Reddit users have recently gamed the Google images algorithm so that a search for the term “idiot” produces a solid half-page of Donald Trump photos. Admittedly, this effort is some top-notch trolling from pranksters looking to denigrate Trump in the wake of his bizarre Putin summit. It’s also a childish, offensive waste of time. I know this because I’m a parent of a kindergartner who has come to relish the provocative power of the word “idiot.” Brandishing that insult has not made my son more popular at home or school. I tell him the same thing that I’m now going to tell the Redditors: There are better ways to express yourself.
The way I explain it to my 5-year-old is that the word idiot is hurtful and mean. It tears people down and makes them feel bad. And honestly, that should be enough. Saying, “it hurts people’s feelings” should be all it takes to keep him from using the word idiot as a verbal cudgel. Normally, it’s enough. Sometimes it isn’t. But the longer explanation, the one he’ll get if this nonsense persists as he gets old, is a bit more involved.
The longer explanation goes like this: The word idiot isn’t just counter to kindness, it’s counter to inclusivity. To understand why you need to understand its history. Idiot came into popularity as a slur after it was adopted by 19th and early 20th-century psychologists to categorize people affected by profound intellectual disabilities. In effect, it was a diagnosis that was used to forcefully separate disabled individuals from families. So-called idiots were unable to be a part of society. They were marked for eugenics programs. They were sterilized against their will. To call someone an idiot isn’t just to mock their intelligence, it’s to suggest that they are useless. You shouldn’t say idiot for the same reason you shouldn’t say retarded.
Yes, time can shift context and people using the word idiot are perpetrating an act of verbal aggression that does feel a bit different than calling someone retarded. That said, the important thing to remember is that the word is supposed to denote that someone is somehow different, outside of the group and acting against group norms. The Redditors pranking Trump are saying, “He’s not one of us.” In a sense, that may be true. But he’s also the President. The problem, from a liberal perspective, isn’t that he’s not one of us. It’s that he’s President. Insults, in short, distract from the actual conflict by allowing us to pretend that people we don’t get along with aren’t part of our group — much less in charge of it.
If you’re a liberal parent, cheering the labeling of Trump as an idiot is hypocritical. It represents a decent to the level of name-calling. Parents aren’t supposed to be okay with that. Better to say Trump is a traitor. Better to say he’s a hypocrite (remember when he complained about Obama’s golfing?). Better to say that he’s corrupt. Better to say he has not looked after the best interests of the American people. Let’s just not call the guy an idiot. And let’s definitely not do it in front of the kids.
And if you absolutely can’t help it, I will only ask for this small bit of behavior modification: Please don’t call Trump an idiot in front of my son. It’s not helping.