Stop Calling People Stupid.

In late July, I unveiled my moderation policy. In it I asked that people not insult one another. I gave a list of insulting words I was not going to tolerate. Among them was the word “stupid”. A lot of people argued that it was not a word worth cracking down on or that, even if it was, it was not worth putting in a list with racial, sexist, transphobic, ableist, and homophobic slurs as I did.

In this post, which continues a series of replies to objections to my thinking about the uses of words expressed in my moderation policy, I want to clarify what I think about the differences between the word “stupid” and other abusive terms and then explain why I take such a strong stance against the word “stupid”. This is not just about something as trivial as my blog’s comment policy. As far as I am concerned, this is about what it means to be a rationalist and an ethical person.

Objection 5: Words like “stupid” are not as bad as slurs against groups and so it is offensive and a counter-productive false equivalence to lump them in with slurs. It underestimates the extent of the harm caused by the slurs to lump them in with words nearly everyone uses and can tolerate, like “stupid”. Slurs do not just hurt people’s feelings but are part of literally violent and literally destructive social and political and religious systems. Slurs also target and abuse entire groups of people and not just the individuals taunted with them in any specific case. Some slurs also cruelly and irrationally turn immutable traits or morally good choices into the standards for badness itself. “Stupid” does not do any of this, so it should not be put in the same category with those other words.

Reply 5:

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.

All of this acknowledged, the word “stupid” nonetheless also matters even if in different ways. What I wanted to stress in my original post about my moderation policy was not that the word “stupid” is the same in all respects as slurs but that it is the same in one crucial, morally relevant respect. It is a hateful word. And that is all that matters to my view of how to treat people ethically.

I am against hateful treatment of other people. In this respect, both slurs and denigration of people as stupid meet minimum standards of sufficiency to merit being listed together among evils. No further calculations of the number of its victims is necessary to denounce a hateful word. Words like “nigger”, “fag”, or, as I discussed above, “tranny” are no less hateful or awful for only affecting a small minority of people. And neither those words or the word “stupid” which is probably aimed at more people than any of them, is worse on account of hitting more targets than others do. They’re all hateful and used to silence and marginalize and even threaten others.

Specifically, “stupid” is an ableist word that harms more than just its immediate target as it degrades people with less natural or developed intellectual skill. It reinforces their insecurities and their marginalization. In many cases this word blames people for what they cannot control, discourages their participation in intellectual activities, and demeans them by turning them into a standard for badness.

People have dropped out of school over being called “stupid”. They have lost their love of learning over the word “stupid”. They have been emotionally abused by their parents, their lovers, their friends, their schoolyard’s bullies, and their colleagues, by this word. While slurs affect fewer people but in a potentially more dramatically damaging ways, abusive attacks on people’s intelligence is a routine form of harm that affects a greater number of people, in a range of ways with a range of varying degrees of harm. Quite possibly more bullies have verbally assaulted others with the word “stupid” than any other word.

As our consciousness continually increases about the pervasive bullying that makes so many children’s social lives sheer misery, we need to recognize how much this word is a part of the problem and how much it continues to affect those children into adulthood. And who knows, possibly more bullies have been created by the word “stupid” being hurled at them than by any other single word. When we adults use this word, we are just continuing bullying patterns we did not unlearn from childhood. I am not exempt from this. I used to casually refer to people as idiots all the time. I’m conscientiously learning to undue this routine socialization into casual cruelty, just as much as I am trying to undue my routine socialization into sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, etc.

When the less educated who are religious hear highly educated and otherwise privileged atheists call religious people “stupid” they hear a huge dose of elitism and condescension that they resent and which causes them in many cases to close their minds to us.

It is a disastrously insensitive choice of words.

When many liberals hear atheists calling religious people stupid it entrenches them in their opinion of us as arrogant, self-satisfied, condescending know-it-alls. It makes them think of as privileged elitists. And essentially, that’s what we are when we attack religious people with this word–particularly when we who are doing it have positions of greater education or social status. While highly educated unbelieving liberals should not patronize religious people as beneath education and as only capable of being kept in line or kept happy for so long as no one disabuses them of their mythic beliefs, nonetheless they show a bit or proper humility when they avoid condescending to religious believers in the other way and refrain from belittling them by calling them “stupid”.

The religious, and specifically, the statistically high number of people who are both lesser educated and religious, deserve respect, honesty, and education. They need to be empowered, not belittled and not placated. They deserve to believe and act more in accord with reality than their religions allow. They need to be free to develop their identities and their ethics consistent with reality and not under the influences of arbitrary authorities who keep them ignorant and miseducated. They should be seen and treated as they actually are–as people fully capable of rational thought and autonomy, not as beneath the reach of reason, that is, not as “stupid“.

The word “stupid” marks ignorance as something warranting abuse and derision. While this could sometimes motivate learning (as a means of escaping abuse), given human weakness it is just as likely to cause people to feel very uneasy about recognizing themselves as ignorant. Rather than confront the possibility of feeling like they don’t know things they should, they will entrench themselves in their feelings of certainty rather than cope with doubt or face straight on the extent to which they need to learn about issues before being able to have an informed opinion. They have incentive to resist accepting counter-arguments which will expose them as having been wrong. If being ignorant or wrong merits harsh treatment, people are invested in denying at all costs that they are ignorant.

And yet, this attitude is antithetical to education and the intellectual life. I am one of the people I know who is most comfortable expressing my ignorance, in most circumstances. This is precisely because I have self-confidence that I can learn and because I am fortunate enough to feel like I know a lot about at least a handful of things. People who already do not feel intellectually self-confident should not feel like being exposed as wrong is equivalent to being exposed as worthy of degradation. Using the word “stupid” as an abusive term only reinforces this educationally counter-productive natural tendency. And it can hurt people of every educational level, even if the more learned should be more immune to it in theory.

It is worth noting that some of the people who may struggle the most with exaggerated anxieties about their own intellectual inferiority and be the quickest to denigrate their own reason are women, minorities, and immigrants who have had to deal with bigoted myths and memes about their supposed general intellectual inferiority simply for being women, minorities, or immigrants. Then, atop these groups of people, there are those with reading disorders like dyslexia who are tempted to underestimate their intelligence because of their difficulties with printed words.

Calling someone stupid because of an intellectual mistake is also false and unjust because it essentializes and dismisses a person’s entire intellectual life and potential based on one thought or line of reasoning. We all make reasoning mistakes. Rational people are ones who are constantly revising their opinions because they are constantly finding new ones that are either insufficiently nuanced or flat out wrong. Treating errors as signals that people are incapable of reason altogether is flat out irrational and should be treated as beneath rationalists. We of all people should judge more honestly than that.

Also many of our errors have nothing to do with our cognitive abilities but simply our education and, even more specifically, our specialized education. Many ideas that are false are at least rationally plausible. They could be true (or could have been true) and in past eras many people may have had no way of knowing that they are not. And some people today may have outdated ideas that have not yet been corrected for them or which have been actively miseducated into them. And it is also important to recognize that many intellectual errors stem from cognitive biases that come standard issue in the human brain. We likely make them because they were useful errors. They were the kinds of errors that actually on net were more beneficial to us in primordial errors than more accurately representing the world scientifically or philosophically would have been.

Our brains’ illogical tendencies serve purposes and so they are deeply ingrained in us as a result. So, often when people are being irrational they are doing so for reasons that are well-beyond any kind of easy control. We all need hard training from others outside ourselves and a lot of conscientious work within ourselves to fight the brain’s inherent conservatism. That conservatism has been highly valuable to our brains. There are good reasons that it is hard to overcome.

From an evolutionary perspective, leaving our thinking up to what we could figure out rationally was often less effective than sticking with what was capable of being more widely programmed into the whole species. We live in an era where we can overcome cognitive biases with truth. But it makes sense that the brain sets frustratingly high hurdles for the new truths to overcome the old biases. Its biases and tendencies towards biases rig it to protect against worse errors that might only seem true.

So given considerations like these, we rationalists need to start living and talking as though we understand the hard truth that smart people can be wrong. We need to accept the hard truth that people are often obstinate against new information and ideas because of an evolutionarily valuable cautious conservatism in the brain and not due to any “stupidity” or ineducability or malice.  We need to stop embracing and reinforcing the comforting delusion that only “stupid” people can ever be ignorant or make reasoning mistakes.

We are rationalists. It is time to talk about reality as it really is and our fellow humans’ brains as they really are. That goes for how we talk about errors in thinking. This is a matter of truthfulness, which we atheists are supposed to be concerned with–and not only when it benefits us.

I do not advocate against this word because it is a terribly big problem for me personally. I have been told by others, unsolicited, about how smart I am for as long as I can remember. I have gotten far enough in academia and held my own in enough intellectual discussions to know my capabilities. I am keenly aware of my limitations too, of course. I know better than to presume to think I am terribly insightful outside of my few areas of specialization and consider myself fairly conscientious about being upfront about what I do not know, when it might matter. And I also suffer my fair share of imposter’s syndrome like any other high achiever who is subject to the law of Dunning-Kruger and intimately acquainted with Socratic Wisdom.

But at the end of the day, the people calling me “stupid” are far fewer in number than those treating me like I am very smart. And few people even know where my intellectual insecurities and sore spots actually are to effectively hurt or rattle me. If anything, people routinely overestimate my knowledge base or my intellectual capabilities, rather than underestimate them. And most of those rare times that anyone actually tries to say that I am intellectually inferior, they’re so off the mark about what I supposedly do not comprehend, that I am not the least bit fazed.

I advocate so strongly against this word because it has the potential to be the strongest temptation to be blinded by unexamined privilege that I have and that you, the atheistic, intellectually curious and confident, social justice conscious, typical readers of Freethought Blogs, have.

I have always been reasonably good at picking up on other people’s social anxieties. I have been embarrassed and frustrated by the ways that people who are intellectually insecure respond to me when I do nothing more malicious than make sophisticated arguments that are beyond their own capabilities, or even if I merely mention that I am a professor or that I study philosophy.

People have a lot of intellectual insecurity. Sometimes they project it onto me and accuse me of arrogance or belittlement that is simply not there. I passionately say something out of my concern for the truth or to correct their errors and in their sensitivity they are only intimidated by how smart it sounds and so they hear only “you’re stupid”. I try to mitigate against this as sensitively as possible. The whole atheist community should be conscientiously doing likewise if we are to be more rational, more inclusive, and more humane.

We need to stop religious people from taking intellectual criticisms of their beliefs as automatically identical with personal attacks. The best way to do that is to actually stop coupling our intellectual criticisms of their beliefs with personal attacks.

We need to be better ambassadors of atheism in this way. We need to be more rational ourselves in this way. We need to be better, more compassionate, more empowering, and more ethically conscientious people in this way.

Your Thoughts?

Replies to frequent objections to this line of reasoning can be found in my follow up posts, “But Aren’t Some People Actually Stupid?” and I am not against “dirty words”. I am against degrading words that have malicious intent and functions built into them.

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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.