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.

  • Mikel

    This reminds me of a specific conversation I had on facebook about GMO’s and organic foods. The person I was discussing with is generally a nice person in person (he is someone I know) but for some reason thought it was acceptable to call people whose information was not as complete as his a “moron.” You could even say that everyone is a “moron” sometimes, just meaning that we are all ignorant sometimes. But in a conversation with someone (on facebook or elsewhere), that really does not matter.

  • Neal

    I am not innocent; nonetheless: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

  • StevoR

    Dunno what to think anymore.

    Try to be polite and considerate.

    Messed up human, like us all I guess.


    • StevoR

      And, no, I’m NOT racist (Ok just a bit, but tryin’ not be!)

      Though some of my friends and family are.

      Well more than human.

      Guess we all are.

      Intrinsic to our nature.

      We’re another sepocies of abboon.

      Okay biological purists not species but likewise.

      Analogies y’know.

      We know no the other.

      And therefore hate.

      Ourselves in other flesh.

      Messed (y)up we sure are.

      And struggle to become.

      Perhaps better.



  • StevoR

    Make that line 3 :

    Well now thats human

    Instead please ‘k?

    “s kinda what I mean. ~ish.

    If even I know.

    Which (shrug)

    • StevoR

      Dangnabbed gushdurned tpoys :

      Take .. III :

      And, no, I’m NOT racist* (*Ok just a bit, but tryin’ not be!)

      Though some of my friends and family are.

      Well, no more than human.

      Guess we all are.

      Intrinsic to our nature.

      We’re another species of Baboon.

      fer clarity.

      Sorry. Too tired, too drunk, ‘s’always.

  • James

    Good post. Recently I’ve begun to wonder about the slur ‘stupid’ myself when compared to other insults and how it implicitly says that it’s socially acceptable to despise the mentally deficient. It’s still very tempting to go for when somebody is espousing opinions that I see as riddled with folly but I’ve been making attempts to reign that sort of anger in.

    • Terri P.

      I couldn’t have said it better!

  • PA Year of the Bible

    More politically correct drivel that I
    have come to expect from FTB. And talk about diarrhea of the keyboard!

    • James

      “More politically correct drivel”

      Treating people decently isn’t a dirty word unless you’re a cartoon villain.

    • Makoto

      As usual, in this series – sure, you could make your point, as well as saying the person you’re responding to is stupid. So I ask, how is that different than just providing your response and calling them stupid in your head? At least that way, the person you’re responding to just has to reply in turn to your argument, and can’t get hung up on how you may have called them stupid.

  • D4M10N

    “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.”

    This is a wonderful idea, very succinctly put. Had you left out the word “religious” it would have been perfect — we atheists are not exactly known for refraining from personal attacks on each other when criticizing each other’s beliefs.

  • ajb47

    Thank you for exploring the use of the word “stupid”. I don’t recall using it regularly myself, though I must have when I was a teenager at least, but now that I am a father, I find I don’t like hearing it much at all. I’ve told my kids it’s not nice, but your writings have given me a larger frame for explaining why now that they are getting to an age where they are wondering.

  • reappaden

    Dan, you always make sense, even when I disagree. I would assume others feel much the same way. That is a very rare quality for a person to have. I agree with you on this subject, I would like to bring up a pet peeve of mine. People on the net and in real face to face interaction use the words ‘ignorant’ and ‘stupid’ as though they are interchangeable. They are not. Ignorance is when a person does not have knowledge. Everyone on the planet is ignorant about something(s) Stupid is when you have knowledge but do not apply it. If I don’t look both ways when I am crossing a busy street, that would be stupid of me. I am well aware of the dangers when crossing the street. If no one ever taught me that I needed to take care not to over-inflate car tires and one day I just keep applying the pressure til that tire blows off the rim and kills me, ignorance (and a big piece of styrene-butadiene copolymeris) is what killed me. I sometimes will use the definition of ignorance to diffuse people who use the argument that atheists consider themselves more intelligent and therefore can’t be reasonable when talking to religious people. When you describe everyone as ignorant, including yourself, it levels the play-field. And when you can do that it is usually much easier to have a productive conversation. I admit I probably use the word stupid more often than I should and now I gotta pay better attention to that, because of this post, I can no longer claim ignorance. Thanks a lot Dan……;)

  • khms

    It’s a fine sentiment, but it leaves me with a question.

    Assume that, when (say) talking about what someone has said or written, I come to the conclusion that said person seems to exhibit below-average intelligence (and is NOT just uninformed about something).

    What would be a legitimate way to say this – or are you saying that pointing this out is never legitimate?

    • John Morales

      What would be a legitimate way to say this – or are you saying that pointing this out is never legitimate?

      Can you adduce a plausible example of a legitimate use of that claim in the context of a comment thread discussion that is not ad hominem?

    • Lori

      I have found that if a person is not uninformed on a situation, and we still have a difference of opinion (i.e. i think they’re stupid) then it’s usually a matter of perception. Mine or theirs, we all have our own filter that we process information through.

  • Zeke Hoskin

    I can raise two points out of personal experience:
    (1) I haven’t called anybody stupid since I was a child. ONCE I said “that was stupid” when somebody slammed a door on my finger, and had to spend hours apologizing. I honestly meant to address the action, not the person, but bombs are not easy to aim.
    (2) About bullying, the only relation I’ve seen is a teacher calling somebody stupid, so the poor schmuck beat me up for being the one who got praised for doing it right. I didn’t appreciate his point at the time, of course.

  • D.A. Madigan

    I think this is a remarkably intelligent post. Let me respond to a few points:

    ‘Stupid’ is nearly always erroneously used; what we generally mean when we call someone ‘stupid’ is that they are actually ‘foolish’, in that, they exhibit unwise behavior. (Actually, what most people mean when they call someone stupid is “you just said something that annoys me, so, you’re stupid”. But when we sort all that out, then what we’re left with is, we call people ‘stupid’ when we mean ‘you are behaving in a manner that is very foolish’.)

    The terms we use that equate to this (idiot, moron, imbecile, retard, etc) are all actual medical terms with very specific definitions. I have never come across an instance when anyone (including me) has called anyone else (including me) a moron, a retard, an imbecile, or an idiot, where that usage has actually been applicable. We’re simply using the wrong words.

    Having said all that, sometimes using the wrong descriptive word is funny. Your point is that humor made at the expense of others should nearly always be eschewed, especially when that humor is cruel and demeaning. I say… there are some people in the world who annoy me with their behavior. Often that behavior is objectionable because it is largely derived from their own monumental self deceptions, and those really aggravate me no end. So I’l call those people ‘stupid’. They are not, technically, stupid… but it’s a word I use to ridicule them. Now, I could and sometimes do explain at length that they are not actually ‘stupid’, they are simply deluding themselves when they say, for example, that God has a plan for marriage, that what America needs now is someone who understands how business works, or that Dungeons and Dragons is a roleplaying system. But usually it’s not worth the effort, so I just say “You people are unbelievably fucking stupid/retarded/idiotic/moronic/whatever” and move on.

    Still, I think this is a wonderful article… but I don’t spend a great deal of time worrying about the hurt feelings of aggressively obnoxious people who cling to their utterly foolish, uninformed, pig ignorant, provincial, superstitious biases like a pig clings to shit, and who generally begin calling me names the instant I ask them anything they cannot immediately respond to with anything but “God says so” or “Well, BECAUSE, that’s why”.

    • Daniel Fincke

      While I think you should have more compassion even for such annoying people, when you use the word stupid publicly you’re hurting more people than those targets and saying more to onlookers about your character and your commitment to rational, civil debate than you may intend. Everything we say in front of more than 1 person should have more than 1 person’s reactions and impressions in mind.

    • jaia

      The terms we use that equate to this (idiot, moron, imbecile, retard, etc) are all actual medical terms with very specific definitions.

      Other than “mentally retarded”, those haven’t been medical terms for a very long time, and even “retardation” is being replaced by “intellectual disability”.

  • Jonathan

    Hi Dan, just wanted to thank you for your “stupid” blog:P 

    Like many, I grew up being shut down by that word by an older sibling.  Although most of my peers thought of me as clever, and I did well enough on exams I missed out on the bulk of my education as I was afraid to open my mouth and take the chance of confirming my brother’s diagnosis.  By keeping quiet my verbal reasoning skills fell behind, further building evidence in my mind for my brothers case.  Being called “stupid” at a young age likely robbed me of some of the confidence needed to pursue an academic career. 

    I hope your article will help open people’s eyes to the true awfulness of this terrible word.  Your writing does a world of good Dan, keep it up!

    • Jennifer

      I resemble this comment. I’ve always been debilitated by any suggestion that I am, as I’ve always suspected, stupid. When I was an older kid I struck back by demeaning my little sister’s intelligence, which I am deeply ashamed for. For us both as working class hispanic females, “stupid” was a multiplier on top of the other shit we deal with.

  • Steve Dorst

    RAmen! I try not to use “stupid”. Instead, I’ll use “mistaken” or “misinformed”. When the person I’m describing is particularly egregious, I’ll stoop TP “unthinking”.

    • Steve Dorst

      Typo! “to”, not “TP”

  • jaia

    I have a mentor who very deliberately reserves the word “stupid” for people who are willfully ignorant, particularly over prolonged periods. The average creationist is not stupid; the guy who earned a Ph.D. in geology and remained a creationist is. Unfortunately, since this usage is nonstandard, I can’t use it when talking to anybody else without first clarifying it.

  • MurOllavan

    This is one of the better posts I’ve seen on FtB.

  • John Moriarty

    Dan, you have made your point very well as usual, but I cannot feel otherwise, that there are times when the ephitet really is deserved.

    How about: “although I know you do have a brain, there is something willfully, obstinately, non-cognizant about your behaviour in this matter – why can’t you acknowledge what I’m saying: are you being stupid or what?”

    Bit of a mouthful I suppose.

    • John Morales

      The rhetorical question and the initial phrase there are mere verbosity and are insults no less than the naked term itself would be.

      I note you claimed that you feel such insults (or, as you put it, “the epithet”) really are deserved at times, but you have not made an argument to justify this feeling, unlike Dan.

      (You might as well have written “I disagree” and have left it at that; your case would be no weaker)

    • plutosdad

      But even that is not “stupid”, we all have cognitive dissonance, and areas where we refuse to see the truth right in front of our eyes. Have you read “Mistakes were made (but not by me)”? It is a collection of studies, experiments, and evidence, that NONE of us are above this failing.

      When you consider a religious person, their whole identity is wrapped up in their belief. When the average religious person says “I don’t believe you because of x, y, z” where those are the same bad arguments we’ve heard before, they are not really saying they have analyzed it and think x, y, and z are true, they are saying “If I accept what you say my entire world falls apart and I don’t know who or what I am anymore” and THAT is what we need to attack.

  • John Morales


    Minor error in the OP: “primordial errors” was probably intended to
    be ‘primordial eras’.

  • mildlymagnificent

    Speaking as one whose occupation is dealing with children with educational difficulties, I couldn’t agree more. The biggest elephant in the stupid room is that most of these people don’t have any real intellectual disabilities at all. But they’ve thoroughly absorbed the message that they’re too dumb or too stupid to learn. And once you think you can’t do something – it becomes true.

    When dealing with people who say stupid things (I’m a participant in the climate wars, so I see a lot of this) I’m inclined to go for misinformed. Mainly because it’s usually true and it elegantly slides over the question of why people **choose** to pursue bad information and worse analysis.

    If you want to insult people with silly opinions or made-up facts without triggering all those lurkers, it’s far better to go with silly or foolish. I would never, ever use ‘ignorant’ even though it’s technically correct, because that’s used by far too many people to indicate both intellectual incompetence and bad manners.

    If you want to exaggerate for effect, you should go all the way to totally unhinged or completely deranged. Even if a reader has a psychiatric condition that they’re sensitive about, they don’t worry about this – because it’s so theatrical and unrealistic. Or you can use conventional expressions like “that way lies madness” rather than calling someone (or their ideas) crazy or mad.

  • Lou Doench

    Dan, I think you should listen to the most recent Professional Left Podcast, wherein Bluegal talks about exactly the kind of “you re stupid” atheists that turn her off.

    • John Morales

      That turn her off what?

      (I presume Bluegal is not a machine that can be turned off)

  • John Moriarty

    @plutosdad yep, have that book. Oh, must start reading it soon:)
    @JohnMorales I hope you realise I 99.999% agree with DAN. My point was to convey I thought that when someone was being willfully obtuse, calling them stupid would be a (justifiable) signal that the usefulness of the conversation was at an end. A parting insult if you like. A deservedly self indulgent signal of the rational but frustrated and angry mind’s efforts being thwarted by the crass. A close relation of “fuck off” or adieu. I think many people would have had experienced many such moments, such that giving examples wasn’t really needed?

    That’s why Dan’s policy is especially good for the typed media. You may have come up with situations where a good number of words, more than would ever be need in face to face talking, are needed to disambiguate the perceived written insult from the intended mild remark.

    If anything we need almost a stilted politesse on this media, to minimise unnecessary verbal conflict, as distinct from well reasoned differences of opinion. It’s about optimising the signal to noise ratio, or practicing communications consequentialism, as I once heard it said. Here’s an idea: let’s try out breaking up into conference call discussion groups to get to know each other more, and to integrate this communication mode with blog and forum discussions. It seems to me that greater more personal comms have potential still to be untapped. I started expressing myself on the forums, but now really enjoy the facetime of the various meetup groups as well.

    • John Morales

      @JohnMorales I hope you realise I 99.999% agree with DAN.

      No, I didn’t, but stand corrected as to what you meant.

      [1] My point was to convey I thought that when someone was being willfully obtuse, calling them stupid would be a (justifiable) signal that the usefulness of the conversation was at an end. [2] A parting insult if you like. A deservedly self indulgent signal of the rational but frustrated and angry mind’s efforts being thwarted by the crass. A close relation of “fuck off” or adieu.

      1. But stupidity and wilful obtuseness must be different things, since the latter doesn’t require the former.

      Calling them wilfully obtuse would be justifiable, but that’s a personal charge, which Dan’s policy allows. Calling them stupid (under the circumstances you’ve proposed) is an unwarranted accusation as well as an insult, which Dan’s policy prohibits.

      2. Indeed; a wilful insult, even.

      I think many people would have had experienced many such moments, such that giving examples wasn’t really needed?

      You consider that a legitimate use though you admit it’s self-indulgent and insulting?

      That makes me think that your estimate of only 1% disagreement with Dan’s stance must be quantitative rather than qualitative, since I make it that one of its axiomatic premises is that resorting to insults is not a legitimate tactic.

  • John Moriarty

    Yes, dead right, not a legitimate tactic IF you want to stay in the debate. So not a debating tactic; if you will, an end of debate exit tactic IMO.

    a quote from Dan last 20 June:

    “But curiously, even as I was explicitly attacking reason itself, and even doing so to the point of being on the surface an outright misologist (a hater of reason), I still felt insecure about the position and sought validation that this was at least coherent.”

    That a fabulous word, misologist. Far better than stupid. Thanks Dan:)

    • Daniel Fincke

      Yes, and it’s a technical term. It wouldn’t apply to most people that get called “stupid”. But it would apply to religious believers who started bashing reason itself.

  • Mercutio Celsus

    I completely disagree with this argument. So tomorrow if we stopped using the word “stupid”, people are going to stop acting stupid & saying stupid things. How many American children have high levels of self-esteem only to find out we have an entire nation raised, built, and lately seething with anti-intellectualism? Calling people “stupid” wasn’t the cause of these problems. Under-funding public education, parent’s having to work longer hours, stripping programs suited for early childhood development, increasing more resources to fund the prison-industrial complex, having more zero-tolerance policies…these things I would submit are far larger causes. We have an entire nation of people, that know more about “Jersey Shore” than the “CERN” project. We have more people that want to spend millions on their kids HS football stadium, than in their kids classrooms that includes teacher salaries. We have a nation that not only believes but “KNOWS” there is an “Evolution” controversy and that “Creationism” is a valid alternate “proven” explanation. And again, not calling these people stupid is supposed to make them want to drink at the waters of education & enlightenment? Give me a break. I went to public schools, sat in class with many of these morons. Were some discouraged? Don’t know for certain. But there was tutoring, cliff notes, the internet, and personal motivation, some helped themselves many don’t. There are enough who simply DON’T CARE about changing their opinion. Matter of fact some of them don’t even want to, because in truth it’s not relevant to their everyday lives. If you’re black living in the South Bronx NY, how exactly is learning evolution going to help you procure that employment you need to get through HS? Maybe your mom works, maybe your dad is away in prison. We don’t provide realistic opportunities so education because parse and secondary in certain subjects. We kill the ambition with the craptacular environments we provide these children, and then tell the parents do more even with you having to work obscene hours for little pay. If we actually did more to calm the social environments, you could encourage better learning habits and this will fix the larger problem. Hell why, not do away with testing altogether? Surely, if someone gets a 100, and you get 65 you’re not feeling like a genius.

    • John Morales

      I completely disagree with this argument.

      Completely? Then, there can be nothing in it with which you agree.

      Let us see…

      So tomorrow if we stopped using the word “stupid”, people are going to stop acting stupid & saying stupid things. How many American children have high levels of self-esteem only to find out we have an entire nation raised, built, and lately seething with anti-intellectualism?

      I don’t see where the argument with which you disagree makes these claims, hence these cannot be a disagreement to it.

      (Am I wrong there?)

      Calling people “stupid” wasn’t the cause of these problems.

      Again, there was no such claim; the contention is that it is an exacerbating factor, rather than a cause.

      [the rest of the comment...]

      … is utterly irrelevant to the argument Dan makes and with which you claim to disagree; since you have attacked a position nowhere in it mentioned, there is no evidence to believe that it’s his argument with which you disagree, but rather his conclusion.

  • WMDKitty (Always growing and learning)

    It’s one thing to say, “Don’t use these slurs.”

    What you’re doing here, however, is full on language policing. And that is definitely double-plus ungood.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I have no power to police (except in my own comments section).

      But this is not about language so much as about abusive bullying treatment of other people that certain language contains.

      People understand why slurs should be cracked down on on that account. I am trying to explain why words like “stupid”, etc. are not morally neutral. Their intent is to hurt people. It’s an ethical issue. Verbal abuse is immoral.

  • JediBear

    All good points, Dan.

    I wonder, what are your feeling on calling ourselves stupid?

    I’m the person I’m most likely to level this charge against, after all, and it occurs to me that doing so publicly might have some of the same potential for collateral harm as leveling it against someone else.

    • Daniel Fincke

      All good points, Dan.

      I wonder, what are your feeling on calling ourselves stupid?

      I’m the person I’m most likely to level this charge against, after all, and it occurs to me that doing so publicly might have some of the same potential for collateral harm as leveling it against someone else.

      I think it’s an unhealthy attitude to have towards ourselves. We should be honest with ourselves, that means not beating ourselves up more than we deserve, as much as it means not puffing ourselves up. This is part of overcoming Christianity’s encouragement to exaggerated self-loathing for me.

  • F

    Without using shorthand like calling someone or something stupid, etc., how shall we designate the wrong-by-choice, the repeatedly intellectually dishonest, who insist on inserting themselves rudely to be cruel to others with their bigoted rhetoric? And no, I won’t address something or someone on each individual merit when they are not worth or receptive of the effort, especially when they have already been addressed thus repeatedly, when their bullshit yet needs a response in a strong “downvote”. What should be the brief commentary, both useful and not abusive, then? “I disagree?” And what of saying something is stupid indirectly, via satire, mockery, or some other method? This would or wouldn’t be abusive how? What about other words, like silly, with their more appeasing and jocular undertones?

    • John Moriarty

      AIUI a wide open possibility exists in the printed media to allow inferences that are totally unintended by the writer. Anyone who has put stuff online will sooner or later find this out. You need precision and a bit of luck even, to be heard more or less as you want to be. Charitable interpretation often requires lengthy clarification in the case of a genuine question. It can get tedious and time consuming. And if a body wants to pick you up wrongly, they will do so all too easily.

      The world is full of nitpickers and quibblers. The forum ignore button was the greatest invention. Not everyone is worth your time arguing with.

      I wish for skype type forums, at least for some of the time, to enable efficient clarification, and to help filter who you want to converse with or not. Think of all the people you wouldn’t want to bother with, and with what relative speed you can filter them face to face as compared with text communication. Also I think people generally behave themselves more respectfully in real life/video communication.

    • baal

      F, I’m with Dan and against the folks who think that being abusive towards commentors you don’t like is wrongful act – even when those commentors are ‘insisting on inserting themselves rudely to be cruel to others with their bigoted rhetoric.’ Being abusive is being abusive. Full stop.

      I am ok with naming a posters comments ‘trolling’ and then pointing out why you think their post is dishonest. If you think a post isn’t even worth that effort, ignoring a post does work (have you seen threads with a ton of comments and there is some obnoxious post in the middle and noone said anything? It looks a lot like social distancing), as does letting someone else respond. Lastly, “your comment is so devoid of merit that I can’t find something useful to say” or equivalent focuses on the worthlessness of the post without attaching (that much) personal attack.

    • plutosdad

      I call them “intellectually dishonest” or “willfully ignorant”, or “trolling” it is more descriptive, and says “you are doing this”. It may make them angry, but it is not an insult, and moves the conversation forward instead of attempting to end it.

      (nothing wrong with ending it by banning or ignoring or telling them they’re not welcome of course)

      I think those are short enough and avoid ambiguity.

  • baal

    As far as I can tell, I don’t think the same way most folks do. I infer this from the number of times various teachers recommended me for remedial education or for ‘gifted’ programs – often times in the same subjects just 1 year apart in the same school systems.
    I get the same dichotomy from other folks as well and have been called ‘stupid’ or smart all too often (it’s not even, more like a 1:2 split). In either case, it’s been unhelpful. I rather hear what (why) someone wanted to apply that label. One corollary of getting both labels is that I’m convinced the labeling has less to do with me and more to do with the one labeling.

  • flex

    Interesting essay. I agree with what you write, and generally avoid denigrating anyone’s intelligence because I firmly believe that nothing I have learned is incomprehensible to anyone else. That is, should someone desire to learn quantum theory, or economic theory, or paleontology (none of which are my specialties), they are almost certainly capable of doing so. I’ve yet to encounter a subject (with the possible exception of theology) where a desire to learn is all that is necessary to master the subject.

    However, on reflection, there is one arena where I still us the word ‘stupid’. Invariably it is in the past tense, often directed at myself but occasionally at others, in the form of “That was stupid.”.

    This is not really self-depreciating, but an acknowledgement of a momentary lapse of judgement. As an example, connecting a power lead to a grounded line and blowing a 40 amp fuse (or worse, melting the lead).

    Generally when a co-worker does something of this nature I don’t comment. It doesn’t happen often, and it always is caused by not paying attention rather than low mental ability.

    I’ll have to think about how your thoughts apply in this set of circumstances. And I’ll attempt to curtail my use of ‘stupid’ until I solidify my thoughts. As a observation, my laboratory is a bastion of privilege, so the impact may not be as great as in other environments which are not so homogeneous. Which doesn’t make it right to use, but may have been why that usage of that particular word has not impinged itself on my consciousness before.

    I do, however, agree with your desire to stop the use of the word stupid in comment threads. I’ve seen it used far too often to stifle discussion. Even in the cases where a commenter is apparently deliberately being obtuse and ignoring the evidence which has already been presented to them, calling them stupid accomplishes nothing.

  • Amphigorey

    Dan, I am totally on board with not calling people stupid. Your essay is strong and clear.

    However, there’s one small point that I can’t parse out. Do you also contend that calling ideas or things stupid is bad? Your essay only mentions stupid as it applies to people, but in several comments you’ve said that stupid is not a morally neutral word, so I’m not sure if you only want people to stop calling other people stupid, or if you’d prefer people didn’t use it at all.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Dan, I am totally on board with not calling people stupid. Your essay is strong and clear.

      However, there’s one small point that I can’t parse out. Do you also contend that calling ideas or things stupid is bad? Your essay only mentions stupid as it applies to people, but in several comments you’ve said that stupid is not a morally neutral word, so I’m not sure if you only want people to stop calling other people stupid, or if you’d prefer people didn’t use it at all.

      I don’t like calling ideas stupid either because I hear that as “that’s an idea only a stupid person could hold”.

  • DJJ

    Point well made.

    More than once I’ve had to clarify to someone that I just think they’re wrong, not stupid or crazy or anything. Since then, I’ve tried to convey that more clearly.

  • Ken Shelton

    Guilty, but I got exhausted by the exchange of vitriol. I saw the damage I did to myself and my cause by hurling insults at those who not only disagreed, but disagreed in hateful terms. It takes discipline to move away from spontaneous, emotional reactions to hate, but well worth the effort.

  • Carmi Turchick

    Okay, but maybe you can examine your assumption that everyone who agrees with your world-view is highly educated and comes from a background of privilege. I grew up sometimes eating out of garbages, had teachers whisk myself and my brothers off to a free clothing closet, slept on the floor until I started working at age ten and bought myself a bed…not exactly privilege. I also first attended an American Atheist meeting at age eleven, on my own since my folks are not Atheists. I went to university for a couple years, but could not justify going into a lot of debt to continue so I dropped out. I have worked all of those glamour jobs: janitor, dishwasher, bike messenger, line cook, phone centre agent, retail sales clerk…yeah I have had so much fucking privilege.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Okay, but maybe you can examine your assumption that everyone who agrees with your world-view is highly educated and comes from a background of privilege.

      I apologize for giving that impression. I was just going off of general demographics of the atheist community (which skews towards higher education) and addressing a possible reason that there is such a blind spot about what is so obnoxious about attacking the ignorant. Leaders of the movement and many of the most vocal rank and file tend to be educationally privileged since this is a movement that started in part as a defense of a scientific theory not well accepted by the majority of those not well educated in America.

    • Jason Brian Merrill

      I think you don’t totally understand privilege.

      Although your life hasn’t been a fortunate one, as mine hasn’t either – if you are male, white, and straight, or any bit of those, you are in a privileged group…. so therefore, put a black dude in your place, or a woman, all other things equal, and their lives would be worse in many places. Not every place, but many places.

      That’s more along the lines of what “privilege” means.

      I was told I was a privileged white boy by a professor in university once, and instead of her explaining what that meant, she used it to insult me – I went on a rant, similar to yours above – and then looked it up when I got home and understood.

      That teacher was still inept in her ability to teach imo, due to this situation, but I did learn what it meant.

  • chatty052

    Great article! Keep it up.

  • MelanieN

    You’re right, it is absolutely wrong to call any person or population stupid. Period. But, stupid is inherent to the HUMAN condition. ALL humans have a moment where they have an intellectually inferior moment, ALL.

    However, I think we should laugh at the ‘stupid’ in the human condition. By encouraging laughter, then we as humans can feel better about ourselves for that universal “stupid” moment. Too much PC removes that, and as such limits the actions we are comfortable taking to reconcile our stupid actions.

    We should celebrate & encourage that laughter, and the entirety of the human experience including brilliance, stupidity, and all between. By doing this, we accept it is OK to fail, as long as we reconcile, and strive to make things better, including ourselves.

  • The Tim Channel

    Creationists are stupid and torture is a war crime. This is something that is written in the bedrock of my belief system and I will not waiver from it, no matter which stupid religious idiot or slobbering God botherer I offend. There, I said it. Enjoy.