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Bering in Mind

Bering in Mind


A research psychologist's curious look at human behavior
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Retro Science Jargon: Negroes, Retards, Morons, Feeble-Minded Idiots and Perverts

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Early twentieth century residents at an American institute for the feebleminded.

Back when I was a graduate student in Louisiana studying chimpanzees, I came across a chapter from an old book called The Speech of Monkeys. First released in 1892, it was a pioneering text in animal behavior and the study of nonhuman communication, published by the very respectable Charles L. Webster and Company, the house of Mark Twain and several other famous authors of the time. So while not commercial, it was at least a serious academic source that comparative psychologists occasionally cite even today. Reading this in 1998, I was well aware, of course, of historical context, yet the title of this particular chapter by an early primatologist—actually, one of America’s first evolutionary theorists post-Darwin—by the name of Richard Garner was still enough to make me do a double-take, just to make sure I’d read it correctly. Garner was a former Confederate soldier from Virginia who lived in a very different world than ours, so perhaps we shouldn’t judge him too harshly. But what I saw was this: “Five little brown cousins: Mickie, Nemo, Dodo, Nigger, and McGinty. Nemo apologizes to Dodo.” These “brown cousins” were actually a colony of monkeys in the Cincinnati Zoo, so from an allegedly scientific point of view, this was rather biased language, even for the times.

There’s more than one such “shocking” title to be found in the historical academic literature, but what’s important for us to remember is that words that are outrageously offensive today were, by contrast with the example above, simply run-of the-mill technical jargon in the past. If for no other reason than simple navel gazing, it’s worth reviewing some of these antiquated titles. On the one hand, they serve to remind us how far we’ve come in humanizing those who need protection and understanding the most; on the other hand, however, many of these uncomfortable, cold-sounding titles leave us asking what scientists of yore were thinking in the first place.

First, there’s the long, embarrassing history of racism in science (sadly Garner was just the beginning), particularly with respect to the study of intelligence. Richard Hernnstein and Charles Murray’s notorious The Bell Curve—for which The New York Times Bob Herbert referred to as a “a scabrous piece of racial pornography masquerading as serious scholarship”—came out in 1994. But long before that controversial book, the empirical records were already littered with black IQ-bashing titles, such as “Some Racial Peculiarities of the Negro Brain” (American Journal of Anatomy, 1905), “Negro-White Hybrids in Jamaica” (Eugenical News, 1928), and “Effect Upon Negro Digit-Symbol Performance of Anticipated Comparison with Whites and with Other Negroes” (Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1964).

The content of these articles, needless to say, is even worse than their headings. But remember, “negro” was the politically correct term for much of the twentieth century, fading from the academic vernacular only in the early 1970s. Unless it’s a study on the history of discriminatory rhetoric, can you imagine “negro” in the title of an article in, say, next week’s issue of Science or Nature?

People with developmental disorders, including children, were affixed with clinical labels that ring horribly inappropriate and cruel to our ears today. Consider, “A Study of Mortality in Four Thousand Feeble-minded and Idiots,” (New York Medical Journal, 1913), “Analyses of the Blood of Idiots” (Science, 1931), “When Is a Moron Not a Moron?” (Journal of Delinquency, 1920) “Training the Idiot and the Imbecile” (Proceedings of the American Association for the Study of the Feebleminded, 1927), and “Teaching Reading Vocabulary to Lower Grade Morons” (Proceedings of the American Association on Mental Deficiency, 1937). European social scientists were just as cynical with their treatment of cognitively disabled children. German scientists in the early 1930s, for example, were about to fall into an entirely new category of objectionable ethics; even so, “Das Dumme Kind. Ist Dummheit Heilbar?” (trans. “The Stupid Child. Is Stupidity Curable?” Psychologie Rundscháu, 1932) just sounds plain mean. A study on the heritability of Down syndrome is labeled, “The Kinship of Mongoloid Idiots” (Zeitschrift für die Gesamte Neurologie und Psychiatrie, 1939). And the French title, “Les ‘Kinésies de Jeu’ chez les Idiots” (trans. “Playful Bodily Movements in Idiots,” Annales Médico-Psychologiques, 1938), at least evokes a lighter feeling; but it also comes across today as carnivalesque, as though these “idiots” were strange, simian-like curiosities.

Then there’s the verboten “R word,” found in bold titles such as, “Training Retarded Children,” (Training School Bulletin, 1916), and The Retarded Child: How to Help Him (Public School Publishing Co., 1925). Today, not referring to him as retarded is a good start. The “R word” has recently been at the center of focused anti-discriminatory campaigns by groups like the Special Olympics and other organizations representing those with intellectual disabilities, even resulting in federal legislation barring its use in public discourse. Such appeals have also led to more than one celebrity apologizing for using the term thoughtlessly in an interview.

Originally, of course, the R word was a proper medical term referring to developmental impairments. Removed from today’s heated context, “retard” simply means to delay or thwart, and “retarded” was used routinely to capture this innocuous idea. The contrast between its innocent intention and the demeaning sense in which the term occurs now is made strikingly apparent by a 1928 article from the journal School & Society. In this piece called “The Retarded College Professor,” the author informs us that, “The typical professor from the whole population would doubtless show a greater retardation.” But this wasn’t a rub at their intelligence (though many academics’ stereotypical absentmindedness does make them vulnerable to the irony), only a study of how long it took them to get their PhDs and the factors that slowed them down along their educational path between degrees.

What dates an academic title most dramatically is its present derogatory meaning. There are few social categories that don’t take a hit here, either. Imagine reading a new scientific study titled, “Are Fat-Girls More Hypnotically Susceptible?” (Psychological Reports, 1976; neither here nor there, but the answer was yes). And my own people, homosexuals, were perhaps the last to be spared dehumanizing language. Not only were we considered, literally, full-blooded sociopaths by the APA, but scientists referred to us as “perverts” in their technical writings for much of the last century.

Like “retarded,” “perverted” was used originally in a clinically neutral manner. The term appears frequently in Havelock Ellis’s 1896 text Sexual Inversion, one of the first, and also one of the most sympathetic, psychosexual investigations into the nature of homosexuality. Coauthored by the brilliantly erudite and flamingly queer literary critic John Addington Symonds, the authors used the formal diagnosis “pervert” interchangeably (and unfortunately without any explanation) with the more palatable “invert.” The latter term, in their view, reflected homosexuality as being a sort of flipped-around form of normal sexual arousal. Perversions covered a wide range of morally proscribed sexual behaviors, and inverts (homosexuals) that acted on their natural proclivities were regarded as just one of many kinds of such outcasts.

Scholars who found homosexuality repugnant, and who didn’t try to hide their moralistic views, pirated this objective language, and soon it crept into everyday use. In response to what he saw as the normalization of a dangerous sexual disorder, a psychiatrist from the Manhattan State Hospital named Allan Hamilton penned “The Civil Responsibility of Sexual Perverts” (American Journal of Psychiatry, 1896). Hamilton felt strongly that homosexuality was so corrupting that anyone found in such sordid relationships should be separated legally by force. “I hold that under such circumstances not only may the aid of habeas corpus be implored for the purpose of effecting a separation, but that in aggravated instances the physician should, in manner specified, bring the matter before the attention of a committing judge.”

In any event, the die had been cast for the disparaging “P word” and it lived long in the clinical literature, especially within psychoanalytic circles. Only a few short decades ago, some scholars were interpreting anal intercourse among gay men as an unconscious desire among the recipient to nip off the other’s penis with his tightened sphincter. “In this way, which is so characteristic of the pervert,” argued psychiatrist Mervin Glasser in 1986, “he [is] trying to establish his father as an internal object with whom to identify, as an inner ally and bulwark against his powerful mother.” In other words, other men with big penises are like my daddy who, unlike me, was able to subdue my bully of a mother with his enormous phallus; so if only I could subsume such a magnificent rod in my own body, I too might conquer her. That may sound as scientific to us today as astrology or etchings on a tarot card, but, all the same, it’s the type of thing that so many gay men over the past century could have expected to hear if they ever sought counseling for their inevitable woes. Today the word “pervert” sounds silly, or at least provincial, when used to refer to someone from the LGBT community, but it’s still used disparagingly for other paraphilias, in which people similarly have no choice over their atypical sexual arousal patterns.

Words, of course, change more rapidly than minds. For example, scientific terminology referring to racial minorities may now be less abrasive than it once was, yet many believe that racist science is still alive and well, as was highlighted earlier this year by the scandal over London School of Economics professor Satoshi Kanazawa’s comments at Psychology Today regarding race and physical attractiveness. So it remains to be seen, really, if our hearts will one day keep pace with our language.

 

 

 

Jesse Bering About the Author: Jesse Bering is Associate Professor of Science Communication at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He is the author of The Belief Instinct (2011), Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (2012) and Perv (2013). To learn more about Jesse's work, visit www.jessebering.com or add him on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/jesse.bering). Follow on Twitter @JesseBering.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. ThePeakOilPoet 6:34 pm 12/3/2011

    Let us hope that our language leads our hearts for our hearts are so often black with ignorance and hurt.

    Language is our evolutionary claws and teeth – we have it for free – a gift from the millions of ancestors before us. How it (epigenetically)develops in each of us is all about environment. If the environment is one of hate and conflict and hurt then the child who grows in this environment will have a language machine tailored and finely tuned to that environment – the subsequent life of such a child may do much to temper the evocations but the triggered reactions will always be those of a hard wired brain.

    Hence, we try to focus our efforts for betterment on day to day language hoping our children will grow with nice hearts because of it.

    Ah that it was so – we are such amazingly wonderful language machines that even the hiding of the triggered feelings is perceived and so modifies development.

    in the end there seems to be a truth – that we can not “legislate” goodness, wholesomeness, gentleness, “Jesus-ness” etc – we can but kid ourselves that we are trying to move ourselves in the direction of some spiritually better direction through the impotent acts of “correctness”

    look around – where in one moment of time there as this wrong or that, in this period of time there are just as many wrongs and just as many evil men (and women)

    but i guess it’s nice to give ourselves those joy-joy feelings that we are at least trying

    even if our attempts are always decades or centuries too late

    pop

    http://thepeakoilpoet.blogspot.com/

    Link to this
  2. 2. CarefulReview 12:35 pm 05/25/2013

    “even if our attempts are always decades or centuries too late”

    Too late for what?

    Link to this

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