Trump and the True Meaning of ‘Idiot’
THE STONE JUNE 12, 2017
In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, respondents were asked what word immediately came to mind when they thought of Donald Trump: The No. 1 response was “idiot.” This was followed by “incompetent,” “liar,” “leader,” “unqualified,” and finally, in sixth place, “president.” Superlatives like “great” and a few unprintable descriptives came further down on the list. But let us focus on the first.
Contemporary uses of the word “idiot” usually highlight a subject’s lack of intelligence, ignorance, foolishness or buffoonery. The word’s etymological roots, however, going back to ancient Greece, suggest that, in the case of the president, it may be even more apropos than it might first seem.
In ancient Greek society, an idiotes was a layperson who lacked professional skills. The idiot contributed nothing to public life or the common good. His existence depended on the skill and labor of others; he was a leech sucking the lifeblood from the social body. Related to this, idiocy (from the root idios, “one’s own”) was the state of a private or self-centered person. This contrasted with the status of the public citizen, or polites, such that to be an idiot was to be withdrawn, isolated and selfish, to not participate in the public, political life of the city-state. In Greek society, the condition of idiocy was seen as peculiar and strange (a meaning that is retained in the English word “idiosyncratic”); thus “idiot” was a term of reproach and disdain.
The education scholar Walter C. Parker sought to invoke this original meaning in his 2005 essay “Teaching Against Idiocy.” In it, he writes that “when a person’s behavior became idiotic — concerned myopically with private things and unmindful of common things — then the person was believed to be like a rudderless ship, without consequence save for the danger it posed to others.” The idiot, then, was a threat to the city-state, to public life, and to the bonds that make communication and community possible. Parker continues: “An idiot is suicidal in a certain way, definitely self-defeating, for the idiot does not know that privacy and individual autonomy are entirely dependent on the community.” Parker also notes that the idiot has not yet reached “puberty,” or the transition to public life.
The idiot, understood in this sense, undermines not only community but also communication. An “idiom” is a phrase peculiar to a specific language or place. The idiot speaks only in idioms, though these function for him not as colorful additions to a language or culture, but are understood by him alone. To members of the community, his utterances are the babblings of a baby or a madman, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Given all this, the idiot can be defined as such: a prepubescent, parasitic solipsist who talks only to himself.
In the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, the term began to take on the more familiar meaning, namely a person of low intelligence. This meaning is fraught with ableist history, as “idiot” was used as a diagnostic term indicating severe intellectual or developmental disability. Dr. Henry H. Goddard was the first to translate the French Binet-Simon intelligence test, a precursor to I.Q. tests, into English, and used the metric to classify “mental age”: An adult with a mental age less than 3 years old was labeled an “idiot”; between 3 and 7, an “imbecile”; and between 7 and 10, a “moron.” Originally, an I.Q. was determined by dividing mental age by actual age and multiplying by 100: An idiot was anyone with an I.Q. below 30. (Goddard, by the way, was an early advocate for special education but also favored eugenic practices and believed that the idiot should be removed from society by institutionalization or sterilization.)
Humans evolved for the most part by putting community first and the individual second. Despite many of the political narratives that posit a mythological “state of nature,” in which selfish, violent, atomistic individuals must forgo their natural liberties and make compromises and contracts to secure their own existence, scientific evidence simply does not support this. For creatures like us, self-preservation was always also social preservation. The “I” is in its very existence also a “we.”
The idiot does not understand this, and thus does not understand how he came to be, how he is sustained and how he is part of a larger ecology. The idiot cares nothing about public life, much less public service. The idiot cares only about his own name. The idiot, by way of his actions, can destroy the social body. Eventually, the idiot destroys himself, but in so doing, potentially annihilates everyone along with him. He is a ticking time bomb in the middle of the public square.