Thursday, May 29

What I Can Do

The May 24 murders at the University of California-Santa Barbara amplified a online conversation about jerks, specifically misogynistic jerks. Months before the YesAllWomen tag erupted on Twitter, NotAllMen was a common refrain on Tumblr. This dialogue predates Tumblr, Twitter, the internet, and everyone who reads this.

As part of that now much larger conversation, I read two articles in particular this week, both from men who spoke on their notions about the killer's mindset.

First was this commentary from Luke O'Neil, an online Esquire contributor:
The problem is, the idea of unrequited love isn't just a recurring motif for Gibbard and company, one of the more popular, supposedly introspective and thoughtful indie rock bands of the era. It's practically the entire basis of popular music as we know it. This song in particular is extreme in its description of a spurned lover standing outside the window of the object of his affection, but it's a piece of a vast spectrum of the glorification of obsessive heartbreak that informs the way we think about love, and is certainly a part of the world in which Rodger's twisted outlook was formed. ...
No one is to blame for these killings but Rodger. But when the entire basis of our collective cultural entertainment industry reinforces the idea that love is worth dying for, or committing desperate acts over, and the absence of love is akin to living in hell, it's hard not to understand why young people might feel unmoored and disconnected from the rest of us who all seem to be in on a secret world that has yet to reveal itself to them.

Two things:

1) That bold is original to the article, and it serves a sneaky purpose. It underscores what the author/editor wants you to bear in mind as you read what follows. It's the floating green wizard head. What does follow, however, is the guy behind the curtain: But. That but is where a writer needs to step away from the keyboard and take a long walk. Consideration must be paid before you continue that thought. Because what is about to happen is something from which no good can come. It seeks to distribute accountability, and it yoinks the rug out from under the bold sentence. It's an on-ramp to a bad idea.

2) That bad idea is that sad songs killed people. Sad songs. I was old enough to see the growth of the Parents Music Resource Center and Congressional testimony from musicians called to defend their lyrics following teen suicides. Parental advisory labels followed, a ratings system for consumers which lead directly, for instance, to the "clean" and "explicit" versions of songs on iTunes. I'm also old enough to remember when Dungeons & Dragons threatened kids, as dramatized by a very early Tom Hanks movie. 

And before that, rock and roll. And before that, comic books. And so on. We must suss out the cause. We must save ourselves. When the killer has died before we can punish him (and it's usually a him), we must instead look elsewhere to vent our disdain.

The second commentary that caught the eye of many was by recent Jeopardy! champion Arthur Chu. His angle hinges on common ideas with the killer and nerd culture. It's not much different than the above Esquire column, but Chu cites a secondary tier of pervasive love stories: the victorious beta male. Whereas the sad songs and fairy tales regale us with knights and heroes earning the love of the fair maiden via derring-do, nerd love stories see the protagonist get the girl by being a better person. It's the guy version of "One Day My Prince Will Come." Chu says that when a nerd is denied by the object of his delights -- or worse he's exiled to the friend zone -- he can turn. Nerd jerks are nerds who blame women for not playing into the formula of the nerd ballad.

Chu, speaking from a nerd angle, implies that nerds have a monopoly on jerk behavior. I disagree.

In my first column for the Asheville Grit, I wrote up a list for newbie con attendees. This was number five:
Speaking of saying no, jerk behavior is not allowed. You may see skimpy costumes. Mind your manners. Some conventions have clear rules about what they’ll allow for costumes, so you’re not likely to see something truly scandalous. If others can’t mind their manners about your costume, inform the convention staff immediately.
Because the column was meant for people who had never attended a convention before, it wasn't aimed at just at my people. It was for everyone who might attend, people largely outside the sphere of geek culture.

As a teenager who played D&D and hid labeled albums and mooned over girls while listening to sad songs and is/was/forever shall be a nerd, and as a man who is twice married and now a father, I can tell you that I've moved through enough subcultures, and some supercultures, to observe that jerk behavior has no default demographic. Jerks is jerks.

Chu and O'Neil are admirably looking at their tribesman to see how their avocations can turn ugly. Introspection is healthy. We seek order from chaos and sense from senseless acts. Perhaps, by addressing the damaged tiles in separate segments, we can change the entire mosaic.

But talking within our cliques --  As Chu writes: So, a question, to my fellow male nerds: What the fuck is wrong with us? -- works only if every demographic participates in such a discussion. Postulating that the root of such evil is specific to a certain demographic absolves others from self-assessment. If it's a sad-song problem, we don't have to worry about other genres. If it's a nerd problem, the other subgroups can let those nerds handle it internally.

But jerkdom is pandemic. The urges are universal, the external reactions to them is not. I've certainly felt the anger and frustration of being denied what I objectified. Sometimes it was people, sometimes it was actual objects. I remember a fraction of the total jerk behavior I'm sure I exhibited. I'm still tempted to apologize to people online for what I did and said years ago. It's not to appear noble; it's to shut up the dusty shame in my head.

This killer --  and all those who came before -- surpassed the median jerk behavior. He wrecked the curve. But we cannot perceive his actions as so far beyond ours in focus and energy that our own jerk behavior seems almost acceptable by comparison. He clearly committed smaller but no less hateful actions before Saturday. What he did, whatever the motivation, began with steps along a progression of bad logic and expectations. It's the gravity well of those expectations that can easily suck us in. It's the hard foundation of such logic that can grant the illusion of sure footing.

I have a son. He's very young yet. Just this Monday, we were at dinner when he announced that woman can't be police officers. Wait, I said, you know that's not true. One of his favorite cartoons sees a virus strike men worldwide, and a city in flames is salvaged by female cops and EMTs and firefighters. I brought up the cartoon on Netflix and showed him the scenes. I pointed to a picture on the wall of his mother and I saying our vows before a female judge. I asked him if he understood. The next time he watched that cartoon, he announced "women can be police officers." Yep.

I don't know where he got that idea. Daycare maybe. Probably a classmate. Doesn't matter. It's my job to set him straight when I hear him assert something wrong. It's gonna be him and me against a world of wrong ideas and people who refuse to admit they're wrong when confronted on their bad assertions, logic, and expectations.

That's what I can do as a dad and a fellow nerd and a fellow man. Thin the jerk herd. Because we've once again seen what can happen from jerks who aren't set straight.

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