A friend of mine recently experienced a rather nasty bit of overt fat shaming on a HEMA community board. Moderators handled the incident in questions swiftly and resolutely, to everyone’s satisfaction but the bully’s. As conflict resolutions go, that one was great. It sparked a conversation, however, about how unusual that kind of positive outcome is, and about how bullying in HEMA and more generally in nerd/geek communities is generally regarded, or rather disregarded. What became quickly apparent is that most of my nerdy friends have:
- Experienced or witnessed bullying within their communities, and
- Been told that the bullying didn’t count or should be disregarded or tolerated, for reasons.
In a nutshell, rather than going “OMG THIS IS AWFUL”, we found ourselves going “OMG I HAVE SEEN THIS SO OFTEN” and coming up with additional examples to add to our list. We found this worrisome and disappointing, even more so when we’ve all been told time and time again that nerds don’t bully: that’s what jocks do.
The truth of the matter is that nerd/geek communities are in the middle of a bullying epidemic that affects people both within and outside of those communities. Worse than that, they are often in denial of the problem, which prevents them from dealing with it. Which is why, after the Five Geek Social Fallacies, The Geek Social Fallacies of Sex, and the Geek Relationship Fallacies, we feel compelled to present you the Geek Fallacies of Bullying.
1. I don’t see it so it doesn’t happen.
This fallacy causes people to deny that bullying is a problem in their geek space. The two most common rationalisations for this are:
- “I don’t get bullied here, so nobody gets bullied here.” If it doesn’t affect me, it cannot possibly affect anyone else. My experience is universal and absolute.
- “I don’t see it, so it’s doesn’t exist.” I call this the “Belgians are a myth” fallacy: I have never met one, so they’re clearly unicorns and anyone talking about them is just making up stories.
Sometimes the underlying reason for that kind of experiential discrepancy is pretty obvious, if anyone cares to look. For instance, we may find that men don’t experience misogyny, white people don’t experience racism, able-bodied people don’t experience ableism, straight people don’t experience homophobia, cis people don’t experience transphobia, and powerful people don’t get picked on at all. It should not surprise anyone if someone who is not in the target group for certain problems does not experience that problem. However, this does not stop some of those unaffected people from turning around and telling those who are in that target group that they must be imagining their problems. It is the equivalent of a 6’5″ male bodybuilder insisting to his girlfriend that she can’t possibly be experiencing sexual harassment because it never happens to him, or it never happens to her while he is around. It makes little logical sense. If done deliberately, it’s also gaslighting.
When the inability to appreciate that people’s experiences can differ is combined with unquestioning belief in the good of one’s community, this denial can go even further. Carriers of this extreme form will deny that an event took place even when there were reliable witnesses or the incident is recorded. “I can’t believe it COULD happen here” or “I can’t believe one of us WOULD do that” trump the fact that it DID happen and one of us DID do that.
Sometimes the denial will take the form of an appeal to science. For instance, I have no scientific data to support my claim that there is bullying in geekdom, hence there is no valid proof of my claims, hence there is no bullying. That is not how scientific proof works, but that fact does not deter some people from using science as an excuse for their rejection of reality. Personal anecdotes, however numerous or well-documented, are entirely worthless because “the plural of anecdote is not data.” The fact that, by that metric, we should all refuse to learn anything from anyone’s personal experience, including our own, doesn’t seem to factor.
2. It’s not bullying if We do it/if it’s done at Them.
Many geeks, particularly those who grew up before geekdom gained mainstream cool, have had horrible formative experiences with bullying and ostracism. Those experiences contributed to forming their self-identity as perennial social outcasts. Regardless of how their lives have developed since those events, in their internal narrative they are always the Victims, never the Bullies.
Their victim narrative is so strong that it can lead them to believe that:
- nothing they do can ever be bullying;
- any behavior that upsets them, including requests to moderate their own behavior for other people’s sake, is a form of bullying.
This fallacy doesn’t just make them oblivious to the nature of their behavior and its potential impact; it also makes them extremely resistant to external corrections, however gently they are put forward. They will treat “please do not do X at me” as an act of oppression if coming from outside their community, an act of treachery if coming from within, even when X is widely regarded as a heinous behavior. This is connected to Geek Social Fallacies no. 2: friends accept me as I am, hence anyone who doesn’t tolerate everything I do is not a friend, and is rejecting and betraying all of me.
The victim narrative can be extended to the whole of a geek community, or even to Geekdom as a whole. In this extended form, this fallacy causes the carriers to believe that no geek can ever bully, and anyone accusing them of doing so is inherently evil. They will therefore automatically defend all geeks from all accusations of bullying, regardless of the availability of proof to the contrary.
The victim narrative also neatly cleaves humanity into two groups: the minority of suffering geeks vs. the majority of evil bullies. Nothing that is done to non-geeks can ever be bullying, because they ARE the bullies. At most, it can be retribution, even when it is pre-emptive. If the non-geeks respond badly to the way in which the geeks are treating them, this further proves that they were bullies all along, regardless of how justified their reaction may be.
The misogynistic variant of this fallacy stipulates that Women are never Real Nerds: they are just pretending to be, either for attention or to infiltrate and damage nerd spaces. Therefore, they deserve anything that happens to them. This can make a geek space completely toxic to women. Sometimes this fallacy affects attractive women in particular. Many nerds exist in a state of hope/despair of finding an attractive woman who shares their interests and so will drive off attractive women pre-emptively. However, women who are deemed “not attractive enough” may also come under attack, because they are letting everyone down with their unattractiveness. Regardless of any rationalisations as to why a particular woman may deserve to be mistreated, the bottom line is that Women are One Of Them, They are Evil, and They Deserve It. This attitude can be particularly heinous when sexual entitlement and sexual frustration combine, causing the affected geeks to categorise all women as iniquitous gatekeepers of their own vaginas and mistreat them accordingly.
3. It is bullying, but it’s OK because of Reasons.
This fallacy is an expansion on number 2. The carriers know that certain behaviors (e.g. defamation, insults, harassment, threats, public humiliation) are bullying behaviors, but they believe that, because they are taking place in a particular space or are being carried out by a particular person or persons, they become magically ok.
Examples of this are:
- “It’s not real bullying if I laugh while I say it.” I can call you anything I want if I find it humorous, and if you don’t find it humorous then it’s your sense of humor that is at fault.
- “I’ve had much worse, so this is OK.” Any behavior not as bad as the worst thing that ever happened to me must be tolerated. Those who are not suffering as much as I did are not really suffering.
- “They are bullies, but they suffered so much in high school so it’s only fair/right for them to take it out on the normies/pretty girls/jocks.” Being awful is OK if you are just paying it forward.
- “They’re a creep/harasser/bully/actual rapist/actual Nazi, but look at all they’ve given the community!” People who are important in the community are held to a much lower standard of behavior.
- “They’re a creep/harasser/bully/actual rapist/actual Nazi, but it’s consistent with their chosen nerd interest so it’s obviously OK!” People who choose to portray characters who carry out bad behaviors get a pass on those behaviors at all times, in or out of costume. For instance, if your nerd interest covers a historical period when women were treated as inferior creatures, you get to treat women as inferior creatures at all times, because you are being historically accurate. By this logic, if you re-enact a plantation owner, you should get to use the “N” word with impunity, even when out of costume.
- “Anyone who accuses the Old Guard of being toxic clearly just doesn’t understand that’s how the Old Guard is.” This generally stems from two sub-fallacies: either those who have behaved badly in the past are simply used to it and get a pass on all future bad behavior, or respect for Our Founders must trump all other considerations.
- “It’s not real bullying if I use posh or technical words to do it.” For instance, if I call someone “a retard” that is name calling, and unacceptable, but calling them “educationally subnormal” is just making a factual statement and gets a pass. The fact that I’m saying the same thing is of no consequence.
- Corollary: “It’s not a real threat if it’s not physical/I am not screaming/I know I can’t carry it out.” For instance, it wasn’t a real rape threat because I delivered it in writing, I didn’t use full caps, I know I don’t have the money to fly out to your city, and I’d be too scared to actually try pulling it off.
4. It’s bullying, and it’s not OK, but it’s The Way Things Are For Us.
When the community identity is tied to being a Victim or Outcast, being bullied is simply the cost of entry. “People like us” get bullied, so we must put up with bullying, even when it comes from within our community.
This can be used to justify attitudes and behaviors that are absolute no-nos in most social spaces, such as overt racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. When those behaviors take place in a nerd space, they magically morph into the natural order of things. Those at the receiving end should submit to the behaviors because, as nerds, it is their lot to suffer.
When this fallacy is turned towards those who are perceived to be Not Real Nerds, a component of victim blaming is added to the mix. For instance, the suffering of women in nerd spaces is their own fault, because they chose to enter the nerd space. What do they expect, coming into a men’s sport/hobby/martial art/profession? If they wanted somewhere safe, they should’ve taken up knitting! This can be used to justify extremely high levels of misbehavior, including sexual assaults and physical harm, because “boys will be boys” and “this is a physical activity and accidents will happen.”
An even more malignant form of this fallacy elevates being bullied to an essential formative experience for all nerds. Bullies are seen as performing a service to the community: they are helping Real Nerds grow and develop in their nerdness, while weeding out those who are Not Real Nerds. People who are bullied should be glad of the experience, because it will toughen them up or make them Real Nerds. Rather than push for an end to the behavior, they should embrace their suffering. When the fallacy becomes this pathological, all affected relationships can become abusive. When it is embraced by the whole community, that community can become extremely toxic, and help to perpetuate the abuse.
5. Don’t bring politics into our hobby.
The above statement turns up so often in any discussion of nerd misbehavior that it has become a cliche. On the surface, it sounds perfectly reasonable: people choose their hobbies because they are fun, “politics” are not fun, hence politics are spoiling those hobbies. The underlying fallacy and the ways in which it manifests, however, are far from benign. What it boils down to is that “this nerd space is a safe, welcoming, and inclusive community. Anyone who suggests otherwise is unsafe, is not welcome here, and should be ostracized.”
This fallacy encompasses a number of other Geek Fallacies, most notably Geek Social Fallacy 1: Ostracizers Are Evil, Geek Social Fallacy of Sex 4: Drama is always worse than the thing the drama is about and Geek Relationship Fallacy 2: Disagreements mean we have to break up. Basically, people who raise any issues of internal misbehavior are potential ostracizers, hence evil; they are turning the situation into a social conflict, hence making it inherently worse; and they are risking the disintegration of the geek space, or even the eradication of the whole of Geekdom.
Carriers of the non-pathological form of this fallacy are extremely conflict-averse, particularly when that conflict is social. They do not trust their own ability to navigate the perilous waters of social interactions and they fear that any resulting change will be inevitably disastrous, so they seek to squash all complaints before they can wreak havoc. The validity of those complaints is of no consequence to them, because avoiding conflict takes priority over all other considerations.
Carriers of the malignant form of this fallacy are incapable of seeing any criticism as constructive, or to comprehend that whistleblowers may act out of anything other than a malicious will to destroy the geek space. Rather than ignoring complaints, they will turn on the complainants, seeking either to make them go away or, in the most extreme form, to hurt them as badly as they are trying to hurt the geek space.
As for the original Geek Social Fallacies, “each fallacy has its own set of unfortunate consequences, but frequently they become worse in interaction.” For instance, carriers of 1, 4, and 5 will react to any mentions of bullying in their nerd space with “I didn’t see it so it didn’t happen” + “If you don’t like it, you are not One Of Us” + “You are trying to damage Us, so I will damage you more/first.” They will therefore over-react to any and all complaints, however minor or reasonable, by escalating into full assault mode. The resulting all-out conflict will be seen as the fault of the complainant, obviously, because They Started It.
Widespread bullying, its denial, its defence, and the retribution against people calling it out, all combine to make a number of geek spaces incredibly toxic. The toxicity may manifest either towards all its members indiscriminately, so everyone is awful to everyone at all times for no reason, or it can be targeted against particular members of the group, who become its scapegoats. If those scapegoats are unwilling to submit themselves to that behavior, their departure from the space is seen as proof that they shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
This dynamic manifests itself with painful regularity against women. It couldn’t be that their complaints are valid and their departure perfectly justified. No: they must have joined the nerd space purely to stir shit, and it’s just as well that they finally went away. This obviously also means that we should regard all women who approach us in the future as accomplices in this malignant vagenda against our space, and treat them accordingly right from the start.
What can I do?
It can be extremely hard to eradicate fallacies from our thinking. It can be particularly hard when we believe that, because we are aware of them, they can no longer affect us. Fallacies are slippery customers: if we believe ourselves immune to them, that’s when they can really get their teeth into us.
That doesn’t mean that we can’t all strive to modify our thoughts and feelings, or at least control our behaviors – and yes, the two things are wholly separate. I may feel extremely aggrieved against someone, for whatever reasons, but that doesn’t mean that I have to act that feeling out. I may resent the pretty girl for being pretty, for being here, for being so much like other pretty girls who spurned my affections, for just being… but that doesn’t have to translate into me being awful to her. I might not understand why a sub-community of my community insists that it is painful to them when I use certain terms… but I can still stop using those terms, because their feelings are valid even when I don’t share them.
Those of us who manage nerd spaces can help by de-normalising bullying behaviors and applying consequences against them. We have the power to decide how our spaces will operate, after all. Yes, acting on that power may cause us to lose some associates (against Geek Social Fallacies 2: Friends Accept Me As I Am, and 3: Friendship Before All). It may cause some social upheaval (against Geek Social Fallacy of Sex 4: Drama is always worse than the thing the drama is about). We may end up having to ban some people (against Geek Social Fallacy 1: Ostracizers Are Evil). However, we can remind ourselves that losing those people won’t necessarily turn our social circle into a social dot, because they are not the only people who will ever like us, or at least tolerate us (against Geek Relationship Fallacy 5: We are the only members of our species). On the contrary, making our spaces less toxic may encourage a much greater number of people to come in and stay.
Ultimately, what is really at risk here? Does anyone actually believe that it would be a bad thing if we all were to be a little bit nicer to each other, but for the wrong reasons? Is there really a risk of Geekdom falling apart through an excess of mutual consideration?