Magic: The Blathering (Or, the high ground is dead and we killed it)

The nerdy corners of the internet have been all atwitter this week with the news that somewhere on earth, a woman harshly prejudged a man for being nerdy. I refer of course to Alyssa Bereznak’s Gizmodo article where she tells the sordid tale of how she went on two dates with a man named Jon Finkel without being adequately forewarned that he was a nerd. A big nerd. A nerd to the tune of being a previous Magic: The Gathering World Champion. Oh, the horror. THE HORROR.

Now I don’t play Magic and did not know who Finkel was until this week. But thanks to Wikipedia, I now know that he is also a professional poker player and the managing partner at Landscape Capital Management. Also, he seems like an absolutely stand-up guy from the article! That’s right, the article in which Bereznak attempted to mock and deride him actually makes him sound like a total catch to me. But don’t let those details which make Finkel seem like a well-rounded and interesting person distract you from the point. It’s all about the Magic.

“Maybe I’m shallow for not being able to see past Jon’s world title,” she writes in mock apologia, but that’s not the real problem with this article. Bereznak doesn’t have to like nerds, okay, that is fine. If Magic is a dealbreaker for her or for you, so be it, you are entitled to your feelings and choices. But why assume that your preferences are of any relevance to the rest of us? Why did Bereznak feel the need to write this snarky, stupid article, piling scorn on nerds for being nerdy, referring to nerds who date normal people as “infiltrating” their lives, and demanding that nerds put their terrible nerd-related character flaws on their profiles? Either this woman is an epic, top-of-the-line troll or she is just astoundingly judgmental. Who seriously looks at the world and says “you know, what this place needs is more judgement, scorn and mockery of anyone who deviates slightly from established social norms”?

However, none of this justifies the unexamined sexism that has characterised the response of many in the nerd community. Sadly, the reaction of some of our fellow nerds has been to completely lose their shit and immediately jettison whatever shred of decency they had concerning women in general. Many an angry commenter has called Bereznak a “wench”, a “bitch”, a “cunt” and so on. Then Elly Hart on Kotaku tried to take down Bereznak’s prejudice and ended up exposing her own prejudice.

First, Hart suggests that Bereznak, as a woman, should not get drunk because “Any guy will tell you that there’s nothing more unattractive than a drunk girl falling all over the place and having no idea how stupid she looks”. This is sexist because it suggests that men’s opinions about how women conduct themselves are the relevant metric by which women should decide how to behave. Hart is suggesting that Bereznak’s behaviour is worthy of criticism not because it is harmful to others or anything like that, but because men will disapprove of it. In this framework it is implied that it is very important for women to ensure men approve of them. Obviously this is sexist crap.

Hart then suggests that becauase Bereznak admitted to getting drunk, it makes her less “credible”. I KID YOU NOT. That’s right, kids, getting drunk at any point in your life means you’re not a reliable source of information ever again. Not only is this ridiculous but it veers dangerously close to accusations that women who were drunk at any point in an evening have no credibility and therefore what they say doesn’t matter and therefore nobody has to take them seriously and I think you all know where this argument goes. Nowhere good.

Hart also suggests that Bereznak, in judging and mocking Finkel, is a “predator”. To use this term in this context is to implicitly refer to sexual predation: and if it wasn’t clear, the accusation is preceded by a reference Bereznak made to online dating sites being like “date-rapey” bars (which is itself a pretty disgusting comment from Bereznak). But rather than excoriating Bereznak for making light of date rape, Hart claims that it is ironic that Bereznak would ever say that, because she claims Bereznak is “the predator” in this case. Hart is comparing Bereznak’s mean, judgemental article to sexual predation. The comparison is extremely harmful. Nobody who is not a sexual predator or rapist should ever be compared to a sexual predator or rapist, because rape and sexual assault are uniquely horrific events. Do not trivialise sexual predation by suggesting it is in the same ballpark as writing nasty blog posts.

Finally, Hart claims Bereznak is bringing all women down. “It’s no wonder men always complain about women playing mind games. You managed to reinforce a stereotype that some of us have worked so hard to disassociate ourselves with.” Again, Hart doesn’t seem to realise that her own argument is sexist. First, she is giving men a free pass to invoke this sexist trope by saying it’s totally understandable to hold this stereotype! Second, by using the trope against Bereznak she shows that she is fine with it being applied to any women who aren’t herself: she is invoking and reinforcing the trope by placing Bereznak’s behaviour in that context! She is making one individual woman’s behaviour into a reflection on women as a group. In case it is not clear: making any harmful behaviour perpetrated by a member of a group into a reflection of the worth of that group as a whole is a tool of oppression. It means that members of systematically oppressed groups (like women) are held to an impossibly high standard where their behaviour must be perfect or they risk “compounding the stereotype” or “letting the gender/race/sexual-orientation down”.

Members of socially privileged groups are almost never treated in this way. It is rare that the reaction in society to a man being judgemental and mocking of nerds is  “That guy is a bad reflection on all men!” or “He’s bringing all men down”. It is rare that the reaction to seeing a white person committing a crime is to say “‘that white person is a bad reflection on white people!” No, this happens to marginalised groups only, because their presence in social spaces is a constant audition. To make women responsible for eliminating sexist stereotypes is to punish them for being the subjects of sexist stereotypes. Bereznak is surely guilty of being judgemental, but to then claim that her crimes are all the greater because of pre-existing sexist stereotypes is to punish Bereznak for being a woman. Doing that makes you sexist.

My fellow nerds, this behaviour is simply not acceptable. You don’t get a free pass to be sexist, not ever. Not even if a woman is really mean to you and the people you love for really stupid reasons. Not even if you yourself are a woman or are oppressed for who you are. You simply cannot expect to hold the moral high ground if you invoke sexist tropes to attack someone  –  regardless of your own gender or situation.

The nerd community has responded with a prejudice that goes WAY BEYOND the prejudice displayed in the original article, because systematic oppression of women is much more serious than the social prejudice against nerds. When our community responds to our critics with sexist vitriol, we show everyone exactly what’s underneath the veneer of nerdy counter-culture: the same old shit you get in mainstream culture. We nerds might think our community more enlightened and progressive than mainstream culture, but that makes us as deluded as George Lucas when he thinks it’s a good idea to tinker with Star Wars.

The high ground is dead, and we killed it.

Author: Rachael

Rachael is a queer, nerdy, aneurotypical, white cisfemale with a bachelor's degree in economics and a give 'em hell attitude. She has a culturally unacceptable amount of body fat but sometimes "passes", and she accesses some forms of thin privilege but not others. She believes in leveraging the privilege one has in order to smash the kyriarchy. She is a big geek, an atheist, a skeptic, and a fan of science. In her spare time she enjoys meditation, going to therapy, and shouting.

14 thoughts on “Magic: The Blathering (Or, the high ground is dead and we killed it)”

  1. While I think you’re mostly spot on with your analysis of the sexism at play, the problems with nerd culture are broader and more problematic than you make them out to be. It’s pretty uncomfortable, having been on either end of witch-hunts in different nerd communities.

    To put this into context, I recommend checking out Matt Cale’s review of 300 and its followup piece at the following links:

    Quoting Cale, who has a good point underneath a lot of offensive and polemical language at other points:

    “nerds, far from an aggrieved class of shy, introverted victims who are but one dance card away from the social respect that is their due, are, in fact, authoritarian monsters – cauldrons of intolerance and self-imposed supremacy so white-hot that they easily surpass the chest-thumping egoism of the very tormentors they deride on a daily basis.”

    (There’s something decidedly Nietzchean about it. Nietzsche’s notion of ressentiment seems apposite here.)

    This is subjective experience, but it strikes me that nerd culture is built around an us-versus-them attitude steeped in perceived intellectual and moral superiority. It’s a response to the psychological predations that a lot of juvenile nerds go through, and it forms shared experience between nerds that bonds them together as people over and above their nerdy interests. It’s also not the right response, or where all nerds are, but where I see these vocal (hopefully small and hopefully) minorities coming from.

    Most women, by virtue of whatever, generally sit on the “them” end of the spectrum and I think that’s were a lot of this sexism stems from, not to justify it in the least.

    Cale traces a lot of this back to the stereotypical nerdy pasttimes themselves: “For too long, their juvenile curiosities – comic books, video games, role-playing weekends otherwise spent in stupefying silence – have been dismissed as retreats into silliness, when in fact they are calculated efforts to unleash the barrel-chested fascists within.”

    I disagree that that’s what the media are for, but it is how nerds use them, or even how they’re designed, at their most cynical. (See: America’s Army, good chunks of the entire first-person shooter video-game genre, stereotypical role-playing game content, et cetera.)

    The fascism analogy is interesting because fascism functions on the same sorts of in-built assumptions: us versus them, our moral and intellectual superiority, the glorification of war and destruction. Sexism comes into it here too, if we look at the historical example of Italian fascism especially and how it broke down along very discreet gendered lines. (The men build the nation and win glory in battle, the women breed more of our superior brand of being and more soldiers.)

    I see this as a much bigger problem of which sexism is an important part. Sexism in nerd circles bothers me, as it should anyone. The fascistic drive behind it and behind much of nerd culture scares the hell out of me.

    1. “The fascism analogy is interesting because fascism functions on the same sorts of in-built assumptions: us versus them, our moral and intellectual superiority, the glorification of war and destruction.”

      Hey cool, first the nerds killed the high ground and then so did you! Props!

    2. Mike, I think you have good intentions behind your comment (probably because I know you personally), but your comparison to fascism is inappropriate. While I can appreciate that nerd/geek culture contains lots of Othering and Alpha Geek oneupmanship, it is ultimately still a community of leisure and not a totalitarian regime that systematically abuses human rights. The comparison undermines the harm of historical (and current!) fascist regimes, and the mere ability to compare a voluntary activity like participation in nerd/geek culture to such regimes comes from a place of privilege.

      I think nerd/geek culture merely reflects the mainstream patriarchy, but do so differently because nerdy men have often felt more disadvantages because they are less likely to conform to the heteropatriarchy than non-nerdy men and use that evidence to claim they are just as oppressed as marginalised people in society. Which is definitely not the case as nerd communities are still highly white, straight and male. The oppression of women (and other marginalised groups!) takes on a different form to mainstream oppression, but it is oppression all the same.

      Which leads to the second article you posted. I dislike the way the article is framed generally (and the author’s self-admission that they’ve posted ableist and sexist things in the past didn’t exactly win me over). It assumes that the “white, straight, male” component is inherent in nerd communities, when in fact there are many women in those communities, many queers, many people of colour, many people from marginalised communities who are trying to actively work towards inclusive and social justice friendly nerd communities.

      Part of the problem for nerd communities is that there isn’t enough representation of the marginalised groups who love gaming and comics and anime and going to cons. As long as the dominant narrative for “nerd” equates to white, straight and male, those communities aren’t going to get any more inclusive, and the media isn’t going to get any more diverse.

    3. You know…I don’t really find a lot of assertions about nerds, which disagrees sharply with my personal experience, to be very convincing. I could go into why I find the statements counterintuitive and totally lacking in any kind of support.

      But the fact is, I don’t think an article that starts with:

      “In my tenure at Ruthless Reviews, I have called openly for the sterilization of the mentally unfit, gulags for the aged and the infirm, retroactive abortions, and a societal purge of moms, whether of the “soccer” or “security” variety. I have said “Fuck the Marines,” celebrated military losses with glee and knee-slapping excitement, mocked the wife of an Enron suicide, and pushed the parent of a Down syndrome youngster to snuff out the half-wit’s slobbering candle with a well-placed pillow.”

      Is meant to be taken seriously. And I think if you find it to have “good points”, it should be a warning sign to you.

  2. The Cale articles are interesting (and aggressively nasty towards nerds).

    My takeaway is that the population of nerds intersects with the population of internet trolls. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all trolls are nerds or all nerds are trolls.

    I can sympathize with nerdy guys who don’t get many dates (unless they feel entitled to date Megan Fox), but I hope none of the trolls pass on their DNA to another generation.

  3. Thank you for this.

    “The nerd community has responded with a prejudice that goes WAY BEYOND the prejudice displayed in the original article”

    This right here. The hypocrisy is astounding.

    It has always greatly saddened me that nerd communities are so full of bullies. Nerd communities are largely populated by people who have been deeply hurt by being bullied, so it breaks my heart to see that there are so many bullies among the nerds. The “dickwolf” debacle where nerds banded together to bully rape victims was the archetypal example.

  4. I’d like to add a few points to what I found to be an overall balanced article.

    1) It is disingenuous to pretend that all the negative reactions to the article came from male gamers. Reports of the article appeared in Washington Post and Forbes. The reactions from female gamers and non-gamers were on the median, just as strong as the reaction from male gamers.

    2)While not defending the rest, I find Harts characterization of Alyssas behavior as a sexual predator to be accurate. She did go on a second date with Finkel to get more ammunition for the article she was going to write about the “dweeb kings” behavior in the initial steps of the mating dance.

    While clearly a very mild form of sexual predation, it is indisputably sexual predation.

    I keep having this urge to rewrite the original article to be written by a male who ended up on a date with the world champion knitter, Joanna Winkle, and wrote an article for “Yarns Weekly”

    1. Thanks for your comments, I feel that you and I agree on a great many things, but I disagree with both the ideas you raised here. 🙂
      1. I did not pretend all negative reactions came from male gamers! Nowhere in this article did I say “many men in our community”. I said “many of my fellow nerds” and similar phrases, not even restricting to gamers. Not sure where you got the ppposite impression.
      2. This is NOT sexual predation! Dating someone just to get more into to write a mean article is not sexual predation. Sexual predation is ” obtaining or trying to obtain sexual contact with another person in a metaphorically “predatory” manner”. Bereznak did not seek to obtain sexual contact with Finkel in a predatory manner. She sought to obtain information about him to write an article, without his full knowledge. This is dickhead behaviour! But not sexual predation.

      But I like your Yarns Weekly rewrite idea.

  5. Great article. I find this to be better balanced and written than the other article by Geordie ( which basically says the same thing BUT he completely ignored the fact that Alyssa Bereznak literally called nerds as “predators” or “monsters” that who “infiltrates” the normal circle of dating and “mothers need to lock up their daughters” as a result. I was thinking rather I really was the “monster” here since the gist of Geordie’s article makes me feel like as if I automatically becomes misogynistic just simply I disagree with Bereznak. Thank god your article turned my view around.

    Great post!

      1. I know. That’s actually what I thought when I first read Tait’s article (I read it before I read Bereznak’s). It’s just that on a second reading his comment that her article was only “flawed” makes me feel like a misogynist for “over-reacting” to her article, because since it was just “flawed” I felt that he was agreeing to the way that Bereznak implied that geeks and nerds are monsters who needs to be kept out of society in her article.

        Interesting to note that on a second reading I finally realized that Bereznak was just being snarky about a failed date with somebody with whom she’s not compatible with, which makes all those references to her as a female dog and other misogynistic comments really unjustifiable.

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