From “fake geek girls” to Gamergate, a certain demographic seems constantly, causelessly angry. But are you sure it’s the demographic you think it is?
Like a lot of folks, I’ve spent the last couple years shaking my head in bafflement at the vicious, reactionary antics of a certain segment of what we might broadly call “geek culture”. That’s the subculture I grew up in, and I’ve got the mid-90s convention badges and costuming prize from Forry Ackerman to prove it. And yet today, a lot of guys seem to want that culture to be associated primarily with exclusion, harassment, and a fanatical cruelty toward anyone they deem “outsiders”, i.e. 99% of the world. Their greatest hatred is reserved for women, and their abuse is beyond the pale.
This subgroup, this fanatically furious bunch of geeks, is usually identified as being straight white guys fearful of the loss of their cultural hegemony. That isn’t strictly wrong, but I’ve come to realize that it’s also missing the point.
The key defining element of all the wild-eyed Gamergate lunatics and all their unhappy ilk is not that they’re white and male. It’s that they’re socially nonfunctional.
That sounds like I’m just insulting them, but I’m not. That is just a simple, even sympathetic description of what’s going on with these guys: they cannot function socially. Anger is just the mask worn by pain and fear, so to understand these guys’ anger, we have to understand their pain, and their fear. Yes, this will involve extending understanding toward people for whom rape threats are practically punctuation. Nobody ever said social justice was always going to be pleasant. Buckle up.
When Nate Silver went and formed his own numbers-driven nerd club, he received some pushback from critics who pointed out that it was basically a white male nerd club. He, mistakenly but understandably, interpreted this as being accused of being a bully, and responded thus:
…the idea that we’re bro-y people just couldn’t be more off. We’re a bunch of weird nerds. We’re outsiders, basically.
That, that right there, is the key. How is it the key? Let’s look at two layers of response to that quote. First, we’ve got Zeynep Tufekci, who cites Silver’s defense and says:
In a nutshell, I think this paragraph helps explain a reasonable chunk of Silicon Valley’s gender problems. Many tech guys, many young and recently ascendant, think something along these lines: “Wait, we’re not the jocks. We aren’t the people who were jerks. We never pushed anyone into a locker and smashed their face. We’re the people who got teased for being brainy, for not being macho, the ones who never got a look from the popular girls (or boys), the ones who were bullied for our interests in science and math, and… what’s wrong with Dungeons & Dragons, anyway?”
She’s not wrong. That notion that one is either the bully or the bullied, and it’s impossible to be both, lies deep in a lot of thinking, and it’s a trap. Indeed, it’s one of the primary intellectual sins of social justice movements, when we imply one is either the oppressor or the oppressed, but never both. We’ve learned it from a million movies: the underdog is always morally right, so if you can cast yourself, in any way, as the underdog, you need never question your rectitude again. That makes it very easy for guys who were once bullied to imagine that they’re never hitting first, they’re always hitting back.
However, there’s a deeper and more important layer, and that can be seen in a critique of Ms. Tufekci’s piece by Meredith L. Patterson, and seriously, if you read no other link in this article, read this one. She talks about how finding hacker culture helped her feel like there was a space for people like her, and sums up the problem nicely here:
Even so, science, technology, and mathematics continue to attract the same awkward, isolated, and lonely personalities they have always attracted. Weird nerds are made, not born, and our society turns them out at a young age. … When weird nerds watch the cool kids jockeying for social position on Twitter, we see no difference between these status games and the ones we opted out of in high school. No one’s offered evidence to the contrary, so what incentive do we have to play that game?
Ms. Patterson goes into greater depth about how the culture she describes functions, and then raises this vital point:
The assertion that we should “not be so defensive” is problematic because it denies that hackers have anything to feel defensive toward. People get defensive when they feel like something important to them is in jeopardy, and our community is important to us because it’s where we find people who share our values. … For those of us who experienced operative ostracism and public shaming, the protectiveness that runs through the entire stack has nigh-infinite fuel to draw from, and at times it doesn’t take much poking to turn a resource that many of us have transmuted into a source of productivity fuel into a tactical nuclear egghead.
That is what underlies nerd rage, a sense of being invaded by outsiders in a space they believe to be their own. A place where they don’t have to play by the rules that mean they never win.
The existence of such spaces has genuine worth. We have always had a percentage of people who can’t get the hang of other people. The folks who will always say the wrong thing, always misread the social cue, always be the last to get the joke, always make things awkward without meaning to. And growing up as one of those people sucks. It’s easy for them to get the impression that the whole world’s against them because, in a fairly real sense, it is.
These folks tend to create spaces for themselves where they can play by rules they understand. Consistent, comprehensible rules. Computer programs, role-playing games, literature that’s notably short on things like abstract metaphor, complex symbolism, and unreliable narrators. The great thing about science fiction and fantasy is that they explain their internal rules for how the world works, and then they have to abide by those rules. If you haven’t felt it, it’s impossible to explain how comforting that is when you’re thirteen and getting mocked for not understanding which shoes or singers or slang are uncool this week.
That mockery lies at the heart of nerd rage. It hurts knowing that you don’t “get it”, that you’re looked down on and excluded because you don’t understand a bunch of unwritten and inconsistent rules. And as seen above, with that experience of being the victim comes the self-assurance that one cannot ever turn out to be the bully. That’s a consistent, comprehensible rule, after all.
How does this turn into the constant, screaming, and creepily consistent misogyny that we see in practice? Because for guys in this group, women are bullies just by existing. Scratch misogynist anger, and you’ll almost always find rejection. As I’ve written before, rejection is a huge and powerful part of the straight male experience.
Assume you’re a straight or bi guy. You’re going to be interested in women. Assume you’re perpetually socially awkward. You’re going to be rejected a lot, and that’s going to hurt enormously. Assume you’re steeped in a culture that tends to consistently cast women as a monolithic Other group, and that you like simple, comprehensible rules. Your takeaway from your experience is going to be Women hurt me. Therefore, women are bullies just by existing. Quod erat demonstrandum.
So how does this pain and rage manifest in practice? And most importantly, what can be done about it? Stay tuned for part two.
Photo—Thoth God of Knowledge/Flickr