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October 14, 2005

Retarding the discourse

Exposing one's inner self on a blog can be an illuminating experience. It has been for me. I write with abandon of family conflicts, traumas, arguments and self-doubt, mistakes I have made in the past that hurt people, and I shrug off any feeling that I may be making myself vulnerable by so doing. I run the risk of pissing off those close to me, or of representing things unfairly, and yet I forge ahead.

Talking about my early academic life, however, strikes me as fraught with peril. I could limit myself to relating objective facts, things that cannot be disputed, and still I find the prospect risky enough that this is the fifth version of this paragraph, the others discarded in fits of second-guessing.

Objective facts: My parents tell a story of when I was two or three years old. (One of them will likely step in here to tell me.) They and I were driving on the New York State Thruway with my grandfather. We passed a sign that said 'Syracuse." I pointed at it and said "Syracuse." My grandfather refused to believe what he had just witnessed. I was reading at that age. By the time I was four, I was reading middle-school-level physics.

Is that boasting? It feels like boasting. I am proud of it. Why should I be? I didn't make my mind. The way my mind works was given to me, an accident of genetics and who knows what else?

Here is what it is like: I have no idea what it is like to work to understand something I find interesting. The understanding just flows in. Not all at once, mind you. I have learning curves just like anyone else. But it's the steep parts of those curves that I find easiest. Once the pace slackens off, I find it tougher to maintain my interest.

Objective facts: At age eight, I enrolled in a private school designed to teach kids like me. The class was a new one, the youngest kids the school had ever admitted. I was younger than all but one of my classmates. We spent the school year studying high school, AP-and college level material. At the end of that school year, I stood in front of an audience and accepted an award for having the highest grades in my class. I had not lifted a finger all year.

I am grateful for my intelligence. It allows me to support myself doing things I find interesting, itself a rare gift these days. More importantly, it allows me to find a huge number of things not only interesting but infinitely complex as well. But it makes as much sense to me to be proud of my mind as it does to be proud of a birthmark, or my shoe size. People who focus on their studies, who turn in homework on time or at all, who diligently push their test scores up to the high Bs or mid-As, in school, who spend mental sweat in the workplace trying desperately to keep their skills marketable: they have something to be proud of. I have the luxury of waiting around for inspiration to strike, and then getting a prodigious amount of work done in something very like a fugue state.

It feels - it has always felt - like cheating. I stood in front of that room at age nine, accepting my award, and feeling as if I had duped an entire room full of people. I have assiduously avoided the possibility of winning awards since that day. After years in that school with the supposed top two percent as gauged by the odious Stanford-Binet - most of them good kids, of whom I have fond memories - I would sooner gouge my eyes out with a garden trowel than attend a MENSA meeting.

Though I loathe reductionist IQ tests - I have no idea what mine was that day they tested me at age six, and no interest in knowing to boot - I have no particular favorite alternative model to describe what intelligence is. No one else really has a workable definition either, not even the people who are paid to come up with definitions of intelligence, some of whom are themselves very intelligent. All I know is, whatever intellect really is, American society has a love-hate relationship with it. We claim to revere it, but we mistrust the implicit bell-curve hierarchy even as we rabidly hew to it. It would be ridiculous to imply that the very intelligent are in any way oppressed. The benefits of the condition, for the most part, far outweigh the costs, although this is somewhat less true for smart women, who face their own types of social stigmas. We are mocked on occasion. We are often mistrusted. We are more prone to depression, and a few specific kinds of disabilities are strongly associated with high intellect. Still, it's better on the whole to be on this end of that obnoxious bell curve than at the other. I'll take the mistrust and resentment, and occasional sheer uninformed hatred, and be glad of it.

Because my brothers and sisters at the other end of that damnable bell curve, who did not earn their irrevocable place in line any more than I did mine, have it far worse than I do.

For all that we self-proclaimed smart folks in the US decry the burgeoning anti-intellectualism of the populace, public disdain for the intellectual elite has never, and likely will never, approach the long-term, embedded, often seething hatred we have for the mentally disabled.

My terminology here is imprecise. "Mentally disabled" is not the opposite of "very intelligent." My brother suffers from a confusing suite of trauma-related mental disabilities and is nonetheless the single most intelligent person I have ever met. Dyslexia is a disability affecting mentation, and some brilliant people suffer from it. Geniuses get Alzheimers.

I'm talking about what was once uniformly called mental retardation. The American Association on Mental Retardation still calls it that. Others have shied away from the term, due to its increasingly derogatory nature. In its day, the adjectival form "mentally retarded" was a more humane alternative to the previous terminology, an ascending scale of scope of disability: "moron," "imbecile," "idiot." People now suggest terms such as the misleading "developmentally delayed" as potential replacements. None of the terms are perfect, perhaps inevitably when describing a wide and unrelated range of conditions, from direct physical or infectious brain injury to fetal alcohol syndrome to phenylketonuria and Down Syndrome.

Our attitudes toward this disability suite are so deep-rooted that such etymological conversion is likely inevitable regardless of the terminology used. Were special-ed professionals to settle on "golden" or "excellent" as a descriptive term for the range of disabilities known as mental retardation, "golden" or "excellent" would become terms of revolted opprobrium within one child's grammar school career.

The disabled exhibit more or less the same range of moral qualities as the rest of us. The overwhelming majority of retarded, or delayed, or whatever you want to call it, people are, like the majority of everyone else, good, caring, trustworthy people. Vanishingly few of them, aside from those in the process of being disabled by whooping cough or meningitis, are contagious. They have no greater tendency to violence or theft than anyone else, and in fact perhaps less. Why, then, are they anathema?

I can only conclude that the venom with which the mentally disabled people are derided stems from fear of disability, a phenomenon with which my physically disabled readers will be familiar. It is a fear of the other, compounded by the gut-level recognition that "the disabled" is a disempowered minority to which any one of us might wake up one morning and find we have been admitted.

That fear can propel vindictive reactions that seem to defy logic, especially, it would seem, among conservatives. In 2003, Michael Bérubé published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that detailed his disintegrating relationship with a student who increasingly disrupted a class as the semester wore on. Bérubé tried without much success to find ways to incorporate the student into the class:

"John spoke up often, sometimes loudly, sometimes out of turn. He had begun to conceive of himself as the only countervailing conservative voice in a classroom full of liberal-left think-alikes, and he occasionally spoke as if he were entitled to reply to every other student's comment - in a class of 17... It would have been a relatively simple matter to put the brakes on - to speak to him, in class or afterward, in such a way as to let him know that he was not, in fact, entitled to comment on every other student's comment. But I did not want to contribute to his growing sense of lonely opposition."

At the end of the piece, Bérubé ruminated on the larger issues involved in teaching disruptive students:

"Over my 20 years in teaching, I've had many conservatives in my classes. I think I've even had a few Stalinists, too. I've had many intelligent, articulate students who behaved as if they had a right to speak more often and at greater length than anyone else in the room; I've had versions of Reese Witherspoon in Election and Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series, who knew the answers to every question ever asked; I've had my share of blurters with very little sense of social boundaries, a few of whom may genuinely have had some degree of Asperger's syndrome, with various autistic or antisocial symptoms. To all such students - indeed, to all students, those with disabilities and those without - I try to apply the standard of disability law: I make reasonable accommodation for them. The challenge, though, lies in making reasonable accommodations for students whose standards of 'reasonableness' are significantly different from yours."

Conservative academics howled, claiming that Bérubé had "compared conservatives to autistics" - an interpretation that even a cursory reading of the article demolishes. The above-quoted, final paragraph contains the only reference to disability, in an obvious attempt to broaden the discussion to different types of classroom disruptions, some deliberate, some incidental. Despite the utter groundlessness of the claims and Bérubé's repeated efforts to address his critics, you will still hear the conservative claim being made today, often by people who have been roundly debunked on previous occasions.

It's a trivial exercise to find conservative people reacting negatively to even being mentioned in the same sentence as disabled people, a salient example being a response to a recent comment I made at Feministe. Shankar Gupta's response to my comment was tart, but civil. Most such responses are not. One could speculate as to reason for the vociferousness. Is it a wounded outrage at the suggestion that any individual disabled person might possess a positive quality that an individual conservative might lack? Is it a subconscious fear that the very existence of disabled people - who after all are to some degree exempt from the presumed universal ability of the non-lazy to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps, a population that needs extra societal assistance through no fault of their own - negates conservative ideology, and that to compare is to recognize not only their existence but their commonality with the conservative being offended?


But let's not single out conservatives unfairly. Liberals, it turns out, are rather likely to insult their political opponents by alleging that they're cognitively disabled. People raised in PC culture (myself included) will preferentially use outmoded, abandoned terminology (morons, imbeciles, idiots) rather than calling their debate opponents "retards," but the effect - and, I would maintain, the intent - is the same. And this is done by people who would spit nails if an opponent insulted them with reference to gender, race, or female body part. This is an odd attitude for liberals to take toward those who are, nearly without exception, the most persistently vulnerable subgroup in any population.

At the root of this particular use of "retard" as insult is a misunderstanding of the nature of intelligence. Fashionable anti-intellectualism notwithstanding, Americans consistently equate intelligence with equally intangible but nonetheless distinct mental or emotional faculties: compassion, judgment, common sense, intellectual flexibility, wisdom. Logically, then, the further one progresses to the right hand tail of the old intelligence bell curve, the more compassionate, wise, understanding, and nuanced the people mapped there will be.

Of course I am here to tell you, my friends, that it just ain't so. Even among the brilliant kids in that school I went to one could find avaricious thugs, dullards, ideologues, and sociopaths. The right tail has its altruistic Schweitzers, its intuitive and holistic Einsteins, to be sure. But it also has its insane Kaczynskis, its murderous Kissingers, its hidebound and mediocre Victor Davis Hansons. All of them brilliant, to be sure.

But there are more important things than brilliance.

Staggeringly intelligent people voted for Bush, and both times. People with robust intellects believed the obvious propaganda being spewed in the run-up to the Iraq War. Magna Cum Laudes from prestigious schools think WMDs were found within weeks of our invasion. And millions of intelligent people across the political spectrum think the war is wrong, find Bush anathema, fear for the future of the United States, and yet do nothing to change the situation.

They are wrong, but it is not because they lack intelligence.

When we score rhetorical points by calling our opponents disabled, we ascribe venal, short-sighted, misguided intent to millions of innocent people who may very well share our political beliefs - people whose ranks each of us is but an auto accident or three-day fever from joining.

We also miss opportunities to determine why it is that our opponents think the way they do.

We can do better than this.

Posted by Chris Clarke at October 14, 2005 07:28 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Interesting post. A few points in response:

1) The funny thing about being super-intelligent is that you soon find out it's all relative. I don't care how smart you are; hang out in the upper echelons of academia long enough, for example, and you'll meet a lot of people who are vastly more brilliant than you (by conventional criteria anyway).

2) I think there is some modest correlation between intelligence and positive moral character, but I don't know what the cause and effect is. If you're naturally smarter, life tends to come more easily, and you have less incentive to lie, cheat, and steal. On the other hand, it may be that with intelligence comes empathy, which is key to a moral outlook, in my opinion.

Or perhaps, as you point out, by not having to work as hard, one is more likely to be lazy and self-centered. This would be an interesting academic study if someone could find a way to measure moral character to the same degree we measure intelligence.

3) I completely agree that it is highly illiberal to use slurs like "moron" or "idiot" (no matter had apt they appear to be in a given encounter!) If one believes (as liberals tend to, including me) that intelligence is determined in large part by factors outside our control, it hardly makes sense to blame someone for lacking it.

However, there's a big difference between ignorance and inherent stupidity; I think this is intertwined with intent. One can be willfully ignorant, for example, and there is little excuse for it. On the other hand, one can be ignorant just by carelessness or negligence, which is somewhat less blameworthy. One can also be ignorant through no fault of her own -- perhaps due solely to lack of opportunity or exposure -- but capable of enlightenment if presented with the evidence. Finally, one can be inherently stupid (e.g. neurologically incapacitated) such that all the teaching and dedication in the world won't change anything. When deciding how to characterize someone morally, these distinctions are worth keeping in mind.

4) I know a lot of inherently intelligent people who voted for Bush. This fascinates me to no end, and I trust in intelligence so much that it causes me to question my own worldview. Mind you, these people are not rich and powerful; I can understand why someone in that position would rationally vote for Bush, purely out of self-interest. I'm talking about people more or less just like me -- not rich or powerful, but highly intelligent -- who nonetheless voted for Bush. It's a real disconnect for me, and I find it fascinating. Am I just that narrow-minded, or are these people delusional? Certainly they have differently values than me, but even trying to square their values with Bush's actions is a total non-starter. I have to admit that I'm often stumped!

Posted by: Mike Anderson at October 14, 2005 08:55 PM
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not to ignore the rest of your writing, but wanted to share a bit about IQ tests. In 11th grade I got my hands on my academic-life-to-that-date records. My IQ test score dropped 13 points between 1st and 2nd grade. What does this say about educational techniques in the mid-1960s? (I know, I probably just had a really good day one year and a really bad day the next, but it's more fun to blame the patriarchy for any stupid things I've done since 1st grade!)

Posted by: kabbage at October 14, 2005 09:04 PM
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My IQ test score dropped 13 points between 1st and 2nd grade.

That's not at all unusual, especially for very bright kids. They weight the scores differently for younger kids. You might have done just as well in both years, and they just used a different multiplier.

Or it could have been all the pot you smoked over summer vacation before second grade. It's a mystery!

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 14, 2005 10:15 PM
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Chris ... You're right, the developmentally disabled are not at the opposite end of the bell curve from the intelligent. The bell curve exists in many dimensions, and the dimensions are most different, of course, out on the edges. If I try to define what it means to be out on the edge, apart from some inevitable ostracism, I stumble on this word: "curiosity."

I realize now that I wasn't ostracized for being a very bright and officially "gifted" child, but rather for being curious. I was curious about my own academic interests -- and lots of other things that lay beyond the commonplace curiosities of late-childhood and adolescence. And one thing I enjoy about many developmentally disabled people I've met is that they are able to manifest a level of curiosity that "normal" people, by definition, have learned to suppress.

I wonder, in fact, if curiosity doesn't begin as a child's way of processing his/her own apparent difference. That would explain why it's more common for folks out on the edges of the bell curve, and less common among the truly average folks who live at the top of the bell.

Thanks for stimulating this line of thought.

Peace, Jarrett

Posted by: Jarrett at October 14, 2005 10:32 PM
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"I can only conclude that the venom with which the mentally disabled people are derided stems from fear of disability..."

It's possible that some of this derision is not fear of being disabled, but a primitive reaction to a member of the tribe/clan/group that can't contribute their "fair share" of the effort required to keep the group going... either because they can't gather/hunt, can't participate fully in the rituals to appease whatever spirits/deities are important, can't be trusted to be quiet and hide when the neighboring tribe comes raiding...whatnot. I have no data for this, I'm just hypothesizing, but it seems reasonable given our social inclination.

Posted by: Karen at October 14, 2005 11:41 PM
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Interesting. (Long way to make a point there, too. Have you considered writing for Salon?)

Having worked with gifted kids, and raised a couple, and also having "raised" my mentally disabled mom, I can relate, on several different levels. Gifted kids think more globally than others, thus want to save the world, resulting in higher than normal rates of liberalism. Many have almost supernatural empathy, which is why the stereotype of gifted kids who are social misfits doesn't always fit. (My daughter was just crowned homecoming princess.)

And I've seen this fear of mental disability up close. I went over the edge when I thought I might have inherited my mom's disease, not because I'd die before my time but because I'd become a blathering idiot first. Yes, PC-ness deserts one during times of crisis.

I just have one question: Is it PC to call someone a "ding dong"? If not, there're a whole lot of drivers in Ireland I owe an apology to, not to mention some Republican commenters.

Posted by: KathyF at October 15, 2005 01:22 AM
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Long comment follows. Apologies in advance.

I railed for years at people's use of the phrase "I could care less," when what they meant, I thought, was that they COULDN'T care less. Someone eventually pointed out that the phrase is meant to be a sarcastic, deliberate reversal of the original meaning ... in which case "I could care less" IS the correct phrase.

In some fuzzily-connected way (in my head, at least, and at 4:30 a.m.), calling someone a moron is the same type of thing. I don't see it as any kind of slur on the mentally handicapped. It's more of an emphatic expression of disgust that someone who SHOULD be fairly intelligent about the point in question is, seemingly deliberately, not.

And that voting-for-Bush thing, what a friggin' mystery, huh??

I tend to be especially angry at those people who say "Well, I supported Bush originally, but now I don't." I want to shout "There are people out there (me, for one) who saw through him the first time he appeared on TV! And it not only took you FIVE FRICKIN' YEARS to GET IT, but you spent all those five years perfectly content to allow those more perceptive and vocal (and possibly more patriotic) people to be vilified as hate-spewing librools and traitors. Maybe you should do America a favor and just kill yourself?"


I think there are dimensions to brilliance. In the vein of broad-scale understanding, you can be a slow, deep thinker; a quick, shallow thinker; or any sort of mix, in all the many different types of intelligence.

Finally, three things:

One, “Everything good is upstream.” Everything good takes an effort to accomplish or reach. The moment you rest, you start to float back downstream ... becoming mentally and physically flabby, gullible, less well-informed, less able to pay attention and learn, and on and on. We all get tired, and we all have only so much time to research and understand, so ... you can be brilliant and still make huge and seemingly-obvious mistakes.

Two, not everybody “bright” is ... well, a broadly creative thinker. I think it takes a certain amount of imagination to connect a variety of different types of information into the broad patterns that allow a person to see the sort-of-hidden currents of a person’s motivations, or a society’s history. Even if they have that type of intelligence, it seems to me that a precursor of this type of thinking is suspicion, an initial mistrust of authority.

Three, it seems to me that once you get religion into your head, the gateway drug to all sorts of unreason, you’re not all that reliably sane/rational anymore. (I know it’s a flawed metaphor, but) You can feed bad data to a supercomputer and get supremely shitty answers.

To the degree that they ingest and embrace it, it seems to me that religion turns otherwise bright people into adamantine dullards.

Posted by: Hank Fox at October 15, 2005 01:24 AM
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Things can be retarded other than intellect.
I can think of a number of well-known wingnuts* that I would have no problem labelling as ethically retarded.

*I hate the word wingnuts and almost used "conservatives" but the word doesn't even really apply anymore.

Posted by: craig at October 15, 2005 03:31 AM
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interesting post.

i think that people all across the spectrum of conventional intelligence have strengths and weaknesses in various spheres. mentally retarded people are frequently very empathetic and eager to get along with others, possibly in part as compensation for relative weaknesses in other areas.

while i would never describe someone with whom i disagree as "retarded," i have often called them idiots, without even thinking of the implications of that language. for me, the frustration is not with their intellect, but in many cases with what someone else described as willful ignorance, or what seems like a blind loyalty to the party line.

my frustration increases when the person is also uncivil and/or arrogant, and seeks to "win" an argument by means other than reason: for example, by belitting the other point of view, marginalizing the other person, invoking straw man arguments, or drawing on fear. this has unfortunately been the method of choice for the current administration.

i suspect that many bush voters were responding to all the "war on terror" fright-mongering. others probably had specific interests that led them to vote for bush [protecting wealth, immigration, abortion, etc.]. although bush took his victory as a mandate, it seems unlikely that most bush voters signed onto his entire package. his approval ratings now suggest that many of those bush voters are probably not thrilled with the administration's performance in the past 18 months.

Posted by: kathy a at October 15, 2005 07:37 AM
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I have no particular favorite alternative model to describe what intelligence is. No one else really has a workable definition either

The longer I teach, the more I think that Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences makes sense. Of course, that model gets misused and misrepresented as well.

Posted by: the_bone at October 15, 2005 08:46 AM
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Excellent post, Chris (yes, a little long, but we'll forgive you). What I liked most about it was where you were going with it -- which I don't think was the stupidity of electing Bush as much as it was our fear of mental disability.

You're lucky you had a good school to go to. My "problem" - although I am sure I am not as gifted as you - really came down to what Jarrett identified: my curiosity. It is vastly more work to teach a bright, curious child than a passive one, and my school, in rural upstate New York, had no provision for kids like me. So I sat there for days with my hand up, and teachers refused to call on me. I could already read in first grade, and my teacher punished me for being bored, and then set me to work teaching other kids. I was told I couldn't take advanced books out of the library. There was just no path for me, so I found refuge in the arts and in reading. I still wonder how my life would have been different if I had been born in another place, more equipped to deal with kids like me on an individual basis. But what my upbringing did give me was compassion. being in school with kids who had every strike against them - genetic, economic, social - taught me the opposite, that none of us are superior. Yes, lack of ability to think has made a large proportion of our citizens unable to make intelligent choices. but there are other factors at work besides sheer stupidity. Until we return to our educational system and admit that it is set up, for the most part, to cater to the lowest-common-denominator, to reward passivity, rote learning and ability to follow prescribed paths rather than to turn out individuals with critical-thinking skills, we will be guilty of creating that which we most fear.

Posted by: beth at October 15, 2005 09:51 AM
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Re the question of how can intelligent people who aren't rich and powerful vote for Bush, something occurs to me: The more intelligent you are, the greater your capacity for rationalization.

Intelligent people are generally good at constructing arguments, regardless of the side they choose. If they have a built-in bias at the start (which is only human), they are capable of constructing very elaborate arguments and positions to support it.

Thinking about debates I've had with such people, that rings true. Sometimes they end in stalemates based on values (e.g. I may simply value privacy and liberty more than they do, which leads to different conclusions), but more often these discussions always get sidetracked into minutae after some labyrithian journey. Eventually, the opponent can be forced to make a concession on certain details, but it doesn't matter because there's always another out.

Think about how many rationales there are for the Iraq war. Start a debate with a determined, intelligent opponent, and it's nearly impossible to address them all in the course of a discussion at a party or dinner.

This is a long way of saying that an intelligent person's worldview can become so elaborate and entrenched that it's impossible to divest them of it, especially when they are determined not to change their mind.

Posted by: Mike Anderson at October 15, 2005 10:18 AM
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dots, disconnected …

Chris, you're word smart, a very practical kind of smart for the hypertext - connected world of the internets. Decoding and processing "Syracuse" from written to spoken word at age three marks a facility that shows up wherever I see *Chris Clarke* – clear language. That clear thought rises from clear words / language is no coincidence but here's a diagnostic question: did the three year old Chris have the empathy present in blogging / web-cruising Chris?

My own responses to { whatever word we can use for the "mentally" "challenged" -- RainPeople(?) } are dominated by frustration. "They" don't seem to be able to process my words, so how can "I" communicate? I hope I am learning that words are not the only available comm circuit, that there is a spectrum of experience. ( see post from kathy a, above )

2004 Bush/Cheney used words solely as props. There was no logical connection between word and meaning. Worse, there was intentional disconnection. The picture of the happy woman wearing the purple heart bandage at the Republican Convention was wrong to me beyond belief. I was effectively and efficiently deselected by that image, an image that only "works" as long as it is *not* translated to words. ( The moral / ethical argument for the purple heart bandage is another fish in another barrel. ) How would three year old Chris have responded? What if his future had depended on him smiling when he saw it?

The concept of g, a quantifiable measure of human intelligence, probably belongs in its own barrel. Consider the difficulties encountered by the BCS when challenged to objectively rank college football teams. ( The underlying BCS ranking formula has been modified, sometimes drastically, nearly every year, to consistent, immediate failure. ) Then estimate how many orders of magnitude separate the complexity of college football from the complexity of human intelligence.

Posted by: black dog barking at October 15, 2005 11:46 AM
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Good stuff. Only one quibble:

People raised in PC culture (myself included) will preferentially use outmoded, abandoned terminology (morons, imbeciles, idiots) rather than calling their debate opponents "retards," but the effect - and, I would maintain, the intent - is the same.

Despite its etymology, I'm not sure "idiot" quite belongs on that list --- to my ear, the connections between the historical and the colloquial uses of "moron" and "imbecile" are much stronger.

To call someone's intellect into question is not the same thing as suggesting that he or she has a cognitive disability. Not quite. To call someone a dope or a blockhead --- or stupid, even --- is not the same thing as calling that person a mouth-breather or a retard. I'd put "moron" and "imbecile" on the latter list, but "idiot," gingerly, on the former.

Posted by: Angus at October 15, 2005 04:04 PM
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Chris, I've told you my own amusing IQ Number story, and maybe I'll blog about it myself soon. (Tonight I'm going to a one-household Oktoberfest.) And I confess to being a part-time mouthbreather, but that's allergies.

A couple of commenters here have alluded to this: I experience Whateveritis as appetite. I feel it somewhat the way Shep the ball python seems to. When he's hungry, he homes in on that rat and ZAP, he has it. When he's not, he seems to overlook it or to be completely bewildered by that mysterious warm fuzzy odd-smelling thing bustling around in his snakepit. And sometimes he's even scared of it, a regular Custard the Dragon.

There's something like stupidity that scares the shit out of me, but I suspect it's not so much an intellectual deficit as a refusal to let information in. You could argue, in fact, that it takes some smarts to twist things around consistently so as to keep one's preconceptions intact. But an imperviousness to facts or words is a scary thing, and I wonder if that has something to do with that insult's being so common.

Posted by: Ron at October 15, 2005 05:50 PM
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Lots of good thoughts here which I need to get to. Including in black dog barking's comment, so please don't take it personally that the first thing I do is jump on this:

whatever word we can use for the "mentally" "challenged" -- RainPeople(?)

The autism spectrum - which I'm assuming is what you're referring to - is on a whole different spectrum, more an emotional than intellectual disorder. Of course the boundaries are fuzzy.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 16, 2005 12:19 AM
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On nomenclature, and black dog's question:

The most common argument against labeling with words like "disabled" or "challenged" is that it conflates the identity of the person so labeled with his or her condition. Hence "person with AIDS" rather than "AIDS sufferer" (or "patient," or --- shudder --- "victim.")

I buy that argument, to a point, but my own primary complaint with those labels in the realm of disability is that I'm uncomfortable with each of the specific terms available. "Delayed" and "retarded" both suggest a simple lag in ability that doesn't reflect the experience of the people so lableled. "Disabled" implies "unable," and has a weird connotation of intentionality that clangs on my ear. (Disabled by whom?) "Handicapped" has similar problems to "disabled." And "challenged" is blatant euphemism.

Given all that, I tend to refer, as I did in my previous comment, to "people with disabilities." Specifically, the folks Chris is discussing have cognitive disabilities, mostly develompental in nature.

Posted by: Angus at October 16, 2005 05:00 AM
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You're way classier than me. At two, I was able to read a Busch beer billboard. And TV Guide. And it was all downhill from there ...

Posted by: Pepper at October 16, 2005 08:50 PM
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Well, color me chastised (I believe my most recently lobbed germane epithet was "bizarrely moronic").

I'll just stick to mash-ups and pithy pop-music reviews for now...

Posted by: teh l4m3 at October 16, 2005 11:01 PM
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I pointed at it and said "Syracuse."

I had a similar sign-reading incident when I was two. I was never actually "taught" to read; I just sort of figured it out. I learned far more about context, syntax, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage through reading than I did in Georgia public schools. I had that "cheating" feeling as well.

Posted by: Anne at October 17, 2005 08:55 AM
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One problem is that there isn't a single word in English that describes someone who is being _deliberately_ stupid -- someone capable of learning, but who refuses to do so.

Though I've called W a retard, and idiot, and a moron, he's clearly NOT mentally retarded. He is something worse by far, he is someone who _could_ learn, but refuses to. Making his failure more abject, he makes a virtue of his refusal to learn by calling it "going with my gut" or "resolve."

W's already made up his mind, no need to muddy the issue with evidence -- except the evidence that supports his gut. This is the same problem I have with creationists, and it's a failure I commonly find with far-rightists. No reason to be smug about that, either -- a refusal to learn can be found among those on the left too.

One element of your essay had to do with fear of people who are clinically retarded. I agree. People are afraid of things for lots of different reasons -- some people fear what they don't know, some fear what they don't understand, some fear those who embody something they fear -- madness? Alzheimers? A loss of control? Lack of status?

When I was a kid, anyone with a learning disability was shuffled off to another school. We never saw them. And they ended up being subjects of derision. My daughter is in an elementary school where learning-disabled kids are being "mainstreamed." I don't know if that's good or bad -- it seems to be a bit of both. But here's part of the good: Her school pairs older kids with younger kids in mentor relationships. One of the kids my daughter mentored has Down Syndrome. For my daughter, this girl is just another friend; I don't detect in my daughter the derisive attitude I had for the learning disabled when I was a kid. Maybe that says more about my daughter (and me), but I think it means society might yet be able to deal with the fear of mental disability.

I once met a woman who told me "I hate stupid people." She actually meant it, or at least argued she did. Her argument brought me to the realization that you can be smart (she was smart) and also be repulsive. Brains don't make you any more or less moral, more or less empathetic, and the ability to earn a doctorate isn't and indicator for success in scores of other endeavors. I was way more successful than my brother in school; he's got more common sense than I'll ever hope to have.

I walked away from that woman who hated stupid people feeling that she was dumber than the supposed dullards she despises. If I had to name a manager of a corporate division, I'd pick someone like my brother over someone like this woman every single time.

I suppose there's potential here for a segue into a jeremiad about Ivy League MBAs (ooh! which gets us back to W!), but enough. Hey, Chris -- sorry if that's long and disjointed. You've my permission to edit if you feel some of that is less pertinent than it ought to be.

Posted by: Brian Santo at October 17, 2005 01:00 PM
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Am I the only one who was tempted to joke: "Really? You don't seem that smart."? Yes? Okay, never mind, then.

Posted by: Orange at October 18, 2005 10:33 AM
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Quoth Brian Santo:

One problem is that there isn't a single word in English that describes someone who is being _deliberately_ stupid -- someone capable of learning, but who refuses to do so.

What about "coward"? Aren't such people just too scared to think in case they find out the world isn't the way they want it to be?

Posted by: Jeremy Henty at October 24, 2005 10:25 AM
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