The Last Acceptable Microaggression

Ready to rethink some ideas you took for granted? Read David H. Freedman’s “The War on Stupid People.”

Those who consider themselves bright openly mock others for being less so. Even in this age of rampant concern over microaggressions and victimization, we maintain open season on the nonsmart. People who’d swerve off a cliff rather than use a pejorative for race, religion, physical appearance, or disability are all too happy to drop the s‑bomb: Indeed, degrading others for being “stupid” has become nearly automatic in all forms of disagreement.

Many people who have benefited from the current system like to tell themselves that they’re working hard to help the unintelligent become intelligent. This is a marvelous goal, and decades of research have shown that it’s achievable through two approaches: dramatically reducing poverty, and getting young children who are at risk of poor academic performance into intensive early-education programs. The strength of the link between poverty and struggling in school is as close to ironclad as social science gets. Still, there’s little point in discussing alleviating poverty as a solution, because our government and society are not seriously considering any initiatives capable of making a significant dent in the numbers or conditions of the poor.

I’ll admit it: “stupid” is my go-to insult when I’ve given up on an argument (or when I’m in the midst of one). At the same time, I regularly find myself in conversations and situations that shine bright lights on the depths of my ignorance. So why is it so easy to resort to insulting others’ intelligence?

Part of it is undoubtedly the wide variety of options available when calling someone stupid. Just look at how creative people got in flinging intelligence-themed insults at Donald Trump*.

But the roots of the jibe obviously go much deeper. As Freedman points out, achievement gaps are intrinsically linked to institutionalized practices that disproportionately affect the already disadvantaged. So the cycle continues. Are we so comfortable diminishing the intelligence of others because we’ve already hardened ourselves to slighting people without access to the very things that reduce achievement gaps?

Finally, another component of our anti-stupid culture is that nobody believes they are stupid. The now famous 1999 Justin Kruger and David Dunning study found that:

…accurately assessing skill level relies on some of the same core abilities as actually performing that skill, so the least competent suffer a double deficit. Not only are they incompetent, but they lack the mental tools to judge their own incompetence.

In other words, unintelligent people don’t know that they’re unintelligent. But, more importantly, we all have blind spots where we are dramatically lacking in smarts. So it’s unlikely that intelligence and stupidity are black and white; rather, we have likely prioritized a few areas of human intelligence and then separated each other based on these arbitrary benchmarks.

This all comes back to Freedman’s point: by selecting against the people society has deemed “stupid,” we all miss out on a lot of potential. The standards of intelligence aren’t actually based in anything concrete, which, as it turns out, is pretty stupid.

*I remain in favor of satirizing a human’s intelligence when that human is seeking to wield the power of the Presidency and unleash its destructive potential in full.

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