that’s not why you feel the way you feel

You know I got caught up in the “nerds are oppressed war!” again today, which is just useless. I started because, of course, at a time of the most powerful cultural hegemony in the history of mass culture, when Star Wars is an unavoidable behemoth that has the entire weight of capitalism behind it and whenthe entire English-speaking world is bullying everyone into liking it, some tiny number of people have expressed an alternate opinion, and they’re being punished for it. People who have said that they don’t like Star Wars online, or who have said that they movie isn’t good, or who even have said it’s good but not that good, are being bullied and harassed. And the people doing it are a group that only sees themselves as the recipients of bullying and harassment, not the culprits, so they refuse to actually consider their own behavior and address the massive amounts of bitterness, hate, and entitlement within their culture.

I’ve been trying to make the same old points — to point out that, empirically, geek culture is economically dominant, critically acclaimed, celebrated in our universities, feted in the most prestigious magazines and newspapers, and in general the single most powerful force in popular culture in the history of the world — but it’s useless. No matter what facts are brought to bear on these people, they can always maintain their dogged belief that they are oppressed. They are entirely fact-resistant. The claim that geeks are oppressed is non-falsifiable; there simply is nothing that could change that attitude.

See, the problem is, nerds are people who have fundamentally misunderstood why they suffered. I don’t doubt that many of them did suffer. Not in the slightest. I know many nerds/geeks/whatever suffered terrible social humiliation, and I’m very sorry for it. No, the problem is that they think they were made fun of because of what they liked. That’s not why they got made fun of. They weren’t bullied because they loved Star Wars. Star Wars movies are the most popular ever made. The bullies loved Star Wars too, they had the lunch boxes and the toy lightsabers and the T-shirts too. Star Wars may have been the object of their derision, what they focused on, but it wasn’t the cause of the bullying and the harassment. Neither was Dr. Who or Dungeons & Dragons or action figures or whatever else you want to pick.

No, the reason they made fun of you was because they thought you were weak. That’s why they made fun of you. They may have fixated on your C-3P0 lunchbox, but perfectly popular kids had the same lunchbox. If you didn’t have it, they’d have fixated on your hair, or your weight, or your skin, or your accent, or whatever else they could find. They bullied you because they thought you were weak, not because of the stuff that you liked. That is the one and only reason anyone  ever makes fun of anybody else, because they think the other person is weak and that they can get away with it. But because nerds and geeks have misinterpreted a symptom for the disease, they refuse to acknowledge the reality that no aspect of popular culture is more popular or celebrated than geek culture. They say to themselves, “I still feel the way I feel, I still feel vulnerable and hurt, and that came from people making fun of the books and movies and games I liked, so therefore those things must be hated the way I feel hated.” But it was never about what you liked, and as long as they let their feelings dictate their perception of the world, they’ll always be operating under a delusion. And they’ll always misidentify why they’re unhappy.

I’m sorry that people are this way. I’m sorry that human beings target those around them that they perceive to be weak. I don’t know why it’s the case. Children and adolescents are cruel, and adults are rarely much better. I’ve been on the receiving end of some of that cruelty, and I’m very sorry to say that I’ve occasionally handed it out. I deeply hope that our species is capable of overcoming this tendency. But we have to understand it for what it really is, and pretending like it only afflicts a certain kind of person is no good. Everyone knew a kid, growing up, who loved sports, who dressed in jerseys and team gear, who tried to do everything to conform to the American “jock” stereotype, and yet who got beaten up and ridiculed and harassed and bullied, just like the “nerd” kids. Because, again: people thought he was weak. Because, again: it’s not about what you like. What really drives me crazy is that most of the self-identified nerds I’ve interacted with in my life don’t have sympathy for that kid. They think, in fact, that his pain is much less painful than their own, because they’re so caught up in their own pinched definitions of value and social respect. So many of the geeks I argue with online are saying, in one way or another, “Only my pain matters. My pain is deeper than everyone else’s.”

And that’s not true, and that attitude sucks. It just sucks. It makes it so hard to feel empathy for their pain, because nothing prevents empathy like those who don’t have it for others themselves. The weird, competitive attitude, like being hurt is a competition and we all have to bow down and recognize that geeks have it worse than anyone else, is destructive and ugly, and it makes it so much harder to actually identify and fix the root causes of these problems. Solving such problems takes solidarity — the mutual recognition of the equal value of other people and of the equal depth of other people’s pain. The problem is that you recognizing the equal value of other people’s experience is just a bridge that many geeks refuse to cross. That’s why there’s a GamerGate, that’s why there’s the Sad Puppies: the absolute refusal to engage in empathetic imagination.

I’ve said before: I could imagine a world where geeks actually band together with fans of traditional “high” culture, like opera and experimental theater and ballet. After all, far from sitting on top of some status hierarchy and enjoying cultural  power, those art forms are incredibly marginalized, often ferociously dismissed by those who don’t already like them. And in marked contrast to the overwhelming economic power of geek culture, they are dying, commercially. Many of these artforms may cease to exist as sustainable cultures in the years to come. Given the rhetoric of nerds about cultural marginalization, I could see a world where nerds say “Hey, I know how bad it sucks when it feels like the art and culture you love is marginalized and rejected; I think we should embrace diversity in art and see the equal value of all different genres and mediums.” I could imagine that world. But in this world, the most vocal nerds and geeks on the internet look at the demise of these artforms and say, “Good riddance. I don’t like that stuff myself, so who cares?” They then turn around and demand that everyone else recognize their marginalization.

As long as that attitude reigns — as long as self-pity and selfishness are so central to geek culture — then people within it will cling to their self-defined oppression like death.