tim: Mike Slackernerny thinking "Scientific progress never smelled better" (science)
[personal profile] tim
When asking people -- especially geeks -- to use less ableist language, "intelligent" tends to be a sticking point. It's one thing to accept that r----- and even i---- are words that stigmatize people with intellectual disabilities when used as insults, much as calling an ugly sweater "gay" stigmatizes queer people. But geek culture is centered around the valorization of intelligence. It seems even harder to stop using "intelligent" as a compliment than it is to use "stupid" as an insult (and let me be clear that I'm still working on doing both in my vocabulary).

Here are some words that you could use to describe a person, instead of "intelligent":
  • curious
  • hardworking
  • well-read
  • knowledgeable
  • thoughtful
  • open-minded
  • creative
  • attentive to detail
  • analytical
  • careful
  • collaborative
  • empathetic
  • articulate
  • good at listening
Of course, these words don't all mean the same thing, but any or all of them might be intended when you call someone "intelligent". This should be a sign that "intelligent" is a vague word. So why not use a more precise one?

One thing these words have in common is that unlike "intelligent", they don't suggest an innate quality that a person is born with that can never be added to or subtracted from. A person who is not well-read (for example, a baby) can become well-read, given enough time. A person who isn't curious at one time in their life might be more curious at another time. Ableism might seem like an issue that only affects some people. Personally, I don't think it is (when we deny one person dignity and respect, we deny it to everyone). But even if you do, you might still agree that all of us can develop our potential more easily if we think of skills as something that can be acquired through work and practice, both individually and as part of a group, as opposed to something you're born with.

Popular culture seems to like the "innate intelligence" idea, as evinced by movies such as "Good Will Hunting". In that movie, a guy who's had no social interaction with a mathematical community bursts into a university and dazzles everyone with his innate brilliance at math, which he presumably was born with (for the most part) and put the finishing touches on by studying alone. The media seem to be full of stories about a bright young person being discovered, a passive process that -- for the bright young person -- seems to involve nothing except sitting there glowing.

I don't mean to say that there is no innate component to intelligence. Since the study of human intelligence has so often been used to prop up existing social power structures by claiming a connection between level of power and intelligence level, it's hard to say how much of intelligence is innate. In a way, it doesn't matter, since the only thing you have control over as a person is how much effort you put in to gain knowledge, practice your listening skills, train yourself to pay attention to detail, nurture your curiosity, and so on.

I've actually seen it suggested that if we stopped associating "intelligence" with virtue and stopped using "stupid" as an insult, then people with talent would have no incentive to develop that talent. Apparently, nobody would self-actualize if the reward for being really great at playing piano, doing biochemistry, or developing philosophical arguments wasn't feeling like you were better than other people? This is an untestable hypothesis, but anyway, I don't believe it. We're talking about whether or not to use the language of "intelligence" and "stupidity" as tools to induce shame and guilt. I don't believe that anyone has ever been shamed and guilted into being a brilliant achiever. I do think that plenty of people have been shamed and guilted into not trying to improve their skills. I see an analogy here with weight-shaming: just as you can't hate yourself healthy, you can't shame yourself smart.

If you still think that dispensing with "intelligent" as a compliment would make it harder to communicate, I can't argue with you beyond what I've already said. But I think it would make it easier.

ETA: This reply from James Sheldon is interesting.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-18 06:40 am (UTC)
dharma_slut: Not exatly a gentleman (Not a gentleman)
From: [personal profile] dharma_slut
I agree, ish, although I hadn't compiled a list like yours for which I tahnk you.

I've tried to substitute "Willfully ignorant" instead of "stupid" But I've grown up with the word, and by the time I'm throwing it around... It's like saying "Oh sugar" when you really want to reference that other thing. Just doesn't give much relief.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-18 08:47 am (UTC)
kaberett: Overlaid Mars & Venus symbols, with Swiss Army knife tools at other positions around the central circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kaberett
Thanks - thought-provoking.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-18 12:07 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawlB_AVFa4eCydZHy0Fye5-7px0s4uYNBFY
Do you have any more resources related to this post? It is the first argument I've read that has begun to convince me to avoid using "intelligent" and "stupid", and I would like to read more on the matter.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-18 01:48 pm (UTC)
gramina: Photo of a stalk of grass; Gramina references the graminae, the grasses (Default)
From: [personal profile] gramina
I've been thinking about what I *mean* when I use the word "intelligent" for a while now, and while it's not any of those things, really, I think it's much more useful to say the thing I mean explicitly, because so many people have differing ideas as to what "intelligence" is.

(I'm thinking at the moment it may be the ability to perceive and extend/elaborate relationships.)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-18 04:07 pm (UTC)
yatima: (Default)
From: [personal profile] yatima
Oh my God THANK YOU for saying this. It's something I've been dealing with over and over again. A friend tweeted recently that progressives merely substitute the lottery of talent for the lottery of birth and I've been thinking a lot about that - about how criticism of progressives as elitist are valid, because people who claw their way up the social ladder do so clearly enjoy kicking that ladder away from the people beneath them. Lovely.

I just keep coming back to Eugene Debs: while there is a lower class, I am in it.
Edited Date: 2012-09-18 04:07 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-18 04:33 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] ascendingpig
Thanks, this was very thought-provoking. I don't think I completely agree with you, though. This is because, as a student with a learning disability, I view "intelligent" as exactly as inherent and situation-dependent, and exactly as important, as "hard-working". They are similar in every respect, to my mind.

Both are traits that are somewhat inherent, but can be cultivated to a degree. Both are traits used to insult people with particular learning disabilities. Both can only really be evaluated on behavior, and you don't really know how much output is coming from each trait. Both can be highly situational or domain-specific.

I'm not comfortable with a list that suggests replacing one word with another making a different, no more inherently valid, value judgement. This is based on my experience with a learning disability. I was constantly called "intelligent" as a student, but nobody in my entire life has called me "hardworking". Even if I work as hard as I can with my unmedicated attention span, most of my accomplishment comes from the fact that most tasks are not insurmountably difficult to me, even without the hard work and focus someone without such a disability may be capable of. As a result of my experience, while I do value "hardworking" people far more than "intelligent" people, I would not be worthy of praise if only focus and motivation had value.

Part of my interest in this post is that it's provoked me to think about language that focuses only on observable behavior. Perhaps I would be happier if the list contained exclusively terms that can be applied based entirely on behavior, but "curious" is not "inquisitive" and "thoughtful" is not a statement purely about behavior. I think what you've done is replace words lauding one trait ("cleverness") with words lauding another one ("diligence"). It seems that you believe that praise should be based on motivation and focus, which I do not see as superior to or less ableist than a view in which praise is based on whatever trait may contribute value.
Edited Date: 2012-09-18 07:12 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-18 05:35 pm (UTC)
askye: (Default)
From: [personal profile] askye
I think I need some more clarification about what you are saying and I hope you can help me.

I see the list of words that you say could be used in place of or in exchange of intelligent and I don't see them as interchangeable with intelligence. Knowledgeable maybe, but I don't know of a situation where I would call someone intelligent when I meant they were creative.

Also I don't think that intelligent is a vague word or even that subjective.


Are there situations where you think it wouldn't be ableist to call someone intelligent?

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-20 10:32 pm (UTC)
askye: (Default)
From: [personal profile] askye
I might have been too...literal... or I'm not sure how to describe it. I was reading this and thinking about what you were saying in a specific way. I took from this that instead of describing a specific person as intelligent (in the context of the definition of intelligent "having good understanding or a high mental capacity; quick to comprehend") the person should be described by another word because calling some intelligent takes away from other people.

But in a broader context (which is what you mean)I can see what you are saying. And the next part is a little rambling but it's some things I was thinking of after reading your reply.

However, it's interesting that you put articulate on the list because it has a complicated history as a descriptor on its own. Which I'm not an expert on but this article kind of explains the complications http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/04/weekinreview/04clemetson.html?_r=0

I've also heard creative being bandied about as if it's innate and unchangeable but also special. Used similarly to the way you are describing intelligent. I've been told both that I'm very creative and in other situations (by different people who knew me in other contexts) that I'm not very creative. "Oh you just aren't very creative" the way someone might say "oh, so and so just isn't very intelligent."

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