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mental health mondays :: i'm with stupid

one of the most horrifying things that i had to face on january 1st [aside from the fact that i had a dream about jose mourinho, see previous post] was that one of my favourite words is under attack. apparently, there is a movement to take "stupid" away from us. you can see some of the details by browsing through this conversation on twitter. it's hardly exhaustive, but that's how this debate got foisted on me, so i'm treating you to the same thing.

the argument is that "stupid" is a term that should be avoided because it is used frequently as a catch-all for people who are "neurodivergent". that's a complex and controversial term in itself, one that is linked most closely with the autism rights movement, but it can include a very broad range of people, linked solely by the fact that their brains are wired differently than the majority. for the purposes of discussing objections to "stupid", the types of neurodivergence at issue are those with autism and those with learning disabilities.

it's easy to dismiss this whole topic as just so much hair-splitting "political correctness" [a term i despise, but which suits my purposes here]. after all, the word stupid has been used for hundreds of years as a weapon against those who don't or can't acquire and apply knowledge in the way that most of us do, but it has many other uses and most of them are older than the one we're addressing here. the word has the same root as the english word "stupor", both derived from the latin stupere, meaning to stun, amaze or confound. throughout much of its history "stupid" had a closer association with its root: it was often used to describe a state of numbness or shock that made one [temporarily] incapable of rational behaviour. [more here] although it referred to mental slowness, it wasn't associated with overall intelligence until centuries later.

nor was "stupid" ever used as a diagnostic category for mental disability. psychoanalyst otto feinchel and writer james f. welles [author of understanding stupidity] described stupidity as being to some extent and choice, a decision to remain ignorant regardless of the capacity to learn. that's not to say that it wasn't used a lot to denigrate people with disabilities, because clearly it was and still is. but is that range of use enough to justify depriving the world of such a useful word?

i'm a believer that banning words is like banning books- it does nothing to get rid of the ideas behind them. that said, i do think that there are words that people should just let go, or leave to others. but i don't think that "stupid" is one of those words. you could argue that "stupid" is a bit lazy, because there are lots of other words that are better adapted to different situations that could be used in its stead. you could say ignorant, fatuous, specious, stubborn... you get the idea. all those words can be used to mean specific shades of stupid. but they're not "stupid".

when i say that donald j. trump's idea of building a wall along the u.s.- mexican border to be paid for by the mexican government is stupid, i mean it is fucking stupid. yes it is ignorant, as most of his ideas about mexico seem to be. yes, it is fatuous, because there is no reason to assume that mexico would ever pay for any such project, or that it would significantly reduce the flow of illegal immigrants moving across the border. yes, it is specious, because it is based on the idea that the reason illegal immigration is not contained is because of the lack of a physical barrier. the fact is that illegal immigrants bypass physical barriers all the time. there's 90 miles of dangerous water between cuba and florida that didn't stop people from making the trip.

but mostly, i just think that the idea is stupid, because it manifests stupidity in many different ways and because there is a simple, self-evident quality to its stupidity that really doesn't beg for more explanation. so while all those other words might apply, i'd have to use them all and several others besides to communicate all of what i meant, but would make it seem much more complicated than it actually is.

neither do i mean "stupid" in the sense with which it is used as a description of limited intellect or mental ability. in fact, i think that the people espousing the idea [of whom trump is just the most vocal] are perfectly capable of coming up with more informed, more practical ideas, it's just that they don't. because they're being stupid.

now we can parse arguments over whether saying an idea is stupid is the same thing as saying a person is stupid, or whether saying that someone is stupid for believing that idea [which they are] is the same as saying that someone is just plain stupid in all respects. the point is that this is one of the many times during the course of my everyday life when i have the occasion to use the word stupid because that is what i mean.

that said, i'd be happy to see the word "stupid" eradicated from use in certain contexts. that doesn't mean banning it outright though. you can accomplish the same thing simply by forcing people to confront what the word means in those contexts and by demanding they explain themselves when they do use it.

what contexts?

well, let's start with the obvious one: i still feel waves of rage when i think back to my elementary school days when i heard my teachers screaming at children that they were stupid. [there was one who used to make a great show of mocking a ten year old girl who would sit at her desk and cry quietly almost every day, but that's another story.] now, this was a long time ago, back before the internet, and i'm aware that the power of teachers to berate or discipline students has been significantly curtailed during that time, but in case there are remnants of that behaviour out there, i don't think that there is any acceptable reason for a teacher to call a child "stupid".

likewise, i think it's inappropriate for an employer or manager to use the term to describe an employee. in this case, it's because, even if warranted, it's just such a damaging term to throw around that it will end up causing more trouble for everyone involved and is unlikely to address any problem.

i think that, when questioned, most people in those situations would admit that they use the word "stupid" as a way of belittling or denigrating the person to whom it's addressed and that they do so in order to stomp out any possibility of a rejoinder. in other words, the word is used expressly as it has been in order to silence and marginalize people who don't follow the learning and behavioural patterns of the majority. and that sort of behaviour should carry the shame of laziness- it's something that's said to shut the other person up so that you don't have to debate with them anymore- and of prejudice- it's an effective weapon because it makes its target feel like part of a traditionally derided group and reinforces the idea that that group deserves derision in both the insulter and the insulted.

the one thing that i like about debates over the use or restriction of words is that those debates are only possible if we accept that words are important. in an age of nearly unlimited communication, when people will say virtually anything to virtually anybody as if it's nothing, it's easy to assume that words have become feeble and meaningless through overuse. there are a lot of words like "stupid" that have long histories with multiple meanings, tied to many cultural shifts. some of their uses are toxic. and i think it's totally fair to force people to think about why they continue to use words in their toxic sense.

but please, i beg of you, don't campaign to take those words away entirely, but to promote awareness. taking the words away doesn't teach any sort of lasting lesson. making critical thought a reflex helps everyone. there are certainly words that i'm willing to relinquish [i'm not going to list them here, but you can probably guess the ones that i have in mind], but "stupid" isn't one of them. there are too many times when it's just the exact word for what i'm witnessing. i need stupid.


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