12 September 2007

If only you were smarter, I could call you stupid

I caused some grief over at Steve Gimbel's virtual place the other day. I'd made a comment that had an unintended second reading:

Fundie religionists are the retarded kids who eat paste and whose parents bitch and moan at youth coaches demanding that their precious little ones get to play. Basically, George Will.
I thought it was pretty clear that I was calling out George Will as a former paste eater, but someone read it as a comment about George Will as a parent. I was unaware the be-bowtied one has a child with Down Syndrome, but given that knowledge the incorrect reading is understandable. And that reading could certainly be construed as extra mean.

However, it got me thinking.1 Is it alright for me to call someone of average intelligence stupid? Is it alright for me to call someone of slightly below average intelligence stupid? How about significantly below average? Is there a hard line below which it crosses from acceptable to impolite, or rude, or mean? Or is it never acceptable to call someone stupid?2

To some extent, these are quantifiable things. For example, I'm obese. I mean, you see me walking down the street, or hanging out, or playing tennis and I just look a little overweight, but I'm clinically obese. I'm not insulted if someone calls me fat. It's a valid, accurate statement. I'm also a genius. Not in the mad, super-evil way, but the IQ in the 99th percentile way. Somehow, it's considered socially unacceptable - and conceited - to mention the latter, though it is just as quantifiable as my weight.

I can call Tom Cruise short, right? Can I say the same about Peter Dinklage?

Here's the thing...I'm not a nice person. I don't much care about the feelings of others. That said, even I don't want to be a complete dick. So how many standard deviations below the center of the bell am I allowed to mock, and at what point does it become wrong? Two standard deviations below mean? Three?

So, any thoughts? How short is too short to be noticed? How stupid too stupid?

1 I know. It's shocking to think I'd think.
2 Oh please, don't tell me I can't call people stupid. That just wouldn't be fair.


R.A. Porter said...

I'm manually sucking in comments from ID

SteveG wrote...
A couple of comedy references here, they seem related to your point in some way, but I'm too stupid to figure out exactly how...

I was watching a comedian make stupid person jokes and when they showed the audience, I realized that some of the people laughing were the people others have in mind when making stupid people jokes. And it struck me that if take out references to being blonde, Polish, or any of the other stand-ins we use to mean stupid, you're ok because no one thinks s/he is in the stupid people category. Descartes was right when he said that good sense is the most evenly distributed commodity in the world because everyone thinks he has just the right amount.

The other one was a comedian I saw years ago whose name escapes me. He was a special ed teacher back when they still used the old terms for mentally challenged kids, the categories (and these are technical terms) were idiot, moron, and imbecile. He considered the case in which you had a really hard working imbecile who got promoted. His parents could brag, "did you hear? Tommy's now a moron, we're so proud."

R.A. Porter said...

I responded...
Unfortunately Steve, I'm also too stupid to figure out my point. If I could, I think I'd be in a lot better shape. It just seems to me that in all aspects of our society we're getting closer and closer to every kid plays, every kid is special, everyone is exactly the same. Not only is that never going to happen, it would be a sad world. We need telephone sanitizers and hairdressers as much as we need explorers and scientists. It's almost enough to make me join up with the Objectivists. Fortunately, I'm still smart enough to know better than *that*.

And that second joke was *killer*.