When I was in high school, I had an English teacher who was a pain in the butt. His name was Father Corbett and, clearly, I will never forget him. In Fr. Corbett’s class, you could not ask the question “Can I go to the bathroom?” Father Corbett hated…hated…HATED the word “go”. He felt it was over used. So, over time we got became rather inventive about how we asked Father Corbett if we could go venture to the restroom. My fellow Brophy College Prep alumni are likely chuckling at their desks or cubes right now and having painful flashbacks to Fr. Corbett’s bellowing voice as he would yell to remind us about his pet peeves.
Perhaps, I have some Post-Father-Corbett-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder, but I have to say that I am super-sensitive about words. As I reflect on that memory, I realize how right he was about what terrible stewards of the English language we really are. We use words callously and incorrectly. We flippantly throw derogatory words around, even the innocuous ones, and we fail to understand what we are saying about the person we are talking about; and, most importantly, what that reflects about us.
Yesterday, I apparently stumbled upon one of my pet peeves. I was following a thread on Facebook in which a FB friend of mine posted a rather snide comment about a former gubernatorial candidate here in the Great State of Texas. One of his friends felt obliged to post “She’s an idiot!”
This really set me off. I hate (I know hate is a strong word) the way we use these words. I hate it. We use very strong language lobbed at people to indicate our displeasure with them. But, what we do in the process is dehumanize them. We take away everything they are, just so we can state how we feel about them. It is so easy to call someone an idiot when they are not human. In fact, scholars have long studied the effects of dehumanization. It’s what enables us to enslave people, justify genocide, justify hate. When someone is not human to us, we can think and do all sorts of things to them.
Back to the word, “Idiot.” Though this word is perhaps not the most offensive thing you can say about someone. In a way, it is. Let’s look at the definition.
- an utterly foolish or senseless person:
If you think you can wear that outfit to a job interview and get hired, you’re an idiot!
- (no longer in technical use; considered offensive) a person of the lowest order in a former and discarded classification of mental retardation, having a mental age of less than three years old and an intelligence quotient under 25.
Let’s now look at the short biography of the person who was called an idiot:
- In 1981, she graduated from Richland High School as a member of the National Honor Society
- She attended University of Texas at Arlington for one semester, but had to stop attending for financial reasons
- She enrolled in their two-year paralegal program, attending from 1984 to 1986
- After Tarrant College, she enrolled at Texas Christian University (TCU) in 1986 on an academic scholarship and a Pell Grant
- In May 1990, she graduated from TCU with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English
- That fall she moved to Massachusetts, to attend Harvard Law School
- While at Harvard, she volunteered at a legal clinic for the poor, where she helped AIDS patients write living wills and surviving partners with their legal rights
- In May 1993, she earned her law degree cum laude, and she was admitted to the State Bar of Texas in November 1993
- In 1999, she was voted in as City Councilwoman for the City of Ft. Worth
- In 2008, she was voted into the State Senate
- In 2014, she unsuccessfully ran for Governor
Perhaps, it is just me and my super-sensitivity, but I don’t think the word “idiot” applies here. I think it would have been far better to just say “I don’t like her politics” or “I don’t like her views.” I even would have accepted “I just don’t like her.”
So why do we do this? What is the mental state we get ourselves into when we just have to go for the guttural rather than just keeping it civil? I have noticed that this happens equally as frequently in sports as it does in politics as it does in business. Oh, that coach (making several millions of dollars), he’s an idiot! Oh! I can’t believe that player. He’s a total idiot! – as if it weren’t enough to be a partial idiot. Oh that senator, he’s as dumb as they come. Oh! That Project Manager, his project failed miserably, what an idiot!
So, here’s where I go a bit batshit crazy. I’m a numbers guy. Before I call someone stupid or idiotic or any number of names, I look at the numbers. High school dropouts? There’s a lot of these. They’re idiots. That’s a poor decision that will alter a person’s life for the rest of their lives. Drunk Driving. No brainer. Idiots. We all should know better (regardless of educational background) that drinking and driving is a foolish thing to do. Criminals. Want to call them idiots? I’m with you. We all know the laws. When we choose to willfully break them, we choose to be held to the consequences of those acts. Idiots…I’m fine with that.
But, let’s take a look at how else we use these words:
- Professional Athletes and their Coaches. Let’s just look at the NFL alone. I just counted 32 total professional football teams. That’s 32 head coaches. 32. That’s 32 starting quarterbacks. 32 out of all the people in the world who can pick up an oblong ball and throw it with a high degree of accuracy. The American Football Coaches Association boasts a membership of 11,000 coaches. Let’s just do the simple math 32/11,000 = 0.29%. So, there are 11,000 coaches registered in the AFCA among countless others. And, of those, only about 0.29% can say they are coaches of a professional football team. I don’t really care how you justify using the term, but I’m just venturing a guess that 32 people out of 11,000 that have figured out how to wind themselves to not just the coaching staff of an NFL team, but to the head position of the coaching staff of an NFL team…call him what you want…stupid or idiotic I don’t think it applies. Quirky, egotistical, jerk…yeah, that might apply, but…dumb, stupid or idiotic…I don’t think so.
- Senators and Representative. Ok. Let’s run the numbers. 100 in the Senate. 435 in the House. That’s 535 people out of how many millions of people in the United States that not only figured out how to run for an elected office, but got themselves elected to the fat job we call a Senator or a Representative. Ladies and gentlemen, again going back to the definition, none of these people are stupid. None of these people are idiots. Just to get where they are, they have proven that they are pretty darn crafty. Who are the idiots? The ones who make it all the way to the big leagues and then waste it away by shacking up with their interns. Idiots. Or they get themselves involved in some type of corruption scandal. Dumb. Stupid. I’m with you. But, in general, these are not your average Joes who just happen upon the steps of Congress. These are pretty ambitious folks. Doctors. Lawyers. Businessmen and women. Many of them are far from stupid. Some of them so far out in ideology land that you would shudder to invite them to your next cocktail party…possibly…but stupid or idiotic…no. Wrong word. Pick another.
- POTUS. Oh I love this one! One President of the United States of America voted in by an Electoral College. There are 270 Electoral College representatives. The POTUS must be voted in by a clear majority. But, before they can even get to the center stage they have to do something presidential. Like run a multi-billion dollar hedge fund. Run a professional baseball team into the ground. Be a world class lawyer. Something like that. It doesn’t just happen that some anonymous senator from Illinois became a candidate for POTUS. It’s a well-crafted, well-honed strategy that they have probably been etching away at for years prior to even entering the Presidential stage. Once they ascend to the scene, they then have to get the attention of their party. Then they have to be subjected to a general vote where voting public is allowed to cross party lines and vote for whomever they want. Then, the Electoral College representatives are supposed to vote the will of the people. Then, they have to win…but the POTUS is stupid? He’s an idiot? No, no. Conniving, OCD freak with a highly focused agenda that you don’t agree with. Ok. I can take that. Stupid…no. Sorry that word just doesn’t apply.
In general, these are highly educated, highly ambitious people who have done pretty amazing things with their lives. Have I liked their policies all the time? No. But, would I stoop to question their aptitude? I don’t think so.
So, this is how we treat people we do not personally know. How do you treat the people you do know well? How do you treat your colleagues? Do you view them as friends? Or, are they adversaries you need to topple by discrediting them? If someone makes a mistake do you call them an idiot or do you debrief on the decision they made and figure out why that was the wrong decision to make? What about your teams. What kind of banter, friendly or otherwise, are you permitting on your teams?
Is the decision maker stupid? Or, was the decision stupid? To which noun should the adjective be affixed? To the person? Or, to the decision? I’m just going to pull a Father Corbett. I hate the word and I think most of us are ill-positioned to use it well without blowback. We should be forced to find other ways of communicating. How about: “I don’t like the decision you just made….I think it’s wrong because….” Or, “Hey, that coach called the wrong play.” Or “Hey that product that XYZ company released, it would have been more successful if the CEO had done this….”
Lobbing one of these derogatory words…I think it’s an endorphin release. It makes us feel better. It helps us justify our existence. Because for that moment we can feel better about ourselves because we’re NOT the idiot. But, maybe when we choose to lob that word at someone who clearly isn’t an idiot, maybe we become the idiot for knowing what the word means and using it irresponsibly.
XYZ political candidate is not an idiot…you just don’t think the way they do. Awesome! Don’t vote for them. But, don’t degrade their intelligence. You just don’t like them.
XYZ coach or athlete is not an idiot…you just don’t like their team. Or, they just did something completely unacceptable like make a mistake. No need to lob some derogatory word that means they are incapable of executing their craft. Clearly, they are or they wouldn’t be on the field. And, if they are really that bad, the reality is they won’t be on the field for very long.
XYZ CXO is not an idiot…you just don’t like their leadership style or you disagree with their decision making. By the very nature of making it into the corner office…they are not idiots. Maybe they fail to execute well. Maybe they fail to surround themselves with the right team. That’s failure…it’s not lack of intelligence. It just makes them human. How about you try the Atticus Finch and walk a mile in their moccasins before you attempt to judge their mental acuity?
We need to choose to avoid the endorphin release. We need to re-associate the meaning of the word with the way we are using it and we need to re-connect with the person (or people) we are lobbing the word at. It matters. Words matter. We need to use them responsibly. The words we use impact our productivity. They impact the productivity of others. They preserve the humanity of our teams and the way we recover from mistakes. We are all going to make them. It defines the culture that we champion for our teams and determines whether we learn from them or whether we reduce morale to the point to where no mistakes are going to be made ever again…because everyone is too afraid, or too verbally abused, to take the risk.
Jonathan Goldstein, PMP