Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My Difference is Better Than Yours

The drive to conform and enforce conformity pervades every human culture. Such behaviors strengthen in-group bonds and foster cooperation. They were vital to the survival of our ancestors and still play a role in keeping our societies functional. However, impersonal social forces can harm as well as help. Excessive norm enforcement stifles creativity and inhibits communication/cooperation with out-groups.

"Why not try to see things from a different angle?"
For various reasons, I spent much of my childhood unable to conform in several key areas. No amount of effort ever succeeded in making me 'normal' to my peers. I learned that attempting to conform in certain areas was pointless. More importantly, I learned that conforming was optional.

Even though some of my barriers to conformity were subsequently removed by relocation and medicine, I never felt 'normal'. The sense of 'otherness' had become a part of my identity. I felt no desire to fit in or stand out. Ridicule had little effect on my behavior because I was long used to enduring it for traits I could not change.

I gravitate toward open-minded and tolerant friends, usually of the 'geeky' set. That is not to say that all geeks are open-minded and tolerant, or that non-geeks cannot possess those qualities. However, I do think that geeks are more likely to share my experiences with conformity, and to regard its enforcement with some degree of skepticism.

Ironically, geekdom has become its own in-group, with its own set of norms to enforce.

Some years ago, a meme called 'The Geek Hierarchy' enjoyed some popularity. It was organized like a flowchart, and showed the order in which groups of geeks (e.g. video gamers or science fiction fans) considered themselves less geeky than other groups (e.g. roleplaying gamers or Trekkies). I instantly and violently disagreed with it. I have since realized that I failed comprehend the humor of that chart because I considered 'geeky' a positive trait. The chart was satirizing an attitude alien to my mind: "I'm normal, but those guys are weird!"

In the intervening years, 'geek' (and associated words) has been fully reclaimed to mean something positive. This has not stopped people from trying to stratify geekdom by what they consider 'cool', however. You are a geek if you like this field/fandom/activity, but a dork if you like that field/fandom/activity. Trekkies are cool, Furries are not, and Science forbid you should say a good word about the Star Wars prequels! In my mind, this means buying into the conformity game that made us outcasts to begin with, and that we banded together to escape.

Perhaps it makes me quixotic or contrary, but I fight this trend wherever I see it. If norm enforcement is inevitable, then why not enforce the virtues of open-mindedness and tolerance? One of the great strengths of geek culture has always been difference, and marginalizing our subcultures for their difference diminishes us all.

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