Counter Culture, Identity, and Nerds

I won’t ever forget the time that I heard someone tell me that I wasn’t really a nerd.

This came as quite a shock to me, let me assure you.  At the time, I was GMing an ongoing D&D campaign which had run two full years, playing once or twice a week for that entire time.  I was also playing MMO’s as well as Warhammer 40k and Fantasy.  I had grown up playing computer games like Starcraft and Civilization.  For that matter, I not only had a library of science fiction and fantasy novels, but I’d written three of them myself and was trying to get them published.  In high school and college I was a band geek, a debate geek, I played D&D, I liked math, these things weren’t something I just picked up because I thought it would make me look cool… I love this stuff.  Surely, I thought, my credentials were well established.

Not according to the young man who accosted me.  He was angry, irritated, really.  He told me that I was too well adjusted, that I hadn’t suffered enough, that I didn’t wear my badge of nerd-dom through my appearance and dress, that I needed to look the part.  Granted, he said this much less eloquently, and talked about how real nerds were outcasts, they were the people who rejected society because it rejected them and it didn’t understand them.  Nerds weren’t successful because non-nerds kept them down.

Now, say what?  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my fair share of rejection, but not what I’d call ‘oppression’, which seemed to be what this guy was hinting at.  And frankly, I’m not the type to curl up into a ball because I get my feelings hurt.  If that was the case, I probably wouldn’t have survived middle school.  Who cares about being insulted or rejected?  It happens to everyone, for one reason or another.  As for being beat up… well I could set there and take it, but it is far more satisfying to punch back.  Turns out that fighting back really is the best tactic to prevent bullying, who would have thought?

And, looking at society, there were a lot of successful people who are also nerds.  Bill Gates comes to mind as one of the standard lines.  But there are others.  In my circle of friends I know lawyers, military officers, engineers (lots of them), neurobiologists… these are people who are pretty much examples of success and are also total nerds (trust me, you should have heard the gales of laughter from my friend’s wife as we were discussing the pro’s and con’s of wizard versus sorcerer).  Oh yeah, and most of them are married, because contrary to popular opinion, being a nerd and having some social graces are not entirely mutually exclusive.

So why, exactly was this young gentleman accusing me of not really being a nerd (while wearing hipster faux glasses and button-up shirt he’d probably bought at Calvin Klein).  Well, it comes back to the counter culture idea.  Nerds are seen as the ‘cool’ people right now.  Shows like Big Bang Theory and Glee have somehow turned the nerdy kids into the ones to be… but along the way, those trendy types are emulating the appearance but not the actual spirit.  These people identify as nerds, but they do so because they think that nerds are somehow the victims, the downtrodden.  So, in this conversation, I’d mentioned that I didn’t feel particularly downtrodden by being a nerd.  Thus, the declaration that clearly I wasn’t a nerd or geek.

I just think this fellow was a bit confused, but that encounter wasn’t mine alone.  I’ve had other friends who trend towards the nerdy end of the spectrum confronted as well.  For that matter, I’ve seen science hijacked by the trendy crowd (I’m looking at you “I Fucking Love Science” with your overly simplistic science and your fancy pictures and charts).  While I appreciate that all things nerdy, from science and science fiction to comic books to gaming to roleplaying, are now somewhat fashionable… well, I think it’s more important that people do these things because they actually have interest, not hitting like or share on FB because they want to look cool, and definitely not trying to build their little cliques and power structures within greater nerd-dom.  I certainly don’t want some kind of victim mentality pushed on all of us because we’re different.  I like being different, thank you, so please don’t ruin it for me.

And as for you mister trendy nerd… well, I’m glad you’re showing an interest, but don’t go around flinging accusations, especially not when your own credentials include “I like XBox games and I played Mario Bros once.”

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