Monday, September 1, 2014

Is it ever okay to call someone stupid?

The Denver Post recently published two articles from Bloomberg News in a Point-Counterpoint column posing the question: is it ever okay to call someone stupid? The articles were written in response to an op-ed in Forbes in which a Boston University economist, Laurence Koticoff, chastised economist Paul Krugman, for saying that Paul Ryan is stupid. Paul Krugman actually did not say that Paul Ryan is stupid. However, in quoting Ezra Klein, he did suggest that Ryan is a stupid person's idea of what a thoughtful person sounds like. Whether Krugman insulted Ryan or his supporters, the Post's question is worth considering.

Is it ever okay to call someone stupid?

In I'm With Stupid, and Paul Krugman, Noah Smith says it is okay to call someone stupid, primarily it seems, because he does not mind being called stupid himself. He argues that stupid is a relative term; compared to Krugman, "almost anyone is stupid." If you are more stupid than the guy you're arguing with, you can learn from him. Noah also accepts being called stupid because either you are stupid or you're not. The person who calls you stupid isn't giving you any new information about yourself.  

Megan McArdle made the counterpoint response in Only Stupid People Call People Stupid. She agrees that you're either stupid or you're not but says that calling someone stupid sends the wrong kind of message. By calling someone stupid, you say to the people on your side of the argument that we are not going to listen to opposing arguments. Your message is "we can rest steady in the assurance of our cognitive superiority."

As Megan notes, in addition to name calling, people often say something like "I don't understand how anyone could think this way" about a particular issue. This inability to understand another's viewpoint may tell you a few things about the person who doesn't understand. One, they may lack the knowledge to figure it out. Two, they may consider themselves so morally or intellectually superior that they can't relate to the opposing side. Three, they may "lack the empathy, moral imagination or analytical skills" to even try to understand the other point of view. 

I think that Noah Smith's acceptance of name calling says more about him than about the rightness of the name caller or about the quality of the argument. It tells me that he is open to learning, that he is confident enough in himself to let insults go, and he has enough humility to recognize his own fallibility. But just because someone is smarter than you does not mean that they are right. I also think there is more behind name-calling than a lack of understanding or a feeling of moral or intellectual superiority. Sometimes it stems from frustration at the rigidity of the other person. It is difficult to get through to people who are not interested in listening to a different point of view.

So is it okay to ever call someone stupid? I agree with Megan that name-calling sends the wrong kind of message. The Golden Rule is as applicable today as it ever was. I personally refuse to engage with someone who is rude and insulting. Even if you are smarter than the person you are arguing with, we all deserve to be treated with respect; we are all entitled to our own opinions. Calling someone stupid may render them speechless, but it doesn't make them stupid and it doesn't make you as the name caller right. Name-calling is not a persuasive technique.
The Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12, New Living Translation)
Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.

Why are we so uncivil to each other?

Perhaps we have become so uncivil because our culture has given us permission to be selfish and rude. Reality TV glorifies bad behavior. Biased programs on Fox News, MSNBC and other media outlets do exactly as Megan described. They "preach to the choir," speaking to an audience of like-minded people. Their message is that the other side is not worth listening to because they are not as smart or as moral as we are. Politicians in Washington D.C. routinely use the same kind of divisive speech. Social media makes it easy to share statements promoting an "us versus them" mentality. And I think that social media also makes it easy to say insulting things to someone online that you would not say to your opponent face-to-face.

Taming the Tongue

Jesus' brother James wrote that the tongue is wicked and full of poison. It can do a great deal of damage considering its small size. James said "no one can tame the tongue," acknowledging how difficult it is to control our words. Yet, it is not right for both blessing and cursing to come out of the same mouth! Name-calling shows a lack of humility and a lack of self-control. For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way.  It is both considerate and wise to exercise self-control and refrain from name-calling.

Finally, Jesus spoke harshly about the consequences of calling someone an idiot. In the same way that we judge others, we will be judged ourselves.
Matthew 5:22, New Living Translation
But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.


  1. Calling someone stupid shows a poor grasp of the English language, when there are so many more acceptable synonyms out there: idiot, moron, dumb, half-wit, or bonehead to say just a few.

    Seriously? There are times when the word just pops out. I most commonly use it against myself when I've made a mistake. But when you're writing and you have the opportunity to refine what you're saying, it's best to criticize the idea, not the person. Calling someone stupid shows that you're too lazy or clever to come up with a proper argument. Or, yes, that you're frustrated that the one you're arguing with seems incapable of understanding or considering your argument.

    As to whether Paul Ryan is a stupid person's idea of what a thoughtful person sounds like. It would be a stretch to call that an attack on Paul Ryan's intelligence. It's more a comment on how shallow we Americans are when it comes to a discussion of ideas. It often doesn't take much to impress those who spend no time considering the issues. That does seem to be a fair comment.

  2. It is really easy to call other people stupid but in reading what other people say online, we Americans have become very rude and arrogant.

    I'm not sure why the other economist felt like he needed to defend Paul Ryan. Even if Krugman had called him stupid, he should be able to defend his budget proposals honestly.