Intelligence: A Construct Built on Bigotry

Featured Image: “Galaxy Brain” meme images by Jon Manning includes Brain by mahesh, Realistic Human Basemesh by Ozne000, and Stellar nursery in the arms of NGC 1672 by NASA & ESA. Bahnschrift font by Aaron Bell. Edited in Affinity Designer.


Content Warning: The post and some links within contain ableist language.

4 for Now

Writing about harmful language can feel like treading on thin ice, expecting some folks to cry, “Free speech!” I’m not trying to tell people what they can and can’t say, I just want to lay out the facts and invite you to consider how this kind of language hurts people.

The Intelligence Construct

Intelligence can be useful as a concept. However, whether we care to admit it, smart people are viewed as more valuable and better than not-smart people.

We also think of intelligence as how knowledgeable someone is, either generally or on a specific topic (depending on the situation). But it’s not about the quantity of knowledge. It’s about the ability to learn and understand.

Plus, we take what is rather subjective (depending on the situation) and apply it to all situations. The creator of the first IQ test, Alfred Binet, knew it wouldn’t accurately determine intelligence. It was never meant to. He designed it as a measure of a child’s ability to perform specific tasks at a particular moment in their life.

Intelligence and Racism

In 1923, eugenicist Carl Brigham published a book claiming US intelligence was decreasing due to immigration and racial integration.

In 1969, Arthur Jensen expanded on Brigham’s idea that white people were naturally more intelligent than Black people. The widely criticized 1994 book, The Bell Curve, furthered these racist ideas.

The SAT (a test designed by the aforementioned Brigham) was designed to keep Jewish people out of Ivy League schools. And there are decades of research that show Latine, Native, and Asian students experience bias from standardized tests as well.

People who score lower on the tests don’t receive the resources and opportunities that those who test well do. And even though the limitations and biases have been proven repeatedly, these tests continue to be the standard because they’re profitable.

Intelligence and Ableism

Henry Goddard, who translated and tweaked Binet’s test to use in his studies of learning disabilities [PDF page 151], labeled people who scored poorly “idiots,” “imbeciles,” and “morons.”

This illustrates that while intelligence itself is not an ableist concept, our language around it certainly is. As Kaninchen Zero wrote, “Stupid is a perception, usually based on the perceived ability to communicate.” It’s no coincidence we call people who have trouble communicating (or communicate differently from us) ‘stupid.’ Or ‘dumb.’

And the r-word is another slur for the people Goddard was name-calling. See my post on sanism for more on why using words like these is harmful.

Other bigotries support (and inform) the intelligence hierarchy, too. Many people still believe old or young people aren’t as smart as middle-aged adults, or that women aren’t as smart as men, for example.

Not to mention, name-calling just fires people up and distracts us from having meaningful conversations. (As anyone who follows anything on Twitter can attest to.)


4 for Later

  1. Read my suggestions under “How to Use Less Sanism Without Violating Anyone’s Free Speech” in my post, Sanism is Driving Me Irritated, for tips on rethinking the words you use.
  2. The Rolling Explorer has some alternatives to the word “dumb” (and more for “idiot” and “idiotic”).
  3. Laura Garnett’s short post on shares a few reasons why calling people smart or unintelligent is unhelpful. Peter Kaufman goes into the sociology of calling people stupid.
  4. If you find yourself on the receiving end of insults, Bustle has some tips for handling it. If you have the energy (and you think they’ll listen), share what you’ve learned and perhaps they’ll think twice the next time they criticize a person or situation using ableist slurs.

What do you want me to write about?

If there’s something specific you’d like me to cover, or something I’ve already written that you’d like to know more about, let me know!