The Sociology of Calling Other People Stupid
Accusations of people acting stupidly or being stupid have been common in the news lately. Donald Trump has been called “too stupid” for U. S. voters and his supporters are often accused of stupidity for believing things that are “demonstrably wrong or idiotic.” Hillary Clinton has been called the “stupidest person” for setting up a private e-mail address and using it for work. And Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that if protesters like Colin Kaepernick “want to be stupid” then that’s their decision (she later expressed regret for this comment).
These are just some of the high profile examples of people using the term “stupidity” to evaluate the decisions and actions of others. In the course of our everyday lives, most of us probably hear the words stupid and stupidity multiple times a day. We invoke these terms not only to define people and their actions, but also to describe situations that we find frustrating or annoying: that stupid ATM machine ate my card; this stupid cell-phone battery doesn’t even last a whole day; or our school has the stupidest dress-code policy.
The simple definition of stupid is to be unintelligent and to have or show a lack of ability to learn and understand things. To be stupid is to not be sensible or logical. Building on this definition, stupidity is defined as acting in an unintelligent manner or making decisions that lack reason or are uninformed.
As these definitions suggest, being stupid or demonstrating stupidity are most often used in response to the actions or decisions of individuals. When we refer to objects, institutions, laws, and customs as stupid, this process is known as reification—attributing human qualities to non-human things. Although we might be able use sociological theories such as McDonaldization to explain the stupidity of an ATM machine eating your debit card, for the purposes of this post I am interested in analyzing the strategies of social interaction that may be at play when we describe others as stupid.
Calling people stupid or pointing out their stupidity are generally recognized as acts of condescending judgment. We disapprove of what others did, why they did it, or even how they did it, and so we call them or their actions stupid as a way to reflect our disbelief or disgust. In this sense, the act of naming the behavior of others as stupid is a simple way to vent frustration and express displeasure.
But calling someone stupid is not just a mechanism for psychic or psychological relief. Although we may feel better or even superior when we lash out like this, it may not be the only reason we do it. There may also be underlying sociological components at work here. A possible explanation is that calling someone stupid is an attempt to reinforce the boundaries of group norms and solidify our social (or collective) identities.
If you think about it, one of the underlying sentiments we are suggesting when we call someone stupid is: “Why can’t you just act like the rest of us?” We are shocked that others could act so unintelligently because these actions fall outside the expectations of normative behavior. It is hard for us to understand how someone could act this way when everyone else, or at least most of us “normal” folks, does not engage in these sorts of uninformed thoughtless actions.
In addition to identifying norm-breaking behavior, categorizing others as stupid might also be an attempt to secure our social or collective identities. Calling someone stupid is no doubt often understood as a patronizing insult; however, it can also be a not-so-subtle plea to bring someone back into the fold of the social group. The underlying sentiment, “why can’t you just act like the rest of us,” also may contain within it an expression of concern. If someone with whom we align ourselves is acting stupidly, then our collective identity is potentially soiled and threatened by their actions.
We can see these sociological themes playing out today in the political arena. Consider the example of Donald Trump’s supporters being called stupid. We often hear this sentiment expressed when Trump’s supporters defend the presidential candidate by making uninformed comments about Blacks, Muslims, Jews, women, or about widespread voter fraud, international conspiracy theories, and immigration.
Calling Trump’s supporters stupid for making these comments may be an act of exasperation because many people find it hard to believe that someone can think these things.
However, it is also an act of desperation because there is a desire for people in this country to not believe that others could hold these views. If you feel proud to be an American, and if being an American means that you embrace things like democracy, equality, justice, freedom of religion, tolerance, and understanding, then someone who speaks against or denies these things is breaking the norms of what it means to be an American. Moreover, as fellow citizens of this country, these people are an implicit threat to your collective identity as an American.
In effect, calling Trump’s supporters stupid is a disdainful yet shorthanded way of saying: “Don’t you know what this country stands for? Don’t you understand what it means to be an American? Why are you giving the rest of us a bad name through your thoughts and actions? Please come to your senses and join us in supporting our shared American values and norms.”
If you think the example of Trump’s supporters is unconvincing, or just plain stupid, then consider the significant relationships in your life. You probably had times when you were called, or you called someone close to you, stupid. It may have been a parent, a sibling, a significant other, or a close friend. In these instances, it is likely that the word stupid was used as way to express dismay with the actions that were taken, to correct these actions and ensure that they would not happen again, and to point out that this is unacceptable behavior for the group of which you are a part. And as further proof that calling someone close to you stupid is an attempt to reinforce norms and a solidify a collective identity, let’s not forget that the phrase “stop being so stupid” is often followed-up by “because you are embarrassing us.”
Presumably, all of us have called others stupid and have ourselves been called stupid many times over the course of our lives. Knowing that there may be sociological reasons for saying this may not make us less likely to use this phrase; however, it could help us understand that there is more to this utterance than serving as a condescending put down.
The sociological theories I offer here are just two attempts to understand the social foundations of calling someone stupid. There are certainly alternative explanations and some of these may even contradict my ideas. For example, an argument could be made that solidifying collective identities is indeed part of the equation but that we do this to reinforce the discourse of difference and not to bring others back into the flock.
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, we have countless opportunities to analyze the sociology of calling others stupid. So the next time you are on the sending or receiving end of the label stupid think about why this word is being used, consider what deeper social functions it might serve, and try to come up with an informed, intelligent and sensible (i.e., not-stupid) explanation.