A reader commented recently about my failure to question the word stupid as a value judgment. The entire notion of intelligence, she pointed out, is fraught.
Stupid means, basically, not smart. But what does it mean to be smart, and how do we measure it? A lot of the time, when we talk about someone being smart, we mean they’re good at school, or good at taking tests. But school, and those tests, prioritize some abilities — and some ways of expressing those abilities — over others.
We also see it in the persistent racial gap in IQ scores. IQ tests don’t measure some innate quality called intelligence; they measure “skills relevant to success in American society.” Those skills are learned; they are not purely innate. And the skills that American society values are, unsurprisingly, the skills that are particularly valued by America’s most powerful groups.
And we see it especially strongly around learning disabilities. People with LD may struggle to understand class material because of the way it’s presented, or they may struggle with the form of assessment even when they know the material backwards and forwards. But without good ways to tease these questions apart, we often assume they simply can’t handle the subject matter.
So let’s think about who gets labeled as stupid. It’s a hard thing to separate from class and race, here in the U.S.
Who gets labeled stupid? What possibilities do they have?
Children living below the poverty line are twice as likely to be labeled ‘learning disabled’. One reason why: the tests themselves are biased, in that they measure learned skills (such as language ability and vocabulary) rather than something innate. But it’s not just the tests: children from wealthier homes are more likely to be put on the gifted track, as are White children — and that’s true even when you control for test scores.
And early tracking contributes to later inequality, because it multiplies over time. It’s not rocket science: the longer you’re in a class that moves slowly, the further behind you fall; the longer you’re in a class that moves quickly, the further ahead you get.
Let’s assume, for the moment, that there’s such a thing as a learning disability and we have a perfect way to measure it. it. Let’s assume that there are no biases in how those labels get applied. Even if that’s the case, we can’t fully separate LD from socioeconomic status.
Let’s say, for the purpose of example, that you have a learning disability. If your parents are wealthier and more educated, they’re probably better at navigating the bureaucracy — and they probably have more time to do it. That means that you’re more likely to get you support, whether it’s tutors or extra time to take exams. And in turn, that disability is less likely to impede you professionally.
Put simply, you are least likely to be considered stupid if you’re White and middle-class with educated parents.
What’s wrong with stupid?
Some people are gay. Some people are fat. Some people are stupid. There’s nothing wrong with being any of those things, and there’s nothing wrong with any of those words.
There are some words that are just about never acceptable. Think about slurs around race and gender, for instance. Other words only become troublesome in particular contexts: gay and fat and stupid fall into this category. They have their place as descriptors. But all three of these words get used as value judgments, and the implication is that the things they describe are bad things to be.
Words do a lot of work — they create so much of our reality. If we use gay to mean bad, then if you’re gay, you learn quietly that what you are is bad and wrong.
Slowly, we are coming to consider that the same thing just might be true for stupid.
I haven’t used the word retarded as an insult in at least twenty years. Why do I continue to use stupid?
What can we say instead?
When we say an idea is stupid, do we mean it’s … impractical? … unoriginal? … boring? … harmful? … not fully thought out?
When we say a person is stupid, do we mean that they’re … thoughtless or insensitive? … struggling to understand something? … bad at something? … getting off topic? … willfully ignorant?
Any of these words or phrases would be more expressive than stupid. Let’s be more thoughtful, more precise. Anything less would be … well, you know.