Yesterday, SF author and blogger John Scalzi wrote a piece entitled, "Who Gets To Be a Geek? Anyone Who Wants To Be" that delighted me.
(The piece was in response to an article at CNN by Joe Peacock, believe it or not, disparaging -- for not being genuine geeks -- pretty, sexily-dressed women who come to events like ComicCon, including the ones who are hired by sponsors to work at the booths. I am not the sort of geek who goes to that sort of convention, so I really can't judge the Peacock piece on the merits of its claims.)
But I loved John Scalzi's response, because of the way he encapsulated geekdom:
Geekdom is a nation with open borders. There are many affiliations and many doors into it. There are lit geeks, media geeks, comics geeks, anime and manga geeks. There are LARPers, cosplayers, furries, filkers, crafters, gamers and tabletoppers. There are goths and horror geeks and steampunkers and academics. There are nerd rockers and writers and artists and actors and fans. Some people love only one thing. Some people flit between fandoms. Some people are positively poly in their geek enthusiasms. Some people have been in geekdom since before they knew they were geeks. Some people are n00bs, trying out an aspect of geekdom to see if it fits. If it does, great. If it doesn’t then at least they tried it.
Many people believe geekdom is defined by a love of a thing, but I think — and my experience of geekdom bears on this thinking — that the true sign of a geek is a delight in sharing a thing. It’s the major difference between a geek and a hipster, you know: When a hipster sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “Oh, crap, now the wrong people like the thing I love.” When a geek sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “ZOMG YOU LOVE WHAT I LOVE COME WITH ME AND LET US LOVE IT TOGETHER.”
Any jerk can love a thing. It’s the sharing that makes geekdom awesome.
This is wonderful. I mean, really wonderful.
For one thing, it neatly skewers the notion that being a geek is really all about being an outcast because The Greater World doesn't understand the stuff the geeks do understand. If that were so, it would be impossible to be a geek about anything that happens to be, at the moment, popular. The boundaries of geekdom would shift with the winds of popular culture.
But you know, and I know, that being a geek is something about who you are, not about who accepts you or even about who accepts your interests.
The reason that the world stereotypes socially inept outcasts as geeks, and geeks as socially inept outcasts, is because -- these days, anyway -- the world considers it socially inept to betray a deep interest in any subject. To care about an idea, or a subject, and to care about getting the details right more than caring about what other people think.
Some people have the sort of charismatic personality or way with words -- or other sort of attractiveness -- that makes them perfectly able to publicly express enthusiasm in a way that infects others. Not all geeks have this gift, because the world is mostly turned off by people who don't have the habit of disparaging deep interest. The habit of cool -- figuratively, being at most lukewarm about everything and everyone, because warmth betrays caring.
Geek and cool are opposites by nature. And "cool" is highly prized today. Fortunately, there are other ways of standing out -- society's not so far gone that it doesn't sometimes appreciate the not-cool. And so geekdom and outcasts are not identical sets.
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Although once my husband called me "nerdy-cool." Which is just about the most romantic thing I can imagine.
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Here's another place I found the term "geek," or sometimes its almost-interchangeable synonym "nerd," is useful.
A few weeks ago when Bearing Blog Epidemiologist ChristyP was in town for a conference, she introduced me to a colleague, whose name I knew well because he has published numerous articles about natural family planning and about the bioethics of reproductive health.
He asked me, "How is it that you found out about NFP?"
I started with "Well, I'm Catholic --"
He said, quite correctly, "That isn't a sufficient answer."
I paused and said slowly: "I'm kind of a Catholic nerd." Turned and looked to ChristyP -- "That kind of sums it up, doesn't it?" -- and she indicated that it would do, at least for the purposes of that brief conversation!
Thinking back on it, I believe it does suffice. (I used "nerd" because I wasn't sure whether "geek" has too recent a vintage to mean something to this gentleman -- indeed the usage frequency of "geek" has lagged about 8 years behind that of "nerd" since about 1980. But I meant something exactly like the "geek" of Scalzi's piece.)
I mean, I think most of us who intend to live Catholic doctrine as if we really believed it, as written, to be correct sometimes use shorthand like "orthodox Catholic" to refer to others who decline to dissent in any way from Church teaching, but that term doesn't satisfy. For one thing, it's easily confused with "Orthodox Christian" which is a distinct ecclesiastical community, or it may be construed as some weird kind of shorthand for Eastern Rite Catholics.
For another thing, it's often used as if it were the opposite of terms like "progressive Catholic" or "liberal Catholic" or "social justice Catholic", when that's really not so. One can adhere to every bit of what's in the catechism and yet feel more affinity with liberal or progressive politics (remember: we operate in every country in the world) or perceive that one's particular evangelistic calling is centered around topics that get classified as "social justice."
For a third thing, although it's useful shorthand in private conversation with others you agree with, I doubt that "orthodox" is understood the same way by the wider culture of English-speaking Catholics. Self-identified Catholics dissent for a lot of reasons -- many are intellectually honest, informed, and deliberate, many "own" their position, but others are lashing out in anger and hurt, while still others oppose a strawman. I haven't taken a survey, but it strikes me that a large number of those people would take some umbrage at us toe-the-line types for claiming the term "orthodox." And terms are no good in discourse unless you agree on the meaning.
For a fourth thing, and I mean no disrespect -- I don't think all the "orthodox Catholics" are also "Catholic geeks." (And likely as not there are Catholic geek dissenters.)
But "Catholic nerd," though, or "geek," seems to fit the bill pretty well, and more precisely than just "orthodox" -- at least for me. With that term, I'm trying to get across that I'm interested in Catholic theology, liturgy, and moral life. I'm interested in getting it right, in being able to split hairs, because ZOMG I LOVE IT PLEASE COME WITH ME AND LOVE IT TOO.
It implies, I hope, not just that I wish to toe the line, but that I have, in fact, drunk the Kool-Aid. TASTE AND SEE.
In many ways a geek is a geek. Others call us hairsplitting or even jesuitical (Jesuits: Perhaps the original Catholic geek organization, regardless of where they find themselves today), but it's no less fun to pick apart difficult moral questions than it is to have passionate arguments about, say, literature or physics.
I mean, really: there's a certain affinity among these:
- having a passionate argument using fluxes and mass balances about the question "Does running in the rain make you wetter or dryer than walking?" (real example I remember from the lunch table in graduate school)
- having a detailed email discussion on the question "If a woman has suffered multiple ectopic pregnancies, is it licit for her to request surgical removal of the Fallopian tubes, because of a reasonable suspicion that there is something wrong with them, on the grounds that it is generally permissible to remove a 'diseased body part' and that the consequent sterilization is a secondary, undesired effect that is nevertheless permitted under the principle of double effect? Or does double effect not apply, because in fact the directly desired effect is prevention of all pregnancies, this being the means by which the prevention of a specific disease in the Fallopian tube is to be brought about?"
- insisting that it's a vital blow to the preservation of American film culture that George Lucas whitewashed the fact HAN SOLO TOTALLY SHOT FIRST?
All of these are the kinds of questions that only true geeks care about, at least deeply enough to argue about it at length instead of doing what other people might call "getting on with their lives."