Don’t call people idiots.

In the build up to Sunday’s England game, during it and in the feverish disappointed aftermath people behaved disgustingly.

Some pulled up trees while others chanted and sang. Some drunkenly exposed themselves and – worst of all –  some subjected our best players to atrocious racist abuse.

Those responsible for these shameful acts have been roundly and rightly condemned – in the press, on TV, on radio and on social media. It’s been heartening to see such strong pushback.

Those who behaved so badly have been called lots of words accusing them of lacking intelligence.

These are words I once used. When I heard others use them I approved if I thought the subject of the insult deserved it. 

Now I try not to use language like this.

I get fidgety and uncomfortable when others do and wince when I slip up.

Sometimes – not always because it is hard to do – I ask people not to use such words and explain why.

One thing binding all these insults together is they are reserved for people we believe to be ‘stupid.’

 We use them out of anger and frustration when we see behaviour we cannot understand or easily explain.

“That man’s just torn down a beautiful sapling – what an idiot!”

“That woman just cut me up at the lights – retard!”



And so on.

I think the line of thought goes that stupidity – lack of intelligence – learning disability – is a root cause of terrible behaviour. That people who learn slower than others are more likely to do destructive and damaging things.

This is odd

To my knowledge nobody involved in the vandalism, public indecency or shocking racism we saw last week had a learning disability. There is no evidence any of these awful acts were perpetrated by people who had any difficulties learning at all. Were we to go further we would easily find historical evidence demonstrating some of the greatest crimes ever committed on humanity were inflicted by very clever people.

While we all have the capacity to do good and to do evil there’s no causal relationship between levels of intelligence and ethical behaviour.

So why are words used to describe lack of intelligence often insults?

We do it because when we describe someone as, for example, an idiot what we really mean is they are a bad person. We use the words like cretin and retard because we have been conditioned to think of intelligence as a moral virtue. Doing this is innately comfortable – it insulates us from having to think about the potential in all humans – including ourselves – to do wicked things. As in “only stupid people are bad and I’m not stupid so I can’t be bad.”

Clever is good. Not clever is bad. Clever people do good things. People who aren’t clever do bad things.

For lots of us this is very upsetting.

Those of us who learn slowly and those of us who love people who learn slowly are forced to play an unwinnable game with demonstrably nonsensical rules.  

Much of intelligence – like physical beauty – is innate and those who have less of it cannot do anything about the genes they were born with. If we equate slower learning with being a worse person then we condemn those who learn slowly to marginalisation, vulnerability and abuse. We obscure positive characteristics and make it much harder for people with learning disability to be accepted and fully seen as they are.

It is made all the more infuriating because it so obviously apparent the logic is faulty.

A recent essay written by one of James Handscombe’s students at Harris Westminster Sixth Form and sent on to me struggled hard but well with this. The author noted terms now commonly used as insults originated as supposedly neutral scientific terms created to describe specific conditions. These words were then appropriated by wider society as insults, leading to new terms being created which were then – in turn – also used as insults too.

The words themselves aren’t the real problem.

The issue is our underlying assumption a supposed lack of narrowly defined type of intelligence is bad, which means any word used to describe someone who learns slowly will sooner or later become an insult.

The words we use will always be caught up and overtaken by the attitudes behind them.

This is a hard fight.

Negative attitudes about people who learn slowly are woven into the very fabric of society and have been for a very long time. They unite people and groups of radically divergent political and philosophical views.

People may be diametrically opposed on almost every issue but united in their belief those who oppose them must be unintelligent.

There is no haven or refuge for people with learning disability.

The Right’s veneration of individualistic achievement and self-reliance marginalises those who can’t ‘get on’ on their terms regardless of how hard they work. The Left’s aim of levelling the playing field so all can compete fairly at the same game just doesn’t work for those who won’t win regardless of the point at which they start.

We can’t properly defend a marginalised group by accusing its attackers of being another vulnerable group.

We can express disgust and horror at the worst of humanity without linking terrible behaviour to slower learning. This would be both more inclusionary and more truthful.

Such language exists – we don’t need to make up new words.

If behaviour is xenophobic or racist we should describe it as xenophobic or racist.

If someone makes a comment designed to gratuitously hurt others we should describe it as cruel. If someone encourages others to join in a co-ordinated attack on one individual we should describe it as bullying. If someone hides behind an anonymous twitter account to abuse someone we should describe it as cowardice.

Fundamentally all I’m asking is people use the words they mean.

I  – honestly – get why things are the way they are and choices we make about the words we use are not made in malevolence. When we call someone stupid we do not mean they have a learning disability. This of course means it shouldn’t be too hard to find more accurate words.

We are all creatures of our own experiences and the experiences of most of us have been the fetishization of a very specific type of intelligence and I know some will find what I’ve written here precious and finickity.

Until I became the father of a child who will always learn some things slower than others it’s not something I had ever thought about.

But now I am.

I have friends with learning disability and as I work more and more in this world saying nothing feels more and more disloyal – perhaps even a betrayal.

So I’ll say what I mean.


2 thoughts on “Don’t call people idiots.

  1. Pauline Thomas says:

    I saw this post via Mark Neary’s twitter page. I have never thought about the words we choose to describe our disgust at people who are cruel or bad. Your insight into the way we, society, are insulting people with learning difficulties is so correct. Brilliantly written and so true. Thank you.


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