…we can’t talk about intelligence without talking about stupidity, and stupidity is all tangled up in ableism. If some people are intelligent, some people are stupid. It just falls out that way when you start sorting people on a hierarchy of value. Some are capable of more — so we allocate more resources (money, education, employment, health care) to them — and others are capable of less, so they get less. Less money, less education, worse housing, more abuse. It doesn’t really work out that way though does it? People with ambition and skill and good ideas fail all the time for lack of connections, lack of familial wealth, having brown skin or believing in the wrong god or having been born on the wrong side of a river. (Occasionally someone gets really, really lucky and breaks through all that, lending a hint of truth to the lies that hard work and following the rules will be rewarding in the end.) People with connections and familial wealth and the right kinds of privilege succeed wildly despite a lifetime of bad decisions and appalling behavior.
And here’s where we really get into why intelligence is an ableist concept: Stupid is a perception, usually based on the perceived ability to communicate. A person with communication impairments is going to be perceived as stupid. The same word means ‘stupid’ and ‘unable to speak’ for a reason. (It’s one I’m trying to excise from my vocabulary. It’s a process.) Someone with cerebral palsy who requires that the rest of us slow down and wait for xer to communicate at xer speed is going to be perceived as unintelligent. Someone who can’t speak under stress (I stammer and eventually become dysphasic on bad days) is going to be perceived as unintelligent at those times. Deaf people are perceived as unintelligent. None of these conditions have a damn thing to do with cognition and everything to do with communication.
Except we don’t have to do any of this the way we’re doing it. We can talk about abilities like spatial reasoning, social adeptitude, and mathematical skills and needs like a school environment that accommodates one child’s ADHD variation, another child’s mathematical intuition and xer need for challenging material presented at xer pace. We can talk about good decisions and bad decisions, either of which can turn out well or badly. We can accommodate variations in cognitive ability — and consider it ability and not get stuck on what a person can’t do. We can learn (sometimes painfully for those of us privileged with the ability to communicate more or less as the majority of people do, but the examination of privilege is never guaranteed painless) to accommodate the needs of those who communicate differently. It’s not their responsibility to communicate in ways that don’t make us have to work.
It does mean we would have to jettison the hierarchy of intelligence. Nobody gets to be geniuses, nobody has to be idiots. We’d stop marking whole people as intelligent or stupid. On the plus side? People could stop thinking of themselves as stupid. Wouldn’t that be revolutionary?
kaninchenzero, Ableist Word Profile: Intelligence (FWD/Forward)
This passage explains what I mean when I say that I’m not so sure intelligence is a useful concept 🙂
Yes yes yes! This details wonderfully the unease I feel when people call themselves stupid, or call someone else clever/intelligent/smart. It’s a sort of self-deprecating obeisance to some idea of modesty that people feel compelled into which creates completely distorted perceptions of self-worth based at best on someone else’s competence with a communication medium and at worst on the advantages they’ve been given in life; rather than there containing any intrinsic truisms regarding a person in their totality.