes to evolution, since that subject would conflict with the particulars of their theological commitments.

But for the sake of argument, let’s just assume that creationists’ errors with respect to biology are really just due to a coincidental ineptitude with biological categories that stems from a particular cognitive disorder that coincidentally emerges primarily in highly religious people who happen to also believe in literalistic readings of their creationist Scriptures. We’re assuming they cannot be average or smart people who just have a belief system that explains why some false claims seem overwhelmingly compelling to them, while some true claims seem false. We’re assuming they just have a broken mind instead.

Even if we were to grant this implausible interpretation of creationists’ cognitive capabilities, what would this fact that creationists were people incapable of learning biology tell us about their aptitudes with all the other areas of learning that are possible? Even were they just unteachable with respect to biology, would that mean that they also were terrible at math? How about at cooking? How about at driving? Parenting? Lovemaking? Architecture? Friendship? Construction work? Painting? Mechanics? Baseball?

Should someone who is simply unteachable in one or several or even numerous kinds of learning be dismissed as stupid simpliciter?

When you call someone “stupid”, even if you have properly assessed that they are unteachable in some narrow respect (which is a big if), you have still overreached in dismissing their entire intelligence with the broad word “stupid”. Effectively you have generalized from one area of incompetence to a judgment about their entire intellectual capacity. That’s irrational.

And, far worse, the regular persistent unavoidable usages of the word “stupid” that inundate the blogosphere, Facebook, ordinary conversations, etc. is an even rasher and more unwarranted employment of the word. People are regularly leaping from one injudicious action or one round of poor reasoning or even one uninformed statement to call someone “stupid”. Essentially, any mistaken judgments or blind spots or biases or gaps in one’s education, etc., and people feel entitled to and label one “stupid”–turning one bad thought or action into an essentializing judgment of their total intellectual ineptitude and inability to be taught.

That is seriously hasty. Even if we could determine that there were people who were uncomprehending and unteachable in some respects, I have a hard time imagining too many people with whom one can carry on normal conversations at all who are especially mentally incompetent and unteachable in all respects. The only people like that are those who suffer from serious mental retardation. And those are hardly people who deserve abuse, as though it’s their fault or as though they’re undeserving of any respect or compassion but should be picked on by those luckier than they are.

Everyone else is likely intellectually average or above average in any number of respects, even if they have areas of weakness where they have below average abilities. So, the dismissive word “stupid” is reductionistic, false, and unfair. And, atop that, functionally it is inherently hostile and abusive and so would be unwarranted even if true, just the way insults aimed at the clearly mentally disabled are simply cruel and unjustifiable.

Finally, there are some people who have been arguing that “stupidity” involves knowing better and yet doing something foolish anyway. But that seems wrong. That seems like a problem of self-control, not “stupidity”. Maybe you can call such a person “incorrigible”–though can one really be certain that they are incapable of correction (as that word implies)? Probably not. So just say that they are lacking in discipline or that they have poor judgment in priorities or that they demonstrate inadequate self-control or that they are reckless–or any of a number more descriptive and accurate things.

Having considered the matter, I am convinced there is no use for the word “stupid” besides abusing people for perceived intellectual inferiority. Unless it is aimed (cruelly!) at the mentally disabled, it is probably always an overgeneralization from one intellectual mistake or one area of demonstrated relative incompetence to a false, essentialized denigration of someone’s entire mental life and potential. If we are properly concerned with truth and accuracy we should describe what makes intellectual errors or poor choices wrong by specifically labeling the precise natures of the mistakes being made. If we are properly humane we should leave out the emotionally cruel and falsely essentializing and excessively dismissive word “stupid”.

If we really have extensive evidence and are ourselves qualified to make psychological assessments about others’ cognitive capacities, and we determine that someone is most likely unteachable in a certain kind of intelligence, then we should have compassion for them (rather than unconstructive contempt).  We should limit our statements about their inability to learn to the spheres that we have determined they have deficiencies. We should not hurl abusive words at them but constructively encourage them in their thinking in whatever areas they have more potential to grow. And for those who are not unteachable but simply making specific mistakes (or a single mistake) we should not try to convince them they are unteachable–as though that would help them learn and not just make them resent thinking or speaking about ideas as something which subjects them to frustration, humiliation, and abuse.

Let’s stop making it painful to admit that one was wrong or made a mistake. People need to feel free to make intellectual errors so they can start admitting to themselves and others when they make mistakes, without feeling worthless for having made them. Let’s stop stigmatizing people’s fallibilities and denying their potential on account of them.

Your Thoughts?

 

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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