Anyone who knows me very well knows that my easiest button to push is to insult my intelligence. I hate to be called "stupid" or "idiot" or any of the other terms like that. After a long time in therapy I've come to realize what it stems from (My mom and dad were fond of phrases that started with "Now don't be stupid and...") but just knowing what causes it doesn't piss me off any less...
So it was with great delight that I found A Stupid Proposal by Michael Berube. It's an interesting post on the difference between calling someone's intelligence into question vs judging them on the performance of their intelligence.
Do you know any idiots? How about morons, or imbeciles? Retards, perhaps? People riding the short bus?
The first three items were once part of standard terminology in intelligence measurement: "moron" is the most recent of them, having been proposed in the early twentieth century by Henry Goddard. Before the twentieth century, "idiot" and "imbecile" were general insults, as they are today, though they too were once pressed into service as classifications. For those of you who don't remember those days, "morons" had what we now call "mild" mental retardation, or IQs between 50 and 70; "imbeciles" had what we now call "moderate" mental retardation, or IQs between 26 and 50; and everyone below that threshold, whom we now call people with "severe and profound" mental retardation, were idiots.
A century ago, "Mongoloid idiot," for example, was not (as so many people think) a slur. It was a descriptive term, a diagnosis.
Over the past five years, the number of morons and idiots seems to have increased dramatically. Either that or the use of the terms has increased; as you know, it's sometimes hard for us literature professors to figure out where language ends and nonlinguistic phenomena begin. But to gauge by the state of our political discourse, things are looking pretty grim. On one side you have people compiling lists of the left's "useful idiots"; on the other side you have people calling Bush a "moron" and drawing cartoons that liken the U.S. to a classroom led by a "special ed" student.