why the words ‘stupid’ & other slurs against people w cognitive disabilities are harmful / TW: slurs
— — TW/CN: slurs are used within this post without asterisks — —
— — TW/CN: discussion of systemic & personal abuse of cognitively disabled people — —
I’ve written about the use of ableist slurs before in a general sense — it’s harmful and inaccurate so please don’t do it. With this post I’m going to get specific and explain what is wrong with using the word ‘stupid’ and similar slurs (‘idiot’, ‘moron’, ‘imbecile’, ‘retard’) which have been used against people with cognitive disabilities, or people who are perceived as unable to think or communicate (‘dumb’, ‘slow’, ‘special’).
Many of the synonyms for ‘stupid’ are slurs with a history of being used to abuse people with cognitive disabilities. Idiot, moron, imbecile, defective, and retarded were used to classify people as unfit for society, incarcerate them, and sterilize them without their consent — and this was not long ago. It wasn’t until the 70s that most states repealed the laws which made forced sterilization legal, and not until after 2000 that states began issuing apologies for these eugenics-based atrocities. Beyond being incarcerated or sterilized, people with disabilities are abused, tortured, and murdered, often by their families or care givers. Consider one month where eleven of twenty-seven deaths of disabled people that made the news were people with mental or intellectual disabilities. (MAJOR TW for abuse/torture/murder of people with disabilities). The dehumanization and profound disrespect toward people with cognitive disabilities is literally killing people, daily, now. While it is less institutionalized it is still a hugely active force in society.
While obviously calling someone ‘stupid’ does not have the same harmful impact as murder, they have the same root cause: the devaluing of people with cognitive disabilities due to a belief in the existence and value of intelligence (←very important essay). First of all, there is no such thing: so-called intelligence tests are all inherently biased and have no scientific value. There are as many ways to think as there are people and you cannot rank them in any objective fashion. Secondly, no person is more worthy than another due to the way their brains work.
The literal meaning of the word ‘stupid’ does not matter. The fact that it wasn’t used in institutionalized ways like the word ‘idiot’ etc does not matter. What matters is that it gets its insulting power from association with the perceived inferiority of people with cognitive disabilities. When we use the word ‘stupid’ to mean ‘bad’ (including when describing situations) we are saying that people’s worth can be defined by their ability to think in culturally-acceptable ways, or lack thereof. By saying that they are less worthy, we are saying that treating people with cognitive disabilities as lesser is unavoidable, if not morally okay.
College-educated social justice activists resist the classification of ‘stupid’ as a slur more than any other word I’ve observed. I think among people with a college education who care about social justice, intellect is the one hierarchy that benefited us and is accepted as good among us, and we cling to it. We don’t want to lose the one way we could feel superior. Tough shit — it’s damaging and we’ve got to throw it out if we care about justice, if we care about human beings. It is not acceptable to embrace the idea that you are superior if you have more knowledge, can think faster, can think in more linear ways, can communicate in more complex or refined ways, or can think and act in ways that can produce capitalistic success. There is no such thing as a non-oppressive ranking system for human beings. Do not reinforce any of them, especially not one like ‘intellect’ which is responsible for the death, torture, violation and imprisonment of people with cognitive disabilities.
Side note: there is value in reclaiming. If society puts you in a group labeled with a slur, and you self-identify with that in a positive sense as a way of rejecting the stigma, I do not consider that to be reinforcing oppressive systems. However, you can only reclaim a slur that gets its insulting power at your expense. For example, neurotypical people without cognitive disabilities cannot reclaim ‘stupid’; straight women cannot reclaim ‘dyke’; thin people cannot reclaim ‘fat’; people without mental illness cannot reclaim ‘crazy’; etc. Also, it is not reclaiming to use slurs in a non-personal, negative way — in other words, even if a person has mental illness, it is damaging for them to use “crazy” as a negative descriptor of other people or situations. That reinforces oppression and is not okay.
Another side note: not everyone CAN change their vocabulary; for some people training out or replacing slurs takes too much cognitive effort, or requires a kind of word control that they do not have (I have heard this particularly from autistic people and people who deal with aphasia). No one can know from the outside who is able to train it out and who isn’t, but I hope that people who are able to will make the effort. If we do, eventually these words will become obsolete and thus easier for everyone to avoid.
Here is a list of ableist terms to avoid and non-ableist words to express negative feelings. But on the list of non-ableist words I would avoid ‘ignoramus’ because having knowledge is a privilege and so insulting someone for lack of knowledge is a very similar problem. Basically, if you want to insult a person or thing, make sure that you are not insulting them by relating them to a devalued group of people, because this further harms that group of people.