It’s easy to assume someone doesn’t belong in your tribe, and it’s easy to be wrong about it.
I rather like Sam Sattin’s piece “5 Rules for Achieving True Nerd-dom“, but there are also aspects of it that bother me. I worry that some of the concepts he discusses are the same ones that give rise to “Fake Geek Girl” nonsense, and other manifestations of tribalism, so I want to unpack them a bit.
Myself, I read Sattin’s article as not so much prescriptive as ruefully descriptive, a tongue-in-cheek look not at the pure ideals we should hold, but the rather embarrassing assumptions we too easily default to. And lord knows that having grown up in geek culture, I recognize the description all too well. I’m just leery of taking it too seriously.
The major theme of Sattin’s piece is rejection and mistreatment. These, he argues, are the core of nerd identity. You can like Star Trek or role-playing games all you want, but unless you’ve felt treated like shit because of it, you’re not really of the tribe. This is, essentially, the concept of dues-paying. To truly claim an identity, under this model, one must have suffered for it. And on a certain level it makes perfect emotional sense. Why should it be easy for someone else when it was hard for me?
You see the same concept in many places, like old activists who sneer at young activists, saying “Pffff, these kids got it soft. In my day you weren’t considered serious about the cause until the cops had beaten you up at least twice.” Music fans who say “Sure, now you can get [my favorite genre] on the radio ’cause it’s trendy, but I used to have to go to tiny shows in illegal venues to hear the good stuff.” Musicians who say “All this internet self-marketing stuff makes it easy for the new guys trying to make it. In my day I had to play tiny shows in illegal venues and pass the hat for gas money.” Presumably Lewis and Clark looked at the settlers on the Oregon Trail and said “Oh, you’ve got a trail now. That must be nice.”
Because that’s the nature of breaking new ground. You make it easier for those who come after you. I recognize and relate to the nerd experience Sam Sattin outlines, but I’m glad that folks younger than me don’t have to share every part of it. I’m glad that the bullying we experienced is increasingly stigmatized and banned, that the obscurity of the things we love has given way to popularity, that the isolation we felt is increasingly replaced by community, both online and off.
There’s another issue as well, though. Sattin’s definition is, as we’ve seen, based largely on suffering and rejection, and it is dangerously easy to assume you know more than you do about how much of that someone else has been through. It’s easy to look at someone and think “Oh, there’s no way they could have been laughed at, no way they could have felt lonely, no way they could have felt the way I feel. I can tell just by looking at them.” Except, of course, you can’t.
This failure of imagination and empathy sometimes reaches hilarious levels, as in Julie Burchill’s notorious recent editorial “Transsexuals Should Cut It Out” (prudently removed by the Guardian, but archived here), in which she argues that trans women have it easy in life and can’t imagine what it’s like to be really oppressed the way cis women are. (Typically for this type of transphobic nonsense, she doesn’t acknowledge the existence of trans men.) That level of willful blindness to other people’s experiences, that insistent failure of empathy, can not only be dangerous, it can cause one to appear as publicly ridiculous as Julie Burchill, and nobody wants that.
Certainly Sam Sattin’s piece does not rise anywhere near the level of Burchill’s hateful screed, nor do I mean to suggest that it does. His piece is no more offensive than any other tribal identity argument, about who’s a “real” punk rocker or a “real” weightlifter or a “real” Giants fan. Indeed, since he’s talking about my own tribe, I chuckle in rueful recognition of his definitions. My only fear is that in taking these tribal identities too seriously, we can lead ourselves into unkindness. And as I’m sure Sam would be the first to acknowledge, unkindness sucks.