“Stupid”

In the discussion of his comment policy, Dan Fincke made a comment which gave me pause (thanks to Ophelia for bringing it to my attention):

Stupid is a serious word that torments more people than tranny does.

And no, it’s not about “playing nice”, it’s about having mature, civil discussions like adults, not like playground bullies.

“Stupid” is just not a word that smart people have ruining their self-esteem from the time they’re little kids.

And even yet, it is a false and belittling word that is counterproductive to constructive discourse. Calling someone stupid tempts them to either slink away in shame or to fight back with equal emotional abuse.

You’re not supposed to say this, but I’m smart. I’ve know it since at least second grade, when I was bored out of my mind in math class because I already knew more math than the teacher was teaching us. I’ve been called stupid, but I can shrug it off because I know it’s not true.

And… I won’t claim that in the past, I’ve disliked the word “stupid,” but I’ve been not-totally-satisfied with it. One meaning is a lack of mental ability, but when I call arguments made by William Lane Craig or Rick Warren “stupid,” I don’t think the problem is a lack of ability (if they were totally talentless, they wouldn’t be as successful as they are.)

So I’m not totally happy with the word “stupid,” and Dan’s comment makes me think I should give more weight than I have in the past to the problems with it. On the other hand, Dan’s suggested alternatives–”False, empirically refuted, fallacious, absurd, illogical, unsupported by evidence, irrational, rationally indefensible, superstitious, biased”–aren’t totally satisfactory either.

Plug them into the posts on Craig and Warren above in place of “stupid,” and it changes the message of the relevant sentences in subtle ways that I’m not happy with. Same thing with my post “When the people you’re trying to reach say stupid things,” which was well-received and had more people coming down on the side of being less-polite than I expected.

Furthermore, most of Dan’s suggested alternatives are to a degree academic and there’s a risk of classism in demanding people put their criticisms of others in academic terms. Robin Hanson makes a good point about this:

Lower “working” class cultures tend to talk more overtly. Insults are more direct and cutting, friends and co-workers often tease each other about their weaknesses. Nicknames often express weakness – a fat man might be nicknamed “slim.”

Upper class culture, in contrast, tends more to emphasize politeness and indirect communication. This helps to signal intelligence and social awareness, and distinguishes upper from lower classes. Upper class folks can be just as cruel, but their words have more plausible deniability.

Hanson makes the point in the context of talking about racist and sexist comments, but it’s very applicable to arguments about religion. William Lane Craig is very good at giving some degree of plausibly deniability to his smears against his opponents, and not only should we call him out about this, we should call him out in frank language.

As Dan likes to say: your thoughts?

  • Margaret

    Calling a person stupid and calling an idea stupid are different. Not calling out a stupid argument or stupid belief as stupid is condescending and implies either that you don’t care about the person or that you think they are too stupid to learn.

    I will resent it if you call me stupid, but if you see me express a stupid misconception, or more likely a stupid bit of white middle-class privilege, I hope you will call me on it rather than assuming I am too stupid to learn.

    • http://bannedatheists.us Banned Atheist

      I think this is it in a nutshell. As I commented on Dan’s post, it’s all about the ad hominem nature of the attack. Plus, the fact is we don’t know each other well enough to make claims about each other’s character, here on teh webz.

      Hence, every single time we attack someone’s character on the internet, we commit an attribution fallacy, which just makes us look… er… what’s the word I’m looking for?

      I see what you mean, Chris.

      • aleph squared

        Calling someone stupid is not, in itself, an argumentum ad hominem.

    • mas528

      I posted a similar comment higher up, but I’ve seen so many people trying to justify, “stupid” as acceptable…

      Calling an idea “stupid” when you mean it is “wrong” is saying that “only a stupid person could entertain that idea because of course, we smart people know that people of lesser intellectual ability are always wrong about everything.”.

      It is ableism, plain and simple. .

      No I had never really thought about it. I was fine with “stupid ideas” until I read Dan’s post on his *comment policy*. .

  • http://www.facebook.com/kimmyrafter kimrottman

    I think Dan is quite clearly talking about directing those kinds of words at people, while you, equally clearly, are not. It’s not about conforming to some arbitrary standard of civility. It’s about having a conversation in a way that doesn’t needlessly alienate the person you’re trying to talk to. I’ve seen threads on Pharyngula, for example, that degenerate into nothing but tone trolling vs. regulars bitching about tone trolling. That accomplishes nothing except to make everyone involved look foolish. These are smart people who are perfectly capable of making a sound argument without being insulting so why the hell not if that’s what it takes to keep the discussion constructive?

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Dan, if you’re reading this, do you accept that interpretation of your view?

    • mas528

      Dan also mentioned that there are people of genuine lower intelligence and that there is a correlation with higher levels of poverty.

      So it is also a group insult, and it is as much of an ablism as calling someone a ‘retard’. is.

  • Trent Fowler

    “You’re not supposed to say this, but I’m smart.”

    Good for you for admitting it. I find false modesty, especially in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, to be rather annoying.

    With regards to your main point, I can see why you would be dissatisfied with the word “stupid”. But as the commenter above me noted, calling people stupid and calling ideas stupid are different. A stupid idea is one that falls completely afoul of facts or is made up of sloppy logic and non sequiturs, especially when the flaws are obvious and the fixes easy. Smart people like Craig are completely capable of peddling stupid arguments, and in some cases appear to traffic in little else. I don’t think you’re remiss in saying as much.

  • scotlyn

    It strikes me that Dan is referring to a fault in the education system that has left many people high and dry without having actually received the education they were entitled to by being “tracked” into the “stupid” category early on either by the judgment of their teachers or by whatever processes cause people to internalise such definitions.

    I can’t tell you how many adults I know that were told they were “stupid” as a child, and, as a result, lost all confidence in their own ability to learn. This can be overcome, but with great difficulty as any adult literacy tutor can tell you. They can also tell you how “smart” their non literate students actually are – as is evident in the many ways they have worked out to survive, and hide their disability, in a world of written words. Some uses of the word “stupid” have indeed caused great harm.

  • amhovgaard

    #1: I agree. I tend to use the word when I think the person expressing those stupid ideas is actually more than capable of figuring out for themselves that they’re wrong.

  • Makoto

    Also agree w/#1, calling an idea stupid is different from saying “Person is stupid”. You seem to make the same distinction, saying that arguments made by people are stupid, while also often praising their research and books in other areas.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    When people continue to support idea X even after X has been clearly disproven and they have no further pro-X arguments left, the word “stupid” seems to apply quite well – and not just to the idea.

    Of course, (omitting the Hovinds, Craigs, Grahams and others making money from [otherwise] stupid positions), the flaw in such cases involves a failure of emotional intelligence, rather than (only) intellectual capability. In either case the anti-X proponents who don’t zero in on that weakness fail to clear their own mental hurdle(s) (again, omitting those with their own non-intellectual agendas, such as getting away unthumped).

  • http://fathergriggs.wordpress.com Lord Griggs[ Ignostic Morgan, Inquiring Lynn, Skeptic Griggsy, Carneades of Ga., Fr.or Rabbi Griggs]

    How much mental harm has the fool Billy Crackers caused? His son,Franklin is our-right a right-wingnut.

    • http://fathergriggs.wordpress.com Lord Griggs[ Ignostic Morgan, Inquiring Lynn, Skeptic Griggsy, Carneades of Ga., Fr.or Rabbi Griggs]

      out-right a right-wingnut

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  • ischemgeek

    I am very smart. Like you, I knew this by second grade, though it only became really apparent at the beginning of third grade when the school sent me for learning-disability testing because I was being such a terror in class and the tester found that I was at a grade five to grade eight level in every academic subject. She promptly chalked up my misbehavior to boredom and stopped the testing (thus missing my ADHD which wasn’t caught until I was an adult – she mistakenly assumed that smart people don’t have learning disabilities).

    However, I have a speech impediment. It was severe when I was young, to the point that on bad days, I’d carry around a pad of paper and pen because it was faster to write what I wanted to say than try to get it past my stutter (and then repeat it a few times before I was understood thanks to my lisp). The lisp disappeared with my overbite thanks to braces, but the stutter has stayed despite significant improvement thanks to speech therapy. If it takes you twice as long to say something, people assume it takes you twice as long to think it, so stupid was something levelled at me regularly as a kid. I think you can brush it off not because you know it isn’t true (because I know it’s not true in my case, too) but because it wasn’t levelled at you several times an hour, every day, all day, for all of your schooling, and then by family members after you got home.

    That said, there’s a difference between calling an idea stupid and calling a person stupid. In real life, I will jump down the throat of anyone who calls a person stupid in my presence. It is an ableist insult, and if you have the history with that word that I have, all the knowing you’re not dumb in the world doesn’t change the emotional impact of it. I will not do that for calling an idea stupid (though I prefer “silly” if you want to speak in plain terms).

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