This post sort of follows on from my last one about things always seeming worse than what came before, but it’s also about a tendency I’ve seen in a lot of thinkpieces talking about anything to do with atheism, skepticism, or nerddom, namely, the tendency to conflate being an outsider with the experiences of minorities.
I admit, this is pretty far outside the scope of this blog, but it’s something that’s fairly important to me as a person, so I’m going to write about it anyways. Having finished it, it’s also pretty long, so sorry about that.
In the interest of full disclosure: I am a nerd. Always have been. As a kid, I was a massive Marvel fangirl – I still own several hundred comics, and as a kid, I also had a large collection of Marvel trading cards (which I never traded with anyone, because I didn’t know any other Marvel fans) and action figures. In middle school and high school, I got into scifi novels and anime. College and grad school introduced me to Doctor Who and Firefly. They also introduced me to intersectional feminism and the idea of modern imperialism.
As a girl, I always felt unworthy of calling myself a nerd. The boys who ran the comic book shop would give me pop quizzes on aliases and origin stories before allowing me to step into the Marvel section, to prove that I deserved to dig through boxes looking for an old back issue to complete my collection, unless my dad (who got me into comics) came in with me, in which case they’d hang back, casting side-eyed glances as we poured over the re-issued original X-Men. I had a few female friends in high school who liked anime, and my school had a small anime club run by the Japanese teacher, which was mostly boys and maintained a strict “NO SAILOR MOON” rule, as not being ‘real’ anime. I didn’t get into video games until my mid-twenties – until then, I remained distinctly, and often literally, ‘gamer-adjacent,’ happy to sit around and watch my friends game.
I was still enough a part of the nerd community to know the Story of the Nerd, though – the brilliant, misunderstood boy who got picked on by bullies for liking comics more than football, who could never get hot girls to talk to him, but who was creative and interesting and would eventually grow up to be Steve Jobs or Frank Miller. As a kid, the Story made me empathize with the boys who were refusing me access, believing that they were bullied and mistreated, and thus distrustful of others. It also made me feel guilty, that I wasn’t hot enough or not the right kind of girl for them (something they were also happy to extemporize about to my face).
When I got older, and learned about things like intersectionalism, microagressions, and socialization, I recognized the Story for what it was – a myth. Myths are stories that, although they may stem from reality, preserve an imagined version of reality. Like parables and fables, they’re instructive, but myths give instruction on a macro scale, demonstrating how communities should behave. The Story of the Nerd preserves nerd identity – outsiders, misunderstood, under-appreciated. But more importantly, the myth also requires that the Nerd be a boy, and a straight one at that. The women in the Story are symbols for his identity, demonstrating how unappreciated he is. Women in the Story are something to strive for and achieve – effectively, a prize, handed out in recognition of a person’s acceptability to society. They have no personality and will of their own.
Nor does the suffering of the archetypal Nerd ever get truly terrible or severe. We’ve all grown up with stories of nerd and bullies – the nerds are occasionally beaten up, but more often humiliated – pants pulled down, heads dunked in toilets, etc. At least in the portrayal of bullying, no one is ever seriously injured. There’s also almost always a comedic component, again reducing the severity of the whole scenario.
The Story was accurate, at least in comparison to the nerds I knew personally. They were sometimes bullied in school, generally made fun of or occasionally publicly embarrassed. When I was old enough to think to compare notes, the suffering they had experienced as a nerd was pretty mild, compared to what I had experienced as a young woman. Most of my nerdboy friends had never been followed, screamed at in the street, or grabbed and held against their will. None of them had had stalkers. None of them had been physically or sexually assaulted. As white kids, none of us had ever been followed or threatened by the police. As white kids growing up in Arizona, none of us had ever been accused of being in the country illegally. None of us had ever been chased by people screaming racist slurs. Most of us had ever been beaten up.
And herein lies the difference between being ‘an outsider’ and being a minority. ‘An outsider’ is still a recognizable part of the privileged, normalized section of society. They don’t play a central part in that society, but they’re still in it. They still receive the basic protection of that privilege. And in order to receive a more central role, all they need to do is either change their interests, or lie. Or, as the last decade has proven, wait, as most of the things which marked me and my friends out as nerds and ‘outsiders’ in the 90s have since received mainstream popularity. The Marvel cinematic universe is now only competing against itself for box office records. Gaming is so mainstream that we can’t even decide what “a gamer” is. And most of my nerdboy friends are successful by any traditional measure.
And yet we continue to want ‘being an outsider’ to be the same thing as being oppressed. The most recent version of this I’ve read is this lengthy thinkpiece on Buzzfeed about whether the atheist movement can survive misogyny. The author reiterates over and over again how outside the mainstream the ‘freethought’ movement is, and how much better than the mainstream it is, too – it’s a “progressive, important intellectual community” made up of “cheekily anti-establishment skeptics.” They’re “liberal, forward-thinking types” with “matter-of-fact attitudes” and started out as “a tiny, bygone community of eccentrics” and “a safe space for science geeks, political dissidents, and other kinds of misfits.”
He also repeatedly side-steps the question of whether this wacky, fun-loving, bygone community of eccentrics used to be sexist – he suggests that the any institutional sexism would have been the result of history because “groups like American Atheists drew from university faculties, particularly philosophy and science departments, and from libertarian and objectivist political culture — all heavily male” and seems to suggest that the modern sexism is a result of the rapid expansion of the culture: “This overall growth, and increased parity between the sexes, would seem like a good thing for the movement. But not everyone saw it that way. Older male activists in particular were like fans whose favorite obscure band hits it big; their small, intimate shows were becoming big arena concerts, leaving them a bit dislocated.”
To start with, this is another example of the tendency to read ‘history’ as ‘what really happened.’ By the 1950s, there were women professors in both philosophy and science, including the often majority-female faculties of women’s colleges. There were also a growing number of women – including women of color – involved in politics in the civil rights movement. It wasn’t that there weren’t women who might have had opinions about religion and skepticism – it’s that the men forming these clubs weren’t talking to them. Similarly, like the boys in the comic book shop quizzing me on Wolverine’s past, there’s no logical reason why the growth of the community should cause the old guard to lash out against women specifically – if it were just a concern for maintaining either the size or the purity of the community, then the gate-keeping should be applied equally across the board. There’s no reason to assume a priori that a women is less qualified to be either a ‘real’ skeptic or a ‘real’ nerd than a man, so why quiz one and not the other?
But what really struck me, reading the piece, is that it seems like the biggest difference between ‘an outsider’ and a member of a minority is whether they can learn new tricks. One of the repeated themes from the piece is one that also gets brought up about feminism and racism in general, that all of this discussion of feminism makes it so that ‘no one knows the rules,’ meaning usually the rules for friendliness and/or flirting. In the piece, this is vocalized by the only figure the author even comes close to accusing of sexism, Michael Shermer, that he’s the victim of “a growing movement to clarify or even to redefine the rules of sexual encounters.”
I’ve talked before about how people use the concept “rules” to claim a natural state where none exists. The “natural” rules for human sexuality would be the same as other primates – lots of sex, with everything and everyone, regardless of age, blood relation, or consent. We don’t do that because of social expectations, and those social expectations change over time. Shermer here is essentially decrying that he’s expected to go with the times and accept those changes, but in doing so, he’s invoking the myth of the Nerd – he’s on the outside, not being part of the social mainstream. He’s a rebel, Dottie.
However, the privilege to ignore the rules is just that, a privilege. It doesn’t extend to everyone. In particular, minorities and oppressed communities are expected to adapt and change their behavior in order to avoid being blamed for their own oppression. Women are told they can avoid being raped – don’t get drunk, don’t go out alone, don’t dress a certain way, wear ‘roofie-sensing’ nail polish, carry a self-defense weapon, etc. When innocent black people are shot by the police or their neighbors ‘standing their ground,’ we look to how they were dressed, how they wore their hair, how they were standing, or what they said to account for what happened.
The same goes for the privilege of being confused or not knowing the rules. A man can say he was confused and didn’t know what he was doing if he gets drunk and assaults someone, but it’s hard to imagine a woman getting away with saying she didn’t know what would happen if she got drunk in public. Similarly, a police officer can claim he thought a black teenager was armed, but we’d have little sympathy for a black teenager who mouthed off to a cop because he didn’t know what would happen.
I think we’re particular sympathetic for nerds and skeptics when they use this ‘but you’re changing the rules!’ excuse because so many of us know the Story of the Nerd, and feel like breaking the rules and not adhering to society’s norms are parts of their identity, so by expecting them to treat women as people or by asking them to consider issues that affect people of color in majority, we’re somehow destroying their identity. But in reality, doing these things isn’t mainstream – most people don’t do them, which is why we have institutional racism and sexism. Social justice is an outsider activity – if nerds and skeptics really wanted to be on the outside, they’d be standing next to us.