Monday, September 11, 2006

The Nerd, part I

This is another one of those clearing house posts where I clear out a number of related ideas that never germinated into full postings on their own merits. I like to think of it as the blogosphere equivalent of the television "flashback episode". The rules are simple: musings are aggregated as I consider the topic over the next few hours or so with iconoclasm and heresy, as always, being greatly prefered. Thus, without further ado, some musings on the post that started it all.

Sean at Cosmic Variance mentions the great blogosphere nerd-off of 2006, with some related social analysis about what being a nerd really means. He largely summarizes the difference between a nerd and a geek with:
Words like “nerd” or “geek” have two very different sets of connotations, and it’s hard to evoke one without the other. One has to do with technical mastery and know-how, or even a more broadly-based appreciation for things academic and intellectual. The other has to do with social awkwardness, the inability to comfortably converse with strangers at cocktail parties, and a tendency to dress in the least attractive way possible.
This is the conventional wisdom that being a nerd is essentially a social awkwardness problem. But when you really think about it, this is something of a "non-explanation explanation". Doesn't every marginalized subcultural grouping associated with negative stereotypes face a social awkwardness problem, one way or another?

I think that a more useful understanding of nerds as a social phenomenom is to realize that the term also has subtle class connotations in addition to skill connotations. The classical "Poindexter"-type nerd, for example, is always portrayed as wearing large-framed glasses conspicuously held together with tape as if he* cannot afford to wear unbroken glass frames. The "Comic Book Guy"-type nerd, on the other hand, is depected as overweight because the underclass are stereotypically unable to control vulgar impulses such as food consumption, and wearing ill-fitting clothing that was obviously purchased much earlier in the character's career of weight gain. The overweight nerd wearing ill-fitting clothing is either too poor or too unmotivated to buy fitting clothing, social apathy being another trait associated with poverty.

In this point of view, insofar as the stereotypical nerd has any aspirations at all, he could be characterized as someone with a lower class lifestyle who views education as a tool of upwards economic mobility. Part of the negative connotation of being a nerd might arise from the fact that this a decidedly pre-welfare -- almost 19th century -- strategy of social improvement: the poor literally attempting to lift themselves out of poverty by their bootstraps without assistance from a benevolent Big Government.

Another perspective is Paul Graham's essay "Why Nerds are Unpopular" which explains the unpopularity of nerds as being inherent in the public school system:
Public school teachers are in much the same position as prison wardens. Wardens' main concern is to keep the prisoners on the premises. They also need to keep them fed, and as far as possible prevent them from killing one another. Beyond that, they want to have as little to do with the prisoners as possible, so they leave them to create whatever social organization they want. From what I've read, the society that the prisoners create is warped, savage, and pervasive, and it is no fun to be at the bottom of it.
The essay also touches upon the seemingly natural antipathy between "jocks" and nerds:
What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren't told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates. Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they're called misfits.
So part of the social awkwardness of being nerd comes from a lack of "character", which in the context of public schools is associated with successful performance in preferrably group sports. This is suspiciously similar to the old British Imperial notion that everything one needed to know to run the British Empire could be taught on the rugby field.

The television adapation of the Sherlock Holmes story "The Empty House" starring Jeremy Brett has a good illustration of this. One gets the impression that upper-class Britons list their leisure-time activities on their resumes, or that they would if their "character" ever dropped so low that they would actually need to go to the trouble of writing them in order to obtain employment.

So in a sense, the contemporary American jock is the spiritual heir to the British Imperial bureaucrat; this makes the movie "Gandhi" the most objectively pro-nerd movie ever filmed.

*Yes, there are female nerds. This post adopts the Murray Convention that third person singular pronouns be chosen to refer to the sex of the author.


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