WARNING – This post will be long, and may offend some folks. There may be triggers, please be advised. Now buckle up and let’s begin. Please remain reading until the essay has come to a complete stop. Enjoy your ride!
As most of you are no doubt aware, there has been a brouhaha surrounding the topic of ‘Fake Geek Girls’ and the inappropriate responses to them. The first I became aware of said brouhaha (that’s a fun word – try saying it out loud – ‘brou-ha-ha’ on July 26th 2012 when John Scalzi over at Whatever posted a rebuttal of Joe Peacock’s call to arms against ‘Booth Babes’, AKA ‘Fake Geek Girls’. A few things nagged at me, the inklings of this essay, but Scalzi made many good points, and Peacock was shallow. I link surfed a bit, then left things to ferment in the back of my head. Short version: Peacock claimed to be Pope of the Geek Orthodox Church and excommunicated hot cosplayers, Scalzi trumped Peacock’s Pope with Erisian Anti-Popeness (and more Geek Cred) and simultaneously excommunicated Peacock and denied the ability of anyone, including himself, to excommunicate anyone.
On November 14th 2012 the topic reared its head once more, again brought to my attention by the inimitable Scalzi (yes I follow his blog, and so should you, trust me), wherein he examines a FaceBook rant by Tony Harris. Again, something teased at the brew I had bubbling in my subconscious, but I’ll readily admit to laughing too hard to stop and think about the matter closely. Link hopping occurred, and this article by Rich Johnston at Bleeding led me to yet a third explosion in the daisy chain of gaffes, misogyny, and regret. Short version: Harris had a meltdown, Scalzi showed up with a fire hose.
Rich Johnston did another fine job reviewing an unfortunate byplay between Bleeding Cool authors de Guzman and Manning regarding a meme Manning reposted on his Facebook timeline. Link hopping followed. This time the subconscious bubbling indicated a post nearly ready to decant, distill, and imbibe, but the time was not yet quite right. Short version: Manning shared a meme with the word ‘whore’ in it. This was remarkably unwise, and he was branded ‘sexist’ post haste by… well… everyone, mostly.
There was one intervening conversation that catalyzed all my various thoughts into a coherent whole, I didn’t realize it had until a recent article at Cracked pulled the subject back to the foreground of my mind. At least three of my friends linked it on Facebook, with comments supporting the article, standing firm against the tide of geeky misogyny. Short version: Thomas Willeford and my wife may be the only pair speaking to me after I finish this, but Thom’s a cool guy, and the Ur-Goth is all the female attention I need.
Then a whole bunch of other stuff intervened in my life, and I back-burnered this essay as less important than major political issues and a lot of professional need-to-get-dones. Maybe a mistake, maybe not, as I had the opportunity to reread the Olweus anti-bullying documentation I got last summer. Then this past week, Scalzi again brought up the issue of harassment, this time through the medium of policies, both convention anti harassment and his regarding them. Reading the comment thread set off another link surf, and reminded me of this long neglected essay, that first one especially.
Now you’ve got some of the impetus of the article, as well as some of the background if you missed it. Now for a few items I take as givens, which may apply to the brouhaha. If you take exception to these, please tell me in the comments, but try to be civil.
– There is never an excuse for bullying, no matter what form it takes, and the victims of bullying need support and guidance, not condemnation. Social disability does not negate or reduce this need, it exacerbates it.
– Social disability is a real thing. Widespread use of common diagnostic tools for ASD is a fairly recent thing. Prior to that, if you could cope well enough to avoid non-engineered public disgrace, you were just relegated to the nerd table at lunch.
– Social talent exists as well. We often refer to it as ‘charisma’, and there are some folks who can say the exact same words, take the exact same actions, and get a completely different reaction.
– Men and women have differences, some genetic and some socially imprinted. Some are harmful, some are not. We also have similarities. We can understand one another, at least on an intellectual level, but not if we don’t communicate.
– ‘Geek’ and ‘Nerd’ are not synonyms, but there is a strong crossover between the latter and the former. Lately, not so much the other way. For purposes of this discussion, I’ll be using ‘Geek’ to refer to someone who is ‘into’ a subject, and I’ll be using ‘Nerd’ to refer to someone who is socially inept.
So. Fake Geek Girls. More generally, ‘fake geeks’. According to popular belief, they are a product of the fevered imagination of poor benighted souls like Harris and Peacock. The problem, of course, is that many of the old school insist they exist, and have built up huge defenses against them. This isn’t strong evidence they exist, but it is strong evidence that something scared these guys at some point.
Something important to note is that many of these guys are nerds. They may have quite a few learned social skills, but that’s exactly what they are: learned skills. They watched a person who got good social results and emulated them. If they got lucky, they found a sympathetic non-nerd to give them clear instructions on how to do something the non-nerd found instinctual. The latter is often harder than the former, especially in current times; society has publicized the contribution of the nerd, but it’s still not easy to explain to someone the mechanics of how to breathe or eat.
So… the nerds go looking for a social group. They don’t fit in to any of the bigger ones, because most of those are based on social skills, of which they have few if any. At best they might be used as social cannon fodder or to help pay for food. They’re forever relegated to the bottom of the social hierarchy which, as Thomas noted, exists. This layer of the hierarchy is a prime target for bullying by the top layer, as they are fundamentally powerless. They wind up getting bullied and, as most anti-bullying efforts are useless or worse than useless, they withdraw from socialization.
So they have no social group, despite the ‘best efforts’ of concerned relatives who repeat variations on ‘Have you tried not being a nerd?’ There’s a public misperception, sometimes internalized, that nerds don’t want social interaction. What they don’t want is to be bullied, and the only way they can avoid it is to withdraw. With the spare time most people spend on parties, they find a hobby and get very, very good at it, at least at the memorized knowledge aspect of it. At some point, while looking for more hobby materials, they meet other like minded individuals. At this point, an interesting side effect of hobby enthusiast (e.g. Geek) Hierarchies comes into play; the more you know about the hobby (trivia based), or the better you are at it (creation based), the higher you are on the hierarchy. They’ve found a group where *social* skills aren’t the desired ones. Nirvana!
So that’s why a huge portion of the Nerd population winds up as Geeks; it’s the social group where they aren’t powerless. Now, it’s important to note that at this point some of them become bullies themselves. This type of behavior needs to be called out when it happens, because it’s just as wrong. On this I completely agree with Mr. Scalzi – the only time to use your Geek Cred to tell someone to can it is when they’re using their own Geek Cred to bully someone. Do note there are better ways to put it than ‘can it’, but we’ll get to that when we get to it.
We need to discuss history here for a second. Before The Internet, those Geek communities hadn’t become nearly as massive a cultural force. Yes, conventions existed, but these were the days before Harry Potter became the bestselling series of all time, with Goosebumps running a close second. These were the days before the second Star Wars trilogy, when movie producers thought tossing any old sci fi / fantasy / comic dreck on the screen would get the same sales figures as Star Wars itself, since ‘nerds and geeks have no taste anyway, or they wouldn’t be nerds and geeks’. Finally, the Internet itself wasn’t there. No Google, no Wikipedia, no Netflix. If you wanted to get into something, it could be a huge time investment. There wasn’t much support or room for the ‘casual geek’, except in the socially acceptable geekdoms, such as sports.
Then the Internet happened. Lord of the Rings happened. Harry Potter and Goosebumps and Transformers and…
Suddenly, it was possible to be a casual geek. If you wanted to immerse yourself in Doctor Who for a weekend, you didn’t need to know a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy to get the VHS tapes, or shell out the money for them yourself, or shell out even MORE money for convention tickets. You fire up Netflix, grab the popcorn, and indulge. If you want to talk about Doctor Who, find a forum. If you want to do Who arts and crafts, Google some pre-designed projects. Geekdoms swelled, and the old school nerds, who had sheltered safe in the bosom of the geekdoms, were suddenly inundated with new people to deal with. People who hadn’t grown up learning to deal with the socially inept, because socially inept people were the only ones who would deal with their own ineptitude.
People who were used to ignoring a very real handicap, because it didn’t have a physical symptom. People who said to them ‘stop being a nerd, or get out of the geekdom’. People who said ‘why don’t you try not being a nerd?’ People who responded with ‘don’t let him in, he’s annoying’ – thus engaging in exclusion, Olweus’ second form of bullying. Yeah, you’re recommending bullying as a solution.
Now, here’s my first point and suggestion: some of the folks we’re talking about are still dealing with traumas, and saying ‘get over your disability or get out’ is re-traumatizing them. You wouldn’t say ‘get over being raped or I’ll rape you again’ to a rape victim*. Okay, some people would; but I think all of the civilized people in the conversation agree that these are the BAD GUYS. Don’t be a bad guy. For those of you who have some measure of that disability, and need a script, or just can’t relate to a nerd’s headspace, try the following:
That behavior** wasn’t acceptable. When you do that, you hurt the people around you. We’re not excluding you, we’re asking you to stop doing that one thing. If you need to express yourself, and can’t figure out how to do so without repeating that behavior, ask someone***.
Most nerds aren’t bad guys. If you tell them they’re hurting someone, they’ll want to stop, but they often won’t know how. If they keep doing that behavior, suggest they get some professional help to break the habit. If it continues without any sign of attempt to change, it’s distinctly possible what you’ve got is not a nerd, but a socially adept asshat pretending to be a nerd to get away with stuff. At that point, try the following:
You’ve continued with that behavior we mentioned. We all want to keep hanging out with you, but until you stop, you’re hurting too many of us for us to keep ignoring it. We have to take a break from you****. Take that time, get some professional help, and get over that behavior. If, when we get back together, you can behave in a better manner, it’s in the past. If you can’t, we may have to make that break permanent.
Now, for the original point of this article, the one that got sidetracked by the Nerd thing. Fake Geeks. Remember how I mentioned in the history where Casual geeking became a thing? Where you didn’t have to structure your life around your geekdom in order to really enjoy hanging with your geek friends once in a blue moon when you got some time away from work? Yeah, that brought a huge influx of new geeks into geek hierarchies, but at the same time, it drew them away from the traditional social hierarchies.
Now, here’s an important point from Olweus*****. Bullies aren’t ‘socially maladjusted’, nor do they have ‘poor self esteem’. On the contrary. Bullies are typically socially adept, able to play crowds for their own amusement. They also tend to have fantastic self esteem. The ‘typical’ bully, in point of fact, is indistinguishable from the people at the top of traditional social hierarchies******.
So the traditional social hierarchies, many long run by a succession of bullies or proto-bullies, are being abandoned in droves by folks who can now get their social on with folks who care more about their hobby than about who did what to who six years ago, or who is more popular than who, or who is dating who^. Our putative ‘social leaders’ are now leaders without followers. Successively higher tiers now find themselves at the bottom run, target of bullying. They drop off as well. The infighting gets nasty. Cannibalism^^ is the inevitable result.
However, not all of the proto-bullies are stupid. Some of the leaders realize they’re captains of sinking ships. Some of the followers have dreams of grandeur. They all see these new social circles and realize that they are remarkably light on manipulators^^^. The ones who exist use pathetically primitive techniques. They join the crowds fleeing the increasingly toxic ‘traditional’ structures.
Now, remember, these are folks who are good at social interaction. They realize this new social structure is based around participation in some activity. They’re not into that activity, but they can fake it long enough to acquire some clout, and a little clout is all they need to manipulate themselves back to the top of the social pile. They have not come to the new world as refugees, like the first nerds. They haven’t come to the new world as settlers and seekers of freedom, like the massive influx of new geeks. They’ve come as conquerors of the pathetic wretches who should have known better than to flee the dominion of their betters.
Here’s where an odd, good thing happens. Some of those social manipulators realize they like the new activity. They like the non toxic environment. They’ll never stop manipulating, just like a nerd will never instinctively know what the right thing to say is, but any conscious manipulation they do is with the goal of smoothing things over, making their new world a better place. They learn and grow and life is better.
But not all of them. Some of them pull on the geekdom like a mask, wear it just enough to get that first bit of power, and then shrug it off at every opportunity. They’ll pull geeks, new and old alike, into the same old political games, because they enjoy it. They scramble and claw into positions of power, because they like bullying.
I’m sure many of us have seen them. The guy who comes to the con exclusively because ‘geek chicks don’t know how to say no to a guy like me’. The girl who comes with a group of friends, looks bored out of her skull from the time she arrives, and the moment all of the ‘required’ things are done, says ‘let’s go do something fun now’, where fun is defined as ‘anything not geeky’. Some of them are good at it. Some of them aren’t. All of them gradually erode geek society as we’re trying to make it.
The only solution is to out them when and where they do it. Stand up and say ‘no, that is not right’. Men, when a guy says something offensive about women in general or a man in specific, tell him it’s wrong. Right then, right there, at that moment. Women, when a girl tries to set the group against one another, call them on it, publicly.^^^ Don’t let it pass, don’t do it ‘quietly, in private’, because they’ll try again.
The only time bullies stop is when their peers, lots of their peers, come out in public and say ‘No. This is not acceptable. You are not cool. We will not be silent and let this pass. You will stand down, apologize, and not do that again, because we will not have bullying in our playground.’
Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes you’ll feel like the only guy or girl in the room who sees what’s going on. Sometimes you’ll be the lone voice against the crowd, the lone candle in the darkness. But even then, our shared geek heritage can come to our rescue. After all, we are the ones who gave the world the phrase “You shall not pass!”?
As Brimley so succinctly put it; thanks for your time.
*If you object to comparison of rape and bullying, note the statistics on suicides and murders related to bullying. I’m not downplaying the seriousness of rape, I’m pointing out that bullying is a serious problem. In addition, just like rape, bullying impacts different people in very different ways and to very different degrees. Assuming a one-sized-fits-all ‘just get over it’ remedy is disingenuous.
**Be specific. Don’t say ‘oh, you know’. They don’t, or they wouldn’t be doing it.
***Give them a specific person to ask, but make sure it’s someone socially adept and thick skinned. Nerds don’t object to the idea of mentors; if they believe the gesture is an honest one, they’ll likely badger the person quite a bit for advice, because social skills can become a kind of trivia geekdom for them.
****Set a specific time. Seeing a pattern here yet? Yeah, specifics. Nerds don’t have the instincts, so they rely on hard facts. Make sure the time is enough, because they will live and die by that time.
*****Yeah, I’m quoting him a lot. Dude is one of the few doing science on bullying, and has been doing it since the seventies. Forty years of science, he’s got the data backing him at this point, as well as the experiments. Where his methods are put into place with all trimmings, bullying screeches to a halt. That’s called testing a falsifiable hypothesis. To quote a great man, ‘Science! It works, bitches!‘
******More specifically, when you take the set of psychological features shared by the majority of bullies, they are also shared by people at the top of traditional social hierarchies, and more importantly, not a defining feature of non-bullies and non-social leaders.
^Got tired of asterisks. This is not to say that politics and drama don’t occur in geek circles. This is to say they are not the reason the circles exist, and many of the geeks will note they’re like toxic waste, to be disposed of as carefully and thoroughly as possible.
^^^Not saying they don’t or didn’t exist.
^^^^Not saying the reverse gender situations don’t happen. Just making examples. Women, out the misandry; men, out the social climbers.
NOTE – Some of the references may be slightly dated. Anything of that nature isn’t an intentional distraction or attempt to deceive; I’ve just been thinking about this for a while.
NOTE TWO – The original title of this was ‘The Myth of Fake Geek Girls – A Rebuttal’. I expanded the article and changed the title to ‘The Last Socially Acceptable Target for Hate’, but that didn’t cover everything either, so…