Geek As Citizen: Tolerance As Part of Geekdom

In the last few years the question of tolerance in geekdom gets brought up. As of late it’s been the ridiculous obsession some members of the geek community have with ferreting out the mythical “fake geek” girl. Other times there are questions of racism, transphobia, and homobpobia. The issue over “Ender’s Game” raised this specter again, and after reading this thoughtful post at Lady Geek Girl, I felt I should address this again in a slightly different context than I have previously.

By that different context, I mean in the larger sense of citizenship – both in the large and as citizens of our own communities.  Also with a bit less of some of the snark that I’ve used in some of my previous writings.

So, to state it simply – intolerance of others in the form of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and the like do not have a place in geek life nor identifiable geek culture. Furthermore I will argue that this is important to geeks as citizens, both in their community and in the larger communities – and that in some cases, we should fully understand the impact of bias and its negative effects.

Bigotry Is Bad – Stating The Inevitable

I feel that I should state upfront, that I consider forms of bigotry to be bad; and I wish to state that as at times it is lauded as a virtue (one merely has to examine the news of people targeting homosexuals or transsexuals for supposedly moral reasons to see that). Humans, being naturally social creatures, have produced increasingly large and stable societies by extending the sphere of their affections and involvements. This in turn has had huge amounts of benefits to humanity in culture, science, lifespan, and opportunities.

Again, I feel rather sad I have to state this outright, but it is necessary.

Geeks And Geek Culture – A Restatement

I have speculated again and again what geeks are and what our roles are as citizens. In doing so I also have to draw the distinction between geeks as a demographic/descriptor, and geeks as a culture.

As a demographic/descriptor I consider geeks to essentially be applied intellectuals or applied enthusiasts. We pair deep love and knowledge of a subject with actively using that knowledge to do things from crafts, to costumes, to coding. Thus I would consider cosplayers, sports fans who play fantasy football, cooking enthusiasts who try recipes in the books of their favorite cooks, etc. to all essentially be geeks.

Geek culture on the other hand is the area of culture that bands many – but not all – geeks together. In this case it tends to be a place where literature, movies, TV, games, technology, and some culture come together. It’s the comics/movie/game/anime/computers crowd, sometimes intersecting into other areas – and in my experience, slowly expanding over the years (for instance, I knew many geeks into Wrestling).

Geek culture does not encompass all geeks, but again the core definer is there – love of something, knowledge, and application.  There is nothing here that states that the person must be of a given gender, race, or or sexual preference to enjoy such things.

Bigotry Is Ungeeky

The nature of geeky enthusiasms is, at least passively, at odds with bigotry and bias. The enthusiasm, information, and its use are constrained by dislike and irrational hatred – it’s quite hard to indulge your love of things when you’re busy hating someone for their skin color or who they sleep with.  A closed mind gathers less ideas, feels less passion, and does less – all antitheses to geek ideals

Therefore I say that a geek is much more a geek when they are not constrained by bigotry. I’d even go so far to say that that ability of humans to “expand the sphere of affections” is something we geeks can do rather well (even if in limited ways) because our enthusiasms act as bridges that can bridge other gaps – at times wide ones – in our cultures.  Admittedly we may dislike people of different interests, but I feel it is (usually) less vicious than biases about race and so on.

Geek Culture, Bigotry, And Origins

Geek culture, especially in America, has had clear gender/racial divisions in it – frankly, it was usually white and male (says me, a white male). Those are changing as inclusivity increases. Those are also changing as demographics change. Finally, those are changing as geekdom itself expands to be larger, more popular, and more integrated.

This expansion is really in the spirit of what geeks are anyway, and I’m obviously quite pleased with it.

However I don’t think the racial/ethnic are defining of geekdom at it’s core; which again is about love of the subject and it’s application. That means the shared experiences of some geeks are different, but it’s no reason to argue some people are not geeks based on criteria with nothing to do with the culture at large (gender, sexual preference, or race). Once you say “my ethnic/racial group defines geekdom” you argue that division is predominant over the very applied passion that makes one a geek – at that moment, a person who does that in a way has not exiled others, but has begun the process of exiling themselves from their culture and indeed themselves.

A bigoted geek is thus less of a geek and is indeed untrue to themselves; they are self-removing.

So, much as bias harms geeks as a “type of person” or as a kind of social/inclination class, it also harms geekdom as a culture. It is also not counter to what geeks are, and what geek culture is and is evolving further into, but it also brings in a frankly rather immoral and damaged way of viewing the world.

Geeks, Citizenship, And Bigotry

I’ve detailed repeatedly that geeks, as knowledge enthusiasts who use that knowledge to do things (even if they may not be “useful”) are a kind of “middle ground” in culture. We’re tinkers and creators and experimenters and artists and the like. We tend to try new things and tie them together. We’re not always prominent or visible, but we’re there.

Geek culture, as well, is highly applied, integrated, and technical. It’s the culture of the mass media endeavors, of video games, of the internet, and self-publishing, of speculative fiction, and Maker creations.

As we are people who create and consume media, build programs, work in science, and so forth we stand at the crossroads of many events, businesses, and occurrences. Geeks have had huge effects on our culture and frankly we . . . kind of run a lot of things right now. We’re still realizing it, but we do.

As citizens, then, as people who are applied enthusiasts who’s interests and activities aren’t’ bound (and indeed are limited by) by biases, we should work to ensure we overcome and deal with our biases. We are the people standing on the crossroads, in a prominent and growing culture, and our positive and negative traits have effects, and at times great ones.

Look at how much geek culture is surprisingly tolerant (and yes, there is much that is intolerant, but I am recognizing the achievements). Ours is the culture of the first interracial kiss on American TV, of the loveably bisexual Jack Harkness of Doctor Who and Torchwood, and of every person out there who found bond between people in their shared loves.

We can make a difference.

However, we should also remember that a more tolerant, open, less bigoted society is the doing of many people. It is the result of everyone throughout history trying to, when it comes down to it, teach us to hate each other less and find common ground. Whatever we good we do and have, it comes from geeks, non-geeks, academics, philosophers, and more over thousands of years.  We could still learn a lot (as could many).

Aside: Geek Suffering

As an old geek I remember when we weren’t cool – we were geeks (also nerds, dorks, etc.). Many people were not popular, were harassed, etc. Those days often seem far away in an age where video games are hip and nerds run anything, but many people remember them. There are lessons to learn here.

As some of geek culture includes memories of intolerance, we should learn the lessons from these memories and remember to feel empathy for others. In no way do I think being “out group” is a core part of geek culture (but it is a part of it), but it is something we can draw lessons from. Any geek, nerd, etc. who remembers being picked on or slurred has little excuse to treat someone badly for their race, ethnicity, etc.

This “identification as outsider” can be dangerous, for those who are mistreated may have the temptation to mistreat others. In time I expect this to fade as geek culture evolves, but I do get concerned some of it is still there in my conversations with others. Then again I am a product of a different time.

Though I am a hopeful one.


So, to round up.

  1. Geeks both as an identifiable type of person and as a culture are not defined by bigotry.
  2. Geeks both as an identifiable type of person and as a culture are harmed by bigotry which works against what we are.
  3. As citizens, to increase tolerance in geeks and in geek culture can bring benefits to society, at times great ones.
  4. It would assist us in being better citizens and better geeks by being aware of all the work that’s gone into making societies more tolerant.
  5. The geek experience of ostracism, though it has waned, provides important lessons in empathy.

I hope this has been helpful, if a bit long-winded. May we all work to make a more tolerant, more engaged, and of course more geeky world and civilization.

– Steven Savage