Apparently, nerds have won the battle for respectability and social acceptability. Geek chic is a thing. Superheroes movies make so much dough that they’ve sent studios scrambling to make film featuring any character with a modicum of pop culture recognition in pursuit of the almighty nerd dollar. People are always trying to prove that they’re a ‘true nerd’ as if that’s a badge of honor that needs to be earned — or doubting the nerd credentials of others. The nerds have grown up and conquered the world, we all hate the Big Bang Theory and so on and so forth. That’s just conventional wisdom at this point, right?
But conventional wisdom hasn’t quite reached the middle school level. I worked at a middle school last year and I was struck by how much nerd-bashing there was — especially because we were in the Age of Geek tolerance. Wearing glasses was considered geeky and earned insults. Wanting to play on a computer was considered geeky and earned insults. Knowing a great deal about science was considered geeky and earned insults. Being socially awkward was considered geeky and earned insults. If you were a socially awkward kid with glasses who liked playing on the computer and knew about science — well, you were in for a great deal of teasing.
I was a little put off by this. First of all, I thought that the nerds had succeeded and we could all let our geek flags fly without fear of repercussions. And then I noticed something else — kids who called other kids nerds were in fact nerds themselves. These self-hating nerds were big into superheroes, Pokémon, playing video games on the computers and at home, and all the things nerd dreams are made of. I pointed this out constantly: “you call others a nerd, but you yourself obsess over Pokémon as only a twelve-year-old can!” So the issue isn’t that liking nerdy stuff makes you uncool. I think that there’s something much more sinister at work.
You see, at the middle school level, being different in any way is an invitation to get teased. So looking a little funny or having a foreign accent — that’s going to get you teased and being socially awkward is just another way to make yourself a potential target. Once you get labeled as uncool (and I can’t tell why kids are considered uncool or cool. It seems to be some random, unfathomable decision in the middle school hive mind) you’re marked as different and you become a target of mockery. The nerd stuff is actually pretty small bit of this to focus on, especially compared to the casual, constant homophobia that fills the mind of the average middle schooler. I think that acceptance of different people is what these middle schoolers need to learn and that’s something I’ve tried to instill in my students.
The nerd hate is just a small part of a bigger problem and one that everyone can combat. Know an uncool kid? Give them some solace and help them realize that they have worth. See some teasing going on, or hear the word ‘Gay’ being bandied about like a punch line? Put a stop to it. A lot of this stuff is just endemic to middle school students (I guess it proves how wretched humanity truly is), but we can still combat it and set a better example.
So, come on, geeks of the world — there’s still a battle to be won. Fight for social acceptance of all outcasts, no matter the odds. And while you’re at it, put a stop to the nasty, anti-woman, ant-minority, homophobic current that sometimes manifests in geek culture. The nerds may have conquered the world, but being different still makes you a target. That’s something that needs to change and is far more important than some kind of ‘social justice’ for Trekkies and Batman fans.