Friday, February 21, 2014

Deconstructing "Stupid"

So the other day I blew up about a particularly problematic article over in the atheist/skeptic blogosphere. An author that I've been reading for a bit wrote a piece about the word "stupid" that was so poorly argued and vague that I misunderstood the scope of the argument that he was trying to make (click here to read it). We engaged over Twitter and, while I still believe that the article was guilty of an ableist attempt to impose rules about what is and is not allowed to be considered a slur, I recognize that that was not the writer's intent. The writer's intent, as he clarified it to me, was to discuss why he thought that the word "stupid" had "accreted cultural baggage" to the point where it could not automatically be considered a slur.

I maintain that that argument is not ever an argument that an abled person can make. I don't think it's an argument that a single disabled person can make, either. I believe that

  • as the affected party, disabled people as a group determine what is and is not a slur AND
  • the best way to identify what is and is not a slur is to look at what a wide range of disabled voices agree upon as slurs
There are more reasons than that why I believe stupid is a slur, but by those criteria, it clearly is. There are clearly a large number of sources, most written by disabled people, reflecting that. Any attempt by an abled writer to dissent from that consensus is bound to be problematic because of that consensus. Any attempt that also indulges in rhetorical errors, such as vague language or logical fallacy, is likely to be beyond problematic and into ableist territory.

Let's examine my reasons for insisting that this word is a slur without relying on the existing consensus, though. It's important to do this from time to time, so that we can look closely at the way this kind of language operates in the world.

So to start with: What does "stupid" mean? As was pointed out in the essay I objected to on Wednesday, "stupid" is maddeningly vague in its current use, and it has been accreting cultural baggage for some time. In order to examine the way that baggage functions, we first have to agree upon a baseline definition. There are two that I am fairly familiar with and that I have seen people use in a fairly literal way. There are more, but these two are both listed as the first definition in separate entries for the word, sometimes even in the same resource. If we're looking at competing primary definitions and sorting out which is most common, then it is fair that we use two definitions that appear as the leading definition in different dictionaries or in different entries for the word in a single dictionary. We're not trying to sort out all the definitions, after all, just the ones competing to be the "common" definition.

Those are:
Slow to learn or understand; obtuse.
lacking in common sense, perception, or normal intelligence 
Other definitions are either secondary or very close to one of these primary definitions, with differences in nuance that are not necessary to note in this discussion.

I think it's fairly easy to see how these definitions can bleed into our common idiom through the natural human predisposition toward personifying tools and possessions. The stupid PS3 controller is the one that didn't do what we expected when we hit the buttons. It was being slow. The stupid sitcom is the one in which all of the characters are acting without common sense, and that irritates us. (Never mind for the moment that people who enjoy that sitcom would probably look at one you like and think the same thing.)

This is understandable, and it is a very clear method by which cultural baggage could accumulate. It is fair to point this out.

The question is: Is this ableist?

Does the use of figurative, personified, idiomatic stupidity excuse the ableist connotations in the literal definition?

I would say no. It's not hard to understand why I would say no, either. If the general reason to use "stupid" instead of "bad" or "frustrating" is to evoke the idea of slowness or a lack of perceptive ability, then it must be an ableist term. It can not be anything but that, since it places a value judgment on the speed at which someone is able to cognitively process (and/or on the precision of it), which is the same thing as making a value judgment about people with cognitive disabilities, because their disability causes behavior which the word "stupid" places a negative value judgment upon.

It can be argued, though, that this does not necessarily make "stupid" a slur. Not all ableist terms are necessarily recognized as slurs, nor are all ableist terms used as slurs.

How can we tell, then, if stupid is a slur or not?

There are many conflicting definitions about what constitutes a slur, after all. Even among the people who all agree that "stupid" is a slur, there are a variety of reasons for doing so. How can we definitively say whether or not a word is being used as a slur?

That's hard to say, but I would argue that a word can safely be considered a slur when a few criteria are met:

  • When the people are affected by the negative use of the word as a pejorative even though they are not the target of the pejorative
  • When the idiomatic use of a word with problematic connotations serves to normalize those problematic connotations so that they become accepted as a priori virtues by a privileged class
  • When a confluence of the first two items on this list results in an objectively measurable disadvantage, in terms of access to basic resources and/or upward mobility within a society.
I believe that something can be said to be a slur if one of the first two items on that list is satisfied. I accept that there are people who will disagree with me. I think, though, that if all three of those criteria are met, then the word must be a slur.

Let's try a test case.

In fact, let's try a test case with a word that is not always used as a slur. One that has been partially reclaimed. It might be easier to articulate the way that the third criterion works if we do that.

Let's talk about the word "gay." It's not always a slur. We can all agree upon that because it is used as an affirmative identity word by a large group of people who feel strongly positive about its connotations. It is clearly used as a slur, though, under certain circumstances, especially by those whose value systems do not admit the positive connotations of the word.

When "gay" is used as a slur, its use as a pejorative affects not only the targets of the word, but also listeners who are not the target. Persons who have had the pejorative used to judge their presentation or mannerisms in the past are reminded of that past trauma through repetition, most obviously. If that was enough to make a word a slur, though, then all pejoratives would be slurs.

Persons who are not homosexual are negatively impacted by the use of the word as a pejorative, though, since "gay" includes connotations of lightheartedness, frivolity, and being showy or colorful. All of these terms can be neutral or they can carry value judgments. Whether or not they carry value judgments, they tend to also carry gendered connotations. Even in the most supporting environments, these connotations are not considered to be terribly masculine, and in the context of a social group that prizes masculinity as it is commonly formulated, they are considered negative traits. In such an environment, then, it would be fair to say that these connotations become problematic and that they are accepted as a priori virtues by the privileged class of "masculine men".

In a society that is an intensely masculine heteronormative environment, then, the negative impact of the word as a way to police the a priori values of the dominant social group would also deprive the targets of the word, whether actually homosexual or not, of access to basic resources and upward mobility. The word specifically does this in a way that not only judges the perceive homosexual orientation of the target, but also the gendered behavior of the target. It is the confluence of these two sets of meanings that the word becomes most vicious and most oppresses people who are gay and also those who are merely perceived to be. We can see this play out in particularly homophobic states in the U.S. through the denial of marriage equality and all that it entails, as well as in through the day-to-day homophobic snubs which make accessing certain community activities in those communities unbearable to people who are perceived as gay.

There is an argument to be made that the word is almost totally rehabilitated through its reclamation as an identity label, and I would tend to agree with that, if not for the very real discrimination that many people still face when they are outed. Since the application of that denial of resources is uneven, though, I think that it's fair to say that different people should be able to agree to disagree about "gay", and also that certain uses of the word might be more fairly judged as slurs than other uses of the word would be.

Now, let's apply these criteria to the word "stupid."

Clearly, the word has the traumatic effect on those who have heard it before that I outlined in the last example. This is not particularly noteworthy, but since it is a hurdle, it must be mentioned. Those of us who have had to weather regular use of the word "stupid" by others will be reminded of the hurt we felt when we hear the word used against people in our vicinity. In cases where the trauma caused by the word is more pronounced, it will be a trigger word. Again, this is noncontroversial. A basic understanding of PTSD and triggers allows us to see that literally anything can wind up being a trigger, even things that are seemingly innocuous. That a word is triggering is not enough to make it a slur.

The word stupid also has negative effects that go beyond the immediate memory of past traumatic use of the word, though. Some of the trauma associated with the use of the word "stupid" is associated with the realization, on the part of disabled persons hearing the word when they are not the targets of it, that their challenges are judged by the people around them to be signs of poor character. This is because the cultural baggage surrounding the word has resulted in its being reflective of the a priori value judgments our society makes about the desirability of mental quickness and the kinds of person that shows a lack of it.

These are ableist values, and it is the misuse of stupid as an idiomatic term that cements them more firmly. Contrary to what was being argued in the post I responded to on Wednesday, the vague, generic, and far-reaching misuse of the word "stupid" makes it more reasonable to conclude that the word is a slur, not less. Every time it is mis-applied to mean "generally bad," it drags along its connotations of slowness and failure to cognitively process. It also drags along the baggage accumulated by being used as a general condemnation. Since neither set of baggage can be definitively jettisoned by context alone, and since the values being reinforced by the word's connotations necessarily causes harm to listeners even when they are not the target of the word, it fits the second of our three criteria for judging a pejorative to be a slur.

Let's look at that last criterion, the one that I asserted as the distinguishing feature of a full-time slur. Do the value judgments that "stupid" entails in our society lead to harm that is not only felt, but that is also measurable in terms of access to resources and/or public accommodations?


Plainly yes.

There is no debate about this among people who have to live with cognitive and/or developmental disabilities. It is very obvious to us, because we can name the resources that we have trouble accessing. What is often more difficult for us to articulate is the means by which we lose access to those resources. I will now attempt to do just that.

It starts with the use of "stupid" as a pejorative. When this happens and the target is someone with a cognitive or developmental disability, then it is fairly obvious that the person it is used against feels belittled for something that is outside his or her control. If it was only ever used to judge the behavior of people with this disability, it might not have any stigma attached to it, because it would be a sign that the person is not processing information. As a signal that this is happening, it's innocuous, and the person that "stupid" is directed at could simply change course and ask for help. Accessing helpful supports as resources would then lead to a remedying of the situation.

When "stupid" is a pejorative that is used broadly against all persons who process information slowly or who have disabilities that include an inability to process certain information, it places a value judgment on the processing of that information. Similarly, if we are talking about "lacking sense" and not being "obtuse", the use of a definition that is inherently a negative value judgment confuses the direct statement that one is failing to process information and/or failing to process it at an ideal speed that is entailed by the other definition.

This confusion is compounded by the use of "stupid" to judge the performance of a person who usually does not encounter difficulties processing information or to judge a person who is acting without a clearly perceivable motivation. A priori judgments about the relationship between intellectual behavior and character begin to form. With enough broad use, they become generally accepted.

It is clear that in our current cultural milieu, this has happened. We greatly value "smart," "intelligent," "quick," and "perceptive" art, music, movies, and people. Much value is placed on highlighting these things, and much praise is showered upon the people who are judged to be exhibiting these qualities. It is also clear that we stigmatize being "slow," equating it with weakness, poor decision making, and other negative character attributes.

Here's the kicker--this use of stupid that satisfies the criterion about cultural assumptions and value judgments also causes the lack of access to resources. The mechanism is the individual internalization of society's ableism by the disabled individual. Here's how it works:

When "stupid" is thrown around loosely, the broad overuse of the word further persuades the average listener that it is harmless or that it is so common that there is nothing problematic in its use. The fact of it being common is enough to cause this, as Mr. Thibeault pointed out the other day:
Ultimately, though, I think the word “stupid” is too ubiquitous and too defanged and too vague to get particularly angry at people who are using it, despite the implications on society’s privileging of neurotypical folk in general.
It is precisely the blithe ease with which this is asserted that is the problem. With repetitive use, even repetitive use that is not targeting an individual, this word becomes more ubiquitous and its use therefore becomes more problematic, as the assumptions that its use implies become more common, more entrenched, and more difficult to unseat.

The core of my derision the other day was rage fueled by this obvious and incredibly problematic oversight. At the time, due to my own language processing difficulties, it was easier to nail down individual rhetorical failures in the essay (there are many, too--I still stand by my earlier critique even if I acknowledge that it was incomplete). I am, after all, a professional teacher of rhetoric and an Autistic. My scripts for conflict with people who are being illogical tend to be rhetoric teacher responses mixed with anger. This does not make them incoherent or incorrect, it just defines the scope of my ability to respond to a topic while I am still emotionally processing the information that is hurtful to me.

The reason that I became so emotionally invested in this action, and in the way it was being misrepresented in that other article, is because the acceptance of these broader cultural values by disabled persons leads to an acceptance on our part that our challenges and impairments (forgive the term) are indicative of shortcomings in our character. When we allow ourselves to accept this as true, we also implicitly accept that our failure to process information with the speed or subtlety that the dominant culture demands of us is a personal failing.

This is analogous to the internalized racism felt by some disadvantaged ethnic groups and/or the internalized blame that sexual assault victims feel. To point out the analogy is not to imply that it is morally comparable or to attempt to place it into a hierarchy, though. It is only to show that the process by which these beliefs are accepted and the negative impact they have on the behavior of marginalized persons run in parallel.

When any person feels that he or she is personally responsible for his or her circumstances, the natural attitude to take toward those circumstances is responsibility. Failure becomes a matter of achievement and performance then, and not a matter of access to resources. Once the issue becomes one of personal responsibility and personal failure, especially the failure of character, it becomes harder to ask for help and/or access to resources, too. The act of asking for that help becomes an admission of failure, and the act of accessing resources becomes stigmatized.

This social stigma then leads to under-use of those resources. This initiates a vicious circle, because from an outside perspective, a lack of use of available resources appears to imply that those resources are not as necessary and that it is safe to curtail them in times of scarcity (such as budget contraction) when in fact those resources need to be radically expanded through efforts to destigmatize their use.

Still, the low use of resources implies a low necessity for those resources, regardless of whether or not the implication is true. This is simply a function of the fact that cultural values are difficult to measure objectively in a way that shows a clear cause/effect relationship to more easily quantifiable events like the use of public accommodations and social resources.

The natural contraction of the availability of those resources when they are considered unnecessary leads to some people who do seek access finding that the resources are operating at capacity, and their addition necessitates the reduction (or slowed growth) of support for others who are already being supported by the same resources. This is true simply by virtue of these resources being finite--it doesn't matter whether we are talking about small-scale programs such placement in special education or large-scale programs such as access to social welfare programs.

The only option besides underserving the existing population, then, is the restriction of the program through a tightening of the qualifying criteria. (Well, the only option besides radical expansion of the resource's availability, but remember that intellectual stigma has already resulted in a public reluctance to access the resource, so there does not appear to be an urgent need for that expansion.)

The more stringent qualifications then lead to access becoming more difficult, creating a barrier to access which many disabled persons will be unable to navigate because the support that they need to navigate these kinds of problems lies on the other side of resolving this situation. This naturally will lead to exclusion and/or discouragement from access to resources, further reducing the visibility of the need for those resources.

This vicious circle is then free to continue for as long as the social stigma that is stifling access through internalized ableism remains present. This clear, tangible cause and effect relationship between the social stigma and the uneven access to resources that disabled persons face on a daily basis is the reason that "stupid" is a slur. It is particularly the reason why it is always a slur, and also the reason why its use even outside the context of intellectual disability is a slur.

It doesn't just dehumanize, it acts to reinforce the stigmas that dehumanize and oppress an entire group of people.

Every use of "stupid" is an active oppression of disabled persons as well as a reminder of past oppressions because of this social mechanism. Can we please stop fucking saying that it isn't a slur now?