23:51 Sun 04 Sep 2011. Updated: 18:19 17 Sep 2011
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Last week there was a significant amount of internet outcry over a post by Alyssa Bereznak about two dates she went on with Jon Finkel, a former Magic: The Gathering world champion. Bereznak called him out by name, and made clear that she had no interest in dating him because he was a former MTG world champion who still played the game. She also did more than that, and it’s the more that I’m looking at in this post—that, and how a defense of Bereznak by Sady Doyle at Tiger Beatdown misses the point and perpetuates the core problem with the original post.

Let’s get some things straight at the outset:

  • People can date whoever they want.
  • People can choose not to date whoever they want for whatever reason.
  • People can be honest about why they reject potential partners.
  • People don’t have to be nice about this, although I see no reason not to promote the idea that it’s best not to hurt others unnecessarily.

All that being said, that doesn’t make it okay to promulgate views that are reprehensible—in this case, the view that a person’s hobbies somehow make them abnormal and deserving of social exclusion. The “more” in Bereznak’s article I referred to above consists of normativity and shaming (the two are linked, of course). She quite clearly puts forth the case that playing MTG is a mark of freakishness that not only Bereznak finds repulsive but that of course every normal person would also find it unappealing.

It permeates Bereznak’s post, but here are the two sentences that most clearly demonstrate the problem:

I was lured on a date thinking I’d met a normal finance guy, only to realise he was a champion dweeb in hedge funder’s clothing.


You’ll think you’ve found a normal bearded guy with a job, only to end up sharing goat cheese with a world champion of nerds.

Again, she has every right to not want to see him on the basis that she doesn’t like MTG, or MTG players, etc. But the assumption that other women would do the same, and that world-class MTG-playing automatically removes one from the realm of the “normal” in a negative way, is just not a defensible message.[*]

Bereznak’s article kicked off a firestorm online, as geeks howled in outrage. Much of this outrage has been personally directed at Bereznak, and much of it has been significantly misogynistic in nature. This does not, however, redeem or make defensible the article itself.

That brings up the Sady Doyle post, with the typically dismissive title, ‘“Elitism:” Now, It Basically Just Means “Not Having Sex With Everybody”’. Doyle argues that while Bereznak shouldn’t have used Finkel’s real name, as a matter of courtesy, there’s nothing else wrong with the post. She states outright:

And that’s it. I mean, really: That’s the only widely applicable moral lesson I can come up with, out of Alyssa Bereznak’s “I Dated A Guy Twice And Found Our Lifestyles Incompatible” piece for Gizmodo. She used the guy’s real name; that was wrong; that’s all I got.

She further sums up Bereznak’s post as:

She… didn’t go out on a third date with a guy, because she didn’t share his interests.

She goes on to defend people’s rights to not go out with people whose interests they don’t like, at some length, and later suggests that Finkel really did wrong by not including this interest in his dating profile. She accuses the outraged geeks of possessing a “massive and unrealistic sense of entitlement”, because one can’t expect everyone to find one’s hobbies attractive.

Any argument that Bereznak should have to find MTG-playing attractive, or that anyone is not entitled to choose their partners according to whatever criteria they like, is of course ridiculous and insupportable. But it should be obvious that this is not the core problem with the original post, and Doyle has no excuse for not seeing this—particularly because Doyle spends the last few paragraphs insisting that the geeks (as a bloc) aren’t the bullied here but rather the bullies.

In the comments to the article, she similarly states that “nerds, on the Internet, are not bullied. They are the bullies”. She’s clearly aware of arguments that there’s a bullying aspect to Bereznak’s article, but is incapable or unwilling to see it; in fact, spends a lot of time arguing that it’s not bullying and explaining away any similarities to bullying it may bear.

Before moving on, it’s worth pointing out that “nerds, on the Internet, or not bullied, they are the bullies” is a really stupid statement. The reason is that it sets up a false dichotomy (as well as dodgy group identification)—it’s entirely possible that nerds online are both bullied and bullies, and that some of them are only in one of those roles, while others are in both. The notion that misogynistic bullshit coming from a lot of nerds in comments on Bereznak’s post (or anywhere else) somehow “proves” that nerds aren’t bullied online (or elsewhere) is asinine.

Once more, Bereznak had every right to turn Finkel down for whatever reason. Anyone denying her this is obviously wrong. But she doesn’t have a right to the shaming going on in her post, and that should be called out and challenged.

“Shaming” is exactly what she’s doing: casting an individual (and, in this case, a group) as freakish and inherently lower-value. The term is more commonly seen in the context of “slut-shaming” and “fat-shaming”—feminist terms describing the ways in which aspects of society attempt to control women (and men, in the fat-shaming case) by asserting that they should be marginalized on the basis of their sexual behavior and/or their appearance (or, in some cases, just their eating habits).

I’m sure that I’m not the originator of the term “nerd-shaming”, but I’ve never encountered it before, and thought of it only in response to Doyle’s piece. I have some reservations about using it, because I don’t want to claim that nerd-shaming is somehow “as bad as” slut-shaming or fat-shaming, both of which are rather more significant social issues. Its use seems unavoidable, however, given that despite the differences in severity, the mechanisms used are the same ones: marginalization, suggestions of abnormality, and suggestions of deserved lack of sexual attractiveness. They all take something about a person and attempt to place them outside of “acceptable society” for that characteristic, to make them seem like a freak and a less worthwhile human being for that characteristic.

In comments, Doyle says “I don’t care to call Bereznak out”—which makes sense, given that she states she can’t see anything wrong with Bereznak’s shaming. Doyle appears to be arguing in the comments that some shaming is fine as long as it’s not based on the categories where she says it isn’t fine.

It’s obvious that there’s a social problem here. If you took Berenzak’s article and replaced MTG with tennis, and made Finkel a former junior world tennis champion, everyone would have reacted to it as somewhat strange. It’s unlikely it would ever have been published, in fact. But it’s very clear to everyone that while there’s no widespread sense that tennis players are somehow uncool freaks, there is about geeks, and MTG is a clearly geeky activity. By determinedly defending Bereznak’s post, and going so far as to say that it has to be defended because women shouldn’t have to be nice, Doyle is arguing that this kind of shaming is perfectly okay. Her contortions go as far as claiming that shaming people based on choices they make, rather than identities they’re stuck with, is basically fine. This is obviously ridiculous.

She also points out that nerds have never been subject to institutional oppression comparable to those based on race, gender, or sexuality. This is absolutely true, they haven’t. But many of them have been subject to marginalization of some kind; Doyle’s argument appears to boil down to the fact that if this marginalization never reaches a level that she considers significant, it’s not a problem.

Even if nerd-shaming is far, far less of a social problem than racism or misogyny—which it is—that doesn’t magically make it acceptable. The right response is, “Bereznak’s shaming is wrong, and shouldn’t be defended; similarly, misogynistic attacks on her are wrong and cannot be justified by her piece, wrong as it is”—but Doyle can’t bring herself to that point for some reason.

Depressingly, one of her commenters manages not to see this even after making the explicit connection between Bereznak’s shaming and fat-shaming:

I don’t even particularly object to Bereznak’s post, anyway. A dude could pen many a tome on the subject of NoFattiezPlz and nary an eyelid would tremble.

Well, there would be complaints from people who thought fat-shaming is wrong, right? And complaints or not, the tome in question would undoubtedly be wrong, for obvious reasons. The fact that this comment swapped the genders and then switched “nerd” to “fat” makes pretty clear that they see the similarities between the situations… but they don’t reach the obvious conclusion.

Doyle’s overall concern seems to be denying the similarities between the mechanisms, apparently on the basis that admitting them will allow idiots to make some kind of “I can’t be racist/sexist/prejudiced because I’m a geek” argument—which argument makes no sense in any case, and still wouldn’t make sense if you accepted that they’ve experienced some degree of marginalization. Furthermore, if they’re unsympathetic to e.g. feminism, I don’t see how it’s going to be helpful to tell them that their experienced hurt over marginalization is nonexistent in your eyes. If you’re actually concerned with trying to educate, why not say, for example, “yes, you know that marginalization you experienced over being a geek? That kind of shaming is the same kind of bullshit women have to deal with, except when applied to women it’s far far worse”—and then go on from there to talk about why.

Instead, Doyle gets caught up in group identification politics and point-scoring.

Contrary to her (italicized, even) claim that there’s no widely applicable moral lesson in Bereznak’s piece apart from “don’t post the names of your dates”, there is an obvious and glaring and rather more important one: shaming is wrong. Don’t do it.[†]

[*] It’s actually made worse by her not explaining it—writing an article on “why women shouldn’t date MTG players” would be less troublesome because the arguments behind it would have to be brought to light (and, most likely, exposed as ridiculous), whereas leaving it as an assumed shared value leaves those arguments and their problems hidden.

[†] Except, of course, for cases where people have actually done something seriously wrong. And no, playing MTG doesn’t come anywhere close to that standard.

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