Stupidity as a Quality or Condition of Oppression

Labeled "learning disabled" from the time I entered kindergarden, I've struggled with the label "stupid" for most of my life. Stupidity is used to identify some of us as belonging on the bottom of the social hierarchy. If we're "stupid" then we must naturally deserve whatever exploitation we experience. Of course, if we were "smart" then we supposedly wouldn't let ourselves be exploited. It's therefore assumed to be our own fault for being so "stupid."

In order to understand stupidity, it helps to understand the ableism that it is primarily based on. In 1976, the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation developed an anti-oppressive definition of the term "disability." That definition, as quoted in Eli Clare's book Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (South End Press, 1999), states that disability is "the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes no or little account of people who have physical [and/or cognitive/developmental/mental] impairments and thus excludes them from the mainstream of society." This definition of disability addresses the ableism from which it arises.

In his book The Politics of Disablement: A Sociological Approach, from which Clare quotes, Michael Oliver writes that, "What is at stake here is the issue of causation, and whereas previous definitions were ultimately reducible to the individual and attributable to biological pathology, the above definition locates the causes of disability squarely within society and social organisation."

Like disability, stupidity is traditionally defined as reducible to the individual and attributed to mental pathology. Hence stupidity is seen as an individual quality and natural condition. But, again like disability, stupidity is a quality or condition of society and social organization. Just as the root of disability is ableism, the root of stupidity is also found in social oppression.

However, while stupidity is fundamentally rooted in ableism with regard to cognitive and mental disabilities, it applies to oppression more generally. In his book Animal Rights/Human Rights: Entanglements of Oppression and Liberation, David Nibert explains how stupidity arises as a condition of a more general form of social control:

After one is taught successfully that a "natural hierarchy" exists in the world, one's worldly task is perhaps not so much to make it to the top of the social order as it is to distance one's self from the "bottom" — for those at the bottom suffer derision, deprivation, and violence. This socially created hierarchy is deeply rooted in the social fabric and is embedded in individual consciousness, so much so that, for many, challenges to the existence of oppression appear "stupid."

Furthermore, in her essay "Stupidity 'Deconstructed'" from Thinking Class: Sketches from a Cultural Worker (South End Press, 1996), Joanna Kadi discusses stupidity as a specific quality of the capitalist system:

For the capitalist system to continue ruthlessly grinding on (or for the capitalist system to "succeed," as you would say) those of us bred for stupid and/dangerous work must believe we're not as smart as the people who boss us around. It's critical. Capitalism needs simple explanations about why poor people with lousy jobs take orders from men in suits. Lack of brains fits the bill. ... Any noticeable class divisions stem from difference in intellectual capacity. ... It's as untrue as the existence of a whole class of stupid people, but if enough people believe it — even partially believe it — this idea will reinforce and strengthen capitalism. After all, if we believe brains lead to success, we'll blame ourselves for not getting ahead. Personal failure, not systematic oppression, explains why we're going nowhere so very fast.

As a worker at a national animal rights nonprofit, I have personally experienced bosses' using stupidity as a means of controlling workers. For instance, if we did what the bosses liked, we where considered "smart" workers, and if they didn't like what we did, we were considered "stupid" workers. Stupidity thus framed the quality and conditions of a workplace hierarchy. Of course, we were encouraged to believe the bosses were always the smartest and thus deserving of their power over our lives. As such, my supervisor would often assert that it wasn't an actual hierarchy. In fact, at one point it was even called a "reverse hierarchy," with the reason given that the "smart" bosses were being exploited by the "stupid" workers — that is, the bosses claimed they had to work harder to make up for us "stupid" workers.

For most of the time I was awarded the privilege position of a "smart" worker. However, such praise comes with an implicit threat that I could lose my status at any time, which is exactly what happened when we questioned assumptions of universal Whiteness in my work environment. I thus became a "stupid" worker and my supervisor began telling my co-workers that I must be suffering from "mad cow disease." The implication being that challenging institutional racism and White privilege is analogous to a fatal neurodegenerative disease. Worse yet, as is the case with "mad cow disease," my anti-racism was framed as a contagious threat to the "natural hierarchy" of the organization. Saying I had "mad cow disease" was a warning to my co-workers to distance themselves from the bottom of the hierarchy.

Of course, the term "mad cow disease" is problematic in its own right; similar to blaming the individual as "stupid," the term suggest the disease is the fault of cows and not caused by the oppressive system that exploits them. Likewise, by saying I have "mad cow disease" my bosses blamed me as an individual and were able to avoid any interrogation of existing structures of White supremacy within the organization.