Welcome to Ableist Word Profile, a (probably intermittent) series in which staffers will profile various ableist words, talk about how they are used, and talk about how to stop using them. Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies. This post is marked 101, which means that the comments section is open to 101 questions and discussion. Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.
Wait! you may be saying to yourselves. Kaninchen Zero, what the hell is ‘intelligence’ doing in the Ableist Word Profile series? Intelligence isn’t a disability!
Okay, so maybe you’re not saying that. But I’m serious. I hate this word. Hate the concept. With a hatred that is a pure and burning flame. True, part of this is because I get told all the time that I’m like wicked smart. When it’s some of the more toxic people in my family saying it, there’s more to it: You’re so intelligent so why are you poor? Other people use it as an opportunity to put themselves down: You’re so smart; I’m not; I could never do the things you do.
Does intelligence exist? At all?
Maybe it doesn’t.
There are tests that measure… something. They’re called Intelligence Quotient tests. The idea is that these tests actually measure some fundamental, real quality of human cognition — the people who believe in IQ believe that there’s a single quality that informs cognition as a whole and that people who have higher IQs have more of this and think better and perform better generally while people who have lower IQs have less of this quality and perform more poorly. Sorry; it’s a muddle of a definition, I know. Partly it’s a conceptual and linguistic problem — some things are not well defined and these things tend to be the things we consider to be fundamental. It’s much easier to define smaller things at the edges; it’s easy to define a fingernail. It’s harder to point to where blood stops flowing away from the heart and starts flowing back towards it.
The man who developed the first intelligence tests, Alfred Binet, wasn’t actually trying to measure intelligence. He’d done some work in neurology and psychology and education, and in 1899 he was asked to become a member of the Free Society for the Psychological Study of the Child. Primary education in France had become mandatory, so a lot of work on educational psychology was being done due to the large demand and the large available sample population. Binet, and others, were assigned to the Commission for the Retarded. (Again, please accept my apologies; I wouldn’t use the word if it were mine.)
The problem he was trying to solve was how to identify — consistently, without having to rely on the judgment of people who could be swayed by all sorts of personal biases (as we all are, including me) — those children who needed extra help. Maybe they had developmental disorders, maybe they had learning impairments along the lines of ADD/ADHD, dyscalculias, dyslexias, maybe malnutrition, injury, or childhood disease had caused neurological damage or limited development. The specific etiology wasn’t the point; the point was to be able to know who these children were and get them assistance. Which may be ascribing too-noble motives to him, but he doesn’t do so great later.
This is key here: When Binet and his colleague Theodore Simon were designing the test, Binet said it didn’t really matter what the questions were, just so there were plenty of them. They did try to put together sets of questions or tasks of different difficulties, but test design wasn’t as developed a hundred-some years ago as it is now. To Binet’s credit, he knew his test was flawed, that both ‘intelligence’ and ‘retardation’ were subjective concepts and given to wide variation, that cognitive development was not locked with chronological age, and that environmental factors — some of which could, given political will and funding, be changed — played a very large role in whatever the hell it was he was testing for. So far, so good.
Problem was, he still called it an intelligence test. People took him at his word, including one Lewis Terman, a professor of educational psychology at Stanford University.
Terman read the word ‘intelligence’ and found an opportunity: not to identify children who might not perform as well as others without extra help so they could get that help but to rank children, adults, everyone by intelligence. Innate, singular, congenital, immalleable. In 1916, he published the Stanford Revision of the Binet-Simon Scale, and intelligence testing in the United States was born.
Y’all know what’s coming, right? A ghastly mess of privilege piled on top of privilege, historical oppressions and inequalities used to justify further inequality, entire populations written off as defective and unfit? Yeah. And this is where Alfred Binet messed up, because he didn’t protest much about Terman’s misuse of his work. He could have at least gotten his name clear of it, even if he couldn’t have talked a bunch of really privileged American adademics out of abusing their privilege when the next big thing in intelligence testing happened.
Even as awful as the original Stanford-Binet test was, it might not have come to much except on 4 April, 1917 the United States declared war on Germany, entering what would eventually become known as the First World War. By the end of the war in November 1918, the Army grew from its pre-war size of about 200,000 soldiers (all men) to about 3,700,000. More than 2,700,000 men were drafted through the Selective Service. They all had to be processed as physically fit to serve; the Army knew how to do that. But what tasks were they going to be assigned? An army is a large and complicated endeavor, especially a modern army, equipped with the most advanced fighting machinery available. They had to know that the soldiers assigned to (say) tank tread maintenance were mentally capable of completing the tasks assigned.
Enter Lewis Terman and Robert Yerkes, head of the American Psychological Association, armed with their revised intelligence quotient test, simplified further into the Army Alpha test for recruits identified (by the Army) as literate and the Army Beta test, administered orally for recruits identified as illiterate.
For a thorough treatment of just how incredibly awful and othering and appalling this turned out, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man is highly recommended. I’ll skim over some lowlights.
We may never know how many recruits were misidentified as literate and forced to take the Alpha exam. Those who did poorly were supposed to then take the Beta exam which — supposedly — measured aptitude without requiring literacy in English, but test administration was not consistent across recruiting centers.
Measuring cultural and class assimilation: One task on the Beta exam showed a man in an awkward position, on one foot with a hand extended, with objects at the end of a path. The recruit was told to fill in the missing part of the picture. In the world Terman and Yerkes lived in, this was universal knowledge; the man was bowling, the path was a bowling lane, the objects at the far end were pins. It’s not universal everywhere. Another question related to yachting.
Fun Fact: One finding that came out of the aggregate data was that ringworm infection (it’s not a worm, it’s a fungal infection that presents as roughly circular lesions on the skin) correlated to a thirty point drop in IQ. The vector for ringworm is walking on spore-infested ground with bare feet. The conclusion? Stupid people get a whole lot of ringworm. Maybe because they don’t buy shoes?
Three hundred seventy thousand black men served in the first World War. Of those, one thousand four hundred were promoted to the rank of non-commissioned officer. Most black men were prohibited from serving in combat units and were assigned to Services of Supply units. Science had shown they were not smart enough to be issued weapons; they were regarded as nothing more than unskilled labor, at least officially. About forty thousand black soldiers acquired weapons and fought anyway; some seven hundred thousand black men registered for the draft on the first day. They had come to fight. (In further racism: It took seventy years for the Army and Congress to award the first Medals of Honor (the highest decoration awarded for military service in the U.S.) to black soldiers from that war. Which doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence, but it was in the source I was consulting and I wanted to share.)
Since then, intelligence testing hasn’t gotten a lot better. The tests have gotten less culturally biased and less dependent on language skills. But they depend ultimately on the same assumptions: Intelligence is something that can be measured and quantified. These tests accurately measure that something. People should be sorted according to how much or how little of it they have. People who write books like The Bell Curve would have you believe that we can test groups of people — their favorite way to group and rank people is by race, so they look at race. They do all kinds of nifty statistical analysis that I could probably dissect better if I’d bothered to take more than a couple classes in statistics and error analysis.
But I don’t really have to because their argument — that the midpoint of the distribution curves for IQ test results for white people is higher than the midpoint of the distribution curves for IQ test results for black people so white people are smarter and better — is blatantly racist bullshit (even if they hadn’t decided before they began how things were going to work out). As with everything else human, between-individual variation swamps the hell out of among-group variation. They have to believe that intelligence is real IQ tests measure it blah whatever. And they have to argue that whatever the effects might be of three hundred years of slavery followed by a century and more of apartheid, institutional racism, the systematic destruction of black communities and families, the theft of black land and black wealth, the nullification of black political power, the impoverishment of the American public school system after Brown v. Board of Education, and straight-up just telling black people forever that they are stupid and less than human, they don’t explain this small difference. This difference that is congenital and cannot be changed and means white people are more intelligent than black people on average — so it follows that any given white person is smarter than any given black person, right?
Yes, I’m angry. (I’m also white, for the record. I’m just very much an anti-racism activist.)
So if IQ testing doesn’t measure intelligence, what does it measure? Probably the ability to do well on IQ tests. And other standardized tests. Which is a skill that can be learned, as PSAT/SAT prep courses all over the country show. And if it can be learned, that calls into question its innateness and immobility — qualities intelligence is claimed to have by its proponents.
I’m going to get personal now, and go back to a point made at the beginning, with people telling me I’m really smart.
I don’t know. Maybe. What I do know is that whatever I am, it does not mean that anybody else is stupid. Or worth less. What I have is a brain that does some interesting tricks, like the aforementioned standardized tests and some classes (though the wrong teacher or a group of students making me miserable could get me to fail a class, as could untreated depression). I understand mathematics and logical systems fairly intuitively. I’ve got pretty good recall of memory. I don’t get lost (though that’s also an anxiety/fear issue — I worry about getting lost so I pay attention to where I’m going) much and can always get home.
There are things I’m bad at: social interaction is not at all intuitive for me. Sometimes I can’t stand being touched, even by the woman I’ve lived with for ten years. Non-textual information — facial expression and body language — doesn’t get processed quickly and is extremely distracting. I have a terrible time evaluating my own motives, never mind other people’s. I’ve practiced a lot and I can look people in the eye and shake hands and talk and there are people who don’t know I’m shy, never mind socially dysfunctional. But it is pretense. And these are the skills needed to ‘sell one’s self.’ I’ve never once gotten a regular non-temp job by applying and interviewing for it. Every job I’ve had — and I’ve had some that lasted a while — I’ve gotten by being a temp first and them keeping me when they found out I could do stuff. None of them pay enough to get me out of being poor.
Which answers one of the questions from way up above.
Getting to another one — why is intelligence in the Ableist Word Profile series? Because 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?
And for fuck’s sake there wouldn’t be any cognitive tests anyone would have to pass to be considered human.
Credit Where It’s Due Department: Sources for this include The Wiki (of course), Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man (revised edition), an outstanding chronology of African-American military service found at http://www.redstone.army.mil/history/integrate/CHRON3.html, and my wife, who studied education and psychology and made it her career for a long time. She’s been reading my fiction – which falls outside her preferred genres – for a long time. I’m pleased to be writing something that falls within her expertise and grateful for her assistance