Alternatives to the word “stupid”

After my post semi-defending the use of the word “stupid” in arguments, I feel obligated to say that after thinking about it a bit more, I think “silly,” “absurd,” and “ridiculous” can mostly do the work of “stupid,” without the unfortunate baggage. I’m not promising to absolutely never use the word “stupid” in arguments again, but I’ll try to ask myself if one of those other three words might work better.

I don’t see this as a civility issue. Calling someone’s argument ridiculous isn’t terribly polite. It’s just a word choice issue, an issue of picking the word that says exactly what I want to say and not something else. What other such substitutes can you think of?

Also, I feel somewhat odd that apparently some people saw my post as anti-Dan. I actually wrote it largely because he managed to convince me that the problems with the word “stupid” were more serious than I had previously realized, even though I didn’t agree with his position 100%. I’ve often thought about the absurdity of seeing the need to sort people into clear “teams” in internet debates, and this is a good example of that absurdity.

  • Margaret

    I defended “stupid” for arguments/ideas rather than people in your previous post, but a lot of people seem to be unable to hear that an idea is stupid without taking it personally, so I think I will join you in trying to consider the use of “silly” or some equivalent, at least for a first response. I will try to keep “stupid” (argument, not person) for use after the person has shown themselves unwilling or unable to learn or to stick to the topic or to deal honestly. “Stupid” (for the person) is what I will be shouting at the monitor, but I’ll try not to hit submit on that unless I’m absolutely done with the conversation.

    But please call out any of my silly/stupid ideas as silly/stupid and then give me some reasons/facts so I can learn better.

  • Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven

    …why not just cut out all the intervening steps and contract our vocabulary for negative adjectives to “ungood?”

  • mildlymagnificent

    There’s a rich vein to be mined here.

    My personal favourite just now is “witless”.

    ‘Half-baked’ is very useful for notions expressed by people who’ve obviously not thought through whatever they’ve said.

    Foolish, not-so-clever, ill-considered … all have their place. Their main benefit is re-focusing thinking on ideas and expressions rather than personal failings.

  • kimrottman

    I personally don’t have a problem with “stupid” directed at an idea as long as it’s followed by “because” and legitimate reasons. “Stupid” alone, to my ears, is something you say when you oppose an idea but can’t adequately state why.

    Also, like #1 above said, a lot of people have difficulty not perceiving it as directed at them personally even when it’s clearly directed at the idea. I think this happens often with religious people because they feel those beliefs define who they are. When you call their beliefs stupid, from their perspective, there’s not really a meaningful distinction between that and calling them stupid.

    They’re looking for any excuse to cling to their comforting fairy tales and to believe that all atheists are just assholes who hate god. If our goal is to actually get through to people, there’s no reason to use language that’s going to alienate them.

  • Tony •King of the Hellmouth•


    What other such substitutes can you think of?

    I still have major reservations with Dan’s policy.
    I still do not understand why calling someone ‘stupid’-in certain contexts-is unacceptable (I’m certainly willing to revise this opinion if the right argument comes along; there hasn’t been an effective argument against the use of the word that has convinced me, even though I can see some small germ of the argument).
    I don’t understand why you’re looking for substitutes for the word stupid, if those words are just synonyms.
    I’m still wondering where the line in the sand is drawn. Obvious terms like gendered or racial epithets are well, obvious (to many; there are still defenders out there). I don’t think one is likely to find a defender of ‘nigger’ (I hope I don’t need to qualify that I mean using the word as an insult, rather than discussing the word itself, as I’m doing) here at FtB. Likewise, ‘tranny’, ‘cunt’, or ‘tard’ will quickly-and rightly-be shot down. After that, I feel we venture into a grey territory. As I said, I’m unconvinced that ‘stupid’ is out of line (the same with ‘moron’, ‘idiot’, or even a term not related in some way to intelligence, such as ‘douchebag’). How much further down the insult pipeline are we going to go? As we venture down through that pipeline, insults continue to lose power. ‘Faggot’ is far more dehumanizing and insulting than idiot. I’d say that’s largely due to the term referring negatively to a marginalized group of people who have been discriminated against and dehumanized over long periods of time and to such a degree that the insult has become ingrained in our (I’m referring to the US; I can’t speak to other countries) culture. Can one rightly replace ‘faggot’ with ‘stupid’ or ‘idiot’ and say the same? I don’t believe so.
    This doesn’t mean that I think those terms can’t be used as dehumanizing insults aimed at someone. It just means they are significantly less powerful epithets than say, gendered insults.
    So the question becomes: where do we stop?

    Where is the line drawn between words that people don’t like versus words that are used to oppress a minority group?
    —-or should the question be—-
    Where is the line drawn between words that are used to insult individuals versus words that are used to insult and oppress minority groups?

  • cassmorrison

    Anything that helps people hear what you say instead if personalizing an argument is a good thing. It takes little extra effort on my part to use different words. I would ask Tony why it’s necessary to insult (implied or directly) anyone while talking to them. If you can’t grant someone a modicum of respect, walk away.

  • mildlymagnificent

    Anything that helps people hear what you say instead if personalizing an argument is a good thing.

    And that’s where words like ‘stupid’, ‘dumb’ and ‘idiot’ can act as heavy emotional triggers for a large number of people. Bullying by peers, teachers and families is often focused around such words.

    More importantly, this is a message that many children internalise whether it’s delivered seldom or often – they think I **must** be dumb if I can’t … whatever bothers them at the time. And they don’t just think it. Any teacher or parent who pays attention can hear them *say* it under their breath.

    I’d not be in the least surprised if any such student who I’ve worked with should blank out emotionally when addressed in such a way on-line.

    There are other words, more pointed or even downright nasty words, that don’t have that triggering baggage. They’re not unusual, some of them are more powerful, they’re all available. We might as well use them.

  • Banned Atheist

    As in other threads on this subject, I’m still of the opinion that all ad hominem attacks really do is reveal the willingness of the attacker to skip the debate and go directly for character assassination.

    To call an idea “stupid” is different than calling the person espousing the idea “stupid” (etc.)

    I was told in a thread on one of FtB’s blogs that I was “stupid” for saying that I thought it undermined the insulter’s argument when they make an ad hominem attack. My point was proven in that any and all debate was ceased, since I’m not going to bother debating with someone who insists on the right to insult me rather than engage my arguments.

    I’m still of the opinion that simply dismissing an argument by name-calling only makes the name-caller the loser.

  • Banned Atheist

    More on-topic: howz aboot arguments that are…

    intellectually torpid


  • McNihil

    Looks like you’ve made up your mind to use “stupid” more sparingly now but I’ll give my 2 cents anyway.

    I have actually thought a lot about this issue myself because I try to chose my words carefully when I speak and write. My English vocabulary isn’t as extensive because I’m not a native speaker so it’s even more important to me to convey the meaning I want to convey with the words I have at my disposal. Up to the point of reading your previous article on the word “stupid” I tried not to use that word at all. I’ve always defined it as “lack of mental ability.” My sister is mentally challenged. She is literally “stupid” in that sense of the word. Her mental ability is low. So frankly, when people throw around words like “stupid” and “retarded” in casual conversations or debates I cringe a little every time. I find it demeaning and insulting, both to the person addressed with those words but mostly to the people who actually lack mental ability. It’s just like using “gay” as a pejorative term. There is nothing wrong with being gay so using it as a pejorative term is an insult to gay people.

    The word I have used in the past to avoid “stupid” has most often been “ignorant” which I define as “ill/incorrectly/insufficiently informed.” This doesn’t imply anything about the addressees mental abilities. It simply states that they don’t have all the facts to come to a well informed, sound opinion on a given matter. They may have the mental ability to learn those facts but they simply haven’t done so (yet) for whatever reason.

    Now, I have to admit that until your last blog post on the subject I had never considered that “stupid” (and similar words) can be aimed at what people say and not at the people themselves – like calling their arguments (not them) stupid. It seems obvious but somehow I never made that differentiation. Well, I’m sure that on some level I did but it never occurred to me this consciously and clearly. I’m still letting this notion percolate but I think that I may not have a problem with this use case of “stupid.” It’s not targeted at the person making a claim/argument, it’s simply targeted at the claim/argument itself and so it seems to lose it’s insulting aftertaste a little. Again, this is probably painfully obvious for most readers but for me it’s a subtle nuance that I never brought to the conscious surface of my thoughts. It’s a nice little epiphany.

  • Banned Atheist

    Or … arguments that are,

    a smear
    a dodge

  • Tony •King of the Hellmouth•


    I would ask Tony why it’s necessary to insult (implied or directly) anyone while talking to them.

    1- Because sometimes people are displaying unacceptable behavior towards others and I feel the need to call them out for it. Immediately. Sometimes I insult them gently, sometimes harshly.

    2- Because sometimes people insult ME and in the heat of the moment, I insult them back.

    Your comment implies that conversations are *always* civil and that all involved always have a level head*. That isn’t always the case.
    Please don’t take my discussion of the matter as an endorsement of insulting people at all times. I don’t feel that way. In fact, I think I largely avoid insults in most of my conversations because the people I hang around are few, and they aren’t the type of people who deserve to be insulted.

    If you can’t grant someone a modicum of respect, walk away.

    It must be nice to have this as an option at all times. How do you do it?

    *it also implies that everyone *should* have a level head. I don’t think that should be the case as long as we are partly governed by our emotions.

  • Tony •King of the Hellmouth•

    Banned Atheist:
    I’ve seen some of your comment about this subject and feel that you’re confusing ad hominem attacks with simple insults. They aren’t the same thing.

  • Tony •King of the Hellmouth•

    intellectually torpid

    Again, where is the cutoff for unacceptable terms? If we stop using *stupid, moron, idiot, et al* and use the terms you list, what happens when people deem those terms hurtful? How far does this go?

  • Tony •King of the Hellmouth•


    The word I have used in the past to avoid “stupid” has most often been “ignorant” which I define as “ill/incorrectly/insufficiently informed.”

    I’ve seen/heard of a lot of people who feel being called ignorant-even when it is appropriate-is an insult.
    Your definition is correct, but if we’re to stop using words that *others* feel insulted by, should we not use ‘ignorant’?

    • McNihil

      To me, that is just a matter for further clarification. I have used “ignorant” in the past and people did get offended. So I explained to them how I am using that word and that I am applying it to myself as well, as I am ignorant in many, many fields of knowledge and activity. Sometimes, they were still offended and the conversation ended. Other times, they understood and accepted my use of the word and we continued.

      That is not to say that I don’t completely understand your point. The question is, where do you draw the line. Even if we use words correctly (i.e. according to their current definition), we can still get into muddy waters because of sub-text, social conventions, intonation/tone, context, etc. I think the bottom line is to simply not have the intention to insult the person you are engaging. If you are sincere and it doesn’t even occur to you to insult them but simply to have a civil conversation with them, many things will fall into place and misunderstandings can be worked out within the course of the conversation.

      Obviously, this still won’t work with everyone because emotions can’t just be turned off and the person you are talking to might still be so sensitive or emotionally invested in their claims that they will feel insulted even if you explain to them your sincere intention to not insult them and simply have a civil conversation with them (I think that’s what happened in the recent back and forth between Richard Carrier and Bart Ehrman). Well, in that case the conversation may not be worth having – except maybe to demonstrate to others your sincerity and the other person’s emotional, hyper-sensitive response.

  • smhll

    I still have major reservations with Dan’s policy.
    I still do not understand why calling someone ‘stupid’-in certain contexts-is unacceptable

    Daniel Fincke teaches at a university, right? It’s pretty easy for me to see if he called one of his students “stupid”, or even just called their argument “stupid”, it would have a discouraging effect on some of the other students in the room. And if he let his students get away with calling each other stupid, the same effect takes place.

    I like the notion of “attack the argument, not the person”.

  • Tony •King of the Hellmouth•

    Although we’re talking about the use of stupid, I’d like to bring in another term that Dan banned, JERK.*
    If a woman is being harassed on the street by someone as she’s walking home, and she (or a bystander) tells her harasser they’re being a jerk, is that wrong?
    I don’t believe it is. It’s an insult, yes. In that context though, it is entirely appropriate.

    *yes, I’m extrapolating here. Dan is speaking about dialogue on his blog, not IRL on the streets. However, if it’s wrong to call someone a jerk on a blog, how different is it to call someone a jerk in meatspace?

  • Tony •King of the Hellmouth•


    Daniel Fincke teaches at a university, right? It’s pretty easy for me to see if he called one of his students “stupid”, or even just called their argument “stupid”, it would have a discouraging effect on some of the other students in the room.

    There’s a power dynamic between Prof. Fincke and his students that’s far different than student to student.

  • Tony •King of the Hellmouth•

    (I’m responding in this manner because I do not like nested comments)

    I think the bottom line is to simply not have the intention to insult the person you are engaging.

    While that might work in theory, part of my issue here is that there are so many words that people do feel insulted by that I worry we’re going to run out of words that *aren’t* insulting.

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