Sunday, June 29, 2014

You're Not a Dummy or an Idiot

Words have nuclear potential in terms of their effect, usually negative, on curiosity, self-esteem and joy. They can be unbelievably cruel in their intent or foolishly dismissive. Language, in fact, plays a major role in how we perceive ourselves and others and for that reason I, for one, bristle when I see certain words used in any context.  I don't care if it's meant to catch your eye or increase sales. Words have incredible power and we need to remember that.

One group that began to appreciate the power of language and distinct words with obvious shaming intent, included psychologists. Originally, intelligence tests, yes, the very tests used to determine your future in life, contained some pretty disturbing designations for people. Words like imbecile, moron and idiot were freely used as ways to sort people out.

What effect do you think those words had on the people who carried the categorization around like almost a visible "I" on their heads? Anyone looking at a medical or school records of the time would immediately formulate a whole host of tracking plans for that person. There was no way out and it was an albatross around their necks.

Families hid their children away in order to spare themselves the stigma of having such a child or adult in their homes. I've seen families that still did this 20 years ago when a young man was brought to a psychiatric hospital.  He was about 22 and had lived his entire life in one room with a locked door. Food would practically be tossed in to him and the family claimed he attacked anyone who entered. Now the parents were approaching later life and they were concerned about his welfare after they were gone, so they brought him to the hospital hoping he'd find a new home there.

When they were told he wouldn't be kept indefinitely, the family quickly formulated a plan to have a lobotomy performed in Massachusetts. They got a private ambulance, signed him out and they were off. Who knows what happened to him.

A little girl at a long-term care facility did nothing but tear paper up all day. Why did she do it? Since the time she was a toddler, her parents, both of whom went to work each day, left her alone in a locked bathroom. All day long she sat and shredded toilet paper. Somehow she had been placed in this facility now maybe as a result of a child abuse action, but there was no remediation for her. She was written off as "retarded" and unreachable. I doubt that was true but the staff wasn't trained or equipped to help her. All she got was the basic necessities that kept her alive and physically well.

These individuals saddled with such awful designations weren't "mentally challenged" or even "slow." They were headed for the lowest tier of society and they'd never get out. If India had a caste system that held people in their "place," we had the IQ test that did virtually the same thing. Only our system was regulated by professionals who, after all, knew what was best for these poor souls.

The designation also permitted states to pass legislation to protect society from the progeny of such defective people. Forced sterilizations were carried out for "the good of society" as the eugenics movement was in full, ignorant flower. From what I understand, it is still possible for some states in the US to get orders to sterilize individuals.

If the words imbecile, moron and idiot carry so much negative weight, why would anyone buy something that would signify that they accepted themselves as being on that level? I can't imagine, but it still happens. I don't think people should engage in self-stigmatization. There's certainly enough discrimination and bias going around without any of us helping it along by tilling it to keep it fertile and alive.

Are you an idiot, a dummy, a moron or an imbecile? I don't think so, either.