A Defense of “Moron” as an Insult
[TL;DR version at the end of the article]
Chris Clarke posting at Pharyngula has written a condemnation of the use of the insult, ‘moron,’ in response to a challenge from a reader.
But he’s right about my not having offered my opinion on the use of the word “moron”.
And here it is: I don’t like it.
He then links back to his previous post, “Retarding the Discourse,” posted at Coyote Crossing, and says the reasoning is the same. The argument, briefly summed, is that intelligence is not a moral success or failing. Intelligence – defined initially as “whatever is measured by IQ tests” – does not entail any other attributes, such as “compassion, judgment, common sense, intellectual flexibility, wisdom.”
Later, the definition is broadened, conceding that IQ tests do measure something that Clarke himself described as possessing, a quality of “smart” that the tests were measuring successfully, something that united all of the students at the school for brilliant kids that Clarke attended because he was brilliant:
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.
I don’t disagree with the larger argument – that being intelligent is not guarantee of moral superiority nor is it something that makes one more or less deserving of humane treatment. Retarding the Discourse argues that the word “retard” equates mental disability with stupidity. That is wrong, he says, because he knows many mentally disabled people who were also 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.
Again, no argument here. Mental disability does not equal unintelligence. But not all people with mental disabilities are suffering from mental retardation. “Retard” was not adopted by the psychological community because it’s an inherently demeaning word. It is a contemporary medical term that is undergoing pejoration right now. The basic image of a “retard” for most people using the term is likely a child with stereotypical Trisomy-21 or similar facial features (features that have absolutely nothing to do with intelligence). The same cannot be said of words like ‘moron,’ ‘idiot,’ or ‘imbecile,’ which underwent pejoration so distantly that the bulk of contemporary speakers are unaware of its “original” medical definition. I put original in quotes because “moron” appears to be the only word Stanford-Binet coined (and only then because it was the ancient Greek translation for “fool” and literally means “dullard,” a word Clarke uses without reservation). Imbecile acquired its meaning of “feeble-minded” about a century earlier, whereas idiot has meant uneducated or mentally deficient in some form or another for almost a thousand years.
“Retarded” has a longer history meaning “mentally slo,” but the word “retard” as a noun came into usage in 1970. This is a good explanation for the difference in basic image, and why the following assertion, when expanded to include “moron” and ‘idiot,” is very unfair:
Liberals, it turns out, are rather likely to insult their political opponents by alleging that they’re cognitively disabled.
At some point, words that undergo pejoration lose their original meaning. When words lose their original meaning, it’s reasonable to say they don’t mean that anymore. Some day, this may happen with the word gay for instance; it already lost it’s original meaning once within living memory.
It’s unfair, but more importantly, a fool’s errand to try to hold people responsible for the prejudices of their ancestors’ prejudices. Any word used to euphemize something that is widely viewed as undesireable will undergo pejoration; recently, some have started referring to this process as the euphemism treadmill. In saying this, I am not condoning the negative connotations that attach to any euphemism for profound cognitive delay/challenges/retardation/whatever, or saying we should stop trying as a culture to change how people with mental disabilities including mental retardation are viewed.
I’m saying that the moron/idiot/imbecile ship has sailed.
The Pharyngula article included alternatives to moron, such as the word ‘buffoon.’ The word “buffoon” originally meant something like “clown.” He is probably not calling anyone a buffoon because of a personal hatred for mimes. It would be unfair to say, “Chris Clarke is rather likely to insult his political opponents by calling them mimes.” There’s no need to stand up for the dignity of clowns. The word has undergone pejoration and now means something new. “Retarding the Discourse” suggests “dullard,” but I don’t see how that’s better than “moron” since that’s literally the direct English translation of “moron” (oxy-moron = literally, sharp-dull).
“Jackanapes” was a new one for me, but it appears it already has a meaning, and I’m not sure there’s enough overlap between “rude” and “stupid” for it to make a good substitute for “moron.”
One last example: the word “nice” originally meant something very close to moron, but has since undergone the opposite process – amelioration – and lost its denotation of stupidity. Should we abandon that word as well, given its history?
Here’s the TL;DR distillation.
Is it the word “moron” that’s the problem? (I.e., is it a slur for a specific group of people, like “retard,” which implicates a group unrelated to the person you’re insulting?)
Is it the word “moron’s” meaning that’s the problem? (I.e., is attacking a person’s intelligence inherently unacceptable and ableist? I am sympathetic to this, but “Retarding the Discourse” went out of its way to separate “unintelligent” and “mentally disabled”).
Is it “moron’s” history that’s the problem? (I.e., if “moron” had never been adopted as a medical term, would it be acceptable?)