How does nerd rage feel from the inside? And what can be done about it?
In part one of this article, we talked about the cluster of people who are, or believe themselves to me, permanently awkward and socially nonfunctional, people who need simple and consistent rules for interactions. They’ve tried to make spaces for themselves within geek/nerd culture, where they don’t have to be acceptable to other people, and they respond with rage when they feel those spaces have been violated by “outsiders”. Their experience of outsiders, and especially of women, is that they cause pain, therefore causing them pain is justifiable.
“Well, that’s a nice theory,” you may be thinking, “but does it fit the facts? Does it have predictive value?” If you’re not thinking that, you should be. Always. Let’s look at some examples. First, we have this rueful essay by Devin Faraci, in which he recalls his own youthful nerd rage, and analyzes how current events look through that unhappy lens:
I’ve done it! I’ve cried about how girls only go for assholes! I’ve whined about outsiders invading my geek spaces! I’ve felt bad for myself because I couldn’t understand why a very beautiful girl wouldn’t want to date a fat, greasy oddball who wore a severed finger earring. I was lonely.
This loneliness has manifested itself in #GamerGate in a big way. They see the world of video game journalists and developers as ‘cliquish’ and ‘nepotistic.’ That’s because they don’t understand networking or, frankly, making many friends. People who work together in an industry will socialize together, especially in an industry like games, where everyone pursued their jobs because they love the field in which they work. When you work in a field you love your hobbies and your work become impossibly intertwined. But for the dispossessed 15 year old this looks like an impenetrable world of socially entangled hypocrites, indistinguishable from the impenetrable social world at school. Games are what these angry nerds love, how they spend their time, and here is a group of people who are on a higher social plane than they are in this video game world and they do not understand why. And some of them are girls.
Again we see the theme played out: the defining quality of these guys is not being white and male, it’s being socially nonfunctional. They don’t understand how to be around other people, and they feel instinctively that anyone who does understand how doesn’t belong in their club.
We see the same problem in all the nonsense about “fake geek girls”, who are always conventionally attractive. You will never, ever see a fake-geek-girl joke with a photo of an overweight, frizzy-haired woman in an ill-fitting T-shirt. The cries of “fake!” come when a woman looks like someone who’s been socially accepted, and therefore by definition can’t be in the geek club, which is only for the unattractive and ostracized. Yes, this is a toxic, self-loathing worldview, but it’s the one too many guys are stuck with.
Next, let’s look at a series of actual comments from a Gamergate supporter who shall remain nameless, but whose guileless, barefaced anger and pain show the nature of the problem in sharp relief. The following screencaps were taken from comments on a Gamergate article on a very popular website.
First we have the simple rules and the insider vs. outsider manifesto: Then, in response to criticism of what he honestly thinks is a moderate and reasonable stance, we get this revealing clarification of his terms:
Naturally, this guy gets a lot of pushback from people refusing to grant his premises, and very quickly his I’m-being-reasonable stance breaks down and we get a look at the raw hurt underneath:
It’s like a Scooby-Doo episode. The mask comes off the cartoon monster and we see that inside is just an embittered, angry human being. In this case, a guy whose experience of interaction with socially functional people has caused him nothing but hurt. He hates those “outside” people with their nuance and empathy and rules he can’t understand; he hates them for causing him pain.
That’s not an excuse for anything he does, and for what too many like him do; recall that all those embittered human beings on Scooby-Doo wound up going to prison for their actions. An explanation is not an excuse. But we can’t address the problem unless we accurately diagnose it.
So once the problem is diagnosed, what do we do about it? How can we keep the pain and alienation these guys feel from turning into the ugly, inhuman hostility that’s too often displayed? I don’t pretend to have definitive answers; it’s a deeply-rooted and largely unconscious problem, which makes it resistant to most simple solutions.
However, I can think of four definite actions that can offer, if not a cure, at least a vaccine. Maybe we can’t easily fix the guys who are already so hurt and scared that they’re lashing out in all directions, but we can, in the words of Batman, stop the world from making more people like us. Here’s some things we can do.
1. Anti-bullying campaigns and programs
This one is off to a good start, but needs to be continued until it’s an accepted social norm. The hurt that gives rise to nerd rage comes when socially awkward kids are victimized growing up. End that and you end the hurt, you cut the rage off before it can even take root.
2. Validate male pain.
Pain turns easily into anger in men because we’re told over and over that we’re allowed to experience anger, but “pain don’t hurt.” Worse, we mostly have the experience that our pain is too easily laughed at. That makes us just retreat from everything that hurts, and let the pain turn into rage all on its own. We, both men and women, need to break that cycle, to be able to speak and to listen about pain and loneliness and frustration, without falling back on “Man up, dude” or “LOL, male tears” jokes.
3. More women in games, movies, TV, etc.
As discussed in part one of this piece, the misogyny prevalent in nerd rage arises in part because of a culture that’s taught these awkward boys to see women as a unified Other. 51% of the humans on earth aren’t quite real people in their eyes, and it shows. The great Captain Awkward, in her perpetual “dating guide for geeks” advocates that guys who want women to like them should start by reading a bunch of books by women. It’s the first step in unlearning that societal message that women aren’t exactly real people.
It’s no secret that show business has been too much of a boys’ club all along, and video games especially. Let the next generation of socially awkward boys grow up seeing women as people, and much of that misogyny will vanish. That means big-name female writers and directors and game designers, it means fictional women who are actual characters rather than cookie-cutter stereotypes, it means more female villains and antiheroes and best friends and wise old mentors and lovable screwups and scheming liars and raunchy jokesters and all kinds of characters, not just another couple Badass Action Chicks.
4. Geeks can and must self-police.
One of the problems in geek culture, as noted in the classic Geek Social Fallacies, is that we’re reluctant to impose social sanctions on our own. That’s understandable: we learned young that the worst thing people could do to us was make us feel excluded, so we don’t ever want to do that to someone like us. We’ll just do it to the entire rest of the world instead.
What this means in practice is that you can get away with a lot of crap in geek circles without ever being called on it. That’s a very bad state of affairs, and it’s one we as geeks need to end. As long as we let people get away with cruelty and ugliness and hatred just because they’ve also seen every season of Red Dwarf, we’re betraying our own ideal of inclusiveness.
Fortunately, it’s actually fairly easy to nip these behaviors in the bud, at least in their public manifestations. It doesn’t require hazing or mockery or yelling “Get thee hence from this comics shop and never return!” Just a little bit of social reinforcement goes a long way. Don’t laugh at the rape joke. Get comfortable saying “C’mon, that’s in bad taste” and “Enough already about her boobs, man.” It might not cure the deep-rooted confusion and anger in the recipient, but it’ll help him learn to at least not inflict it on other people, and that’s progress.
Ultimately, there are no easy answers to the problem of nerd rage. If there were, this article wouldn’t be in two rather wordy parts. But we can’t even begin to engage with the problem if we only view it through a simple privilege/oppression bad-guy/good-guy lens, or if we think it’s only about white guys with certain interests. What it’s actually about are people with certain handicaps, and how failing to acknowledge and understand the world they live in is what feeds their pain and anger in the first place.