(This is the first part of a two-part series by guest blogger Jacob Lloyd — ASG)
“Give them an inch and before you know it they’ve got a foot; much more than that and you don’t have a leg to stand on.”
-General Melchett, Blackadder Goes Forth
I am a geek. My time at school wasn’t happy, so – like so many others – I took refuge in science-fiction and fantasy. For this I was mocked dreadfully. Having nowhere else to go, I persisted. It was a wonderful thing to discover that there was a place for people like me, that there were conventions and suchlike where I could meet people who shared my interests. I am a geek and proud of it.
I am also a student of human nature. I have studied cultures and subcultures, both through reading their own writings – I have linked to a set of essays on geek sociology below – and reading articles written by outsiders looking in. This has proven more interesting than I might have wished over the last few years, as the culture wars have spread into science-fiction and fantasy. Recent events – the banning of a certain writer from WorldCon on what seems to be spurious grounds – have forced me to take a long look at how geeks have changed over the last few years under pressure from social justice warriors.
Several people I talked to said that geeks embraced social justice warriors. I disagree. I insisted, for reasons I will attempt to detail below, that the vast majority of geeks loathed and feared social justice warriors, for reasons deeply rooted in geek psychology, a problem made worse by the deliberate misinterpretation of geek motives. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but I think this is generally true.
Before starting, I’d like to make one point clear. These days, it is very hard to explain how the other side thinks without being accused of condoning and/or supporting bad attitudes or behavior. This has led to a lack of understanding and empathy that has led, in turn, to a flat refusal (on both sides of the political aisle) to recognize that the other side either has a valid point or, at the very least, thinks it has. As has been noted here, people are more interested in delegitimizing opinions than in countering them. I neither condone or condemn geek attitudes – they simply exist, as far as I am concerned.
And, also before you start reading, you might want to dig into these articles: Five Geek Social Fallacies, Geeks, MOPS and Sociopaths, Boarding Schools are Evil, Exclusive Inclusivity and Social Gentrification. I am deeply indebted to those authors for helping me to understand the problems facing geeks and the geek point of view.
So … geeks. What is a geek anyway?
It’s not an easy question to answer. One can easily say that a naturalized immigrant is a citizen of his new country, but is he truly one of his new people? Or is he a fake, whatever his papers say? Are you a geek if you watched The Avengers and the rest of the MCU movies, but never picked up a comic book? Or do you have to read every comic book religiously, cite trivia from books twice your age and attend every SF/fantasy convention within range? Do you have to cosplay? Play Dungeons and Dragons? Write books and scripts? Take part in discussions or just let it wash over you?
And I don’t have a good answer. Everything I come up with is either far too inclusive, in the sense than an Atheist might conflate Muslims and Jews, or far too exclusive. The best I can think of is that a geek is someone who willingly and regularly participates in geeky hobbies at the expense of other activities. You are not a geek if you watch The Avengers once; you are a geek if you watch Doctor Who marathons or eagerly nitpick Star Trek episodes or write long explanations of precisely how Disney smashed Star Wars canon into space dust or get involved in RPGs or …
Yes, this is far from perfect. But it’s the best I can do.
Geekdom is probably best described as an onion. On the outside, you have people who watch movies and little else. They may not even consider themselves geeks. One layer in, you have people who cosplay for fun and, again, do little else. Two layers in, you have people who are exclusively devoted to a single fandom – Star Wars, Harry Potter or Twilight, perhaps – that has gone mainstream. And then – right at the core, a number of layers in from the outer edge of our imaginary onion – are the pure geeks. This is not a formalized structure in any way, shape or form. It’s merely a way of looking at the geek/fandom social group.
You can say that your position in the onion is dependent upon how much energy you choose to invest in being a geek and, perhaps more importantly, if you have somewhere else to go. A football jock who happens to like something geeky does have somewhere else to go, somewhere that builds social credit; he is rarely significantly invested in his geeky interest.
The point you have to understand about the pure geeks is two-fold. First, they rarely have anywhere else to go for social support. They are immensely invested in their geeky interests because they have nothing else. Second, the vast majority of geeks – myself included – have had horrible, horrible, horrible, experiences with bullies.
Look at any high school. The people at the bottom of the social hierarchy? That’ll be the geeks. They’re the ones who get picked on by everyone else, especially the ones who would be at the bottom if the geeks didn’t exist. They are not sporty, they are not cool, they have no social cred at all. No one wants to be their friend. Everything they do is uncool by definition. The lucky geeks find a handful of friends who share the same interests and bond over them; the unlucky geeks (like me) find themselves alone.
They want to be part of a group. That’s a common human desire. But they are often unable to join the cooler groups. They’re the ones picked last for teams and often the first to be ejected. They are social outcasts who face exclusion on a massive scale every day. This sort of treatment makes it hard to develop any sense of empathy. Why should one be empathic when empathy is never shown to you?
And all of this happens during their formative years, when they are more dependent on peer groups than their parents. It is the worst possible time for any form of social exclusion.
This has long-term effects. We learn social interaction by doing – and then learning from our mistakes. (This is why people who move countries can run into problems because what was normal in the old country is not acceptable in the new.) Geeks do not get to learn how to do everything from make friends and develop healthy relationships to ask out girls (or boys) without coming across as creepy. Their mistakes are magnified because they’re at the bottom of the social hierarchy. It’s safe to lash out at a geek and say things you wouldn’t dare say to someone with more social cred (or a genuine talent for violence). By the time they are midway through high school, geeks have internalized four truths about how the world runs:
1) The vast majority will pick on you if you give them the slightest excuse. Or even if you don’t.
2) Authority is useless, either heedless of your complaints or more inclined to punish you for being bullied than punishing the bullies.
3) You are helpless. Resistance is futile.
4) It’s not WHAT you do that matters, it’s WHO you are.
You might argue that these are not true. But, to geeks, they are.
A number of serious geeks I’ve met (myself included) are somewhere on the autistic spectrum. They have problems relating to neurotypicals. Others have been bullied and excluded so intensely that they are socially awkward. They find it hard to build friendships with people who come across as even slightly threatening, let alone relationships with the opposite sex. And part of the reason they are like this is because of Truth 4: they know they’ll be blasted for the slightest mistake, while the more popular people will get away with far worse behavior. Geeks don’t give a damn about microaggressions because a) they know they mostly happen by accident and b) they’re too worried about aggressions.
Most geeks in high school – at least the ones I’ve met – are bitter. They are excluded from the school mainstream even when they’re not being bullied regularly. Some of them have to engage in preference falsification to get any social contact at all, others pray for something – anything – that will kill their enemies or at least put a wall between the predators and the prey. Some kill themselves because they can’t take it anymore; a handful, so consumed with bitterness and hatred towards their entire society (the bullies and those who allow the bullies to bully), turn into school shooters.
Adulthood often brings with it maturity and a more nuanced view of society. The vast majority of people who have experienced some form of social exclusion in school discover that the adult world is both more welcoming to everyone (although it brings its own challenges) and less tolerant of certain kinds of behavior. The crap the popular kids pulled in high school, for example, will get them fired in most jobs.
But there are some people who are so badly damaged by their experiences that they don’t or can’t grow out of it. To these people, as explained in the Social Gentrification article, fandom is a safe space in the truest possible sense.
It’s a place you can go to be with people who share your interests. It’s a place where you won’t be judged or mocked or bullied or excluded merely for being a geek. Geek Social Fallacies One and Two did not come out of nowhere. They are responses to the horrendous treatment geeks suffered at the hands of their bullies – and everyone else, who found it easier or safer to side with the bullies than the bullied. The person who has vast problems relating to others and judging what is appropriate is safe in fandom.
To put this in some context, I have a problem where I sometimes say the wrong word. I once told my wife that she needed to speak to her husband about something. That’s right – I told her to speak to me. What normally happens is that I catch the mistake a second too late and correct myself – in this case, I meant to say she needed to talk to her father. But what sometimes happens is that I’ll do it in front of someone a great deal less merciful, who will rub my nose in my mistake mercilessly. It’s hard enough for me to talk to strangers – or even colleagues I don’t know that well – without fearing what might come out of my mouth.
“As recently as ten years ago, “something geeky” would have been easy to define, because those of us who self-identified as geeks or nerds – and who solidified our membership in our culture by arguing what it meant to be a geek or a nerd, and why you were one but not the other because the other was weird – we were all part of a relatively small subculture, and we found our way to the things that we loved (and continue to love) because we weren’t particularly welcome anywhere else … or at least we didn’t feel very comfortable there.”
Geek Social Fallacy One holds that Ostracisers Are Evil. And everything geeks experience in their formative years supports that view. It makes it hard for the geeks to realize that sometimes – perhaps – the ostracisers have a point, let alone exclude someone who really should have been excluded. No. To them, ostracisers are just bullies. No geek wants to set a precedent for acceptable social exclusion for fear it will be used against them. And, based on their lives so far, this is a reasonable fear. Better to tolerate the ‘cat piss man’ than risk excluding him one week and being tossed out yourself the next.
And someone who goes too far – to the point where the vast majority of his fellow geeks no longer want him anywhere near them – is more likely to feel that he is being bullied than his behavior has gone past ‘socially awkward’ and into ‘utterly unacceptable.’ (This is partly because of Geek Social Fallacy Two, which makes it harder to accept criticism from a friend.)
Geeks, in short, have been treated so badly in their formative years that they are unable or unwilling to accept that their enemies might have a point. And why not? They know, intimately, that any sort of concession will be used against them. They do not see their enemies as reasonable people because their lives have taught them that their enemies are not reasonable people. They’re certainly not negotiating in good faith!
(The next installment continues from here with the interaction of geeks and others, especially sjws, in fandom — ASG)