Let me rephrase that.                                                                       Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg
Let me rephrase that.                                                                       Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff has an op-ed in Forbes in which he gets mad at New York Times columnist Paul Krugman for name-calling:

I think public intellectuals, like Paul Krugman, have a responsibility to act like grownups in speaking with the public. If they start calling people with different views “stupid,” they demean themselves and convey the message that name calling rather than respectful debate is appropriate conduct. It certainly is not...Simply saying “You’re wrong, I’m right, and, furthermore, you’re stupid for not agreeing with me.” is something you’d expect from a child, not a grown up and certainly not from a columnist for the New York Times who sports a Nobel Prize...

I’m sorry, but Paul Ryan is not stupid, and Paul Ryan does not deserve to be called stupid. Anyone who spent 5 minutes talking to Paul Ryan would understand that this is a man of exceptional intelligence, extensive knowledge...

But what I’m writing about is not Paul Ryan. I’m writing about the level of national discourse. No one, and I mean no one, deserves to be called stupid. It’s a nasty, demeaning, and incredibly elitist term...knock it off. Stop calling people names. You will feel better about yourself and get people like me to take your views much more seriously.

Now, calling people "stupid" is certainly not polite. But I never cease to be amazed at how effective it is in terms of making people choke on their own rage. People really do not like being called stupid.

Maybe this is why "stupid" is such a common insult on the Internet. If you get into arguments online, you will be called stupid, or some equivalent, in about 5 seconds flat. The blogosphere therefore selects for people like me, who don't mind being called stupid.

Why don't I mind being called stupid? Because first of all, it's all relative. Compared to this guy, almost anyone is stupid, and I'm downright mentally disabled! No shame in that. You be as smart as you can be, and that's all you can do.

OK, but what if I'm dumber than the guy I'm having an argument with? Well that's fine with me. Arguing should be a way to learn, not a way to show off for the crowd. If I could sit around all day and argue with people smarter than me, I'd be happy (though I'd be selfishly wasting their time). Of course, I realize that many people don't share this perspective.

There's another, even more important reason I don't mind being called stupid: Either it's true, or it isn't. If I get in an argument with a guy and he calls me stupid, that doesn't give me any new information. I might be suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect -- when incompetents overestimate their ability -- but then again, he might be too! And the fact is, I have a huge amount of information telling me how smart I am -- I've taken a bazillion tests and entered a bazillion competitions. The opinion of some dude on the Internet -- especially the biased, uninformed opinion of a stranger who's arguing with me online -- adds nothing to my self-knowledge.

What's also interesting is how mad people get when their friends get called "stupid." Kotlikoff is mad at Krugman for calling his pal Paul Ryan stupid (whether or not Krugman actually did this is beside the point). I guess it's good to feel protective of one's friends. But as a politician, doesn't Ryan take much worse abuse on a daily basis from hundreds or even thousands of people? Compared to what Ryan gets in the political sphere, Krugman's disses must seem like pretty weak tea.

In the end, I think people overreact to the "stupid" insult because, as a society, we use arguments the wrong way. We tend to treat arguments like debate competitions -- two people argue in front of a crowd, and whoever wins gets the love and adoration of the crowd, and whoever loses goes home defeated and shamed. I guess that's better than seeing arguments as threats of physical violence, but I still prefer the idea of arguing as a way to learn, to bounce ideas off of other people. Proving you're smart is a pointless endeavor (unless you're looking for a job), and is an example of what Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck calls a "fixed mindset." As the band Sparks once sang, "Everybody's stupid -- that's for sure." What matters is going in the right direction -- becoming less stupid, little by little.

To contact the author of this article: Noah Smith at noahsmith.bloomberg@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.