A Fork in the Road

To be completely honest with you, I should start by saying that I don’t know who you are. Sure, there was a time when I could safely assume that anyone reading this was a Caucasian, heterosexual male, somewhere between the ages of thirteen and forty years old. You’d also likely be an atheist, although you might be Christian or Jewish; if so, you won’t discuss it much. I could have guessed that you worked in the tech industry or perhaps the sciences. Indeed for much of the past thirty years I probably could go so far as to pick out your favorite movie (Star Wars), your favorite TV show (Doctor Who), your sense of fashion (printed T-shirts and ill-fitting casual slacks) and even what you’d be doing on a Saturday night (playing Dungeons and Dragons if you’re my age, playing World of Warcraft online if you’re a few years younger). Whether you were a nerd, a dweeb, a geek, a dork, a gamer or just the lonely kid who never quite seemed to fit in anywhere until he joined the chess club, it was pretty easy to identify you (and me) amongst a crowd of so-called “normal” people. This uniformity then combined with a sense of marginalization and alienation to bind us together and create a true feeling of unity and brotherhood amongst our fellow nerds. We may have been on the outside of mainstream culture, but sharing a community with other outcasts allowed us to stop caring about a society that had rejected us. Instead of “looking in” we started to “tune out” this culture and focus on making our own, beautiful mark on the world around us.

© Yuki Kodama, Shogakukan/KIDS ON THE SLOPE committee

The question of exactly why the nerd subculture would proceed to dominate and indeed eventually assimilate mainstream culture in the western world is significantly beyond the scope of this essay. I would however suggest simply that as a group, nerds are smart, technologically savvy and creative; they’re also absurdly focused and determined enough to see their ideas become a reality even in the face of mainstream opposition. It would be easy to suggest the rise of the computer caused the rise of the nerd but that would be to ignore our contributions to fields like art, journalism, movies, television, fashion, and perhaps less positively the financial industry or government. In truth there was no one real breakthrough moment in the rise of nerd culture and if the struggle for acceptance could be deemed a “war”, it was a conflict won through education and peaceful nonconformity. As the smoke cleared, we looked around and saw a world where it was truly and finally “hip to be square” and there was indeed much rejoicing. In light of this (admittedly brief) history lesson, perhaps what would happen next was entirely predictable.

The problem of course started after nerd culture had completely dominated mainstream culture. Suddenly, people from all walks of life were gravitating towards computers, gaming, anime, comic books and a never-ending host of other subcultures we had previously defined as “nerdy”. In a different historical context, this might have been another unifying moment but unfortunately as it happened the result has been to tear us apart. The very qualities that had served to nurture nerd culture now turned into barriers with which we attempted to keep out “those who don’t belong”. Our fierce independence became elitism and cliquish behavior. Or vast intelligence quickly turned towards how to protect our special community from outsiders who would ruin what we had built. Our sense of isolation and alienation was replaced by arrogance that allowed many of us to claim protection for and dominion over a culture that we neither created alone, nor had permission to speak for. Perhaps most horrifying of all however was the way that our prior uniformity turned into the new profile for who was and wasn’t a “real” member of the nerd subculture. One by one, we erected barricades and stereotypes based on gender, race, religion and sexual orientation while simultaneously fracturing existing nerd culture into smaller subgroups in a foolish quest to identify “real nerds”. This unfortunate fracturing brings us to today, when nerd culture is beset on all sides by social conflicts that on the surface appear unrelated, but are all ultimately part of the second great struggle that will come to define, or destroy it. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this you probably have a vested interest in helping to define, rather than destroy said culture. I’m also going to assume that there is nothing inherently evil or even amoral about nerd culture; as a social group I believe that nerds are generally warm and friendly to outsiders so long as we do not feel threatened or surrounded. Rather, I believe that many of us have simply lost our way and forgotten the feelings of isolation and alienation that drew us together in the first place.  If I assume these things are true, the obvious question then becomes: “what can we as nerds do to help bring our culture back to its roots of peace, tolerance and acceptance?”

Starship Troopers is © Sony Entertainment/TriStar Pictures

Well, for starters we can stop assuming that every single complaint about our culture is “politically correct nonsense”, “special needs claptrap” or “feminist whining”. We can start listening, reading and using our own judgment to understand these complaints and weigh them on a case by case basis like the rational, intelligent people we’re supposed to be. In fact I’d go one step further and suggest that we can stop assuming every single complaint is an attack on nerd culture as a whole; I stopped reading Penny Arcade years ago because it wasn’t funny anymore, so I feel no need to defend its creators now when they say incredibly stupid things into a microphone. When we were a marginalized minority in a society that scorned us, blindly banding together for mutual protection was logical and even noble. Now that nerds are the dominant culture however, this behavior reeks of entitlement, conformity and bullying; the very qualities we openly despised not so long ago.  I’m reminded of a quote from a classic nerdy movie (Starship Troopers) in which a war veteran who is now a teacher refuses to advise one of the main characters to join the space army. He says “Figuring things out for your self is practically the only freedom anyone really has nowadays. Use that freedom”.  My question to you then becomes “are you using that freedom?”

Of course, once we exercise our freedom to make up our own minds, we might start to realize that there really is a problem here in paradise. With open eyes we might start to see these issues for what they really are; racism, sexism, groupthink, oppression, misdirected anger and bullying in all of their hideous glories. We might also have to come face to face with how our own individual actions have helped to support and contribute to the nightmarish scenario we are faced with today. Finally, we might realize that every single day these actions and attitudes are coloring the opinions of people towards our culture worldwide. The media isn’t interested in stories about nerds coming together in peace and harmony, but they sure as heck will jump all over a story about a popular science fiction writer who actively campaigns against gay marriage now won’t they? Nobody wants to hear about the thousands of polite, normal people who play Call of Duty, but if one nutcase goes out and beats up a thirteen year old or worse, engages in a shooting; how quick is the media to jump all over the “violent video games” issue nerds so know and detest? Profiling a serial killer? Why of course he played Dungeons and Dragons and other mysterious “role-playing games!” Frankly, the list goes on and on and if you’re reading this you don’t need me to provide infinite examples; a curious world is now openly examining our culture in the media and frankly they don’t always like what they see. If I’m being honest with you, neither do I and deep down inside, I’d guess you aren’t fond of the view either. In short, once you’ve examined the issues and made up your mind, you can then recognize that there is a problem.

Unfortunately, simply acknowledging and understanding the problem in our community is not enough. In order to steer nerd culture back towards openness and tolerance it will be necessary to actively create change in the communities around us. Of course, the truth is that change starts internally, with each of us as individuals. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “be the change you wish to see in the world” and while his words may have been eloquent, the basis of his message was quite simple. In order to bring tolerance and acceptance back into our culture, we personally must become tolerant and acceptant. In order to share our ideas amongst a community of equals, we must personally learn to listen to others and treat them as equals. Every journey begins with a single step and the easiest first step we can take in our own lives is to examine our own thoughts, ideas and behavior in a critical light. We can recognize our faults and rather than defending or punishing ourselves we can actively seek to eradicate elitism, bigotry and bullying in our own thoughts and behaviors. A better community starts with better people and woe is the beast who can’t escape the past when it becomes swept up in the tide of history. You can either start with the woman in the mirror and solve the problem, or you can blunder along without realizing you are part of the problem; what you cannot do is pretend it doesn’t concern you. Ignorance and fear are simply no longer reasonable options if we hope to preserve what makes nerd culture so special to begin with.

Naturally there are those who for any number of reasons will continue to choose elitism, bigotry and bullying in a futile quest to protect this culture. Some will do so out of isolation, fear and alienation. Others, because of a genuine sense of superiority and entitlement; the idea that intelligent people have a right to exploit the stupid is by no means alien to nerd culture. Finally of course there will be those who simply stumble along from moment to moment, firmly certain that their ideas, attitudes and behavior are all completely acceptable because nobody in their social groupings seems to think any different. Many of these individuals will be quite educated, articulate and vocal about their opposition to anything they perceive as an attempt to invade, standardize or otherwise modify nerd culture. As a result these individuals will continue to fascinate the media; thereby drawing scrutiny and criticism from anyone enlightened enough to recognize fear and hatred when they see it. The second step then becomes actively speaking up about and taking actions to prevent others from poisoning our shared community with intolerance. We must actively work to make our games, meeting places, social media sites and especially interactions with the public at large open, welcoming and most importantly respectful. When our fellow gamers, geeks and nerds violate these concepts, we are morally and intellectually obliged to refute them, to call them out and point out their intolerance. It is not enough to merely eradicate our own ignorance, poor habits and self-entitled attitudes; we must defend those who would be persecuted, educate those who would learn and ostracize those who refuse to change. Absolutely none of these things are possible without everyday nerds like you and me, actively speaking up in the face of intolerance and oppression.