Tag Archives: society

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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Remembering September 11, 2001

I started to post something rather trivial about books that have affected my writing, and I realized I really should write something about September 11, this being the day and all. For those only interested in writing, well, this is mostly me rambling about my impressions of the effect on society and a bit on me.

For some background, I was there in New York when it happened. I was in college, right across the Long Island Sound, playing a computer game and waiting to go to class. I still remember the guy who came past my room and told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. At the time, I thought he was joking with me. Even so, I followed him down to the waterfront area of my campus. I could see the tower (yes, only one at that point) from there, on the steps of the chapel. I could see the column of smoke from that one and the ruins of the first tower. And I saw the second tower fall.
There was a crowd of us, midshipmen, all wondering what was going on. We didn’t know who had done it, we didn’t know why. We didn’t know about the plane that crashed into the Pentagon or the other one, Flight 93 where the passengers fought back. We were kids, confused, worried, and a little angry that someone had attacked us.

These were things we all, as Americans, felt and learned as time went on. And for those few days and weeks afterwards, we mourned our dead and started our recovery. The event itself wrought profound changes on our society. There was fear and uncertainty, and that caused a shift in what many people were willing to accept in the name of security. This can be seen in everything from TSA, to the PATRIOT Act, and even in the current NSA scandals.

American society has become more risk adverse. This can be seen in politics, our economy, our decline in space exploration, and even clothing trends. It can also, I’d argue, be seen in some of the literature written since. There’s been a shift in American SF, away from the big dreams and vast panoramas of classic SF and towards darker and grittier stories. There have been many more novels about empires in decline or simply futures where humanity never leaves Earth, where the science doesn’t support it and our society has turned inwards. In fantasy, the genre has also grown darker, and either magic has faded out or it is something that corrupts. The reemergence of the antihero and the morally ambiguity of heroes and their choices is another aspect. Right and wrong seems less clear and our world is more frightening; so the unknown and mysterious has become something frightening too.

There are any number of arguments as to why society has taken this turn, but I think in some respects most of them come back to September 11th. Everything from the politicians who stir up further uncertainty to appear strong to the increasing use of ‘retro’ clothing fads to the continuing struggle with the economy… these are products of our own uncertainty as a society. It’s almost the equivalent of societal PTSD… which is ridiculous. In giving into our uncertainties, we fail to properly honor those who lost their lives that day. They would not want us to live in fear. That’s what the terrorist scum who attacked our country wanted.

We have to continue to live life, to dream big and to have confidence that we are strong. We have not yet even begun to test ourselves. We are the country that put man on the moon, created rock and roll, and invented the airplane. America is founded on the idea of big risks leading to big results. That aspect of pioneering is what led to our success in the first place. We are, as a people, drawn to risk, drawn to big dreams. And I would argue, if we let uncertainty and fear take that away, we will lose the very thing that makes us so great.