May 2019
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why the words 'stupid' & other slurs against people w cognitive disabilities are harmful / TW: slurs

icon: "analytical (a close-up photo of my eye in bright sunlight, showing the green and grey and roots-looking patterns)"

---- 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 It wasn't until the 70s that most states repealed the laws which made forced sterilization legal, and not until after 2000 that states began issuing apologies for these eugenics-based atrocities.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.

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wolfteaparty ══╣╠══
I've been guilty of using slurs like "st*pid" out of habit. I'm sure we all have been. However, since I started seeing your posts about slurs, it made me think twice about how I use language and I've been trying to cut down on them (though I'm probably still slipping up from time to time because old habits die hard). I grew up with a speech delay, and I was tortured by bullies because of it. I was called the R-slur day in and day out, as well as overhearing people describe me as "dumb," "slow," "special," and similar slurs. I was automatically assumed to be cognitively disabled by the people around me because of my speech/social delays, I guess, and it was a harsh lesson in how horribly people with disabilities get treated. I have overcome my speech delay; in fact, people don't even seem to believe it happened. However, when I overhear people saying, "That's, like, sooo r*tarded!" it is still triggering for me. It would be nice if people would cut out the "short bus" jokes too.
belenen ══╣artless╠══
*nods* I have been focused on it for so long now that it shocked me to look back through old posts and see how I used ableist slurs only two years ago! I'm lucky that the people I talk with on a daily basis also work to get them out of their habits -- that makes it much easier, when you're not taking it in all the time.

I think even if the trigger factor was the only way it harmed people, that would be a reason not to do it! I wish people would stop with ableist jokes like "short bus" too. *deep frown*
wolfteaparty ══╣╠══
I think people often don't think or don't realize that they may be talking to someone who may be, like me, an invisibly disabled person who hasn't always been invisibly disabled and has been the target of slurs, or who has actually ridden a short bus. I rode a short bus as a kid, too (it was on the way to occupational therapy instead of routinely to/from school, but still... I literally rode on one from time to time, so yeah, the jokes still bug). It's been a shocker for me, though, finding that it actually takes a conscious effort to replace "st*pid" with other words. These words are so ingrained in most people's vocabularies.
lady_leia_solo ══╣╠══
I'm also guilty of using this word on more than one occasion. I never thought about how it was related to the the-r word, which I would never use and I don't like being used around me. I usually use it in a joking manner with my friends and family. I would never insult someone's intelligence because it's a sensitive topic for myself as well (I left high school and only recently entered college).
belenen ══╣garrulous╠══
*nods* it is really common and hard to avoid!
how do they rise
callie_chan ══╣how do they rise╠══
Found this post randomly on the front page, and I just wanted to drop in and say thanks for this! Especially the last link. A lot of ableist slurs have crept into my vocabulary over the course of my life due to their being so damn common, and over the past few years I've grown increasingly aware of them and I've been wanting to change, but it was hard for me to think of good alternatives. The link to the article with various acceptable replacements is incredibly helpful in that regard! I'm extremely socially conscious, so knowing I need to make these changes but not having a good idea how to start replacing these words in my speech really weighed on me. But I feel like that barrier's been lifted now, and that I can make a concerted effort to replace those words in my vocabulary now that I've got a list of handy and non-ableist alternatives to refer to.

(Trying to think of an acceptable alternative for 'stupid' really underlines just how ableist it and all its synonyms are, let me tell you. That's honestly the one I've had the hardest time with. 'Asinine' seems more acceptable, though, while having the same amount of punch - but I feel like it implies foolishness, willful ignorance, or thoughtlessness rather than an actual lack of intellect. It also works better as a descriptor for ideas or sentiments than people. I think I'll definitely be going with that as a replacement.)
belenen ══╣progressing╠══
I'm glad that this was helpful for you! I agree that asinine makes a good replacement for what people really mean when they say st*pid.
(Anonymous) ══╣╠══
belenen ══╣honesty╠══
I am aware that not everyone can change their vocabulary easily and that for some people it is almost impossible. That is part of the reason that for people who can change it, like me, it's important that we do, so that these words become obsolete eventually.
wanderipity ══╣╠══
That last bit! Anyway, a great post.
belenen ══╣garrulous╠══
glad you liked it!
AoE ★ lovely absurdity
ragnarok_08 ══╣AoE ★ lovely absurdity╠══
I've been guilty of using 'st*pid' or 'dumb' out of frustration or out of anger in the past, but I'd never intentionally call anyone that and I'd catch myself before I actually say it.

I have Aspergers' and growing up, and kids ridiculed me because of it - I would overhear them using the 'R' word, and call me st*pid, dumb, or slow, just because I was in special education during grade school. Since then, I've been adamant on not using those words against anyone, especially with the kids I work with in the school for the deaf and blind.
belenen ══╣progressing╠══
*nods* I'm glad that you are adamant against using those words against people -- I think that's even more damaging than using them against situations.
webgirluk ══╣pic#124969441╠══
Love this post and completely agree :-) I have had an issue for a long time now with how socially accepted mocking people with cognitive differences appears to be by those who perceive themselves as the most "educated".
belenen ══╣garrulous╠══
*nods emphatically* yes! exactly!
(Anonymous) ══╣╠══
belenen ══╣analytical╠══
I know what you mean! it is so strange to me that people don't realize that if using slur #1 is damaging, slur #2 is probably damaging too.

I just don't believe in intelligence. People just don't exist on a measurable line because there are too many variables. If you broke it down into really specific categories, maybe it would work, like ingenuity intelligence (figuring out new solutions), speed intelligence (doing thought exercises quickly), memory intelligence (ability to retain knowledge), verbal intelligence (knowing a lot of words and being able to understand them in many different configurations), emotional intelligence (being able to comprehend and analyze emotions in self and others), spatial/physics intelligence (being able to solve problems related to the movement of objects within a space), financial intelligence (ease of understanding cost/value and savings), etc etc, there are so many kinds and no one has them all and there is no way to measure them all, ever.
on communication, social justice, intimacy, consent, friendship & other relationships, spirituality, gender, queerness, & dreams. Expect to find curse words, nudity, (occasionally explicit) talk of sex, and angry ranting, but NEVER slurs or sexually violent language. I use TW when I am aware of the need and on request.
Expect to find curse words, nudity, (occasionally explicit) talk of sex, and angry ranting, but NEVER slurs or sexually violent language. I use TW when I am aware of the need and on request.