The nasty side of nerds

I am a proud geek. However, I have to admit that we (and I) have a dark side.

Probably the best thing about Buzzfeed is the compilations of internet comics it occasionally produces. A recent one by Kevin Tang concerned the danger of becoming a ‘geek bully.’ For all my love of geek culture, I agree there does lurk within it a tendency to bully.

We geeks might see ourselves as a picked upon minority. This is how we see our relation with the rest of the world:

But often we can wind up behaving like this:

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Yes, we generally are the kids who get beaten up at school but in the adult world things are different. As a group, we are disproportionately well educated, middle class, white and male. And with that comes quite a bit of privilege. A fact only amplified by us improbably coming to dominate huge chunks of popular culture.

What results can often be a toxic combination of grievance and power. I’ve observed this manifest itself in a number of ways:

  1. Snobbery – if you prefer soaps to sci-fi or have not read any H.P Lovecraft the chances of a geek judging you are pretty high. Sometimes this is partially justified: geek culture often has an integrity and depth that more mainstream fare lacks. However, this can (and often is) just about deciding who’s in our gang and who isn’t.
  2. Misogyny – Geekdom is a subculture that’s not always hospitable for women. To give a little example, I once heard the contributors to a gaming podcast my housemates were listening to have a discussion about how annoying it was when their games were interrupted by their ‘girls’ ringing. Part of the the problem is that for at least some nerds, women are an abstraction. The result can be that when they try and participate in geek culture, women are the victims of a fear of the unknown.
  3. Dodgy political views – reaching the conclusion that you are part of a minority that’s smarter than everyone else does rather incline one to authoritarian or undemocratic politics. Scratch the surface of many nerds and you find the desire for a technocratic elite to run the lives of ‘the herd.’ I’ve lost count of the number of times, I’ve heard suggestions that the state should regulate who should have children or that certain types of people don’t really need much education. I’d suggest there is a particular problem with science students who are very aware of technical possibilities but pretty ignorant of practical barriers. The result is that they misread the rejection of their pet policies as evidence of collective stupidity rather than their own naivety.

I am ashamed to admit that I’m far from immune from the potential for geekdom to elide into elitism – though I can plead not guilty to being a misogynist. I say that people should have passions but I will – for no very good reason – probably turn my nose up at you if your passion is watching sport. And my politics certainly has a technocratic streak in it

I feel I need to end on a caveat though. Geekdom is far from being irreparably damaged or worse than other subcultures. My writing this is a result of familiarity breeding contempt: I know this world, so I know its flaws. If the fact that it values imagination and intelligence encourages success that can congeal into arrogance; then that’s a bad element of something that is ultimately good. It is also a community that has the intellectual resources to critique its own flaws. However, geeks should not flatter ourselves by thinking that only jocks can be jerks. Sadly it is a universal temptation to which no subculture is immune.

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