Paul Fritjers is lamenting the loss of intellectual freedom and freedom of expression produced by an odd rule of social interaction: the person in pain gets to own the truth and those without pain adjust. So for example, people with undesired traits such as low intelligence or high BMI (in plain English, stupid people and obese people) the wording of debates on stupidity and obesity is dictated by the emotional needs of the stupid and obese and beyond that – or rather within this circumscription of acceptable language – a questionable socially accepted truth is determinedi.
Long gone, for example, are the days when psychologists could use the words ‘idiot’, ‘imbecile’ and ‘moron’ with technical precision: the word ‘idiot’ signified someone with an IQ between 0 and 25, an imbecile was someone with an IQ between 25 and 50 and a moron was someone with an IQ between 51 and 70. Thanks to the operation of a ‘euphemism treadmill’ these technically useful terms have been progressively replaced by circumlocutions that sacrifice linguistic precision in the name of sparing idiots, imbeciles and morons the emotional hurt of perceived insult.
There are several quite pithy – and very accurate – colloquial expressions I can think of to describe Frijter’s thesis but, discretion being the better part of controversy, I’ll content myself with a bowdlerised paraphrasing of a remark of George Orwell: there are some ideas that only a monomath would believe.
Since Don Arthur has already produced a strong philosophical rebuttal of Frijter’s later arguments I’ll restrict myself to an examination of that tri-partite classification of people with low IQs. It was devised by psychologist and eugenicist Henry H Goddard[link] and adopted by the American Association for the study of the feeble-minded in May 1910. The only newly coined term in Goddard’s classification system is the word moron, which Goddard derived from the Ancient Greek word ‘moros’ (dull).
The other class names – ‘idiotii‘ and ‘imbecile’ were already established in English usage with meanings which differed little from their modern meanings. There’s no evidence that Goddard’s scheme was intended as a neutral technical language; it’s reasonable to suspect that his class names – including the newly coined ‘moron’ – were chosen as much for their rhetorical impact as their supposed technical usefulness.
Eugenics, as is well known, is a pseudo-scientific political ideology which has its roots in the philosophy of Herbert Spencer. The eugenicists’ goal was to shorten the way to the Spencerian utopia of a genetically perfected humanity free of all the inherited defects of character and wit which are the root of so much suffering, particularly the inevitable and irremediable suffering of the weak-willed and feeble-minded.
Crudely, eugenics proposed the selective breeding of humanity and active social and political measures to ensure that the right sort of people bred and the wrong sort of people didn’t. Measures proposed included confining inferior specimens of humanity – like the feeble-minded – to colonies where they could be prevented from mixing their inferior genes with those of superior types, and compulsory sterilisation.
Goddard, though a strong advocate of eugenics held back from advocating compulsory sterilisation because he believed the idea would be rejected by the American public. On that point he misoverestimated the American public – starting with Indiana in 1907, 33 US States enacted laws allowing the compulsory sterilisation of inmates in State institutions for the mentally ill and the mentally retarded. The practice was endorsed by the US Supreme Court in a famous judgement in the case of Buck vs Bell in 1927. Writing on behalf of the majority of the Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes declared:
The judgment finds the facts that have been recited, and that Carrie Buck
“is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health, and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization,”
and thereupon makes the order. In view of the general declarations of the legislature and the specific findings of the Court, obviously we cannot say as matter of law that the grounds do not exist, and, if they exist, they justify the result. We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U. S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
So while it’s true that for a while the words moron, imbecile and idiot were employed as technical terms in psychology it is not true that the usage was ever purely technical. Nor is it true that they have fallen into disuse thanks to creeping political correctness prompted by an outcry from a bunch of morons and imbeciles who had the problems of their scientifically demonstrable mental inferiority compounded by the development of a victim mentality – that Goddard’s classification has been ‘outlawed’. There is nothing in history to support such a view. There was never any such thing as an American Morons’ Anti-Defamation League.
What the facts of history present us with is the compulsory sterilisation of over 65,000 people in state care because they were deemed unfit to have children; they were deemed to be less than fully human and dealt with accordingly. During the Cold War another generation of people who merely sapped the strength of the State were called upon to make further sacrifices, this time in the name of advancing science. Without their consent they were used as experimental subjects in an extensive program of experiments on the effects of radioactive materials on human beings sponsored by the US Atomic Energy Agency
Of course Frijters isn’t proposing anything so radical as the compulsory sterilisation of the obese and other mentally ill people, or that they be used an unknowing involuntary subjects in scientific research; the mild forms of discrimination he does propose, such as higher health insurance premiums for the fat are intended as much for the benefit of the fat as the benefit of the economy. All he wants is that we join him in recognising their deficiencies frankly and honestly and stop going to water every time the hurt card is played in public debate on issues such as obesity and (other) mental illnesses. His case might have more appeal if he hadn’t chosen such a woefully bad example to open his argument.
Postscript: for a more extended account of the career of Henry H Goddard and other seminal figures in the study of IQ see The mismeasurement of Man by Stephen J Gould.
i The interpolation on the circumscription of language is me writing directly to you, the reader, not an exposition of Frijters position. The following clause, with its Derridean sous-rature is willfully ambiguous: two senses of the word ‘determined’ are in play.