Sometimes the mainstream is shallow

An interesting point emerged a while back in an email discussion I had with the redoubtable Sean Collins about his ongoing crusade against backhanded compliments given to comic books in the mainstream media. He asked if he could post it, but, well, he didn’t. So I’m going to.

There is an ongoing … problem? Issue? Phenomenon? In any event, comics have now reached a level of cultural impact that the more literate examples of the form sometimes get reviewed in mainstream literary venues — the New York Times, Salon, and whatnot. However, these reviews, even when they’re positive, almost invariably spend a good chunk of time reassuring the reader that comics are widely known to be subliterate drivel, power fantasy, preadolescent ya-yas, etc., and generally tearing down the medium before proceeding to the reasons why the book under examination rises above the filth of its roots. Those who love comics do not love this approach.

There’s a certain amount of frustration involved here, I think. The literary comics are supposed to legitimize the medium in a certain way. At the end of the day, Maus is supposed to make your relatives not give you crap for reading comic books. But the equation doesn’t work if the mainstream insists on severing the relationship between literary comics and the rest. The problem, it seems, is how to educate the mainstream about the medium, and how even the crap is, at least, no crappier than crap TV or crap novels. And so the intellectuals of the comic world wait for that mighty breakthrough volume which will have such obvious merit that the world will at last have to acknowledge the potential of the medium.

I don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t think the problem really is the mixture of snobbery and ignorance that it’s traditionally held to be. Rather, it’s a psychological thing.

The problem is no longer that the mainstream doesn’t know what comics are. The problem is that the mainstream knows what they were, and doesn’t want to know what they’ve become. All those “normals” who used to love comics when they were nine are not the medium’s natural allies. They don’t especially care what comics are doing now, or what they may be capable of. For them, comics are a quintessential part of their childhood. Insofar as they want anything from comics, they want their early-70s comics back. Ideally, they’d have their early-70s comics back as they knew them as a nine-year-old, and anything which interferes with that retro fix is an unwelcome distraction.

No one wants to admit that their childhood is gone. In practice, this means that most of us assume that everything we knew as kids is the same as it was, and kids today do things like we did, until facts intrude. It’s what makes parents so desperately uncool. It’s what depresses older video game fans when they discover that today’s kids think that Tetris is lame and should blow up more. No one wants to admit that their childhood is gone, no one wants to admit that they’re getting older, and no one wants their entertainment media to serve up a side order of the cold wind of mortality.

In a way, it’s a testament to the critical dedication of these mainstream reviewers that they get past nostalgia to give comics fair and positive reviews. But I think that the prefatory smackdown is their way of resolving the cognitive dissonance — of reassuring themselves that regardless of this single intrusion into the world of adult literature, comics as a whole are still the stuff of simplistic playground idylls. It’s how they keep that 9-year-old clutching his 1974 Amazing Spider-Man to his chest alive.

It’s going to be hard to write a comic book good enough to kill a 9-year-old for.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Five Geek Social Fallacies

Within the constellation of allied hobbies and subcultures collectively known as geekdom, one finds many social groups bent under a crushing burden of dysfunction, social drama, and general interpersonal wack-ness. It is my opinion that many of these never-ending crises are sparked off by an assortment of pernicious social fallacies — ideas about human interaction which spur their holders to do terrible and stupid things to themselves and to each other.

Social fallacies are particularly insidious because they tend to be exaggerated versions of notions that are themselves entirely reasonable and unobjectionable.  It’s difficult to debunk the pathological fallacy without seeming to argue against its reasonable form; therefore, once it establishes itself, a social fallacy is extremely difficult to dislodge. It’s my hope that drawing attention to some of them may be a step in the right direction.

I want to note that I’m not trying to say that every geek subscribes to every one of the fallacies I outline here; every individual subscribes to a different set of ideas, and adheres to any given idea with a different amount of zeal.

In any event, here are five geek social fallacies I’ve identified. There are likely more.

Geek Social Fallacy #1: Ostracizers Are Evil

GSF1 is one of the most common fallacies, and one of the most deeply held. Many geeks have had horrible, humiliating, and formative experiences with ostracism, and the notion of being on the other side of the transaction is repugnant to them.

In its non-pathological form, GSF1 is benign, and even commendable: it is long past time we all grew up and stopped with the junior high popularity games. However, in its pathological form, GSF1 prevents its carrier from participating in — or tolerating — the exclusion of anyone from anything, be it a party, a comic book store, or a web forum, and no matter how obnoxious, offensive, or aromatic the prospective excludee may be.

As a result, nearly every geek social group of significant size has at least one member that 80% of the members hate, and the remaining 20% merely tolerate. If GSF1 exists in sufficient concentration — and it usually does — it is impossible to expel a person who actively detracts from every social event. GSF1 protocol permits you not to invite someone you don’t like to a given event, but if someone spills the beans and our hypothetical Cat Piss Man invites himself, there is no recourse. You must put up with him, or you will be an Evil Ostracizer and might as well go out for the football team.

This phenomenon has a number of unpleasant consequences. For one thing, it actively hinders the wider acceptance of geek-related activities: I don’t know that RPGs and comics would be more popular if there were fewer trolls who smell of cheese hassling the new blood, but I’m sure it couldn’t hurt. For another, when nothing smacking of social selectiveness can be discussed in public, people inevitably begin to organize activities in secret. These conspiracies often lead to more problems down the line, and the end result is as juvenile as anything a seventh-grader ever dreamed of.

Geek Social Fallacy #2: Friends Accept Me As I Am

The origins of GSF2 are closely allied to the origins of GSF1. After being victimized by social exclusion, many geeks experience their “tribe” as a non-judgmental haven where they can take refuge from the cruel world outside.

This seems straightforward and reasonable. It’s important for people to have a space where they feel safe and accepted. Ideally, everyone’s social group would be a safe haven. When people who rely too heavily upon that refuge feel insecure in that haven, however, a commendable ideal mutates into its pathological form, GSF2.

Carriers of GSF2 believe that since a friend accepts them as they are, anyone who criticizes them is not their friend. Thus, they can’t take criticism from friends — criticism is experienced as a treacherous betrayal of the friendship, no matter how inappropriate the criticized behavior may be.

Conversely, most carriers will never criticize a friend under any circumstances; the duty to be supportive trumps any impulse to point out unacceptable behavior.

GSF2 has extensive consequences within a group. Its presence in substantial quantity within a social group vastly increases the group’s conflict-averseness.  People spend hours debating how to deal with conflicts, because they know (or sometimes merely fear) that the other person involved is a GSF2 carrier, and any attempt to confront them directly will only make things worse. As a result, people let grudges brew much longer than is healthy, and they spend absurd amounts of time deconstructing their interpersonal dramas in search of a back way out of a dilemma.

Ironically, GSF2 carriers often take criticism from coworkers, supervisors, and mentors quite well; those individuals aren’t friends, and aren’t expected to accept the carrier unconditionally.

Geek Social Fallacy #3: Friendship Before All

Valuing friendships is a fine and worthy thing. When taken to an unhealthy extreme, however, GSF3 can manifest itself.

Like GSF2, GSF3 is a “friendship test” fallacy: in this case, the carrier believes that any failure by a friend to put the interests of the friendship above all else means that they aren’t really a friend at all. It should be obvious that there are a million ways that this can be a problem for the carrier’s friends, but the most common one is a situation where friends’ interests conflict — if, for example, one friend asks you to keep a secret from another friend. If both friends are GSF3 carriers, you’re screwed — the first one will feel betrayed if you reveal the secret, and the other will feel betrayed if you don’t. Your only hope is to keep the second friend from finding out, which is difficult if the secret in question was a party that a lot of people went to.

GSF3 can be costly for the carrier as well. They often sacrifice work, family, and romantic obligations at the altar of friendship. In the end, the carrier has a great circle of friends, but not a lot else to show for their life. This is one reason why so many geek circles include people whose sole redeeming quality is loyalty: it’s hard not to honor someone who goes to such lengths to be there for a friend, however destructive they may be in other respects.

Individual carriers sometimes have exceptions to GSF3, which allow friends to place a certain protected class of people or things above friendship in a pinch: “significant others” is a common protected class, as is “work”.

Geek Social Fallacy #4: Friendship Is Transitive

Every carrier of GSF4 has, at some point, said: “Wouldn’t it be great to get all my groups of friends into one place for one big happy party?!”

If you groaned at that last paragraph, you may be a recovering GSF4 carrier.

GSF4 is the belief that any two of your friends ought to be friends with each other, and if they’re not, something is Very Wrong.

The milder form of GSF4 merely prevents the carrier from perceiving evidence to contradict it; a carrier will refuse to comprehend that two of their friends (or two groups of friends) don’t much care for each other, and will continue to try to bring them together at social events. They may even maintain that a full-scale vendetta is just a misunderstanding between friends that could easily be resolved if the principals would just sit down to talk it out.

A more serious form of GSF4 becomes another “friendship test” fallacy: if you have a friend A, and a friend B, but A & B are not friends, then one of them must not really be your friend at all. It is surprisingly common for a carrier, when faced with two friends who don’t get along, to simply drop one of them.

On the other side of the equation, a carrier who doesn’t like a friend of a friend will often get very passive-aggressive and covertly hostile to the friend of a friend, while vigorously maintaining that we’re one big happy family and everyone is friends.

GSF4 can also lead carriers to make inappropriate requests of people they barely know — asking a friend’s roommate’s ex if they can crash on their couch, asking a college acquaintance from eight years ago for a letter of recommendation at their workplace, and so on. If something is appropriate to ask of a friend, it’s appropriate to ask of a friend of a friend.

Arguably, Friendster was designed by a GSF4 carrier.

Geek Social Fallacy #5: Friends Do Everything Together

GSF5, put simply, maintains that every friend in a circle should be included in every activity to the full extent possible. This is subtly different from GSF1; GSF1 requires that no one, friend or not, be excluded, while GSF5 requires that every friend be invited. This means that to a GSF5 carrier, not being invited to something is intrinsically a snub, and will be responded to as such.

This is perhaps the least destructive of the five, being at worst inconvenient. In a small circle, this is incestuous but basically harmless. In larger groups, it can make certain social events very difficult: parties which are way too large for their spaces and restaurant expeditions that include twenty people and no reservation are far from unusual.

When everyone in a group is a GSF5 carrier, this isn’t really a problem. If, however, there are members who aren’t carriers, they may want occasionally to have smaller outings, and these can be hard to arrange without causing hurt feelings and social drama. It’s hard to explain to a GSF5 carrier that just because you only wanted to have dinner with five other people tonight, it doesn’t mean that your friendship is in terrible danger.

For some reason, many GSF5 carriers are willing to make an exception for gender-segregated events. I don’t know why.

Interactions

Each fallacy has its own set of unfortunate consequences, but frequently they become worse in interaction. GSF4 often develops into its more extreme form when paired with GSF5; if everyone does everything together, it’s much harder to maintain two friends who don’t get along. One will usually fall by the wayside.

Similarly, GSF1 and GSF5 can combine regrettably: when a failure to invite someone is equivalent to excluding them, you can’t even get away with not inviting Captain Halitosis along on the road trip. GSF3 can combine disastrously with the other “friendship test” fallacies; carriers may insist that their friends join them in snubbing someone who fails the test, which occasionally leads to a chain reaction which causes the carrier to eventually reject all of their friends. This is not healthy; fortunately, severe versions of GSF3 are rare.

Consequences

Dealing with the effects of social fallacies is an essential part of managing one’s social life among geeks, and this is much easier when one is aware of them and can identify which of your friends carry which fallacies. In the absence of this kind of awareness, three situations tend to arise when people come into contact with fallacies they don’t hold themselves.

Most common is simple conflict and hurt feelings. It’s hard for people to talk through these conflicts because they usually stem from fairly primal value clashes; a GSF3 carrier may not even be able to articulate why it was such a big deal that their non-carrier friend blew off their movie night.

Alternately, people often take on fallacies that are dominant in their social circle. If you join a group of GSF5 carriers, doing everything together is going to become a habit; if you spend enough time around GSF1 carriers, putting up with trolls is going to seem normal.

Less commonly, people form a sort of counter-fallacy which I call “Your Feelings, Your Problem”. YFYP carriers deal with other people’s fallacies by ignoring them entirely, in the process acquiring a reputation for being charmingly tactless. Carriers tend to receive a sort of exemption from the usual standards: “that’s just Dana”, and so on. YFYP has its own problems, but if you would rather be an asshole than angstful, it may be the way to go. It’s also remarkably easy to pull off in a GSF1-rich environment.

What Can I Do?

As I’ve said, I think that the best way to deal with social fallacies is to be aware of them, in yourself and in others. In yourself, you can try to deal with them; in others, understanding their behavior usually makes it less aggravating.

Social fallacies don’t make someone a bad person; on the contrary, they usually spring from the purest motives. But I believe they are worth deconstructing; in the long run, social fallacies cost a lot of stress and drama, to no real benefit. You can be tolerant without being indiscriminate, and you can be loyal to friends without being compulsive about it.

Hey, Are You Talking About Me?

If I know you, yeah, probably I am. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you; most of us carry a few fallacies. Myself, I struggle with GSF 1 and 2, and I used to have a bad case of 4 until a series of disastrous parties dispelled it.

I haven’t used any examples that refer to specific situations, if it has you worried. Any resemblances to geeks living or dead are coincidental.