Nerd Culture: America’s Greatest Social Menace?

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g-stockstudio /
Could our youth’s total absorption into pop-culture fantasies have negative implications for our real-world society?

American life is all about hegemonies. And perhaps one of the most important hegemonic reversals to occur in US society over the last quarter century has been the nerds v. jocks dynamic. Believe it or not, nerds were once a minority voice in popular culture. Instead of celebrating the borderline-OCD quirks and quasi-retarded social ineptitude of figures such as Steve Urkel and Dudley “Booger” Dawson, Hollywood in the 1980s and 1990s generally viewed such characters as pitiful losers while positing your Ferris Bueller types as the embodiment of cool.

Flash-forward to 2014, though, and things look a bit different. A hyper-violent fantasy program on HBO bests the NBA playoffs in the ratings game, while the nation’s number-one sitcom might as well be called “a weekly half-hour of nerd validation.” As of late May 2014, every movie on the year’s top 10 highest-grossing films list is either a postmodern cartoon, a superhero rehash, or young-adult-baiting sci-fi claptrap. If pop culture is truly a reflection of US culture, it’s obvious that today the nerds rule over the jocks.

Nowhere is this cultural shift more apparent than in Atlanta, where—deep in the heart of SEC football country—Labor Day weekend no longer means college pigskin kickoff time but instead, Dragon Con-mania. Ask any Georgia Tech, Georgia State, or UGA student whether they are more pumped for the first game of the season or the annual celebration of all things dork and dweeb, and I’d venture to guess that far more college kids are excited about dressing up like Star Trek villains and spending exorbitant sums of money to have their picture taken with bit characters on shitty sci-fi programs.

The tribal, jock-centric traditions of yore have been replaced by a new totem of sorts, this time anchored around a celebration of fantasy, fiction, and (perhaps most noteworthy) feigned heroics.

Strange how today, jock culture seems to automatically equate “rape culture,” no? US media, and especially Big Hollywood, seem eager to tear apart athletes, both pro and college, whenever the opportunity arises. Oddly enough, the same egalitarian culture that crucifies Jameis Winston and Brendan Gibbons—on evidence tantamount to not much more than hearsay—seems more than willing to turn a blind eye, or even make excuses, when barons of nerd culture are accused of the same lascivious behaviors. Cinematic dork icons Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and especially X-Men director Bryan Singer are all seemingly forgiven for their seemingly well-founded sexual-abuse allegations on the grounds that they make nerd-satisfying movies alone. And I wonder how many Dragon Con attendees were even aware that, for years, their money went toward the defense fund of a convicted child molester—or if that knowledge would even deter hardcore Star Wars or Lord of the Rings fans from making their annual pilgrimage at all?

It seems to me that “nerd culture” has become the new world order, with fandom and technological absorption replacing “nationalism” and “religion” as the utmost Gen Y identity qualifiers. Today, the big existential dilemmas for college students aren’t “Republican or Democrat,” “Protestant or Catholic,” but “Google or Apple” and “Marvel or DC.” In fact, in nerd-majority America, you could probably argue that “pop culture” and “material culture” are the only kinds of cultures we have as a common people anymore.

Call me crazy, but I see this as a very, very ominous thing.

What we’re seeing in the superhero ideal is something of a regression back to the “might makes right” principle. Our fictitious heroes aren’t flesh and blood, frail human beings empowered by morals such as Atticus Finch or Jefferson Smith, but invincible übermenschen who appeal to our power fantasies, such as Wolverine and Doctor Manhattan. The hardline transhumanism themes found throughout comic-book-inspired media seem an odd encouragement of social Darwinism as well. Seeing as how pioneering sci-fi scribes such as Huxley, Wells, and London were all eugenicist proponents, however, perhaps that theme’s presence in modern sci-fi literature shouldn’t be surprising in the slightest.

Sports heroes, obviously, aren’t real heroes, but at least they’re real people. Sports teach players—and to some extent, fans—all sorts of positive humanistic skills such as teamwork, dedication, and discipline. I don’t think the same sort of communal achievement can be derived from those who spend eight hours a day playing Diablo 3, nor can an individual glean the same sort of inspiration from Dr. Who, Batman and Rick Grimes that one may derive from someone such as Pat Tillman, Jesse Owens, Terry Fox or even UFC fighter Matt Hamill.

Ours is a culture not only immersed in Hollywood and Silicon Valley fiction, but one that practically worships it. Stuck in a vacuum that extols the impersonal embrace of the Internet over actual human interaction—while simultaneously championing the fantastical celluloid and virtual worlds over the real one—doesn’t anyone else think that the minds of today’s young folks couldn’t get just a wee bit warped here?

I’m not arguing that nerd culture is primarily responsible for Millennial violence, but I will argue that it plays a huge role in Gen Y’s collective detachment from the rest of society, which IS a primary factor in mass violence.

When examining the rogues’ gallery of mass homicide perpetrators over the last five years or so, perhaps the greatest overlooked commonality among them was that they were all HUGE nerds. Not just dorks, but uber-dorks, actually.

In 2012, Trey Sesler murdered his entire family in a geek-rage incident that seemed to eerily portend that year’s oncoming wave of mass shootings. Online, he dubbed himself “Mr. Anime,” operating a YouTube channel that had amassed over one million views; rather symbolically, he said his grand plan was to ultimately shoot up his high school’s homecoming football game. Adam Lanza, a Dynasty Warriors-obsessed dweeb who apparently owned every home video game console ever made, was a shut-in who reportedly only left his home to play Dance Dance Revolution by himself and make Gamestop runs. Seung-Hui Cho was an obsessive action figure collector with a particular fondness for X-Men and Sonic the Hedgehog. James Holmes’ apartment was said to be lined with wall-to-wall Batman memorabilia, while Jared Loughner was revealed to be a regular on the conspiracy theorist haunt, which is pretty much Asperger’s: the Website. Even Anders Breivik was a Call of Duty fanboy, who used music from a Conan the Barbarian video game in one of his videotaped diatribes.

Perhaps the most recent media-canonized mass murder saint, Elliot Rodger, is the best example to date: in his 144-page manifesto released shortly before his homicide spree, he identified himself as a hardcore Star Wars aficionado who viewed reality as nothing more than an obstruction to him and leveling up in World of Warcraft. And if his YouTube channel likes were any indication of his real-world interests, it appears as if a good 80 percent of the dude’s life revolved around the mythos of Pokemon.

And apparently, it’s not just a pissed-off young adult male thing either; recently, two Wisconsin tweens were arrested for nearly stabbing one of their friends to death. When grilled by police, the best excuse the girls could come up with was that they were trying to impress a fictitious child killer meme called the “Slender Man.”

Material obsession, obviously, seems built in to fandom communities, where he who has the most licensed junk is king over lesser mortals. But it is also violence itself that seems to be ingrained in the very fibers of nerd culture, with popular texts such as The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen filled to the brim with mass homicide ideation fuel. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a single superhero or sci-fi film—from The Terminator to Akira to Man of Steel— with a plot that doesn’t revolve around at least the impending threat of mega-death. Even more unsettling are the surprisingly high number of films where homicidal outcast fury is not only depicted as justified, but indeed cheerily celebrated, such as in Carrie and Heathers.

Now, all of this geekery wouldn’t be that big of a problem if pop culture knowledge hadn’t supplanted actual cultural knowledge as the nation’s primary form of youth currency. Yet today, social and political idealism runs second to how much trivia one has memorized regarding wholly irrelevant, made-up constructs such as The Walking Dead or The Legend of Zelda.

The average college frosh can probably name three or four Jedi masters, but is unlikely to name more than one or two World War II battles. Just about every American under the age of 30 can name all four Ninja Turtles, but good luck finding any high school senior who can name check one goddamn labor union leader. Please, do feel free to raise your hand if you think either of those tidbits are something that, we as a nation, can feel proud about. Alas, I have something that may serve as a solution here. Since calling for the abolishment of nerd culture in this kind of cultural climate is only slightly less dangerous than handing out signed Ike Turner photographs at a NOW convention, I propose a simple diversification program for today’s youths, many of whom are being weaned by first generation nerd-majority parents themselves. For every nerd indulgence you allow your child—a game of Minecraft, or a Dungeons and Dragons all-nighter—try making your kid engage in some kind of activity that is decisively non-nerdy, like sports or truly historical based media.

Tell ‘em to turn off the damn Xbox and shoot a few hoops for awhile. Tell ‘em to get off the damn Facebook and actually talk to someone new at school. Yank the comic book out of their hands and slip ‘em a copy of The Gulag Archipelago or Bowling Alone, and switch the TV from My Little Pony to C-SPAN. And instead of doling out another roll of twenties to watch Spider-Man or X-Men redux, sit ’em down in front of the tube with Sergeant York, or if you’re really feeling humanistic, maybe even a documentary such as The Interrupters or Restrepo.

What’s the harm in exposing your children—even if they’re in their 20s—to a little bit of real-world culture to go alongside their incessant exposure to nerd culture? Injecting just a teensy bit of reality in your kids’ lives now can go a long way to make sure they don’t completely lose touch with it when they’re older. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

James Swift is an Atlanta-based writer and reporter.

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