Now, perhaps more than at any other time in recent memory, we are afraid of “the other.”
We fear others of different races, those who don’t look like us, those who do not belong to our tribes. Enemies — terrorists, bombers — seemingly loom in every dark shadow, set to spoil our public gatherings with the threat of violence. Then there’s the conundrum of “illegals” — aka undocumented immigrants. The way we struggle to integrate these “aliens” into our society, you’d think they hail from distant planets, not other nations on the same planet.
Meanwhile, back-to-school season means the looming specter of bullies and cliques. Kids fear being singled out, ostracized, labeled uncool or, let’s face it, being beat up in the locker room.
But science fiction geeks and comic book nerds offer a model of tolerance and acceptance we all can learn from.
Fandom has always been about the weird, the foreign, the strange, the mutant. And at their annual pop culture jamborees, devotees of rival franchises — Star Trek and Star Wars, Marvel vs. DC, Harry Potter against Tolkien — all find a way co-exist.
I was thinking about this notion earlier this summer, traditionally the epicenter for fandom and gaming conventions, or “cons.” July gives us Comic-Con International in San Diego, and August brings Gen Con to Indianapolis. Labor Day weekend, 50,000 science fiction, fantasy, comic book fans invade Dragon*Con in Atlanta, where “cosplay” enthusiasts dress up as their favorite characters to express their fandom fealty. Held the same weekend is Seattle’s PAX Prime, one of the world’s largest video and board game cons.
This Saturday, I’m headed to an event here in my hometown of Boston, the Boston Festival of Indie Games, where I’ll be geeking out with Brian O’Halloran (of Dante Hicks/Clerks fame) about how D&D changed our lives. It’s a smaller gaming con to be sure, but I’ll probably encounter my fair share of Skywalkers, Bagginses, Potters, Lannisters and Mario Brothers.
But whether they were born on Tatooine or Krypton, play Grand Theft Auto V or Cloudberry Kingdom, or watch Walking Dead or True Blood, factions from these diverse but often opposing universes, posing with their fake laser blasters and purple-tinted wigs, manage to get along, at least for one weekend.
These assemblies are like clan reunions, gathering together hobbits, time travelers, and soldiers of fortune, all strangers from other worlds. But no worries about any rumbles — or crossed swords or lightsabers – in the parking lot. They’d rather have a flagon of ale together, or play Dungeons & Dragons or Settlers of Catan, than fight in real life.
I find these cons remarkable. They’re an ultimate celebration of diversity — both for our species, and for other species. Gamers and geeks show us how to tolerate each other. If elves, superheroes and mad scientists can appreciate each other’s nerdy quirks, why not the rest of us?
Don’t we wish the same for our young jocks, nerds, goths, band geeks, book worms, punks, skaters, stoners, Christians, emos and repeat graders, all braving the cutthroat corridors of American schools, from sea to shining sea?
Superficially opposing fan bases are metaphors for our own racial, ethnic and sexual differences. Batman and Darth Vader don’t intrinsically hold any grudges against each other (unless you cut off Darth patiently waiting in line for an autograph). Their universes don’t even intersect. But they are complementary. Two sides of the same blade.
Perhaps the lesson is that we behave best not as we are, but as the super-ized versions of who we’d like to be: caped, gun-slinging, sword-toting, zombified. Covered in Spandex. Slathered in blue body paint.
By acting out fantasies of our ideal selves in masks, we reveal that we are the more the same than different. Black, white, green or silver — our skin color is irrelevant if you have superpowers, or the nerve to dress as Captain America as a pudgy, middle-aged man.
To Rodney King’s famous plea, “Can’t we all just get along?” conventions like these offer a resounding “Yes, we can!” If the forces of good and evil can not just tolerate each other, but banter and even laugh and drink together, then perhaps there’s hope for the human species on planet earth — in our streets, schools, nightclubs and unemployment lines.
I’d like us all to take a cue from the recent Dragon*Con in Atlanta. First, people from all walks of life stood in line together, for two hours, peacefully to see some panel called “Steampunk Themes in Doctor Who” or session on “Fairy Wing Crafting.” Then, they shook it on the dance floor at a “DJ Middle-earth, 80s night dance party” — hobbits, orcs, dwarves and wizards alike.
And probably a Stormtrooper or Vulcan showed up too, eager to boogie down with all Middle-earthlings, as Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” or Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” thumped the dark night away.