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.