So I have this friend who’s kind of a jerk. He’s not really a jerk, but he wants you to think he’s a jerk. Definitely an acquired taste, this gentleman. He’s hilarious and smart and I enjoy his company, but he is a bit abrasive to the uninitiated. And the other day he said something in a comment thread on his Facebook page about how much he hates “geek culture” (quotes are his, not mine). Which, in an oversimplified-distillation-of-a-term kind of way, I can totally get. I chose to take it with my customary grain of salt and not get into a thing on Facebook. Because what’s the point? Neither of us is going to change each other’s minds, and as much as I appreciate a healthy debate I just didn’t want to start a ridiculous fight on someone else’s turf. Again. I’ve got to stop doing that.
But then someone else (who I don’t know) said: “Remember when geeks knew and had favorite subjects instead of program listings and games.” And I’m not trying to call this person out for their opinion. I don’t know the dude and it’s not my place to judge anyone else’s absorption of pop culture. (There’s really no offense intended by my using his quote, and I’m not making any sort of statement about his character. Just using the words. I’d ask if I could, if I knew the guy.) If you’re not into the same things as me, fine, whatever. I honestly don’t care. It just means that we don’t have as much to talk about. Which is probably ok, too, in the long run. This whole thing got me thinking, though, about perception and labels and terminology.
It’s the “remember when” that gets me. Like there was a golden era of geeks? Sometime in the past when they were different? When they knew their place? And when he said “favorite subjects instead of program listings and games,” did he mean subjects in school? Are geeks, in his mind, confined to the school years when you could presumably spot them in a crowd? Does one’s love of science and math in a classroom setting or professional setting define them more than their love of science and math in, say, fiction or television? Like I said, I don’t know this guy, so maybe he’s eighty years old and remembers back when he was a whippersnapper and geeks didn’t have video games or tv shows. Just their precious books and wedgies. Aah, the good old days. Point is, I can’t make any assumptions about anyone else’s assumptions. It’s a vicious cycle, and one I’m working really hard to remove myself from.
Or, maybe, he was talking about when the word itself meant something else? This is the more likely reality. The word “geek” has been used more and more recently. It’s become a marketing tool, a bargaining chip, a preconceived notion. I use it myself. About myself. Because there’s a widely accepted set of implications that come along with it. When I say “geek” or “nerd” my intention is very clear. I like science fiction and fantasy and comic books and computers and science, and I’m conveying to my interlocutor those ideas very efficiently. Cultural linguistic psychology, right? I’ve thought that word and its use through beforehand. The problem is when someone else’s perception of what that means is not the same as mine. For instance, I don’t play video games or role playing games. To me, that means there’s just a hole in my geekery. To others, this might count me out of the geek demographic altogether. To still another group, there might even be a wholly different word that I’m unaware of that would be applied to me. And there’s no way to know that, is there? To predict someone else’s interpretation of a word? Not accurately, anyway.
Here’s the thing: I feel like the overuse of the word is insidious, not because we’re all getting sick of hearing it, but because it’s being used to homogenize a very diverse group of people. To stick us in a box and tell us what to buy or watch or say. None of us, no matter how you self-identify, is defined solely by where or how we spend our dollars. Marketing is vicious. The point is to get objects in front of eyeballs. That’s all. That’s it. It’s what those people do and they’re very very good at it. I’m ok with that, if only because there’s nothing I can do to change it. But it’s that sweeping overgeneralization, man. I’m a geek, sure, but that’s not all that I am. That’s the thing that’s offensive to me, not being called a word, any word. You can call me a geek or a nerd all fucking day and I’ll own it. It’s accurate, in my mind, to my linguistic understanding. But as soon as anyone says “You’re a geek, therefore I know absolutely everything there is to know about you and what you stand for,” then we have a problem. Is it as bad as saying it about a race or a religion or something? Probably not. Should it be as offensive? Probably not.
But it still hurts.
Because the heart of being a geek or a nerd isn’t about the things we love, it’s about the loving of those things. I don’t care if you don’t like Doctor Who or Stargate or Terry Pratchett or Game of Thrones. But don’t tell me that my liking something, anything, is stupid. That’s just mean. I may make fun of Nascar or country music or church or whatever because I think it’s silly. But I don’t make fun of your enthusiasm for it. Enthusiasm is great. Enjoyment or connection to something is great, and it’s the modern human condition. We’re no longer happy to merely survive, to spend our days just trying to eat and sleep and poop and fuck and stay warm. We have things now. We do stuff. We have bigger brains and we strive to entertain them, whether it be by creating or consuming. And as much as I think that we’re driven to distraction, and that that’s a detriment to our culture, I don’t think we would have made it this far as a species if all we had to think about was the fact that we’re all going to die. It’s a bummer, right? Truth, but a drag. We’re all living on a countdown.
And I think that making stuff is an equally integral part of being a geek. Whether it’s painting figurines for your RPG or programming video games or writing music reviews, that act of contributing to the culture of a thing you like is key to your enjoyment of that culture. It’s what builds community. I think that’s become more and more clear to me the longer I live out here in the sticks. Being around so few actual people, I’ve tried to find community online. That sounds sad, I know, but it’s really not. I’ve come across so many people who I can have conversations and debates with. We can rant and rave about deep or heady things because we had that one weird little interest in common that started us talking. At the bottom of it, we’re social creatures, and that reciprocity of making and consuming, that conversation between mutual admirers, that exchange of ideas, that’s community. That’s important.
Anyway. What’s the point? I don’t know if I have a point. Live and let live, maybe? Could it possibly be that simple? Love the things you love and let others do the same without impediment or judgment. You know, as long as they don’t love bigotry or eating babies or something. And choose your words carefully. What do you mean when you use a particular word? Does that word mean the same thing to the person to whom you’re speaking? Why? Think it through. And take the time to explain it if there’s a misunderstanding. Although I’ve noticed that when I do that I come across as being semantically nitpicky and pedantic. Damn it! I just can’t win.