Readers of this blog know that semantics are (is?) Something of an avocation of mine. And, after reading some of the political comments to the Huffington post about a college course in stupidity listed below, this got me to rethinking something regarding stupidity science.
The word “stupid” has become the new profanity. Allow me to examine this:
There are four basic categories of obscene/profane words. The first of these, which used to be a very serious issue, is the ecclesiastical variety. These include taking the name of the Lord in vain in any number of ways. Damn and hell fall into this category as well. It wasn’t that long ago that very special permission had to be granted “frankly Scarlett, I don’t give a damn.”
The next two levels have to do with either reproduction or elimination. All of George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” fall into these 2 categories.
And a fourth has to do with mental capacity, i.e., stupidity.
What all of these obscene words have in common is that they make reference to unavoidable parts of ourselves that can easily result in being deemed socially inferior or undesirable. For a long time, you had to be a member of the church in order to be socially accepted in your local area. In many parts of the world, this is still the case. In terms of elimination, well, we all have a deep-rooted fear of having a bad smell, or, God for bid, having an “accident” in public. And we all have doubts about our sexuality from time to time.
The power of the church has receded somewhat, and so being excluded from the church is not such a fear as it once was. As a result, that category of profanity is no longer really thought of as being all that awful, as those words no longer call up our darkest fears. However, while the ecclesiastic words have become fine for public use, the terms that we use to speak disparagingly about sexual organs or fecal matter still kick the sleeping dog of deep fears, and as such are generally considered to be unacceptable for polite conversation. They are typically bleeped out of many movie soundtracks when they are rebroadcast on television.
However, there is something new . . . as a culture, we have become terribly afraid and insecure about whether or not we are mentally acceptable to our peers. And so we have this a new class of acceptable profanity. It includes such unpleasant words as stupid, idiot, moron, jackass, and some others which I actually feel the need to refrain from repeating here.
The purpose of profanity is to call upon the “power” of our deepest darkest fears and somehow direct that against people who frighten us. My book about stupidity is all about addressing these dark fears so that you can better manage them when you encounter them, among other things… anyway . . .
So as you listen to the current public/political discourse and debates, whenever you hear someone invoke the word “stupid,,” this has all the intellectual basis of calling an opponent a d**khead, an a*****e, a m**********r, a c**t, and so on and so forth. By trying to associate these people with something that we all have a deep anxieties about, we are not making a comment of any intellectual value. It is merely an attempt to disempower them (or empower ourselves) by associating these dark feelings with people that we dislike or disagree with. When we call someone stupid, or like today when we talk about the “million moron march,” while I laugh at it myself, it is just a bit of disdainful ridicule, it is not a cogent argument. When we say such things, we are uttering the profanity of our age.
What is lacking here is some moral guidepost to step up and say “these words are not acceptable in polite public conversation.” Many years ago, somebody somewhere stepped up and made it socially unacceptable to use these other words, as what they expressed was deemed improper and even counterproductive for polite society. It’s time that we start doing the same for our own unique new brand of profanity. We can and we ought to do better.