Sep. 17th, 2012

tim: Mike Slackernerny thinking "Scientific progress never smelled better" (science)
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.

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Tim Chevalier

July 2014

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