The Case Against Stupid

TW: Discussion of ableist language & bullying





“You’re S-T-U-P-E-D. Know what that means?”

“Stuped? It’s not a word.”

“Yes, it is! Stupid, do you know what it means?”

“That’s not how you spell ‘stupid’. It’s with an i, not an e.”

“It means you’re r******d.”

Stupid first entered the English language as a word back in the early 1540s. According to current current usage and definitions, its most common usage has to do with describing a lack of ordinary “quickness or keenness of mind” and describing things characterized or proceeding from “mental dullness”.

In other words, it is a word that exists to belittle those based upon their perceived mental acuity. If you doubt this statement, look only to its accepted list of synonyms, which includes such words as “dull,” “dumb,” “unintelligent,” “dim,” “doltish,” “half-witted,” “idiotic,” and “moronic”, all of which are words with well-defined ableist history (several of which were once ableist medical terms). This belittlement of perceived mental acuity is harmful to those with cognitive and developmental disabilities – we who, due to those disabilities, are often perceived as having lower mental acuity than our peers.

So, we’ve established that it has an ableist definition. Now I’m going to talk about my case that it constitutes a euphemism for one of the most vile ableist slurs out there. The first part of my case is to look at the synonyms of that slur. It includes many of the same words as the list of synonyms for stupid, and even includes the word stupid itself. If you look at the definition, a common slang use is as a synonym for stupid or foolish – this is the ableist slur usage we’re so familiar with.

In other words, even dictionaries, which are notoriously slow to accept changes in language usage, recognize that stupid is synonymous with that slur. Dictionaries exist to document current language usage patterns, not to stay on top of slang fads. Hence, for something to be placed in a dictionary as an accepted definition, it must be both 1, common usage (technical definitions almost never make it into general English dictionaries) and 2, old enough for the dictionaries to recognize it’s not a one-year fad like the neologism “ruly” was in my childhood.

On the more personal side of this argument: That’s exactly how it was used against me. The exchange I wrote at the start of this post actually happened to me, and I learned very quickly that the other kids couldn’t get away with calling me a r*****d in public, but they could get away with calling me stupid. So they used stupid as a euphemism for r*******d, probably just like their parents told them to.

But, you see, kids possess less ability for self-deception than adults. So they didn’t try to rationalize that they were just going around the social condemnation of the use of the word retard by saying that wasn’t really what they were doing, they were actually just saying it was a bad idea or I was annoying or made no sense or what have you. They said it like it was: When they said stupid, they meant r*******d.

As people get older and they learn the why of why retard is so very offensive, many of them don’t want to give up other ableist insults while they’re at it. After all, how can they express ableist sentiments without ableist words? So they rationalize. Stupid doesn’t mean r*******d, it just means dull-witted and dumb, amirite? Some get angry: How dare you tell me that stupid is a euphemism for retard! That’s offensive! I don’t use it to mean r******d, I use it to mean [insert other ableist word here]!

But the kids are more honest. They say it like it is.

That means you’re r******d!”


11 thoughts on “The Case Against Stupid

  1. I hadn’t realized this was offensive until I saw the posts on the A+ forums labed as TW:ableism. Thanks for filling me in.

    Do you happen to know of any good pithy insults for the willfully ignorant?

    • ischemgeek says:

      Lydia Brown has substitute vocabulary you can use in her ableist language post. I’m fond of ignoramus, myself.

    • ischemgeek says:

      Additionally: I’m also fond of “obtuse”

      • autisticook says:

        But would you be fond of the word obtuse if that had been the word thrown at you by others whenever you appeared to be slow or unintelligent?

        Obtuse means “not able to understand what is obvious” or “slow to learn”, so it can be used in just the same offensive, hurtful way as stupid or retarded. As long as the desire in people to insult others for perceived lack of intelligence exists, as long as it’s a bad thing to be mentally “less than”, it won’t help to substitute or censor words, because people will just find another word, just like you argued in your post.

        I think addressing the attitudes behind the language will be far more fruitful and constructive in the long run than saying words are intrinsically bad, and I don’t agree with those linguists who claim words shape our reality. People try to find words to express concepts, and if the concept can’t be expressed with a certain word because it’s been categorised as socially unacceptable, they will simply find another word. Newspeak.

      • ischemgeek says:

        I believe there is a difference between oppressive language and non-oppressive language, and I believe stupid is oppressive. I’d be open to reconsider “obtuse”, and I’m quite fond of willfully ignorant, as that does not disparage someone as less than on basis of something they can’t control.

        That said, I do agree with you completely that the goal is to lessen social stigma against disability. But challenging ableist language, in my opinion, is part of that – we have to show how pervasive ableism is in our society.

        I’m not saying stupid is itself intrinsically bad – I’m saying it’s used in an oppressive manner. Whenever someone calls something stupid instead of bad or what have you, they are saying that being compared to people like us is bad and the person they’re talking to should be ashamed. Our very existance is declared shameful by the use of that word. That’s what I object to.

      • ischemgeek says:

        The other part that I just realized after the fact: How do you propose we change attitudes about ableism without criticizing the language of ableism? I’m genuinely curious as I don’t see how you can do one without the other.

      • autisticook says:

        By liberal use of the phrase, “Why?”

        Ableist comments are often not made using ableist language. They’re comments such as, “People with Down’s Syndrome are lovely, but I don’t think they should be allowed to have children.” Or “Do I really need to provide image descriptions for the ENTIRE website?”. Or “Why are they spending so much money on those new buses with street level entrances when they old buses worked just fine?”. Or “I don’t see why that guy with Asperger’s gets a private office when I have to work in the main room just like everyone else.”

  2. […] Many writers use trigger warnings in their introductions. See The Belle Jar‘s “How to Undermine a Rape Victim 101,” Feminiam‘s “We Have All Been Touched By Evil,” and ischemgeek‘s “The Case Against Stupid.” […]

  3. raberbagirl says:

    I don’t get it. Isn’t calling someone “stupid” an insult, regardless of whether it’s ableist or not? When I was young, I’d get in just as much trouble for calling someone “stupid” as I would for calling them any other insulting word.

    • ischemgeek says:

      Stupid is an insult, yes. Slurs are a subset of insult that are used in a way that forwards oppression. When you use a slur, you do splash damage to other people who belong to the group referred to by the slur. Unfortunately, most of the good resources I know of to back this statement up are paywalled, but I’ll look for some this evening that aren’t if you like.

      My issue with stupid isn’t that it’s an insult. I’m fine with insults that deride things that should be derided. My issue with stupid is that it holds up my identity and the identity of those like me as an object of ridicule.

      It’s the difference between calling a woman a jerk and calling her a c*** in North America. The first berates her for being rude or mean to you. The second implies that she is [negative thing] because she is a woman and holds an inseparable part of who she is up as something that should be ridiculed. Furthermore, by choosing to call her a gendered slur, you reinforce the social idea that women are [negative thing] because of our gender to those around the confrontation, thus doing splash damage to all other women. Furthermore, stereotype threat is a thing, so women will have a harder time breaking internalized stereotypes about them with you reminding them about the stereotypes by using bigoted language.

      Likewise, although stupid is not seen as a particularly bad insult in mainstream society (neither was r***** until a concerted effort by disability rights groups, neither was f***** until a concerted effort by gay rights groups, and neither was n***** until a concerted effort by racial equality groups – bigoted terms and beliefs are rarely held as bigoted in mainstream until those they’re bigoted against make too big of a stink about it to be ignored), its use perpetuates oppression against those with developmental and cognitive disability.

      • raberbagirl says:

        Ah, I see; thanks for explaining!

        Though I have another question: what do you think of it if the term “stupid” is applied to an inanimate object or concept rather than a person? For example, “Gah, I hate my stupid phone, it never works when I need it to!” or “Why do we have to go to this stupid meeting, anyway?”

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