culture

Pax Per Bellum

It’s been a rough month.

Partially, this is my own doing, because I’m kind of a sucker for unpleasant knowledge. It used to be harmless fun. What happens if I drink this? Why is this substance illegal? Surely, a drop like this won’t kill me. Let’s try!

Now, I’ve transitioned into reading the news. All of it. From everywhere. What happens if I search for this? Who are these people? What does this really look like? Is it really as bad as they say?

Call it stubborn curiosity, morbid fascination, or intellectual imperative. I’m not naive, just apparently a glutton for punishment. Saying that used to be a flippant little remark. Yes, I have some deep-seated inability to enjoy happy things, and look how I surround myself with small miseries! Isn’t it adorable?

But I got burned.

In a misguided, go-straight-to-the-source attempt to learn who these ISIS/ISIL fellows are, I watched one of their recruiting/propaganda videos (no, not the one you’re thinking of–I still have some self respect) that’s been floating around on the web and, well… I know now. And no, I’m not telling you where to find it. I’m sitting here in my room, telling you what this disease feels like. If you want to know as badly as I did, go catch it. Just not from me, ok?

To say that it is violent is to call the ocean wet. And “savage” doesn’t seem to fit with the emotional calculus and professional video editing evident in its creation. It’s the kind of cold, smiling brutality that reminds the viewer (or at least the viewer who isn’t sympathetic to the cause) that the human body is just meat. It makes one’s joints ache and stomach churn. And yet, the video has a twisted kind of appeal. No matter how badly you want to look away, there’s something in it that’s carefully designed to tap into that most base of animal instincts inside each and every one of us. Militant or not, sympathetic to the cause or not, we all get a mainline boot of fight-or-flight.

But this video wasn’t designed to scare me or recruit me. This was directed toward potential allies and enemies in the Middle East. As a terror tool, the effect is obvious. Carnage–real carnage–is a terrifying thing. But as a recruitment tool, it almost seems counterintuitive. In America, our military recruitment propaganda is a lot of big ships, fast jets, and sneaky commandos sneaking places. Maybe this is because we haven’t really fought a war we needed to fight in a very long time. But we’re also a democracy, more or less, and rely on our freedom of choice: do we fight, or do we not.

In the places where ISIS is getting a foothold, however, there is often no longer a choice, but a dilemma. If you fight against ISIS, implies the video, well, see this building where guys are fighting against us, and see how we’re giving them no quarter and transforming them into these macabre piles of corpses and heads here? Yeah, they’re you and everyone you know. But if you fight for ISIS, you get to not be in that pile of corpses. See? Everyone’s happy. Well, except for those other guys, but they’re dead now, so they don’t have an opinion anymore. It’s a hell of a way to create a utopia.

This makes American dude-bro hawkishness seem downright civilized. We glorify armed men as heroes, forgetting that “greatness is based primarily on values that we abhor.” Okay, maybe a quote from a confessed spy and traitor wasn’t the best choice there, but the man had a point. If we consider ourselves to be a great nation, we need to be sure that the greatness is coming from values that we admire and would want to foster in others.

With recent, high-profile incidences of police militarization in the US, and with increased reportage of excessive force and unnecessary police violence toward unarmed citizens in places like Ferguson, MO, there is a temptation to draw connections toward the brutality seen in other places around the world. Obviously, the ISIS fanatics and our own police forces have very little in common, other than being armed and primarily male. But they also share an increasingly us-versus-them attitude.

To protect Americans from terrorism, the federal government donated surplus military equipment to local police departments across the country. How grenade launchers, automatic rifles and APCs would stop something as carefully planned and under-the-radar as the 9/11 attacks is a mystery, but it made people feel safer, so that’s good, right? Maybe not. Here’s a favorite quote of mine from HBO’s The Wire:

This drug thing, this ain’t police work. No, it ain’t. I mean, I can send any fool with a badge and a gun up on them corners and jack a crew and grab vials. But policing? I mean, you call something a war and pretty soon everybody gonna be running around acting like warriors. They gonna be running around on a damn crusade, storming corners, slapping on cuffs, racking up body counts. And when you at war, you need a fucking enemy. And pretty soon, damn near everybody on every corner is your fucking enemy. And soon the neighborhood that you’re supposed to be policing, that’s just occupied territory.

–Maj. Howard “Bunny” Colvin, Season 3, Episode 10 “Reformation”

The point of this, if not obvious, is that when you give police departments military hardware, and every small town has a tactical unit, don’t be surprised when they get tempted to use it. It also draws the line between soldiering and policing. In fact, the Posse Comitatus Act expressly forbids “military involvement in civilian affairs” unless called upon by Congress to do so, which is why military bomb disposal units, but not drone operators, can work with local law enforcement. This is largely due to the skill set that separates the military from the police. The goal of a police department is to hold a community together, whereas the goal of the military is generally to take communities apart. The militarization of police forces, and the warrior mentality that accompanies it, negates that separation and creates the situation Bunny describes, in which ordinary citizens are treated like “a fucking enemy.” It’s hard to call someone a peace officer when they’re loaded to bear with weapons of war.

We’ve had a pax per bellum mentality about a lot of things: terrorism, drugs, disease, hunger, poverty, and cancer. We do this with the erroneous confidence that through war on these things–meaning their eventual elimination–we can achieve peace. ISIS, too, wants to achieve peace through war, but what they’re searching for is ideological uniformity. Given the complexity of human nature, uniformity is a pipe dream. Even if they succeed in setting up whatever kind of society they’re trying to build, the kind of brutal intolerance for differences of opinion will eventually cause them to implode.

Of course, Ferguson isn’t Syria, and the police aren’t ISIS, but war is war: divisive and singleminded.

Peace is balance. These things are going to be with us for a very long time, and in many arenas it may serve us better to police when we can and war when we have to.

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Open Letters

I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve begun to loathe the open letter, as practiced on the Internet, so I began searching around for open letters. Here are some of the ones I found.

A working mom’s open letter to Gwyneth (New York Post).

An open letter to the teachers of my daughter (Times of India)

Dear Harvard: You Win (The Harvard Crimson)

The public feud between Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow (The New York Times: Part 1, Part 2)

An Open Letter to the Makers of The Wolf of Wall Street, and the Wolf Himself (LA Weekly)

And for crying out loud, McSweeny’s has an entire page of “Open Letters to People or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond.”

But why, you might ask, does this man hate the open letter? With a few possible exceptions, which I will talk about in a moment, the answer to this question is sleaze. Now understand: I am not saying that Harvard’s rape victim is sleazy; nor do I necessarily think that Gwyneth is all that sleazy (because I really have zero opinions about her either way). The sleaze (and I promise to stop using that word) is the gross spectacle. While, in the Internet Age, we are all becoming accustomed to losing our privacy as more and more of our private lives becomes digitized, the open letter exposes for public consumption something that could and should have remained private.

It’s not always a Bad Thing, though, as the “Dear Harvard” letter shows, for it, like some others out there, are the contemporary equivalent of Langston Hughes’ “Open Letter to the South” or Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, essentially an open letter nailed to a church door (though, not so much with the Hughes poem). While the side-effect of their publication may be a thorough public shaming, what sets these kinds of letters apart from their monstrous counterparts is that the intent is reform.

What separates these brilliant, rare, reformative open letters is the other intent, to play to a crowd–particularly an unruly Internet mob. From the letters that aren’t the reformative type, if you took away the public aspect, they would more often than not operate just as well as a closed, private letter. But the intent is to draw attention to the writer. The subject of the letter is typically not as important as the raising or lowering of social status, which is why the McSweeny’s letters, meant to be comic, are the other exception.

There is a whole genre of open letters that, while addressing a personal gripe, aren’t particularly serious. They operate on the same level as any other open letter, but with a few changes: a public shaming roux and a heaping tablespoon of self-aggrandizement, but with a pinch of self-deprecation, and a sprinkling of bons mots. Tongue-in-cheek rants, like the very lovely “An Open Letter to Bearded Hipsters” (and the subsequent apology, which fits well with another article I’ve written, speaking of self-aggrandizing), take those weirdly pornographic public displays of meanness and strip them of their import. Perhaps it’s why taking a legitimately reformative open letter seriously is increasingly difficult. I mean, why would I take the Gwyneth letter seriously when I seriously want and expect it to be a little something like this:

Right?

Of course, that brings up the last kind of open letter, which like the jackalope is extremely rare, and, oddly, often musical–or at least often enough to worth noting. What do I mean by often?

Often enough for me to embed two YouTube videos in this post:

Until tomorrow, you crazy kids.

Phone Monkey: A Liar’s Dilemma

PhoneMonkeyPNGI’ve touched on part of what follows in a previous post, so rather than rehash much of what was said there, let’s just pretend that this is a continuation of that thought. If you haven’t read it, and want to, feel free to pause now. I’ll put some white space here.

The Internet, as a means of doing business is a Devil’s Bargain. You can reach farther than you might otherwise, but with the extra coverage you dredge up more scum. This “scum” isn’t people, necessarily, but the kind of human interaction that takes place. As anyone who has ever browsed reviews of Yelp!, skimmed through YouTube comments, or read a random cross-section of tweets will know, anonymity on the Internet allows people to forego the social contract and sink into a weird Hobbesian “state of nature.” When it comes to business, I have seen kind, rational people lose their sense of perspective at the slightest inconvenience.

Below are three complaints that have completely lost their meaning to me:

  1. “Unacceptable” adj.: a bummer; not what was expected; arrived later than expected. Generally, if you give the verbal equivalent of a hug, these issues become acceptable.
  2. “This is the worst experience I’ve ever had!”/”I’ve never been treated so poorly!”: No it isn’t. Yes you have. If it is or if you haven’t, you’ve been a very sheltered person. Did you even go to high school? Maybe take the bus occasionally, or stand in a TSA line at the airport.
  3. “Ice cold”: It’s July. Knock it off.

Why? Maybe it’s the hyperbole, but the wizard behind that particular curtain is the pathos. I’ve worked a dozen different jobs, some customer service, some not, and each had its own set of lies and liars. Apologies, as discussed in an earlier post, are one kind of lie, designed to smooth ruffled feathers. Hyperbole, on the other hand, cranks the energy level up, and it works; drill sergeants use it to motivate recruits, and pundits use it to churn up outrage. But there are diminishing returns. Like any other drug (probably because of a chemical reaction in the brain), with frequent use it has less effect over time. After a while, the response to even a serious complaint like, “The delivery driver called me a whore!” (an actual complaint and a legitimate use of “unacceptable”) is a resounding shrug. Yes, we will do what we can to get that business to reprimand/fire that person, and we will try and get your money back. But it all just starts to feel a little too automated.

As your lowly phone monkey, it’s my job to try and make sure you are happy, and failing that, that you don’t go away angry, and failing even that, that you don’t go on a crusade. We don’t get paid a lot, and we don’t get sick days, vacation days, or health coverage. Like working in the food service industry, if you want a shift off because you’re getting married, or because you’re sick and throwing up, you have to find someone to cover for you. The point is, we spend a lot of time interacting with a diverse, multicultural, multilingual customer base, and yet, the homogeneity of not just complaints, but the wording of them and the level of hostility behind them becomes numbing after a while. In a way, the Customer becomes an interchangeable part. Some are more durable than others, but viewed in the same unfiltered light of the Internet, they begin to look pretty much the same at their core. Disturbing is the moment when I’ve found myself being an interchangeable Customer.

The real trouble comes when we have to deal with the real liars. Far from the angry customers spewing righteous hyperbole, these are the seasoned professionals who have spent a lifetime making an art out of lying. As Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski might say, these people are a “worthy fucking adversary.” Typically, they’re the people committing credit card fraud, or just trying to weasel a free meal out of us, and just as typically, they’re super obvious about it. Threats of lawsuits, never using our service again, and Twitter campaigns are generally met with an eye roll and a “meh.” Lawsuits are never filed, they place an order the very next day, and Twitter action is met with a tidal wave of derision. But we occasionally get someone special.

Recently, I was contacted by a pair of guys, who after losing a battle with a restaurant’s management over a refund, decided to try and pull rank with me, claiming they work in their state’s Attorney General’s office. This is hyperbole of a different sort. It says that I am the pawn and they are queens, and that what they do to earn money gives them power over me. What a lot of people forget when entering into a customer service situation is that, for a moment, there is no social rank. I am obligated to do what I can to help you, and to go above an beyond when I can, but one of the liberating parts (well, maybe the only liberating part) of being a pawn is limited liability. My hands are tied by company policy, contracts, and my job description. This is essentially like having bulletproof glass between you and a gun-toting psychopath. If you continue doing your job and following the guidelines set out for you, the scary monster on the other side of the glass can’t hurt you. The instant you engage, though, and come out from behind that glass–madness.

So that’s where we seem to be in the world of customer service now. Everyone’s lawyered-up and looking at each other through that bulletproof glass. We expect to give and receive lies all day long, and that makes us immune to the ones that keep our personal lives running. In real life, at a party or some other social gathering, holding down a real conversation with another person is a monumental feat. You have to accept the lie (assumed or real) that the person you’re chitchatting with is actually interested in what you’re saying, and you have to not let on that when they’re talking, all you’re trying to do is figure out what they want from you and how to give it to them with the least amount of conflict, because that’s what you do for eight hours a day.

Nerd

Just a note before we start: I know I said I was going to change the visual theme of the blog because of formatting concerns, but the theme I had in mind (and several others, too) were not able to properly display an em-dash. Seriously, I tried a half dozen, and all of them failed the test. I am keeping this theme until I can find a readable, em-dash-supporting layout.

Recently, I was wondering what was becoming of nerd culture–was it kaput, still running along, or had it been completely corrupted and appropriated to sell people stuff? But I quickly ran into a roadblock. In my mind, I know what “nerd” means, but when I try to pin down a definition of the word, it keeps slipping away like a buttered eel.

Sort of like the laughs from that joke.

Not a little cynically, I’d had a thought in my mind that the word had been made meaningless, or at least its definition had changed beyond recognition, by becoming part of the mainstream. I spent some time digging and asking around, though, and have come to the understanding that “nerd” has no set definition. Not yet, at least. It has undergone a fluid transition since its creation, but, oddly, because of nerds’ acceptance into the main stream, we may finally see a permanent definition settle into place.

To find the first instances of the word “nerd,” we have to go back about sixty years. Most sources claim that the word first appeared in 1950, in Dr. Seuss’s If I Ran the Zoo. The character Gerald McGrew lists more creatures he would add to his zoo, if he were in charge:

Then the whole town will gasp, “Why, this boy never sleeps!

No keeper before ever kept what he keeps!

There’s no telling WHAT that young fellow will do!”

And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo

And

Bring

Back

an It-Kutch

a Preep

and a Proo

a Nerkle

a Nerd

and a Seersucker, too! (51-52)

Remind you of anyone?

Remind you of anyone?

At first glance, this makes sense. That Nerd is unkempt, and generally looks like it’d rather be doing something else. Additionally, it is also the only creature in the story that wears clothes, so we’re inclined to think that it is at least humanoid, if not explicitly human. The theory continues on with an often cited observation: in 1951, Newsweek printed the sentence, “In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd, or in a less severe case, a scurve.” If you were a nerd in 1951, it was terminal. Through his surprisingly thorough research, Jim Burrows, in his article “The Origin of the Nerd,” found that this was not the only citing of the word coming out of Detroit at the time. In five years, he found, four more usages of “nerd” popped up in popular media around Detroit, and spreading outward through the Midwest and then east to Boston and south to Arkansas. He admits it’s a small sample, but it’s actually fairly significant, considering that ’50s-era media was still largely localized, that new slang was not generally accepted in journalism at the time, and that, without going to local libraries all over the US and spending some serious time melding with the microfiche machine, this kind of detailed information relating to that era can be hard to find.

I have to agree with Burrows’ assessment, though, that the Dr. Seuss origin story might be a happy coincidence. While a picture might be worth a thousand words, to draw a substantial conclusion that the word “nerd” as it was used in the 1950s, came from Seuss, we would need to back up the visual description with words. Since there are none, only artistic interpretation and conjecture apply to this origin story.

Additionally, the explanation of the word being derived from “knurd” (“drunk” spelled backward) is largely considered to be wholesale poppycock, since the derivative does not match any existing definitions or connotations of drunkenness.

Sadly, it is far more likely that the etymology stems from the use of the word “nuts” or “nut” in the 1940s, meaning crazy or a crazy/undesirable person, respectively. The transition would go something like this: nut, nurt. It then may have branched off in either of two re-convening paths: nert, nerd; or nurd, nerd. It was Gershberms before Gershberms. Still, with the recent popularity and acceptance of nerd culture, this interpretation, like many others, may be simply an example of contemporary culture trying to divine significance out of the past. The takeaway here is that “nerd” was likely in American vernacular for quite a while prior to showing up in print, but is still a relatively new word. But what does it mean?

nerd
noun Slang.
1. a stupid, irritating, ineffectual, or unattractive person.
2. an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit: a computer nerd.

That’s quite a range, so let’s get a second opinion. On his site, wordorigins.org, Dave Wilton writes, “In today’s parlance, a nerd is an exceptional studious or technically proficient person, but the original sense was that of a boring or very conventional person.” The entry from the Online Etymology Dictionary confirms this: “1951, U.S. student slang, probably an alteration of 1940s slang nert ‘stupid or crazy person,’ itself an alteration of nut.”

The past definition of “nerd” is very specific; it replaced an existing slang term for someone who was conventional to the point that they could not or would not fit into mainstream society. Now, though, we can see that the definition has changed. The personality type–socially awkward, irritating, conventional–may still apply, but the intelligence level is reversed. Although not the definitive source for cultural information Urban Dictionary does have a tendency to keep updated records of slang through crowd sourcing. Check out its entries on “nerd,” and you’ll see that almost all of them refer to someone who is highly intellectual or intelligent. Trouble begins, though, when people begin using the word “geek.”

It seems that there is a minor cultural battle over the differentiation of “nerd” and “geek,” and whether they can be used interchangeably. At first, it would seem that they can. According to The Online Etymology Dictionary and Dave Wilton (using the Oxford English Dictionary), “geek” gets its roots in the Low German “geck,” meaning “a fool, dupe, simpleton,” and one can find written examples going back to the early 1500s. Just for fun, though, take a look at the modern definition:

geek

noun

1. a digital-technology expert or enthusiast (a term of pride as self-reference, but often used disparagingly by others).
2. a person who has excessive enthusiasm for and some expertise about a specialized subject or activity: a foreign-film geek.
3. a peculiar or otherwise dislikable person, especially one who is perceived to be overly intellectual.
4. a carnival performer who performs sensationally morbid or disgusting acts, as biting off the head of a live chicken. (dictionary.reference.com/browse/geek)

We’re going to come back to #4, don’t worry. For now, though, hold on to your socks, because we’re about to get nonlinear. First, let’s acknowledge the change in meaning from stupidity to expertise, speciality, and intellectualism. As with “nerd,” that’s a huge shift. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Something big must have happened to change the fundamental definition of a word,” you’re absolutely right. Something big did happen. At the end of the 1970s, led by notable names like Gates, Jobs, and Wozniak, the microcomputer revolution exploded. It was also around this time, that the terms “geek” and “nerd” referred almost exclusively to the kinds of guys who had created the machines that would worm their way into almost every aspect of our lives for the next thirty years. But that still doesn’t explain the one-track-mind aspect of either word.

From the definition above, version #4 takes care of that missing piece. Cue the Online Etymology Dictionary:

“sideshow freak,” 1916, U.S. carnival and circus slang […] The modern form and the popular use with reference to circus sideshow “wild men” is from 1946, in William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley (made into a film in 1947 starring Tyrone Power).

Still a derogatory term, we have, however, found our point of inception for specialization. It’s a base connotation at this point, but it’s there and is destined for denotation. In Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he makes five references to the word “geek” (none to “nerd”). I was going to cite all five, but upon closer inspection I’ve decided that I’m going to subject you to just three:

  1. I am still vaguely haunted by our hitchhiker’s remark about how he’d “never rode in a convertible before.” Here’s this poor geek living in a world of convertibles zipping past him on the highways all the time, and he’s never even ridden in one. It made me feel like King Farouk. (17)
  2. By ten they were spread out all over the course. It was no longer a “race”; now it was an Endurance Contest. The only visible action was at the start/finish line, where every few minutes some geek would come speeding out of the dustcloud and stagger off his bike, while his pit crew would gas it back up and then launch it back onto the track with a fresh driver … for another fifty-mile lap, another brutal hour of kidney-killing madness out there in that terrible dust-blind limbo. (38)
  3. They were having a bang-up time–just crashing around the desert at top speed and hassling anybody they met. “What outfit you fellas with?” one of them shouted. The engines were all roaring; we could barely hear each other.“The sporting press,” I yelled. “We’re friendlies—hired geeks.” (39)

A caveat to the following analysis is that it may, of course, be biased toward the current definition of the word “geek.” In the first quote, geek seems to take the meaning “square,” but it can also mean someone who is sheltered or socially dysfunctional. The second quote seems to imply “specialist,” since the drivers are there to do one thing and do it well. But considering that Thompson painted this event (and most of Las Vegas) as a kind of freak show, the “specialist” aspect gets blended with that of “circus freak.” Quote number three is probably the closest he comes to the modern definition, referring to writers and photographers as harmless specialists, not particularly aware of the rest of the world around themselves. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the existing term “geek” absorbed meaning from the word “freak,” due in part to hippie culture mixing with the mainstream. It is entirely plausible that Thompson was using these words almost interchangeably, with only slightly different shades of meaning.

One such example of this interchangeability is Brother Power the Geek, a two-issue comic created by Joe Simon (Captain America) in 1968. The eponymous character was a tailor’s dummy brought to life to protect hippies. Originally, according to Jim Burrows and several other sources, the character was supposed to be called Brother Power the Freak, but at the time “freak” (and especially Hunter Thompson’s oft-referenced Freak Power movement) connoted drug references, so the descriptor was changed to “geek.” Regardless of the connotations, both terms denoted separation from the mainstream. This may be just one example, but it does show an active redefining of words in popular culture during this time period.

Let’s jump forward to the 1980s and, now that we have a better sense of the evolution of where these words are coming from and how they’re intermingling, get back to the tech boom. As in the cultural revolution in the ’60s and ’70s, the technological revolution of the late ’70s and ’80s led to some further redefining of terms via popular culture. While Tron (1982) never specifically called any of its characters nerds or geeks, it did portray them in a new light, as adventurers and warriors of a different stripe. A reversal of If I Ran the Zoo, it gave the idea, but without a name–priming its audience for what was to come. In 1984, we find a nexus. Revenge of the Nerds and Sixteen Candles came out that year, and helped to create the definitions of “nerd” and “geek” that would last until the turn of the century.

In Revenge of the Nerds, Gilbert says, “I just wanted to say that I’m a nerd, and I’m here tonight to stand up for the rights of other nerds. I mean uh, all our lives we’ve been laughed at and made to feel inferior. And tonight, those bastards, they trashed our house. Why? Cause we’re smart? Cause we look different?” And Lewis adds, “[…] When you went to Adams you might’ve been called a spazz, or a dork, or a geek.” Right there, we have equivalency. In this case, they’re talking about regionalisms: the terms for those who don’t fit in because of interests, intelligence, looks, or personality quirks. In Sixteen Candles, Anthony Michael Hall’s character is called The Geek, and he refers to himself as “the king of the dipshits.” On the surface, this seems like rough treatment, but what’s really happening here, between these two movies and Tron, is a redefining of the “freak” as one who, while awkwardly non-adherent to the social graces, is highly technically proficient in one specific area.

Now, though, we have redundancy: freak, geek, nerd, square, and dork. I’m only really here to talk about “nerd,” but am required to talk about “geek” in order to draw contrast. So, quickly, I’ll take these other terms out of play. “Freak” simply lost its drug reference after the ’70s, and went back to meaning “nut” and “outsider,” which Paul Feig explored in his 1999 TV show Freaks and Geeks. The titular separation of these terms again helped to narrow the definition of “geek” into something more intellectual than simply acting strangely and not being cool. Freak, more recently, has gained a specifically sexual definition, depending on context. Granted, the phrases “she’s a freak in the sack” and “she’s a nerd in the sack” could and (often enough for me to notice) do mean exactly the same thing. So there’s that.

“Square”: no one born after 1980 uses “square” to describe anything other than a equilateral quadrilateral. If it does get used, it’s usually as a throwback, and means “boring” or “stuffy.”

“Dork” is often associated with “nerd” and “geek,” but the Online Etymology Dictionary dates this term back to the ’60s, and notes that it’s probably an alteration of the word “dick,” for the male genitalia. Unlike “nerd” and “geek,” “dork” is always derogatory, as it always carries a connotation of stupidity, obtuseness, or unintellectual single-mindedness.

Dork.

Oh, Kurt, you’re such a dork.

Before I move on to the part of this wall of text in which I ask, “What does this all mean!?” and rock back and forth, chewing my fingernails, I need to get the final differentiation of “nerd” and “geek” sorted out. To do this, because the words evolved together, I had to look to contemporary sources. The problem with this is a distinct lack of authority. The dictionary definitions (above) don’t help because they are too similar. Urban Dictionary is helpful, but only in a limited way, since there is generally no vetting process, and definitions tend to be wildly subjective (“One whose IQ exceeds his weight,” while clever is neither true nor helpful).

Not satisfied to take the word of the Internet, I asked some people I know and got a few responses.

Sarah:

Hmmm. Nerd, to me, always carried more of a subtext of introversion–being a ‘nerd’ about something meant you obsessively collected and curated information on a topic, but maybe didn’t proselytize your interest or even communicate it that much. Whereas ‘geeking out’ is by definition public; it’s bringing your interests into your social interactions. Basically, nerds are quiet and geeks are loud. At least that’s what the terms always meant to me.

Kent:

To be entirely unhelpful, I don’t have a good personal sense of the difference. Growing up, both were used as insults toward kids (or people in general) who were too academic, too sciency, too computer-savvy, too interested in Magic cards or D&D. As an adult, I’ve read several little blurbs and articles explicating the differences, most commonly between “nerd,” “geek,” and “dork.” But I don’t have a strong gut sense that I belong (or don’t belong) to one category or another. Nerd probably has the most positive instinctual connotations–I’m a book-nerd, in terms of loving books, but a music-and-poetry-geek, in terms of knowing excessive amounts about both, and a joke-dork in terms of enjoying stupid awkward humor that makes other people uncomfortable at dinner parties (much the way whale dorks make people uncomfortable at dinner parties, especially when worn as three-piece-suits).

Art:

The words seem to be conflated in today’s culture, with geek edging out nerd, I think, in terms of overall usage. If I were to try to distinguish them, I might say that a nerd is one who is intelligent, scholarly, into science and/or art, etc. A geek, on the other hand, is one who is deeply involved in fandom related to comics, games, movies, and the like. Not necessarily scholarly in the way I would expect a nerd to be, but I also don’t think a nerd would necessarily need to be into fandom. I guess that sums up how I think the words can be distinguished, but I also think they are probably used interchangeably more often than not.

Josh:

To me, both are used to describe a passion for a complex non-mainstream subject, but where they differ is the subjects they relate to. A nerd is into intellectual subject matters like math or computer science. A geek is more cultural, like comics or film. [Author’s note: I’d argue that he meant “technical” instead of “intellectual,” but I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth.]

Mike:

The best I can tell is a ‘geek’ is someone who is into something (comics, Star Wars, Cooking, Sports, Old movies, writing, or whatever) and will build friendships around that interests. They like to talk about the things they are into and will do so at length.

I think nerds tend to be like geeks, but without the social element. Also that the things that they are into isolate them from others reenforcing anti-socializing tendencies. They dive into the topic and do not talk to people about it.

I think its easier to find groups of geeks that all share the same interest, whereas a group of nerds come together from their shared social awkwardness.

Ron:

The answer is, however, a little complicated, as in our lifetimes the meanings of each word have, at least in my mind and my experience of pop culture, become at times synonymous and at times quite different, at other times even swapping their definitions as one or the other came into vogue.

At the present time, I am inclined to define nerd as someone whose advanced interest in a subject inhibits, hinders, or precludes his or her ability to be a social creature.

I am inclined to define geek as someone whose advanced interest in a subject does not inhibit, and at times and in certain circumstances may well enhance his or her ability to be a social creature.

While I would like to venture a few thoughts about whether the sciences or the arts are more for the nerds or the geeks, or whether there are areas that are only nerdy or only geeky, they would be wild conjecture.

Amanda:

The main difference between nerd and geek for me is connotation. The term “nerd” tends to be used in a positive way, whereas I feel like “geek” is often used negatively. For instance, a computer nerd is someone who knows a lot about computers, whereas a computer geek is often thought of as socially awkward and not as approachable. Additionally, nerd refers to someone who has a lot of knowledge, whereas geek tends to include an obsessive/fanatical/devoted aspect to a particular area or subject.

So there you have it. Seven is obviously not the best sample size, and all respondents are 28-34 years old, but the general consensus–that “nerd” connotes technical proficiency, scholarship, and social ineptitude, whereas “geek” connotes enthusiasm, collectorship, and a higher level of sociability–conforms with most of the definitions one might find.

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Now that I’ve spent a good deal of time on defining and sorting, why, you might ask, does any of it matter? Why should anyone care about the splitting of hairs in some minor culture battle? Generally, it doesn’t matter and no one should care, since in about twenty years, these words will be relegated to the same obscurity as “square” or “dip.” That is, it’s moot if all we care about is the definition of words. But we don’t, do we? As with so many terms, especially slang, the development of a word is at least as important as its final meaning. I went into excruciating detail about how these words formed, where they came from, and how they evolved and differentiated themselves from similar terms over the past half century. Now that we’ve caught up to the present day, we should keep in mind the kinds of factors that changed these words as we continue to refine and solidify their definitions.

One such factor is branding and popular culture. As discussed earlier, “geek” split from it’s “freak” roots mainly because someone in the mainstream wanted to make a profit off of a large subculture without having to acknowledge the touchier social issues bound to it. Today, nerd/geek culture is in full swing, due in part to the ever increasing need for specialists in various scientific and technological fields–specialists who have a lot of disposable income and who have instant access to a web of likeminded people. That large, monied subculture attracts a lot of attention, and over the past few decades, producers of popular media have begun catering to it.

This poses a couple problems. First, while something might be gained in the translation from subculture to mainstream, something is also going to be lost. We can see this happening now. For better or for worse, there are TV shows like The Big Bang Theory, which portray nerds and geeks in a positive light. Obviously, the characters are stereotypes and the plots are formulaic, but it’s a sitcom fantasy world. Nerds and geeks should appreciate the role-playing aspect to it. If in D&D, one can kill the badass skeletons (all of them), find the magical key to the mystical chastity belt, and rescue the fine-ass lady elf, why shouldn’t a supermodel physicist be able to date a supermodel waitress or supermodel biologist? While the intensity of the social awkwardness gets lost in translation, the definition is gaining a more positive connotation.

The other problem might be called hipsterism, but is really a conflict over ownership. If we take the modern definition of “geek,” which I separated from “nerd” above, it might be more appropriate to say that this is not so much a problem as it is a more modern divergence of the terms. Ideas and genres, among other things, come with cultural capital. As these social phenomena wax and wane in popularity, so does their cultural capital. As creatures of culture (at least more than nerds are), geeks would be more prone to claiming ownership over the subculture. While intelligence and accumulated knowledge might positive, the down side to a battle over ownership is the social awkwardness that defines both cultures. In arguments about these cultures, there is a tendency to bring in the idea of suffering. Like the idea of suffering for one’s art, those who claim ownership over these terms tend to espouse the idea that one isn’t truly a nerd/geek if there hasn’t been some sort of trauma–bullying, severe social awkwardness, a crippling lack of self-confidence, and so on. While there is a limited point to that argument, it sets a weird precedent, encouraging those who want membership in the subculture to adopt the affect of these traumas, and allowing those who have already claimed ownership to be cultural gatekeepers.

The fact that, unlike words describing concrete physicality–black, white, short, tall, blue-eyed, and bald–“nerd” (and “geek”) describes a social perception of a personality type or state of mind. But as long as the world keeps spinning, there will always be a constant shift in perception. A nerd today is not the same as a nerd sixty years ago, or twenty years ago, or ten years ago. It would be ludicrous to expect that calling a 30-year-old person a nerd now would mean the same as it did when he or she was in high school. And for those self-applying the term, it’s best to keep track of how the word has evolved since you first started to use it, so you don’t end up stuck in the past. But if you’re a nerd, you’ve probably already got that taken care of.

My intention here was to draw meaning out of process. There were many more aspects of this issue that I could have tackled, but didn’t because I like to pretend that I have other things to do. I suspect that there were parts of this that were overly dense and scattered, but after several days of looking at this over and over again and not finding a way to restructure it, I decided “to hell with it” and now we’re here.

A list of citations for this monstrosity can be found here.

Dog Days

Before I jump into this entry, I want to issue a disclaimer. This is not going to be a happy  post. If you’re in a good mood and want to stay that way today, come back and read this tomorrow. Yesterday’s post was about something I liked about Malaysia, but today’s is about an aspect of life that makes it difficult for me to live here.

Hello, Bigger Dog.

You can’t tell from the photo, but this is his contemplative look.

When we moved to Malaysia, we brought our dog Russet with us. At first, my main worry was the heat and humidity. He’s a cold weather dog, and in Boston he was happiest on a 40-degree day. Here on the equator, in its eternal summer, I was worried that he’d be too hot, but it turned out fine. He adapted about as quickly as we did. Now he runs around in the heat, chases frogs, and pounces on lizards, perfectly at home.

I’d had a second worry, though. It’s no secret that Malaysia (and Southeast Asia in general) has a different take on animal rights than, say, the United States or Europe. For various reasons, cultural and religious, the native population here is typically not friendly toward dogs. We knew this when coming, and seriously weighed the risks of moving Russet, but decided that since we had found a gated community (most middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods are gated here; it’s just how it is) that was friendly toward dogs, he could join us. As I said, he seems at home here, but only as long as we stay inside the community or transport him by car to another person’s house. Outside of these places, his life is forfeit.

That sounds dramatic, but only because it is. Kuala Lumpur’s city center is definitively cosmopolitan. There are women, conservatively covered from head to toe, taking pictures of their families in front of giant Christmas trees in malls that are air conditioned to match the frigidity of a New England winter. Granted there are no nativities, obviously, but who’s counting? We live twenty minutes outside all of that, and the vibe one gets is a mix of suburban sprawl and something else distinctly rural. Drive five minutes up the road from our apartment, and you run out of road. Beyond that is at least fifty kilometers of jungle, with tiny village communities dotting the landscape here and there. In the four months since our arrival, I have seen more starving stray cats and dogs than I saw in my previous thirty years everywhere else I have ever been.

Of course, the amount and kind of poverty I’ve seen here far outstrips anything I ever saw States-side. Our apartment has high-speed internet, hot water, air conditioning, and pretty much any other luxury you’d find in a middle-class American apartment. But walk out onto our balcony, and just across the road you’ll see a small slum built out of plywood, corrugated tin, plastic tarps, cardboard, and occasionally spare bricks from a nearby construction site. It is a temporary home for the construction workers, who are working night and day to build the next high-tech gated community, just down the road. A significant number of houses and apartments in our community aren’t even filled, and the other community on our road isn’t even ten percent full, but the Tiger Economy demands more buildings. Build it and they will come, or so it goes.

As a westerner, walk by that shantytown, and you’ll get some pretty intense stares, doubly so if you’re a woman. In the city, you get used to that kind of thing, but out here it’s hard to shake the vibe of hostility. Even within our community, when I’m walking Russet, people will stare at him like he’s vermin. I could never walk him down the road outside the gates. I get it, though. It’s a clash of cultures mixed with a lack of education and a staggering disparity of wealth. It’s not uncommon for dogs to be beaten, chased into the road, and purposefully run over. The people I have encountered here are typically very pleasant, though, which makes such cruelty hard to parse.

But Russet is no stray, and for that, he and the other pets in our gated community are incredibly lucky.

A month ago, I saw a dog lying dead on the grassy median of a road near our house. It had been killed, but clearly not by a car. A stray plastic bag had caught on its paw and billowed in the wind. I never told anyone about it.

But there is some good that has come of all this. I recently learned about a shelter in Langkawi started by foreigners who had seen too much. There is even an online campaign (that link is 100% not for anyone who doesn’t want graphic pictorial evidence, by the way) to stop the country’s horrendous treatment of strays. Granted, the wording of the petition is a little bombastic, and there is a woeful use of ALL CAPS, but the sentiment it right, at least.