‘Oh he’s an idiot’; ‘don’t be idiotic’; ‘what a bloody idiot’. This is the language of everyday life, isn’t it, heard in families and at work, on buses and on trains, in schools and offices, over and over, wherever you turn? And what other term could be used to describe an action so obviously self-destructive as Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election to secure a fat majority, which she thought would allow her to push through the hard Brexit that so many of her supporters are keen on. How could anyone possibly object to The New European splashing ‘bloody idiot’ all across its front page in scornful glee? After all, isn’t that what the whole country thinks after last week’s fiasco?
So why did the phrase jump out at me when I saw it on the newsstand this morning and feel like a kick in the teeth. More importantly, why do I think a progressive paper like The New European should be more careful in its language? My concern is the careless use of a word that carries with it a history of abuse and discrimination when applied to people with learning disabilities¾ people like my second son, Joey, who, aged nearly 21, has no speech, intractable epilepsy and very limited cognitive abilities.
In his very agreeable Twitter spat with me, the editor argued that I was making a category error: after all the paper wasn’t using the word ‘idiot’ to abuse people like Joey. And what, he asked, was the ‘politically correct’ term he should have used if ‘idiot’ was to be avoided. I’m not sure if I can give him a clear answer, though perhaps ‘foolish’ or ‘misguided’ or ‘unwise’ is a less charged term. Even to say that she acted ‘idiotically’ would have been better. What I do know from bitter experience is that people with learning disabilities are the last forgotten minority and that our language should find ways of addressing that.
And it’s striking that many other apparently progressive institutions haven’t processed this issue properly either. The other day I saw a play at the Almeida in which one character called a black character a ‘nigger’. There was a huge gasp of shock, and in the subsequent action of the play the man was shown to embody antiquated and undesirable attitudes, and eventually got his comeuppance. It was certainly clear that the playwright thought the word was disgusting. But in a play at the National Theatre someone was delighted that her child wasn’t ‘retarded’ and the comment didn’t raise a flicker in the audience, and had no consequences on the subsequent action. My point is that we’re rightly sensitive to the use of the ‘n’ word because of its dreadful history, but don’t notice a word used endlessly to categorise and diminish a group of people who have little enough power or status already. Progressive intellectuals don’t have a good good reputation when it comes to people who, whether objectively or subjectively, aren’t as clever as they are, and I think this needs to be challenged and, where possible, changed.
Intriguingly, the word ‘idiot’ was originally used to describe someone of no social status (‘a tale told by an idiot’ in Macbeth is a tale told by a very lowly servant or peasant) and the modern sense didn’t emerge until the seventeenth century (when the two were to conflated). In the nineteenth century it, like ‘retarded’, was a technical term to describe people like my Joey. It’s only in the last hundred years or so that it’s gained such a pejorative connotation, above all because it’s used to describe actions that others deride or think are insufficiently thought through. After all, who wants to be described as an ‘idiot’ today? Or have an ‘idiot’ for a son, for that matter. For many people - me too, before Joey was born - nothing could be worse.
To be fair to The New European, it didn’t use any of the other much worse terms of abuse. But by calling Theresa May a ‘bloody idiot’ it contributed, however subtly, however unknowingly, to an atmosphere which encourages us to dismiss people with Learning Disabilities as beneath contempt, as if the worst thing you can be is stupid, as if all the problems of the world are caused by people with cognitive difficulties. For the fact is, surely, that Theresa May (and Donald Trump and Nigel Farage and Marine le Pen and all the rest of the politicians whom The New European quite rightly oppose) aren’t stupid, and by calling her - and, by extension, the army of dedicated Brexiteers - a ‘bloody idiot’, the paper simply alienates further those who support her. I like and admire The New European and, of course, defend its right to offend and use whatever language it likes, but I think to conflate arrogance, misjudgement and bad advice with something as extreme and real as idiocy isn’t really good enough.
Do I protest too much? Perhaps. All I can say¾ provocatively, perhaps ¾ is that if The Daily Mail insulted us Remainers by calling us ‘saboteurs’, The New European used a word that the modern, diverse, inclusive European society that the paper admirably champions, should leave behind in the dustbin of history, where words like ‘moron’, ‘imbecile’, ‘retard’ and ‘cretin’ so evidently belong.
I’m hardly one to talk. The other day I told my 8 year old daughter that she was being an ‘idiot’. She’s been brought up with an older brother who cannot read, who has no speech, who has no voice in the world other than the one that his family and friends can lend him. And she told me off in no uncertain terms, saying that it was a horrible word and that I should say sorry for using it. She’s right and I¾like The New European¾was wrong.