“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?


The Collar That Choked Open Hearts
Comparing Humanism and Religion and Exploring Their Relationships to Each Other
Alix Jules On Being An African American Humanist
Why Would Being Controlled By A Brain Be Any Less Free Than Being Controlled By An Immaterial Soul?
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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/KRPinClinton kentparson

    The term “unteachable” is the weak link in your argument. If we look at the theoretical normal distribution of intelligence, about 15% of the population is one standard deviation below the mean score. The great majority of them indeed can learn and we should have the expectation that they can. There is less than 1% of the population that could be considered unteachable.

    If you were to use the terms “slow learner”, “below average”, or “cognitive weaknesses” would be not only more scientifically accurate, but would also eliminate a negative stereotype that is erroneous.

  • mildlymagnificent

    For me, once we’re conversing online, someone being unteachable is more or less irrelevant for the purposes we’re concerned about.

    The real issue is that ‘stupid’ is used frequently, sometimes relentlessly, in schoolyard bullying and by teachers and parents who really should know better. This creates a never ending pool of far too many people for whom the word is a nasty trigger reviving horrible feelings of fear.

    And always remember, it’s not just the person you’re addressing who will read them. It’s all the lurkers and people who are not commenting at the moment. It makes many people feel inadequate – because it can revive awful childhood memories either of being attacked in this way or of helplessness standing by and seeing bullies get away with attacking a friend or classmate.

    And there are abundant alternatives. Incoherent, illogical, nonsensical, misinformed, silly, foolish just for starters. It’s not as though ‘stupid’ is an isolated mountaintop word with no known equivalents. But it *is* a word with a lot of baggage.

  • baal

    As far as I can tell, there is a meme that being mean (calling folks stupid) is a right and needed for certain other folks to adequately express their emotions on a subject. Alternatively, they flip my description of the meme to say that it’s unreasonable (or even a tool of oppression) to expect people to self edit their expression of ideas (or emotions) to conform to certain societal norms.

    I don’t see Dan’s comment policy as a pro-status quo policing of societal norms. I see them as a rational attempt to useful dialogue.

    Really, for the folks who are feeling stifled – how do you feel about the comments policy of Greta Christina? They are expressed differently but wind up with the same net impact as Dan’s.

    • http://heartheretic.blogspot.com Lance Armstrong

      Yes. And Greta, more than anyone, pulled me into feminism. I had misgivings on the topic, but her approach disarmed them all. She is just, intelligent and clear. Her posts are free of hyperbole and vitriol. Sometimes she expresses a powerful current of emotion in her writing, but that current is always sent down a cable braided of truth, fairness, and a sense of proportion.

      I find her writing to be persuasive and praiseworthy, and I hope to absorb some of her style.

  • Mike Hitchcock

    What is often derided as stupidity is in fact wilful ignorance.

    • DavidG

      It often is, but how do you distinguish between the one person who has mistaken explanations for his foolish position, from his cousin who is intellectually disabled and cannot argue more complexly than that, from his friend who doesn’t care enough to get informed but will just bash out a reply in general support, from the dedicated troll trolling long term, from the guy who is just ignorant to the guy who’s a bit thick or deluded, and work out that *he in particular* is being willfully ignorant?

  • JP

    Dan, I know your recent posts have been specifically on the word “stupid”, and I understand why; but in the event that we’re getting too hung up on that particular word (and on the letter of the law, rather than the spirit, as it were), I’d like to add evidence to your case for why it’s important to have venues in which the benefit of the doubt is the rule, rather than the exception.

    I am a trans* person. A middle-aged one. And to make a long story inadequately short, I repressed my gender issues for more than half my life, which meant that when I was finally able to deal with them, I had a lot of misinformation and used a lot of outdated terminology. As I was steeling myself to come out– a process in which, incidentally, I ended up losing my entire family, my long-term committed relationship, and my home– I went online and made some comments and asked some questions. I didn’t know that the language I was using was offensive or wrong; it was the language that was commonly in use three decades ago, when I was first having gender issues, and I had been so thoroughly closeted since then than I genuinely didn’t know I was being hurtful or offensive to anyone (including myself). I was called out for it; not in a kind or compassionate way, but in a way that cut me deeply and that questioned both my intelligence and my intent. I’m not only transgender; I also have long-term issues with depression and anxiety. I shut down for months, during what was one of the most harrowing times of my life, and considered suicide yet again because I couldn’t go forward and I couldn’t go back. I had zero analog contacts who could answer my questions or help me to better understand what was going on with me. My only resources were online, and they were quick to tell me that I was on my own. Maybe I should have been stronger; maybe I should have been able to find the information and education I needed on my own. But I was hobbled by decades of having to obscure every important thing about myself, and I didn’t know how to do it on my own. The mistakes I made were linguistic, not moral, and no one took the time to look past the words I used to examine my needs or my intent. If they had, they would have seen that I was starved for correct information and terminology. I can’t blame them for being too hurt to see it or to care about my own emotional state; but I remember it every time I see someone saying something that seems on the surface to be wantonly ignorant, and I try to give the benefit of the doubt.

    I only use my own experience as an anecdote. It isn’t representative of every online commentor. But I have seen over and over again people who are otherwise wholly on board with a cause get bulldozed because they didn’t understand how to articulate themselves adequately. Maybe they aren’t the ones that those who protest these policies have in mind when they ask to reserve words like “stupid” for regular use; but I would ask that such individuals not be forgotten or left behind. They are often quick learners, and quite sensitive to criticism, and with them– with us– a kind word and a quick but informative correction goes a very long way.

    My experience doesn’t speak specifically to the use of the word “stupid”– although I hope it encompasses that as well– but I think it addresses much of what your recent posts about comment content have covered. I get that not everyone who comments inappropriately has good intentions. But we don’t have the power to discern intentions, only arguments. It is appropriate to attack a poor argument, or criticize language. Those are very different things to criticizing a person, or assuming we have insight into their intent. I have to remind myself of this daily, and sometimes I fail. There are days when the knee-jerk feels like my only available reflex. That doesn’t mean the standard isn’t worth upholding.

    • John Moriarty

      I know virtually nothing nor am I hugely interested in such issues JP, but still I would like to thank you for your touching and eloquent presentation of your story, and wish you the best health and happiness for the future.

  • adrianallen

    Those who

    are obtuse to the truth of evolution because of deep social, emotional, psychological, and theological commitments to their faith

    are surely being deliberately obtuse for fear of having their faith damaged or destroyed by acceptance of that truth. It then is not a matter of any shortcoming in intellectual acuity but a form of ignorance through choice. Such choice could be seen as avoidance of having to tackle cognitive dissonance if they allowed those facts to settle in their minds and contend with their faith. If that is so, they can be admired for avoiding that battle yet contemned for their refusal to consider the truth of evolution through fear.

    If a person decides never to consider the evidence for evolution for these reasons, their arguments become indistinguishable from anyone who lacks information and accidentally remains ignorant, no matter their level of intellectual acuity. Anyone who chooses to remain willfully ignorant is making a choice that results in arguments that appear ignorant but, because of that choice, actually become stupid arguments. That position then leaves them vulnerable, despite other evidence and signs that show they are not intrinsically stupid, to appearing stupid because they are “acting or thinking stupidly”.
    Consider, by way of example, a blind man. There is no way you or I could be induced to mock his disability and laugh as he bumped into furniture. But consider also a man who can see perfectly well, but chooses to blunder about with his eyes tight shut. Would we not actually be remiss by not exposing his apparent disability, and challenge him as he chooses to bump about rather than open his eyes for fear of what he may see?
    Yes, we may pity him, or make allowances for his phobias that prevent his choosing to see, but what if his choice is based simply on fear that what he sees may disorient him and expose his delusions? Sometimes it is better not to encourage them by pandering to their delusions but to expose their bad choices for what they are, stupid.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=597316935 ashleybell

      And why use ‘stupid
      when ‘dishonest’, ‘disingenuous’, ‘hypocrite’, ‘bigot’, ‘delusional’ etc etc are in the arsenal. And these accusations are defensible…

  • callistacat

    I agree that calling someone stupid is unnecessary and really doesn’t help your argument. But I can completely understand that some people get fed up with what seems to be willful ignorance (which I think it is a lot of the time), but there really is no reason I can see for calling people things like stupid or f*cktard or creatard. If you disagree with their ideas, why not just state why you disagree.

    It’s a sensitive issue with me because as I kid I was constantly told that I was stupid, an idiot, a moron, a f*cking moron by family members and was bullied constantly at school and ridiculed for practically anything I said, even by the people who loved me. It makes me cringe when I see words like that, it brings back those memories. All that verbal abuse had a lasting effect on me. I’m extremely shy and I am always very insecure about what I write and when I talk to people.

    But words like bitch and cunt and slut and whore are also extremely hurtful and dehumanizing, and some of the same people who say their offended by being called stupid by some commenters on this blog network seem to have absolutely no problem using those words. How is calling someone a female nazi or a she-beast or ugly or a cunt or telling someone they should be kicked in the cunt helpful in an argument? How is combing someone’s name with an insulting term (for example, Rebecca Twatson) and always referring to her in that manner helpful in an argument?

    • http://windaelicker.worpress.com mikmik

      I’m not sure that you are being genuine, at all. Kindly refrain with mention of, much less repeated usage of, virulent terminology, non sequitur, and gender biased reports.
      I’m sure we all can point out behavior in others without realizing we resort to it ourselves, and in fact even when I am aware of doing it, I still find it difficult not to.
      Thanks, maaaaaaan!

    • John Morales

      I’m sure we all can point out behavior in others without realizing we resort to it ourselves, and in fact even when I am aware of doing it, I still find it difficult not to.

      This is incoherent.

    • http://windaelicker.worpress.com mikmik

      Not to me it isn’t!
      I’m talking about projection, and when we, and I suppose I can only speak for myself, but oftentimes I’ll point out that person J, let’s say, is using a fallacy, like stating an opinion as fact, let’s say, and then I will realize that I, myself, do it all time – without being aware of it.
      What I am getting at is that it is easier to see behaviors in others than it is to recognize them in ourselves.

      e.g. I state my opinion as fact all the time, and even though I try to aware of when I do it, I still do it. I end up undercutting my credibility.

      Sigh, I worry all the time that what I write doesn’t make sense.

    • John Morales

      Relax, mikmik — you’ve clarified your intent nicely. :)

    • http://windaelicker.worpress.com mikmik

      Thanks very much, John.

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    To clarify, I take you don’t like “that’s stupid” much more than “you’re stupid”?

    • plutosdad

      I think so, I know I feel insulted when I’m trying to make a point and the person says “well, that’s stupid”. Usually it is a sign of their incredulity, or an argument they’ve never heard before, more than anything else, or a sign I am ignorant of the fact that what I just said has been said countless times before and has already been dealt with.

      But those other responses are all better than “that’s stupid”, and actually tell me where I’m wrong, or what I need to explain more. Saying “that’s stupid” doesn’t actually tell me anything, nor does saying “that’s ” because again, we are not giving new information.

      I think, it’s not that we can’t offend, or be angry, but we should give each other useful criticism that informs them.

  • mildlymagnificent

    I don’t know what anyone else would say, but I wouldn’t use “that’s stupid”.

    I might consider “that’s cushioning-word/s stupid more-cushioning” marginally better. But if anyone goes to that much trouble, they might as well use a less loaded alternative anyway.

    “Incomprehensible nonsense”, “downright silly” (or daft or barmy) “weak as water” – might be regarded by some people, technically, as stronger criticisms of poor arguments or badly worded opinions. But they come across as less challenging to the recipient or the passing reader because they’re not loaded with poisonous tips.

  • http://windaelicker.worpress.com mikmik

    I am disagreeing right here that most creationists or lifelong devout Christians, or any religion, are being intentionally ignorant, or feigning there inability to comprehend simple logic and/or evidence, be that physical laws, and so on. Their thinking is so deeply ingrained and constantly reinforced by their subculture where they get taught, told, and reassured over and over, without really even knowing of alternate possibilities, and even then, they are assured by equally knowledgeable sounding, to them, spokespersons and authorities in their hierarchy that there are answers to all objections and that it is the atheists/skeptics and scientists that are intentionally being obtuse.

    I would imagine that this is deeply wired into their brains by the incessant reinforcement and assurances that their teachings are the truth.

    I know I just read about deeply right wing conservatives being unable to understand or comprehend progressive views having their views and judgements instantly overtake their ability to reason rationally, so deeply are they convinced that the other side is wrong, therefore, no thinking is necessary – their prejudice automatically ‘knows’ that liberals are socialist namby pambies.
    I referenced this virtually uncritically(bad bad, I know) on Alternet, and here is a small example:

    Buried in the Pew report was a little chart showing the relationship between one’s political party affiliation, one’s acceptance that humans are causing global warming, and one’s level of education. And here’s the mind-blowing surprise: For Republicans, having a college degree didn’t appear to make one any more open to what scientists have to say. On the contrary, better-educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than their less educated brethren. Only 19 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college-educated Republicans.

    For Democrats and Independents, the opposite was the case.

    i can’t remember the fMRI study that I think I recall correctly as showing emotional pathways being used instead of the normally used frontal areas where rational evaluation is thought to be be primarily used in less emotionally charged or deeply held beliefs.

    I have mentioned many times that I live in a Christian fundamentalist, or at least an evangelical environment. I am constantly amazed at the sudden wall that I/we hit when I’m talking with pastor that I get along famously with. We can yak incessantly about computing, psychology, stupid ads on TV – almost anything, but when it comes to cosmology, evolution, the Bible, etc., all off a sudden he seems incapable of even the capacity to consider that there may be scientific and rational alternatives that could even be realistic. Then there is a very capable pastor, the head of the program, who is entirely quick witted and has a deadly sense of humor, and he also likes philosophy. He talks about reading Friedrich Nietzsche and Hume, but then he recommended I read some Peter Kreeft, who the pastor thinks is especially deep. One look at any of his articles will show you that this Kreeft is a stupid a very sub par apologist and especially blind to even understanding that Pascal’s wager is so easily shown to not apply when there so many alternates to christianity… you know the drill!

    What I’m saying is that these intelligent and exuberant individuals suddenly seem almost, and strangely possessed, with a sudden loss of their grasp on reality, I kid you not!

    It is profoundly bizarre to experience because they are so unaware of their transition to gobble de gook (?) while maintaining a consistent and unflinching demeanor.

    As an analogy, I think it is like Oriental speaking people trying to learn and pronounce english, and I’m sure vice versa, because our brains have no concept of the different grammar and pronunciations.

    Well, it’s about 2 hours past my bedtime now, and I have to put on my game face in the morning, so I best get a good rest, lol!

    Mike Laing

  • Ralph

    Your fellow FTB blogger, Richard Carrier, often calls people “insane” with whom he is having an argument. He justifies this in that he can find no other explanation for their apparent illogical arguments, but it comes across to me as just abuse. What do you think of this?

  • John Morales

    Dan in the OP:

    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.

    Hm. I see this entire paragraph as a sophistic attempted rationalisation, and I don’t buy into it.

    The word does have a primary meaning, which any dictionary will show; it refers to a lack of intellectual acuity in comparison to the norm.

    I note that you have resorted to a circumlocutory euphemism (“the mentally disabled”) — a poor one, since mental disability comes in various forms, not all of which involve lack of intellectual capacity (‘intellectually challenged’ would be a more specific and therefore better euphemism) — but the meaning remains and therefore is no less problematic.

    (cf. the euphemism treadmill)

    I also note your careful phrasing which yet doesn’t obscure your actual meaning — specifically, your use of the word “unless”.

    (Do I need to elaborate on the implication due to this usage? :))

    The above written, I go back to an earlier (rhetorical) question you made:

    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?

    Again, I see this as sophistic misdirection; the question at hand is whether some people are, in fact, stupid (or in your own poorly-phrased euphemism, “mentally disabled”) and whether stating this is always inappropriate, rather than whether it’s always inappropriate to employ the term itself rather than a circumlocution.

    (I note you were yourself unable not to resort to such a circumlocution, imprecise though it was, so you haven’t lived up to your own ideals in this instance)

  • mildlymagnificent

    “insane” …. it comes across to me as just abuse. What do you think of this?

    I’m not thrilled. It’s far too easy for the person at the other end to dismiss or get huffy and thereby miss the whole point. It’s also far too easy for a reader with a mental illness to be upset or offended. If you want to convey this, I prefer ‘nonsensical’, ‘daft’ or ‘silly’. When you want to make a joke of it, the idea rather than the person, ‘mad as a box of frogs’ or ‘a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock’ gets the light-hearted version across.

    (I wouldn’t rely too much on my attitudes though. Climate blogs are a pretty boisterous environment and I spend waaaay too much time there. And there’s a **lot** of undiluted barmyness.)

  • maureenbrian

    We know that, pace mikmik, many people do find the means to fight their way out the twin paper bags of ignorance and religious indoctrination. They tell us about it and sometimes it was very difficult indeed. Many of them also ask or imply a question – why in the course of this did someone who cared about me not pin me to a wall (very carefully, of course) and tell me what an idiot I was making of myself?

    Taking undue care of someone’s sensitivities is not always the more moral course. We correct our children when they have misunderstood something. We include in both training and supervision what the expected methodology is, what standards we expect and why.

    If someone persists in spouting the same nonsense, whether it all happens on the one blog or not, then at some point my obligation to him as a fellow human being triggers my duty to pull him up short, to correct him – by any means necessary, as we used to say!

  • laurentweppe

    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

    I couldn’t agree more, especially with the “Bully” part. Calling someone stupid is a way to tell them that they are so cognitively limited that you do not consider them fellow a adult human being, and that, in the end, they do not deserve anything more than being the obediant lackeys of the intellectually fit.
    In other words, it’s a way to say “Know your place, and do not contradict nor question your betters”: a distasteful way not to convince, but to assert dominance which can easily lead to straight up bullying. (and also one of the reasons I think that Hanlon’s razor is one of the most stupid concept ever produced by the human brain)
    The thing is, I think you’re missing here the elephant in the living room: that many debates and controversies are more about establishing dominance than exchanging ideas. Take the creationist example: the debate is about who decides to make public schools programs: it’s a zero-sum struggle for power and influence: the creationists want to run education and control the shaping of the next generations, the “darwinists” want the creationists to be denied any influence on said shaping. In such a case, the employ of bullying methods may not be the most moral thing to do, but are to be expected since each group wants in fine to submit and reduce to impotence the other one.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      The thing is, I think you’re missing here the elephant in the living room: that many debates and controversies are more about establishing dominance than exchanging ideas.

      Yes, I’ve been thinking of writing about precisely this point for some time now. There will be a post in due course on this topic.

  • kosk11348

    Too often, people confuse immaturity with stupidity. Beliefs may be stupid, but very often smart people will subscribe to them. Not because they themselves are stupid, but because they lack the maturity to accept discomforting facts.

    • kbonn

      Totally agree with this. In addition, name calling(like calling someone stupid for example) is rather immature itself, and when directed at an immature individual, they are likely to respond in kind.

    • http://windaelicker.worpress.com mikmik

      Yeah, the only reason to call someone stupid is to express your own frustration and anger, and that is very inappropriate in any public setting, and even when by oneself, broken furniture and holes in the walls may spontaneously appear.

      I do want to point out, again, that some are not even hearing what you are saying as they already, almost instinctually, ‘know’ that you are demonstratively wrong, as has been brainwashed into their head for years, and apparently ‘proven’ as shown in the Church propaganda:
      Why do people laugh at creationists? (part 37) William Lane Craig.
      They already know we are wrong, because WL Craig, a super brainiac, is indisputable.
      I tried engaging another counselor here when in his presence, another lad asked me about easter, and I explained the first full moon after the spring equinox deal,from paganism. I asked Bill, the counselor, to confirm this, and he wouldn’t. I then explained that the bible cannot be the word of God due to contradictions. Bill said that every word in the bible was true. Not having an example off the top of my head, I then asked him about Eve being created from a rib, and why do we still have 14 ribs, or whatever, and Bill is starting to get angry and say that no we don’t, we have thirteen and he has counted them.
      Bill is another quite intelligent man, yet he will claim that the Bible is the infallible word of God, and that there are no contradictions.
      For your viewing pleasure: Quiz Show (Bible Contradictions). I just want to emphasize that these people are just as sure of us being stupid and unable to grasp the obvious, as we are of them.

      It is completely irrational to call them stupid, and have them take us seriously. That is why, for example, you can destroy the Kalam first cause argument, Craig’s favorite, and they will still insist that there had to be a God to start it all, over and over; they will always come back to that statement.

      They are unable to think in terms of critical analysis, well of course not all of them, but in general, and even then, there is more than just logic and evidence to consider, but the ridicule by their social circle for being conned by an atheist.

      It is brainwashing that we are contending with, not logical creatures, and calling them stupid is surely a sign that you can’t win the argument, that they are right.

      They are fundamentally incapable of understanding why we don’t get that God doesn’t need a beginning because He is eternal, for example, because it is so obvious to them.

      When we call these people stupid, I, anyways, have to remind myself that it is exactly how they see me, with the same level of confidence. Arguing with them by presenting logical arguments and facts, and then calling them stupid for their inability, or unwillingness, to understand simple arguments, is pointless.

      What I am saying is that it is us that are stupid for our inability to deal with the reality of the situation – that of their inability to comprehend what we are saying – and adjust accordingly.

      I imagine!

  • Nothing

    Well, I have a prob with this post.

    I find myself to be quite and utterly stupid. How’d I be wrong in my assessment of myself?

    • kim

      @ # 17 Nothing
      The post is about calling other people stupid or saying that their post/comment/opinion is stupid. The post is not addressing you and if you want to call yourself stupid.
      Context is important.

    • http://www.oolon.co.uk/ oolon

      That is probably the issue I have with this, the Socratean view that we are all stupid and the nearer you are to accepting that then the wiser you’ll become. Bit like PZ’s post promoting the childrens book where the author is saying it is ok to say ‘I don’t know’… On the theme of that book I’d personally fight against the idea that it is somehow bad to be stupid and bad to point stupidity out. It is fine to be stupid as long as you are able to see it and are willing to learn or change. Often the ‘intelligent’ *know* the answer and refuse to admit they may be wrong, to me this is really stupid ;-)

      Stigmatising the word as somehow so bad you cannot use it will give it more power to those who like to throw insults around.

      Although I don’t get the triggering thing for childhood bullying so I may just have to accept that I’m wrong (stupid!) and other words than ‘stupid’ get the point across just as well. At my school the favourite insult was ‘You’re a Boff!’. Where Boff is short for Boffin – it was very easy to counter since I’d point out they had effectively said I was intelligent. Usually they still did not get it as ‘intelligent’ was an insult as well, but it was fun seeing the confused looks at how well I was taking being deemed a ‘Boff’.

      So lets reclaim stupid! I’m a stupid Atheist and proud of it :-D

    • John Morales


      I’m a stupid Atheist and proud of it :-D

      Well, your atheism (sorry, “Atheism”, whatever that is) is not evident.

    • http://www.oolon.co.uk/ oolon

      John, I’m named after a character that *proved* god doesn’t exist! How is that not sufficient evidence for you :-P

    • John Morales

      My innuendo would not have been sufficiently elliptical for some, but it’s satisfying to see you smiling at it.

  • jws1

    You may have spent a lot of time studying Nietzsche, but you sir are no Nietzschean. For those who are interested in reading the work of an actual Nietzschean, I strongly suggest Laurence Lampert.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      You may have spent a lot of time studying Nietzsche, but you sir are no Nietzschean.

      I am not doctrinaire about Nietzsche. I think for myself. My posts do not claim to be about what Nietzsche thinks unless I am explicitly saying, “this is what Nietzsche would say” or explicating a Nietzschean text.

      But, for the record, many of my ideas and attitudes do stem from Nietzsche, regardless of whether you recognize them as such. In this particular case, on this issue of how to treat other people’s ignorance, I am more influenced by Stoics than Nietzsche himself. But in general my suspicions of hatred are connected to Nietzsche’s critique of a number of hateful reactive emotions. If I were to pull the lens back and deal with the issue of cruelty in more general and philosophical terms, I would grapple with some of Nietzsche’s stress on the importance of accounting for the value of even “evil” instincts like cruelty. There are many interesting things to explore in that context. Nonetheless, having a “universal affirmation” sort of recognition of the ultimate value and potential utility even of darker emotions and drives currently seen as immoral does not preclude more proximate value judgments about the value of various emotions and drives. Nietzsche, while pointing out the potential value of even dark drives and emotions still had room to slam many attitudes and values and emotions and moral systems based on them, etc. I don’t see where it’s “unNietzschean” to do likewise–particularly when it’s in the name of combatting self-righteous arrogance, which was something closely related to the reactive and all-too-human prejudices Nietzsche railed against. There is a deep streak of Stoicism in Nietzsche too. I am happy to mingle the two influences. And Aristotle. And Plato. And any other philosophers with truths to offer. Again–I don’t see the point of being a slavish “Nietzschean” asking myself in all things “what would Nietzsche say?” rather than “What is true?”

      Finally, I have some unconventional interpretations of Nietzsche, so in some places I may yet see myself as more Nietzschean than you do, but I think my dissertation defends the validity of my understanding with an adequate thoroughness.

      For those who are interested in reading the work of an actual Nietzschean, I strongly suggest Laurence Lampert.

      Laurence Lampert is very illuminating indeed.

  • callistacat

    “I’m not sure that you are being genuine, at all.”

    Thanks, but I am being genuine.

    “Kindly refrain with mention of, much less repeated usage of, virulent terminology, non sequitur, and gender biased reports.”

    I have no idea what you’re trying to say here, can you please clarify a little more?

    • http://windaelicker.worpress.com mikmik

      I apologize. I thought you were being serious, but I found the terms you used to be

      : extremely poisonous or venomous
      : full of malice : malignant
      : objectionably harsh or strong

      because I thought you over emphasized your point by providing so many examples when one would do, and the term cunt did not need to be employed.
      I can’t find your comment at the moment, so I can’t point to the non sequitur I was referring to.
      By ‘gender biased reports,’ I meant that you used only female epithets to ‘report’ incidences of what you were talking about, instead of male oriented insults like ‘impotent’ (my personal favorite).

      So I started to wonder if you were exuberantly trying to make a point, or just using it as an opportunity to say a bunch of severely insensitive terms.

      Definition of VIRULENT
      a : marked by a rapid, severe, and destructive course

      It seemed to me that your discourse degenerated very quickly near the end.
      Sometimes I have a propensity to miss the most obvious points, or state them, for that matter.

    • http://windaelicker.worpress.com mikmik

      Here’s the quoute:

      How is calling someone a female nazi or a she-beast or ugly or a cunt or telling someone they should be kicked in the cunt helpful in an argument? How is combing someone’s name with an insulting term (for example, Rebecca Twatson) and always referring to her in that manner helpful in an argument?

      Kicked in the balls is far more common, and there are plenty of examples of male combinations.
      They are all examples of terms derogatory to females, and I wonder if yours is a case of not recognizing gender bias is oneself?

    • callistacat


      I was repeating actual things women have been called by people like Abbie Smith (“she-beast” for example) and Paula Kirby (Feminazi, femistasi) and the various other people in this movement who call women cunts or call for them to be kicked in the cunt for being… I’m not sure what, actually. They are not my words, I would never call anyone any of those things. Has anybody who disagreed with you or Dan or any other men here ever told you that you should be kicked in the balls for your opinions, or that because of your opinins you are ugly or a he-beast or a nazi? Does Sam Harris get re-named with a derogatory and virulent play on his name for having an opinion that someone in this community disagrees with? It seems gender-biased because the epithets seem to be overwhelmingly used against women in this movement who have mild opinions like “I feel uncomfortable being hit on in an elevator.” So for Dan to make a big deal about using curse words and then chastise those who have a problem being called a bitch, cunt, feminazi, femistasi, she-beast, ugly, trannie, etc. seems a tad hypocritical and casting those who are defending themselves as just as bad as people who hurl these types of virulently dehumanizing, degrading insults at us.

      “So I started to wonder if you were exuberantly trying to make a point, or just using it as an opportunity to say a bunch of severely insensitive terms.”

      Yes they are severely insensitive terms, *that was my whole point.* Why isn’t Dan taking people like Paula Kirby or Abbie Smith to task for demonizing fellow female atheists with these severly insensitive and degrading terms? I don’t know, maybe he has already and I missed it. I’d love to be pointed in that direction if he has.

    • Daniel Fincke

      So for Dan to make a big deal about using curse words and then chastise those who have a problem being called a bitch, cunt, feminazi, femistasi, she-beast, ugly, trannie, etc. seems a tad hypocritical and casting those who are defending themselves as just as bad as people who hurl these types of virulently dehumanizing, degrading insults at us.

      I have of course denounced all that behavior. I have NEVER chastised women for having a problem being called any of those ugly terms.

      I have alluded to the Slyme Pit issues a number of times in passing. I’ve fought explicitly about it on Facebook a number of times and supported my fellow bloggers behind the scenes countless times. I participated in the Freethought Blogs video criticizing DJ Grothe. In my No Hate post I wrote:

      Some good people are getting death threats, rape threats, and a wide range of almost unimaginable abuse for expressing their opinions. The hate is unbearable for them. People judging them cruelly and calling them bullies when they are lashing out in return need to stop. Escalating is not helping.

      During the Sandra Fluke news cycle I wrote several posts including one against the word slut: http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/2012/03/05/no-you-cant-call-people-sluts/ and http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/2012/03/05/why-misogynistic-language-matters/

      I took Reddit to task for its hostile environment for women after Rebecca Watson brought to all our attention the girl with the carl sagan book http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/2012/01/11/how-atheist-reddit-doesnt-get-it/

      I attacked the amazing atheist for trying to trigger a rape victim: http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/2012/02/08/the-amazing-rape-promoting-atheist/

      I wrote a post about rape culture: http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/2012/01/16/schrodingers-rapist-and-schrodingers-racist/

      I wrote a post about privilege: http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/2012/07/13/have-you-ever-thought-about-the-other-side/

      My initial comment policy alluded to how slurs worked, distinct from other insults:

      1. No insulting people. This means not calling them abusive names or making insulting insinuations about them which according to my judgment unnecessarily demean them as a person or which I take to be intended to demean them as a person. You may charge that people’s ideas are false, harmful, irrationally derived, etc. You may substantiate charges that someone’s personal behavior deserves moral disrepute where that’s relevant. You may critique an individual’s standards of evidence or question their commitment to reason over faith. But when you do things like this, stick to substantiatable charges. Use words which clearly specify what specific thing makes a person or institution’s ideas, beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, etc. worthy of criticism. Abusive names (like “stupid”, “moron”, “asshole”, “jerk”, “douchebag”, “idiot”, “motherfucker”, “dick”, “cunt”, “nigger”, “Feminazi”, “shitbag”, “mental midget”, “twat”, “fuckwad”, “retard”, “homo”, “fag”, “tranny”, “bitch”, “nutcase”, “crazy”, etc.) are emotional expressions meant solely to hurt other people. They are social equivalents of physical assaults.

      Words like these use emotional violence to coerce people with the aim of driving them into submission. These words aim to do that by demeaning them so that they feel worthless and hated. These words aim to irrationally gain leverage in an argument by making someone feel intellectually insecure and interpersonally rejected if they do not concede the other person’s debating point. These words try to drive people away with hostility. And, finally, these words try to coerce moral agreement by making the implicit threat of stigmatization and ostracism of any who differ. Some of these words threaten whole groups of people. Some of these words unfairly turn innocent groups of people into the standard of badness itself.

      These words do not clarify any philosophical points and they make agreement between disputants less likely rather than more. They force people to tense up and become defensive, rather than loosen up and think more freely and courageously. Censoring words like these does not stop valuable expression. It makes it more likely. Everything philosophically true can be said without abusing people. Harsh truths can be said in ways that respect people, even when those very people are worthily being excoriated for morally condemnable behavior. We can criticize people honestly without crossing the line into expressing merely our hatreds and dehumanizing them.

      That will be the standard I will explicitly hold you to on this blog. With fellow commenters and even when discussing public figures, let’s denounce in ways that are substantiated, subject to proof using evidence, and which at their core are respectful of other people’s basic humanity and their right to disagree without being insulted.

      I am even more categorically against slurs than insults. I just think that insults are far more wrong than any one else seems to want to acknowledge and so I’m emphasizing them.

      I did NOT set out to get into a fight with members of marginalized groups as though they were somehow more of a problem than others. It’s just that my readership took objection to not being allowed to use insults and so I got into this dialogue with them. Had I had more misogynists hanging around, I’d be writing more posts replying to them.

      In my post against the word stupid last weekend I also covered the problem with slurs to start out:

      I agree that not all insults are bad in the same way. Obviously generalized slurs, even (and especially) when targeted at a smaller number of people are very dangerous in a way that a more casual epithet, like “stupid”, is not. Quantitatively speaking, there are probably far fewer people called “tranny” (for example) than are called “stupid” but the consequences of transphobia are not only regularly disenfranchising and abusive but outright lethal in a sickening and absolutely alarming way. The word “tranny” is a vile word manifesting, inflicting, and perpetuating this dangerous cultural phenomenon of transphobia. The numbers of transgendered people dying by homicide or suicide are a temptation to despair to any one adequately educated about them. And the social maltreatment on every social level for living trans people is as deep or deeper than for possibly any other group.

      And it is precisely because there are so relatively few “transgendered” people that they are all the more vulnerable, all the more marginalized, all the more misunderstood, and all the slower to gain mainstream acceptance. Precisely because trans people are such a small minority, the word is all the more dangerous. It is not wrong on account of an aggregate calculation of its contribution to the overall pain and pleasure of the entire society. It is wrong because of the way it allows the majority to hurt a minority. Even were there some way in which the total sum happiness of a total population could be achieved at the expense of a minority’s basic well-being and abilities to thrive, it is wrong to put the group’s overall happiness quotient over the basic needs and basic abilities to flourish of a minority.

      Similar things could be said about the extensive damage perpetuated by other slurs. We all know about the pogroms and the Holocaust. We all know about American slavery and segregation. We should all know about the consequences of millennia worth of worldwide mistreatment of women.

      My problem is with all abusive treatment. I am disgusted by slurs and opposed to them.

      I just don’t think that Abbie Smith gets to call people “cunts” and “twats” just because she’s a member of a marginalized group and a victim of stalking. I don’t think she gets to lash out because of what was done to her. I don’t think anyone does–at least not as a regular mode of public discourse as it seems to be in many parts of the blogosphere.

  • Renshia

    Greetings Dan, It’s great to see you here. I hope you enjoy your stay.

    I have an experience in my life that involved the word stupid. It had a profound and lasting effect on my life. I still think of it often.

    I was around 14 years of age and I was living in a boarding school. During the winter we were given a choice of snowshoeing 4 miles every day or doing chores. Even though I had no interest in snowshoeing I chose that over the other. About half way through the season I was out doing the usual run, moping along, hating the world, feeling sorry for my trials and tribulations. A teacher came up behind me and asked if something was wrong and I gave some off hand comment about being “stuck” out here. Tthis teacher looked at me and said, Rich, are “you ever stupid”. I immediately denied it. He said, “nope your stupid, Your too stupid to realize that just up that hill and down the other side are the two things you want most, a sauna and a hot chocolate. Instead you are focused on how much you hate being here. so you mope along wallowing in self pity, being where you don’t want be, doing what you don’t want to do. Instead if you would focus on getting to where you want to be and make the effort to get there, you could be enjoying your sauna and hot chocolate all the sooner. Nope your stupid, to stupid to figure it out”. Then he was off. I wallowed a bit longer thought about what he said and came to the conclusion he was right. I was being stupid. I picked up my speed focused on hot chocolate, then I was off. I didn’t want to be stupid, or act stupid.
    I ended my schooling there the following year. I was on a team that won a 42 mile race and we broke three school records. I was the pacer, for 42 miles, I pushed us forward, thinking about how the sauna and hot chocolate were just up that hill and down the other side. It has also helped me focus and direct my life and had a profoundly positive influence.

    I am sorry man, maybe it ain’t nice, but sometimes calling someone stupid, can have a beneficial, and lasting effect. Sometimes a little shock therapy is just what the doctor ordered.

    • Daniel Fincke

      And the word “shortsighted” would not have sufficed?

  • Renshia

    No actually, I don’t think it would have. I was stubborn and let’s just say was nit easily influenced by things. I truly believe that nothing that didn’t have an impact would have got through. What he did stopped me and made me think.
    I guess we can add a lot of coulda, woulda, shoulda, but the fact is he used the word stupid and it effected me and caused me to really think. It was enough for me to take stock of what I was doing.
    Maybe he could have said it nicer, but I don’t think it would have had the impact. I needed the impact.
    There was a lot of self pity to get through.

  • http://www.masksbyjen.com Shrubber

    Thank you, this is a well written and thoughtful, as well as thought provoking article. You have given me much to think about in my use of terminology, as well as some possibly unpleasant revelations about my preconceptions. It still seems, however, that some folks really strive to earn the title. Should they be ignored, steered compassionately to a more comfortable, but factually fuzzy position, or shown the facts and then be expected, perhaps unrealistically, to reach a more reasonable conclusion?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Thank you, Shrubber. I think we have to figure out how to reason with people as constructively as we can. You can apply moral pressure and try your best to impress their contradictions on their minds until they have to confront their implicit cognitive dissonance. It takes patient dialectic. It’s hard.

  • John Moriarty

    But Dan
    remember (with critical hat still in place) your former life:
    Acts 26:14
    We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.

    Prov 27:6 Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.

    Having said all that, the word ‘stupid’ is rarely said as constructively as Renshia accepted the rebuke.

  • TMaster

    Bringing the bible into it? something I am sure you have no true understanding of since it has been corrupted with lies and about 7/8s of it you can’t even get your eyes on… do you fallow the commandments? do you even know how many there are? “Thou shalt not suffer a witch” is my favorite and no I am not putting a name with numbers beside it… True ignorance at it’s best quotes the bible like that.
    People as a species are ridiculously stupid and for the most part it is because they are allowed to be, I include everyone here to that category… Instead of doing something which intelligence dictates you bicker stopping those who would do something like me from taking the first step.

  • TMaster

    oh and just to add…
    jump and go fuck yourselves

  • http://markdohle.blogspot.com/ Mark Dohle

    Thank you for this post. People like you keep me from lumping atheist into some kind of box with the lid on it. We as a species tend to do that, rain down contempt on those who disagree with us. I will read more of you. You are not a village atheist, so refreshing, will come back to read more.