To call someone a nerd or a geek – interchangeable terms that only the very nerdy or geeky would split hairs over, so we’ll just use ‘nerd’ here – used to be a term of abuse, a dismissal of people with geeky interests and low social skills, but like many a term of abuse, it was quickly embraced as a badge of honour by many of those it was aimed at. ‘Nerd’ and ‘geek’ are now titles that people proudly call themselves, as they celebrate their difference. “We are not into your boring, workaday, mainstream culture”, cries the self-appointed nerd – “our tastes are niche and cult and quirky.” If only that was true.
The nerd these days maintains a desperate air of being an oddball outsider, but the very idea that they have off-mainstream tastes is frankly laughable. Look at nerd culture, and what are the predominant interests? Harry Potter, Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lord of the Rings, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. Look at the box office hits, the huge budget movies and the ratings grabbing shows, and what do we see? The exact same things. Nerds will boast of their devotion to video games, as if that wasn’t the predominant form of entertainment for whole generations, from lumbering jocks to socially awkward shut-ins. To somehow claim outsider status because your tastes run almost exclusively to the very things that the mainstream population are enjoying is remarkably lacking in self-awareness. These are not niche interests. Being a nerd is far from being on the fringes of normal society – it’s actually achingly fashionable.
You might think that there is no harm caused by this. Let ’em enjoy what they want, even if their eager declarations of quirkiness can be a bit wearing. But this orthodoxy in radical clothing has a dark side that should concern us. Politically, the ideas of the self-conscious nerd will be equally as conservative as their cultural tastes. I say ‘conservative’ because although they would be appalled at the name association to right-wing politics, nerd culture increasingly demands a strangely illiberal and inflexible blind adherence to social justice issues, and almost insists on people making a virtue out of their ‘issues’. You’ll rarely see a nerd who doesn’t eagerly flag up their problems – mental, physical, social – online, often in Twitter profiles as both a badge of honour and a warning that, intersectionally, their opinions will be much more important than yours. The nerd culture seems to have a herd mentality about identity politics, and will rip into anyone who transgresses, even accidentally.
We only have to look at the current insanity gripping the Young Adult (YA) fiction scene (a scene that only exists in the first place because someone, somewhere decided that teenagers and twenty-somethings apparently now need an intermediary stage before they can graduate from children’s books to adult novels), where the concept of empathy towards others and the important idea that fiction could cover social issues under the cover of the allegorical has been twisted and re-presented as cultural appropriation and racism – authors who dare to write characters that are of a different race or gender, or who are deemed to have misrepresented identity issues are savaged on social media by people who seem determined to crush any sense of creative thought and compassion for others on the wheel of identity politics. Amélie Wen Zhao pulled her novel Blood Heir before it was published because a blurb that described a world where “oppression is blind to skin colour” was decried as a denial of racism and appropriation of black experiences of slavery. Less than a month later, Kosoko Jackson, who was one of Zhao’s fiercest critics and a ringleader in earlier pile-ons – he had previously tweeted that only black people could write about civil rights, only women could write about suffrage and only gay men could write about AIDS – had to pull his own book A Place for Wolves, because of outrage that it told the story of two gay Americans (which was OK, because Jackson is a black, gay American) during the Kosovo war – which is definitely not OK because the villain is a Muslim and how dare he appropriate the Kosovan experience? Like Zhao, he was forced into a grovelling public apology for the hurt his unpublished book had caused to the people who hadn’t actually read it and promised to ‘work harder’ in future. We should point out, in case there is any confusion, that Young Adult fiction is written for teenagers, not by them – though you’d be forgiven for being confused thanks to this juvenile behaviour, which is almost exclusively carried out by other writers who like to furiously virtue signal their moral superiority to the world via social media. You could be forgiven for forgetting that they are the authors of what is all too often clichéd adolescent fantasy rather than politics philosophers.
It’s difficult to feel much sympathy for the sort of person who will voluntarily pull a novel because a handful of woke Twitter gobshites have picked away at exaggerated cultural faux pas, admittedly – especially if they have been those self-same woke twitter gobshites themselves. But let’s not beat around the bush here – this sort of behaviour is bullying, plain and simple. Gangs of people rounding on those who are seen as easy targets and attempting to ruin their lives by excluding them – by telling them “this is not for you”. Those who try to portray the horrors of oppression are lumped in with the oppressors, simply because they have not actually experienced this oppression themselves. And then, when part of the bullying mob also trips up, as they will because the rules keep shifting, the mob turns on them too. But of course, nerds are not supposed to be bullies – they are supposed to understand the pain of being othered and alienated and abused and tormented and misunderstood. But if you are a professional nerd who has never really been an outsider, and who is both hooked on the dopamine hit of self-righteousness and the rush of attention (and the increased sales that a boosted profile often brings) that is provided via those intoxicating retweets, then of course you’ll pile on against anyone, and to hell with the consequences.
Far from being cultured free-thinking, there is something tediously ordinary and insipid about all this – the vapid nastiness of the loudest voice and commonplace tribalism of the masses. These self-styled nerds will eagerly be a part of this base behaviour without any sense of self-awareness, because they have no more genuine understanding of how it feels to be the cultural outsider than does the average sports fan (who might actually be far more obsessive and anal about their interest than any Harry Potter fan) or viewer of Dancing on Ice or Eastenders, or fan of the latest boy band (and again, their obsessions will frequently put the most fixated Star Wars fan to shame). The flag-waving nerd might fervently wish to be seen as the fringe cultist, but in reality, they increasingly are – and behave like – the crushingly banal mainstream; the voices of mass conformity, uncomprehending gatekeepers of accepted opinion and what science fiction fans used to call ‘the mundanes’ – uncaring, weirdly inflexible people who have no imagination, no genuine empathy and no sense of rebellion whatsoever.