Thursday, 16 February 2012

Stupid Stigmas

     For some time I've been puzzled by the way we seem to think of intelligence or the lack thereof as a morally relevant trait. That is, we seem to think that stupidity is a moral failing, rather than simply a lowered intellectual capacity. For example, most of us think nothing of saying "Anyone that stupid deserves to get ripped off!" Yet we'd not talk that way about other weaknesses: "Anyone that short deserves not to be able to reach things on the top shelf!" or "Anyone that slow deserves to be caught and eaten by a pack of wolves!" Why is this?

     One reason might be that genuine stupidity is so difficult to confirm, in contrast to many other handicaps. Most of us will quite cheerfully hold a door open for someone in a wheelchair, or fetch things from the top shelf for someone who can't reach as high as we can, because it's visually obvious: she's in a wheelchair, and he's shorter than I am. If we were to discover that the person in the wheelchair could, like Guy Caballero, stand and walk and dance just fine, but just liked having other people do things for her, we'd resent it.

     So people who make stupid decisions might be suffering from genuine cognitive handicaps, but they might also just be too lazy to think things through for themselves. What's more, for some of us, thinking is something that just comes naturally, and doesn't seem to take a lot of effort, so it's not always easy to identify with someone for whom it's difficult. Certainly it's frustrating to try to deal with someone who can't (or won't) understand and apply what appears to be a rather simple concept, but why should this be different from getting something down from the top shelf for someone? It's not THAT high, why can't you get it yourself? Are you REALLY that short?

     I suspect that's a big part of why we tend to judge stupidity in moral terms, while we are more forgiving of other defects. Another part of it may be rehabilitative; most of us learn by making mistakes, and when a mistake is embarrassing, the lesson is that much more effective. In other words, in the normal course of events, ridiculing or chastising someone for doing something stupid is a natural part of helping to make them smarter. But in any case, our tendency to stigmatize stupidity in moral terms actually has some rather nasty side effects.

     First, however therapeutic it might be to the not-yet-smart, it's terribly unfair to those who really do suffer from cognitive defects. There are genuinely stupid people out there, who would really love to be smarter than they are, but something about the way their brains are wired or their neurotransmitters are secreted just won't let them. The genuinely stupid are handicapped in one of the worst possible ways, and suffer tremendous disadvantages as a result; they deserve our help and our sympathy, not our moral contempt. (Of course, one of the disadvantages of stupidity is that you don't necessarily know you're stupid, and you may not be able to recognize or appreciate when someone is being helpful. This makes it especially frustrating to try to help the genuinely stupid; they often reject what they need most.)

     Second, though, is a backlash against smart people, or perhaps more precisely against people who give the impression that they think of themselves as smart. If we attach a moral stigma to being stupid, it follows that we imply a moral superiority to being smart. Yet this goes against deeply held egalitarian values; no one is just better than anyone else. And so there is in some circles a powerful resentment against intellectuals, nerds, brains, or other elitist scum who think they're better than the rest of us. This is also unfair; many smart people do not think of themselves as being above anyone else. Indeed, a good many smart people steadfastly refuse to think of themselves as smarter than average, much as Socrates stood in disbelief of the Oracle's claim that none was wiser than he.

     The backlash against smarts isn't just unfair, though, and even the unfairness is more than balanced by the natural advantages of being smart. The real problem, I think, manifests in the choices we make as a society. When we vote for a candidate because he or she is just a regular guy, someone we might have a beer with, rather than a highly educated and intelligent solver-of-big-problems, we hurt ourselves. And when we treat it as a social faux pas to win an argument with facts and reason, and take it as a personal offence to be shown wrong (rather than a valuable opportunity to improve our own understanding), we discourage meaningful and constructive discourse, and the means by which we all become smarter.

     So I'd like us to de-stigmatize stupid. Being stupid isn't a good thing by any means, anymore than any other handicap is something we should willingly choose. All other things being equal, it's better to be smarter. We should all be ready to admit that we're not as smart as we'd like to be, and strive always to become smarter, without vilifying those who aren't as smart as we are, or who have hit the wall in the quest to become smarter. And, equally, we should not resent those who seem to be (or think they are) smarter than we are, but encourage them to demonstrate their intelligence if they've got it (and be willing to constructively, respectfully and critically assess their claims). We're all morally significant, and we all have things to learn from each other, even if some have more to offer than others. Let's all try to get smarter together.


  1. One of the trends out there that really arouses my anger is the tendency to use the word "retarded" or "retard" as a pejorative. I actually spent about 18 years working with people with developmental disbilities. In my experience, the individuals I encountered, almost without fail, worked extremely hard to make use of the faculties they had, striving to overcome a disability that forced limitations on them. And those horrible words were often used as weapons to hurt them. Now, hearing them slung around at the drop of a hat, a casual insult, is quite infuriating. And sad.

  2. Quite right. The idea that people who have genuine cognitive disabilities actually attract contempt and derision that's usually reserved for moral failings is pretty objectionable, when you think about it.

    I realize I've been guilty of the same thing, using the word "stupid" as an epithet. Just a couple of weeks ago, I responded to a remark about me committing suicide (it was based on a typo in which I had egregiously omitted a critical "not") with a joke about how I went out to the garage, closed the doors, got in the car and turned on the ignition. "Stupid Prius!" was the punchline. But why should "stupid" be the word we use under such circumstances?

    If "stupid" refers only to people who have intelligence but choose not to use it, people who are too lazy to think through things, too proud to question their own opinions critically, or too greedy to entertain the possibility that a Nigerian prince isn't actually going to send them money, well, then I'm fine with vilifying that kind of willful ignorance. But that's a hard distinction to make in practice.

  3. I was set to ask why you omitted the possibility that people do not necessarily ascribe morality when using the word "stupid," no more than use of the word "dumb" is morality-laden, or invoking the classic, clinical definition, but then I see you've gotten around to it in your comments. Why avoid it for so long?

    Do you perhaps mean to ask why we take a clinical definition and ultimately liken it to something nonclinical? A parallel examination may be the shifting from words as they accumulate stigma. When Binet used retarded, it was clinical. Nobody likes that term now.

  4. I admit I've been loose with the word "moral" in this posting, but I do maintain that there is a valuation akin to the moral whenever a word is used as an epithet. "Stupid Prius!" expresses a sentiment that the vehicle is in some sense blameworthy, and ought to be other than it is. It is interesting that we use that expression against inanimate objects, though, which cannot possibly have moral characteristics in themselves, but then, when we DO anthropomorphize objects when we curse them.

    I suppose what I'm arguing for here is just that we try to be more aware of the unconscious assumptions and values loaded into words like "stupid" or "retarded" and more generally having to do with varying degrees of intelligence. We should not be using clinical terms or concepts as insults, of course, but equally importantly we shouldn't buy into the idea that an actual lack of intellectual capacity is in anything other than a tragic handicap.

    But there really DOES seem to be a link in our minds between intellect and general praiseworthiness, and it's that link I'm trying to break, for a variety of reasons, some mentioned in the OP. I'm especially troubled by anti-intellectualism as a political force, where careful analysis and objective facts are dismissed as "elitist" in favour of good ol' plain folks common sense. Not that I'm against common sense as such, but simple gut reactions that ignore the actual complexities of issues aren't actually that sensible; common sense doesn't always apply well to complex technical problems. (For example, I've written before about Bill C-10, the Conservatives' omnibus crime bill, which imposes harsher mandatory minimum sentences on various crimes in the mistaken belief that "getting tough" will be more effective than getting smart. It SEEMS like common sense that harsher penalties will deter crime more effectively, but virtually everyone with any professional expertise in the area has learned that it just doesn't work that way.)

    This anti-intellectualism is, I believe, in large part a result of an egalitarianism which holds correctly that everyone is equal (in the moral sense) being confused by the unconscious linking of intelligence with moral worth; if we're all supposed to be equal in the moral sense, then mustn't we be equally smart? (Except, so goes the thinking, for those who choose to be stupid, who forfeit their equality rights in the same way criminals choose to forfeit theirs.) I think we should accept, without being offended, that there are people who are smarter than we are about various things, and listen carefully to their counsel. I don't mean we should just accept it uncritically, of course --that WOULD be functionally stupid -- but we should also not reject it by uncritically accepting our OWN "common sense". We should feel free and indeed obliged to exercise our critical faculties to the best of our ability to every idea that comes along. We should neither become defensive about ideas that imply we might be wrong, nor fall into the trap of treating all ideas as equally valid. In short, I think we should all embrace the fact that each of us is to a very great extent stupid, and we should endeavour to be less so.

  5. While I would agree that fact based arguments should rule the day, cockiness or its smoother cousin charisma win plenty of arguments without using fact. But that's not all bad either: in the same way that embarrassment can push people to be smarter, frustration may teach the brainy folk pick up some skillz beyond fact regurgitation in delivering arguments. There's room for everyone to be learning in this big, beautiful world. :) That said, definitely agree this schoolyard effect is safest played out in inconsequential discussions, not matters of state.