“True Nerd-dom” and Dues-Paying

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.



About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is a writer and editor, and quite possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.


  1. I can relate tomthis, having been a total geek girl who was treated pretty badly in middle school and high school. In 7th grade, I spent my birthday money on a microscope, true story. My current boyfriend is a software engineer, played D&D and Magic The Gathering, obsessed with sci fi and fantasy, didn’t have a girlfriend until he was 27. We both look with bemusement on the “new geeks”. My boyfriend said once, “If being a geek becomes cool then the geeks will have to be something else, because the cool kids will never associate with us.” I think there is truth in that. A core part of geek identity is exclusion by popular kids, and the popular kids will never stop excluding the socially awkward and physically unattractive. Because a core part of being popular is separating yourself from the unpopular.

    Many geeks developed geek interests because they couldn’t participate in the things that the popular kids did, like sports. My boyfriend had bad eyesight and asthma when he was a teenager and couldn’t run 5 yards. I had a mild physical disability that caused me to limp, and I was very plain looking and wore huge glasses. I focused on school and read fantasy novels because I had nothing else. I found a home with other nerdy kids who watched Monty Python and read comics and worked all year on their Ren Faire costumes. My boyfriend discovered computers (just coming onto the scene in our time) and D&D. We both had the experience of being seen as weird and useless by our peers.

    When I see a hot young woman dressed up in a costume at a sci fi convention, I admit I do wonder how if it is possible for her to really be a “geek.”. Certainly, having geek interests is open to all. But as my boyfriend said, “geeks have no choice about being geeks. An hot woman can choose to be a geek or not.” I’m not defending that attitude, but I see his point. In our generation, being a geek was not an identity we chose, it was an identity that was thrust upon us.

    The other thing I’ll mention, again not defending this attitude, but in the old days, the geeks/nerds were very often the smartest kids in the class. Many geeks are very elitist about IQ and will not respect you as a fellow geek unless you have a solid background in science or technology, preferably with an advanced degree and working in a STEM field. (That’s been my experience living in Silicon Valley for 20 years, anyway.)

  2. You’re too kind Noah!

    Sam’s article reminds me of the guys who come over to play role-playing games with my roommate. Every time they show up, they have an opinion on what I’m watching:

    wrestling (hasn’t been cool since 2001),
    a Disney sitcom (immature),
    a fighting sport (nerds understand fitness is for jocks), or
    a racing sport (nerds know cars aren’t cool)…

    Basically anything except a sci-fi show or cartoon is uncool, or should not be able to be understood…then they bring out their character sheets, maps, and dice, and proceed to play wizards and dragons until morning.

  3. I take the opposite tack: since high-school nerds were overwhelmingly male, I find their ability to laugh about the undeniable abuse they suffered refreshing and encouraging. And since this forum is about men sharing their experiences–including the problems they’ve faced–I encourage nerds to voice their problems and pain however they choose.

    Society hasn’t suddenly become ‘accepting’ of nerds–far from it. Anti-nerd discrimination in high school was just one manifestation of anti-male discrimination. It was another outgrowth of stifling gender-role demands being applied to men who had no outlet or option to resist.

    • That’s a very interesting point about anti-nerd discrimination being a facet of anti-male discrimination. That certainly rings true to me. It often seemed like one of the primary problems that other people had with my interests was that they weren’t manly enough. It strikes me that that’s probably true (in a somewhat different way) for girls as well. Nerdy and geeky pursuits occupy a strange middle ground where they don’t fit into the accepted behavior norms for either gender. So male geeks get harassed for not being macho enough and female geeks get harassed for not being girly enough. And the insecurities stemming from that harassment probably have a lot to do with the gender discrimination that happens within geek circles. Female geeks try to find geeky ways of being feminine, and male geeks don’t want to be associated with that and try to shun them.

    • @Copyleft:

      “Society hasn’t suddenly become ‘accepting’ of nerds–far from it.”
      I think you’re absolutely right. Just because nerd culture of yesterday has become pop culture and mainstream (big money), doesn’t mean that nerd-dom has gone extinct, and I think we’re making a huge mistake if we assume that it has.
      Just like anyone suffering for being a computer or trek nerd 30 (40?) years ago, there’s probably at least an equal amount of kids today being bullied for taking interest in cultures that we (“the nerds of yesterday”) have yet to hear about. And I think it would be a great disservice to them not to acknowledge that!

  4. I guess it really comes down to the question of what makes a nerd a nerd (or a geek a geek). Certain interests used to intrinsically go hand-in-hand with social stigma. Now that those interests have been decoupled from the stigma (at least partially), people argue over which of those things was the defining characteristic of nerd-dom.

    Personally, I’m sympathetic to both sides of the argument. I don’t see much point to petty tribalism, but I’m guilty of it myself. I was a bookish social pariah as a kid, and I have to admit feeling some resentment for people who didn’t “pay their dues”. One person in particular bothers me, a girl that I went to middle and high school with who’s now a friend-of-a-friend. When we were in school together, she was one of the people who aspired to be one of the popular crowd, and was willing to suck up to fit in. She could be rather cruel. Many years later, she’s a huge Trekkie and self-proclaimed geek and apparently was all along.

    Now, I don’t buy into the “fake geek girl” meme; I’m sure her interests are genuine. But she hid them when they would have been socially inconvenient for her, and I can’t help resenting her a bit for it. It’s unreasonable – adolescence is a tough time and you do what you have to to get by – but I feel it nonetheless. I guess it’s similar to how some in the gay community resent those who stayed closeted during the AIDS crisis (not that the harassment I suffered was even close in magnitude the inhumanities suffered by gays in the 1980s). I always think of those recriminations as pointless and counterproductive when other people engage in them, but I’m guilty of the same thing.

    I guess the larger point here is that oppression of any kind messes with your head, and it’s tempting for groups that have suffered to visit similar suffering upon other groups when they gain power. Hopefully nerds and geeks will be able to avoid that temptation (although I suppose you can see that dynamic at work already in the “fake geek girl” phenomenon). The cycle of abuse is tough to break, for groups as well as individuals.

  5. Great response, Noah! And very insightful indeed. I think you have the right idea about tribalism, and that there is a sort of, “When I was your age, I walked to school on my asscheeks!”, to my rant. I think the thrust of my piece was more for kicks than not. And I did loathe that ‘Fake Geek Girl’ article, if only for the sexism implicit therein. I do think, however, that there is something to say about appropriation, namely how cutures, whether ethnic or fetish-based, are appropriated for mainstream consumption by those who don’t really care about where they came from. It’s the same issue I have with ‘Indie Music’ right now, as I don’t think that exists anymore. And i think that authenticity, or at least an attempt at, is important. Again, however, I really appreciate your thoughts, and think you’re pretty much correct. Best!


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