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?

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