Thursday, October 06, 2011


"Dunce" © 2009 by Candie_N
I used to to think that parents who taught their children that "stupid" is a bad word were being overly sensitive, prissy, and, frankly, a bit silly.

I mean, it's a perfectly cromulent word.

Let's look at it, shall we? We shall!

MacMillan Dictionary defines "stupid" as follows:
stupid /ˈstu•pɪd/ adj. 1a) not intelligent, or not able to consider or judge things carefully; 1b) behavior that is not carefully considered or sensible; 1c) used for talking about something that you think is silly or annoying; noun 2a) an insulting name for someone who you think is being stupid.
WordNet boils it down to the following:
noun: a person who is not very bright; adjective: lacking or marked by lack of intellectual acuity; adjective: without much intelligence.
And EtymOnline tells us the origins of the word:
1540s, "mentally slow," from M.Fr. stupide, from L. stupidus "amazed, confounded," lit. "struck senseless," from stupere "be stunned, amazed, confounded," from PIE *(s)tupe- "hit," from base *(s)teu- (see steep (adj.))
(Note: PIE = Proto Indo-European. In other words, a language that is presumed from no actual evidence to have existed, other than a similarity among the languages of India and Europe, and based on known changes languages go through as they evolve.)

Calling something stupid simply because it is an opinion with which we don't happen to agree is undeniably childish. And yet, we've all done it. It's much easier, after all, to dismiss people's opinions if we can dismiss the person with a simple wave of a hand and a scoffing sound, followed by, "What does she know? She's stupid." Or sometimes we try to hedge. Not "she" is stupid, but what she is saying is stupid. Or her opinions are stupid (sometimes masquerading as "uninformed"). But we all know what we really mean.

But it's rarely that simple, is it? The non-stupid among you will have picked up on my usage of the past tense in my opening line. I used to think. I've started to come around to their point of view, at least in some ways.

By teaching a child to dismiss anything s/he doesn't understand or doesn't like or doesn't agree with as "stupid," we've giving them a lifelong habit of not even attempting to see all sides of an argument. We're derailing critical thought before it even has a chance to take hold. They don't know what a good argument is because they've never seen one. They dismiss the 'other' as 'stupid' and that's that. Case closed. I don't have to listen to you. You're stupid.

Religious people are stupid.
Atheists are stupid.
Day traders are stupid.
Gamblers are stupid.
Bull riders are stupid.
People who fling themselves out of perfectly good airplanes are stupid.
Smokers are stupid.
People who drink too much are stupid.
Parents who home school are stupid.
Parents who send their kids to public school are stupid.
<Opposing Team Name Here> fans are stupid.
President Bush is stupid.
Michele Bachmann is stupid.
Nancy Pelosi is stupid.
President Obama is stupid.
Sparkling vampires are stupid.
Vice President Biden is stupid.
Dan Quayle is stupid.
President Carter is stupid.
Sarah Palin is stupid.
Republicans are stupid.
Democrats are stupid.
"The Germans during Hitler's regime were just stupid! How could they not see what was going on and put a stop to it?"
Other drivers are stupid. Heh . . . actually, this one is true. Demonstrably so. :)

See? It's a quick and dirty way to reduce something to a straw man and then dismiss it without a second thought. I can't tell you how many times I've heard—I've said—"Jenny McCarthy is stupid." It's often followed by a selection of other words, such as "ignorant" and an epithet like "whore" or "bitch." I know because I've used some of those words to describe her myself. I will probably do another post at some point about word choices and what they reveal about ourselves, but for now, let's get back to "stupid."

The truth is, she's probably not. I've never met the woman, but she's apparently a pretty savvy business person, or is able to hire people who are. She's a loving mother who only wants what's best for her child. What she is is passionate to the point of obsession about a topic that I dismiss as having zero worth. (We can discuss the actual worth of her anti-vaccination stance at some other point.) By calling her "stupid," I conveniently don't have to examine her motivations. Her ideas. I just bundle them up in a nice, neat little package, write "stupid" on it in red Sharpie, and then toss it over my shoulder, not giving it another thought. Dismissed. So easy to do. So convenient.

The truth is, we don't know what other peoples' motivations are. We don't know what sequence of events caused them to come to the conclusion that is not our own. We don't know that we would not have come to the same conclusion given the same sequence of events in our own lives. We are each the result of every decision—good or bad—that we have made. Every event—positive and negative—that has affected us. Change enough of those and we end up being different people altogether. Maybe even people we wouldn't like or even recognize if we could meet them in some science-fictional manner.

Many times people base opinions on things that we would never, ourselves, trust. A TV preacher says, "God needs you to send me all your pension money." An email from a terribly persecuted widow in Nigeria arrives, and all she wants is to use our bank account to get her own money out of her country and away from the oppressive government who killed her beloved husband. And in return, she'll give us a fortune! A trusted famous movie personality says there's nothing to psychology, and anyone who uses it is an idiot.

There are a bajillion web pages out there encouraging people to believe in something that is not factual. And depending on the mental state of the person reading it—maybe they just lost a family member or were fired or had a baby or found out they got promoted—they may find it strikes a chord with them or sounds reasonable. Perhaps in other circumstances, they would decide otherwise. But forget "factual." What about things that have nothing to do with facts, like bigotry or what political party you prefer? Some people—for whatever reason—believe with all their heart that Jews are trying to take over the world. That certain political leaders are literally trying to undermine the very system that got them elected in the first place. No amount of facts thrown at them can turn that off. It takes . . . I'm not sure what it takes, honestly. But calling them "stupid" isn't a solution. It's an anti-solution. And teaching children to dismiss people as "stupid" is criminal. It ends curiosity. It ends the natural scientific process that all kids demonstrate with that three-letter word that is the bane of every parent's existence: "Why?"

When I was much younger and more impressionable, I believed in everything the least bit occult. Ghosts, alien abductions, out of body experiences, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, the Yeti, psychic powers, spoon bending, dowsing, Ouija boards—you name it, I bought it. After all, there were people on TV telling me it was all real. Books filled with how it was real. No one telling me I was "stupid" convinced me that all of this stuff was nonsense; it took literally years of me reading for myself and examining my own beliefs with a critical eye to finally tip me over into thinking more rationally and skeptically. There is no such thing as an overnight change on things like that. You don't go to bed on Thursday believing in Bigfoot and wake up Friday morning convinced it's all an elaborate hoax. It happens gradually over many years. Or it doesn't. Some people go the other way and continue fervently believing in something like Bigfoot. Is that harmful? Well . . . I could go either way on something as inconsequential as Bigfoot. Believing that a giant humanoid exists that science has yet found no proof of or that Loch Ness is home to a non-extinct plesiosaur or that mankind never actually set foot on the moon is, in the end, harmless. No one is hurt by these beliefs. Believing that vaccines cause autism or that you can manipulate chi and stop a sword from chopping into your flesh . . . those are harmful and the skeptical community should—and does, for the most part—focus on things like that instead of ghosts and el chupacabra.

"Stupid" doesn't permit growth. "Stupid" simply is. It's a state one can't recover from. And hanging that label on someone is one of the worst things we can do. It makes them dig in their heels. Makes them believe in whatever it is all the more fervently. Makes them completely dismiss everything else you ever say to them because you called them "stupid." No one has ever, in the history of our species, heard, "You're stupid!" and said, "Why, yes! Yes, I am! And you are brilliant for pointing it out! Thank you from the bottom of my stupid heart for enlightening me!"

I know whereof I speak. I had—note the use of the past tense—a friend I will call "Mark." Mark and I shared an office for a little under a year. We don't have a lot in common, but we're both generally nice people, both fond of books and movies, and both into computers and interesting news stories. We found a lot to talk about, and read books and saw movies the other recommended. After he left the company, we continued to correspond and meet up every few weeks to have lunch and catch up.

Then one day, he met me for lunch all excited over a great documentary he had seen. I was intrigued at first, but then I had a sense of dawning horror. This guy I was friends with and that I had a fairly high opinion of was telling me that the documentary "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" was the best thing he'd seen in years. (For those of you not familiar with the film, it was supposedly an exposé of how the scientific community conspired against those who believe in Intelligent Design to deny them tenure, get them fired, and prevent them from teaching a perfectly reasonable "alternative" to the Theory of Evolution. I will not at this time go into why this film is misleading. My reaction is what I'm talking about.) I don't remember my exact words because at the time I wasn't thinking rationally. I was reacting viscerally as if he had thrown a spider into my lap. I told him it was all bunk, that the people in the film were lying, that Ben Stein was an idiot, and did everything but use the actual word "stupid" to describe him and his taste in movies. He encouraged me to watch it and that it might change my opinion. I told him that I didn't need to watch it to know it was "stupid," and that I already knew as much about it as I needed to because of the website and several skeptical-themed podcasts I listen to. Did I honestly think this diatribe was going to sway his opinion? I didn't stop to consider that. I just reacted with the word "stupid."

We have not spoken since that day. Not in email, not in person. I'm not even connected with him on LinkedIn anymore. My reaction—visceral and right as I believe it was—had the same effect on him that it would have on me if he had told me that gravity was stupid and that the reason we all think there's gravity is because everything is expanding at the exact rate to make it look as though gravity exists.

Had I reacted less irrationally and perhaps offered to at least watch the film, and then discussed it with him, we might have maintained a dialog. Might have merely agreed to disagree. Might have had many more discussions about the subject, resulting in him—or me? Doubtful, but it could happen, theoretically—changing his stance. But no, I just had to be stupid.

Yeah, that time, I think it's justified to use it. I was stupid. I've gotten better since then, or at least I've made major efforts to be better. You only have to hit me over the head three or four times with a brick to get my attention.

So I'm sorry to all those parents I've smiled condescendingly at for telling their children that "stupid" is a bad word. Because I now realize that it is. But no one told me I was stupid—I had to come to the conclusion on my own.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Let the Punishment Fit the Father's Crime

I'm reading a book called The Book of Were-Wolves published in 1865 by Sabine Baring-Gould. Here is my rough Modern English translation (it used a lot of Scots dialect and archaic words) of a story he tells of a Scottish punishment that I found particularly gruesome.
About this time (1460), there was a brigand taken with his whole family, who haunted1 a place in Angus. This mischievous man had an execrable habit to take all young men and children he could steal away quietly, or take away without knowledge, and eat them, and the younger they were, esteemed them the more tender and delicious. For which cause and damnable abuse, he with his wife and children were all burnt, except a young girl of a year old who was saved and brought to Dundee, where she was brought up and fostered; and when she came to a woman's years, she was condemned and burnt quick for that crime. It is said that when she was coming to the place of execution, there gathered a huge multitude of people, and specially of women, cursing her that she was so unhappy [as] to commit so damnable deeds. To whom she turned about with an ireful countenance, saying, "Why chide me, as if I had committed an unworthy act? Give me credence and trust me: if you had experience of eating men and women's flesh, you would think it so delicious that you would never forbear it again." So but any sign of repentance, this unhappy traitor died in the sight of the people.
[Quoted from the aforementioned book, but with liberties taken to replace archaic words and Scots dialect with more modern equivalents to the best of my meager ability.]

So, let's look at this. She was a year old when her family was burnt for being cannibals. Although she could not remember it, no doubt she tasted human flesh as a child. Had they just left well enough alone and raised her not to know her past, she probably would have turned out a fine, upstanding member of the community.

But did they? No. They poisoned her with stories of her family's crimes throughout her entire childhood, making sure that she knew exactly what foul stock she came from. Some versions of the story (I looked it up) say that during her childhood, she would often bite other children on the fingers and suck their blood. I don't know how much credence to put to that, but the crux of the point is this: She would have had no way of knowing the crimes of her family if they hadn't bludgeoned her with it throughout her entire childhood. If she did later harm other children and attempt to eat them, who could blame her? (I'm getting to that.)

The part that chills my blood, though, is that on a website where I found this story, it had this to say.
There was no hope of saving this poor child and the only solution was to execute her. The Dundee authorities were not heartless, however, and could not execute such a young person . . . they waited till she was eighteen then burned her alive in the Seagate.
So, once again: These good, "not heartless" Christian people burned an entire family alive except for one infant, raised that infant until she was 18, made sure that she knew full well for her entire life that she was evil, then, when she was 18, burned her for her family's crimes.

Yes, I'm speculating about the whole "making sure she knew she was the spawn of evil" part because we know for a fact that you can't "catch" cannibalism. She wouldn't have had any idea at all if they hadn't made sure that she did. Probably with every waking moment of every day of her miserable existence.

But, hey. What can you say? It's right there in the Bible, so it must be good and loving and moral and correct. Ex 34:6-7.
And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.
Boy, I'm glad their god is a merciful, gracious, good, and loving god, because otherwise, their actions sure do sound like cold, calculated evil. To me.

But what do I know. I'm just an atheist. I have no morals. I can't tell right from wrong unless it's explained to me. I'm sure someone will come along any minute now to explain to me how it makes sense to blame an infant for the actions of her family. Yep, any minute, now.

Any. Minute. Now . . .

  1. In the sense of visiting habitually, not our more modern meaning.
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Friday, January 28, 2011


"Sparkling" © 2011 by Jason A. Samfield

I saw a comment somewhere--maybe it was on Twitter or maybe it was on Facebook; I honestly don't remember--that said, essentially, this: I don't have to actually read Twilight to know how stupid and bad it is, all I have to do is read all the stuff on the Internet about how stupid and bad it is to know that it's stupid and bad. And the commenter then went on to call the non-teenage, adult women who read and enjoy the Twilight books names, insult their intelligence, and make rude assumptions about their hygiene, living conditions, etc.

And I thought, "Why are people so vitriolic over a silly book?"

Seriously, folks. Why? Don't get me wrong: I live for the day when people all over the Internet so love/hate something I wrote that they're willing to yell and scream and call total strangers names. I'd eat that with a spoon.

I've been known to jump on the "VAMPIRES DO NOT SPARKLE!" bandwagon more than once, and frankly without ever having stopped to consider why it matters whether vampires--a mythical creature--do or don't sparkle in sunlight, or burst into flames (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Let the Right One In, others). Or disintegrate (Fright Night, 'Salem's Lot, others). Or cause all the "younger" vampires they "turned" to spontaneously combust (Queen of the Damned). (Question: When Anne Rice wrote this in Queen of the Damned, did people vilify her like they are vilifying Stephanie Myer?)

I think we need to take a moment. Sit back. Chill. Take a deeeeeep breath.

Back in middle school, a new girl joined my class. I'll call her Mary. She was that most dreaded of all things in the history of teenage ever: The Outsider. She hadn't grown up with the rest of us. She hadn't been there. She didn't know us. She didn't act right. I remember hearing two other girls talking one day and the conversation went something like this:
Susan: Ugh! Did you see Mary in the bathroom?

Jessica: No, why?

Susan: She's in there, sitting on the toilet, and eating an apple.

Jessica: Gross!

Susan: I know! I could never do something like that. That's just disgusting!
I have no idea why the conversation (the actual words faded, but the gist of it stayed with me) has stuck with me for so long other than that it illustrates something that I keep coming back to over and over and over again: people expect other people to think exactly like they think. And if they don't, it's inconceivable that there might be a reason for it, or that they might just have a different way of looking at things. It's just one of those little things everyone does, and maybe never thinks about.

Example: how many times have you heard a devoutly religious person say, "I don't see how people can be atheists! What's to stop them from just going out and raping and murdering and stealing? They can't be moral!"

It's the apple argument all over again. "If I could never conceive of doing something, clearly anyone who can conceive of doing it--much less actually do it--must be just wrong on some fundamental level." (One does wonder sometimes if the people saying these things ever stop to think what it says about what they, themselves, would do given the opportunity.)

I admit to the same degree of this as each of you reading it. I look at people with piercings through parts of their body that I don't even want to think about being near sharp objects, and people are getting them pierced and tattooed and scarred... And I admit, a too-great portion of me tends to hold onto the "there's something wrong with someone who would do that" mentality. Sorry, friends of mine who are tattooed and/or pierced in "those places," but there it is. :)

There are some scathing reviews of Twilight out there on the Internet. One has only to search Google to find more words about the book than there are words in the book.

It seems like an inordinate number of them are negative, and written by people who proudly boast that they've never read the book. Never want to read it. Because it's so obviously awful and bad and bad and wrong and wrong and ick-ick-ptui!

But I wonder why. Why do people expend so much energy actively hating something that they admit they're never going to read?

I'm reminded of numerous toddlers I've observed over the years. Picture it: A family sitting in a restaurant, trying to have an enjoyable night out. They have, of course, brought their toddler with them because babysitters went extinct sometime in the mid-80s. (Oh, do not even get me started.)

The waiter comes and the parents order for themselves and their child. Flash forward 20 minutes. The food arrives. The food is placed before the toddler and s/he screams (at the top of its considerable lungs) "NO! I DON'T LIKE IT!"

And what do parents literally around the whole damned world say at this point, in whatever language they speak? That's right: "How do you know you don't like it if you never tried it?"

How, indeed?

I have a housemate, now. A long-time friend who is getting a divorce (amicable) and needed a place to stay while she rebuilds her life in a new city. She's getting a place to stay, and I'm getting someone to talk to and she happens to be a very good cook. I've lost 25 lbs since she moved in. Because I eat at home and I eat less. But I digress.

This friend whom I'll call Velda (because that's one of her online aliases) is very into the Twilight saga. Writes and reads fanfic, has all the books, has seen all the movies, etc.

I never realized just how pervasive the "Twilight hate" is out there until I became aware of it through her. I'd go with her to friends' houses and the topic would come up and literally everyone in the room—none of whom have read a single word of the book—would start trashing it and all people who read it. I introduced her into one of my writing groups, and basically the same thing happened.

I immediately rethought all the times I've said "VAMPIRES DO NOT SPARKLE!" and made derisive remarks about the books, having never read a single word, myself.

So I asked Velda to loan me the first book, Twilight. I started reading it, expecting to just hate it.

Do I love it? No. Am I going to become a total Stephanie Myer fanboy? No. I'm about ten chapters in, and although it is definitely not my style (I've never been a girl, and while I have been a teenager, I was not a teenage girl, :), it does draw you in. It does read a bit like a Mary Sue. But if you just read for enjoyment and not to analyze, I can understand why so many people are so drawn to the books. The main character thinks she's ugly and clumsy, but apparently she has something that makes five very different boys fall head over heels for her, two of whom are a vampire and a werewolf. And who doesn't want to imagine desirable members of their preferred gender falling all over themselves to impress you? (People who read Playboy/Playgirl for the articles, I'm sure.)

And there are certain problems with the narration as well that I won't go into. Suffice to say that while I don't hate the book, I don't love it, either. I am finding it entertaining. I do intend to read it all the way through if for no other reason than to have a common ground to at least discuss the book's strong points and shortcomings with others who have read it.

So how 'bout we make a deal? Instead of saying, "That sucks!" if you haven't ever tried it, why not try it first? Then, if it doesn't appeal to you, you can at least say, "Yeah, I read that, but it wasn't to my taste. To each their own," instead of looking like a toddler yelling, "NO! I DON'T LIKE IT!"