So What Does It Mean to Be a Geek?


Cast of the GuildCast of the Guild

The Cast of the Guild. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


Noun. Slang. A person whose interests ALWAYS take precedence over popularity or conformity. A person who displays the willingness to bear the public shame of liking some weird thing and not caring who knows it.

– GeekDad Jim MacQuarrie

Back in a previous life, when I was studying for an A.M. in social sciences at the University of Chicago, I did some thinking about group formation. This was right at the end of the Balkans War. One of the things which becomes apparent if you study history is that it is much easier to build a group identity around who is not part of the group, than it is to actually describe why people are included in a group. So for instance, Serbians found it easier after the breakup of Yugoslavia to define what it meant to be Serbian by saying they were not like Bosnians and Croats than they did to define exactly what it meant to be Serbian. This led to conflict, even though these three ethnic groups had lived peaceably in Yugoslavia for nearly fifty years. In the same way, during the period from about 1880 to 1945 one influential way Germans understood what it meant to be a good German was by describing it as everything that wasn’t Jewish.

Before any of us starts feeling smug, we ought to remember this kind of identity formation for groups takes place all the time in small and large ways, whether that is in social groups, in business, or academia. When building a coherent group out of a disparate bunch of people it is much easier to say things like “that activity isn’t geeky” or “you aren’t a geek” than to say “this is what it means to be a geek.”

I don’t believe that any activity or sport can be said to be Geeky in itself. As fellow GeekDad contributor Jim MacQuarrie said in a recent email, “[a person] can be a sports geek, a Barbie geek,or a philately geek.” The quality of geekiness resides in the person, not in the activity itself.

One of the great reasons to identify with the word “geek” is that it gives you permission to like what you like no matter what it is. Many of us self-identify as geeks because we have been put down, excluded, and hurt by others due to our interest in “uncool” things like comic books, or board games, or computer programming.

However, as geek culture becomes more mainstream and popular, geeks are beginning to want to try to define what activities are necessary to be a true geek. As soon as we as a geek community start down that road we end up doing the same kind of cultural bullying which caused us to self-identify as geeks in the first place. When we exclude others because they lack “geek cred” we prove we haven’t really learned anything from our life experiences. We are as messed up as those who looked down on us and used the term “geek” as an insult.

As a geek, I am really tired of the culture wars, and I hope to avoid taking part in them even if others try to drag me in. That is harder than it may sound. MacQuarrie has posted a little article on a recent controversy in the archery community. Denise Parker the CEO of USA Archery was quoted as saying, “archery is kind of a geek sport.” Apparently some in the archery world didn’t like this label and took umbrage and Parker was forced to issue an apology.

My instant reaction is to get irritated when someone from the archery world gets angry when it is called a geek sport. Is this a bad thing? I want to go fight for the label I embrace. But if I were to enter the fray, I would have already lost the battle, because that whole conversation is trying to decide what content fits under the word geek. Archery isn’t a geek sport any more than curling or basketball are geek sports, but there are such things as archery, curling, and basketball geeks.

The genius of Jim’s MacQuarrie’s definition of the word geek is that it clearly defines what it means to be a geek without excluding anyone. It tells people to be who they want to be no matter what others say. It simply says be who you are, no matter what it costs you. And that is a definition of a geek that I can support.

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