Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Nerds 'R Us

I happened to catch part of "On the Lot" Monday night. "On the Lot" is a FOX network reality show for aspiring film makers, and is directed and produced in part by Stephen Spielberg. This week's task was to produce a one minute comedy film. Jason Epperson's entry, titled "Ghetta Room" was described as the story of a "nerd" trying to be cool.
The main character exhibited several traits sometimes associated with Asperger syndrome, including physical and social awkwardness, and misunderstanding of slang. The gist of the story is that he uses a popular expression inappropriately, offending an elderly couple and is subsequently evicted from a movie theater and into the street. There he is run over, killed and transported to Heaven, where he tries the same line again, this time forfeiting his claim to eternal salvation.
The studio audience found this quite humorous; the judges, however, were not amused. Each in turn gave the director a dressing down for mocking the "mentally challenged". All three judges (Carrie Fisher, Garry Marshall, and Brett Ratner) were clear in their criticisms: This would be funny if the character could be clearly identified as a "nerd"; it falls short of the mark and becomes offensive because the butt of the joke seemed to them more properly described as "developmentally disabled" or "retarded".
Well, at least it's agreed that ridiculing someone with a cognitive disability is in poor taste. Exactly what qualifies for exemption is less clear. Does it count if you have a disability that doesn't show? That shows part of the time? Should a person wear her diagnosis on a t-shirt? Does it depend on how able (or likely) he seems to retaliate?
In this case, the judges' opinions seemed to be based on how they perceived the victim's intelligence. Nerds are presumed to be smart, I guess, and thus have the resources to defend themselves.
Wondering what others might have to say about this, I looked around the web and ran into this essay by Paul Graham, titled "Why Nerds are Unpopular". A sample:

Because they're at the bottom of the scale, nerds are a safe target for the entire school. If I remember correctly, the most popular kids don't persecute nerds; they don't need to stoop to such things. Most of the persecution comes from kids lower down, the nervous middle classes.The trouble is, there are a lot of them. The distribution of popularity is not a pyramid, but tapers at the bottom like a pear. The least popular group is quite small. (I believe we were the only D table in our cafeteria map.)

So there are more people who want to pick on nerds than there are nerds. As well as gaining points by distancing oneself from unpopular kids, one loses points by being close to them. A woman I know says that in high school she liked nerds, but was afraid to be seen talking to them because the other girls would make fun of her. Unpopularity is a communicable disease; kids too nice to pick on nerds will still ostracize them in self-defense.

The need so many of us seem to have to distance ourselves from persons perceived as mentally retarded is deconstructed eloquently by Amanda here.
How difficult it makes life to need to draw these lines. Why not promote respect for everyone instead? It's a nerdy idea, I know, but I like it.


  1. While tolerance may be a characteristic innate in some, I think the vast majority of children must be taught it, whether it be through an elder that the child respects or even something like Sesame Street. In addition to intolerance, much of the acting out to others who are "lower on the hierarchy" comes from children with low self esteem.

    Being a parent of an almost five year old child with Asperger's, bullying is a concern that I spend many hours worrying about. Next year my son begins Kindergarten and already I notice intolerance for him by some of the "rougher" kids in his preschool class.

    When I read blogs like this one and accounts from others who have encountered so much bullying it makes me so sad and worried. I am hoping that all the praise that I have given him and all of the wonderful characteristics that I continually remind him that he possesses will give him the self esteem to not tolerate the bullying, the courage to stand up to it, and the knowledge that he is head and shoulders above those that bully him.

  2. "Nerds are presumed to be smart, I guess, and thus have the resources to defend themselves."

    I think it's more than that. There's an assumption that they are smart, and so they have no "right" to make social mistakes. Their social mistakes, like an Asperger's adult I know who wore a slide rule on his belt at school, and the more classic ones of wearing pants that are too short, and the wrong shirt, buttoned the wrong way, the wrong glasses... the wrong posture, the wrong vocabulary (obviously), the wrong interests....
    all their social misdeeds are done DELIBERATELY TO IRRITATE THE OTHERS. Therefore, the bullies are totally justified in retaliating. How dare Barney F. show up with those shoes when he KNOWS that we'll have to beat him up if he does.

    There's something even uglier. "Nerds" are not allowed to be happy. If they act happy in the presence of the "upper classes" they need to be crushed, basically. They are not allowed to enjoy being nerds, they need to pay, constantly for being a nerd... because they are annoying and have no right to be.

    The fallout of this is heinous and lasts a very long time, maybe for the rest of the "nerds" life.

  3. I agree that tolerance must be taught. I teach 8th grade American History and as you know, the US's history is riddled with zillions of examples of intolerance. Most of my students were shocked to find this stuff out. Like they knew about slavery, but didn't really know what that meant.

    We have discussed all year how one of the most powerful tools we have is our own voice. That we MUST stand up for others or change will NEVER HAPPEN.

    I have heard my students use the word "retard" to each other and I jump right down their throats. I won't tolerate it in my classroom, even if they are using it as slang. I have no place for it.

    My son (he's 6) thankfully does not yet know when he's being teased. He's very trusting and loving and doesn't read social cues well enough to decipher what's going on with regards to teasing at this point. I will do my best to give him the tools to defend himself when the time comes. I, too, try to build his self-esteem right now. I think it's working -- we had his IEP a few weeks ago and when I told him where I was going, he said, "what are you going to talk about there?" I said, "What do you think?" and he said, "About how great I am!" with a big smile.

    Karen in CA

  4. Hi, Bev - I, too, watched the show with great anticipation. I am a movie buff and fascinated by directing. I really enjoyed the whole thing except this one horrible film. Even sadder to me was that the next night, it was voted one of the 3 best by viewers at home, even though the 3 judges did complain. I am sometimes still shocked myself at how uncaring (mean) people are as a society. As you know, my Aspie daughter is 4 and very much knows when she is being teased. Lately, she says to me, "Mommy, I'm different from the other children." Oh, how I dread the inevitable bullying to come.
    - Missy

  5. Missy, It's amazing... my son too (will be 5 in Aug.) started telling me he was different when he started preschool. My first reaction was, "Where did you hear that from? Did someone tell you you were different?" Then after a moment, I believed him. And I told him that he was indeed different and wonderful too. I also told him the world is full of people who are unique and different, and that it is a good thing.

  6. Melissa, I say the same thing. : )
    - Missy

  7. Ms. Clark:
    That is so absolutely true that people just assume everything we do is intentional. It happens to me all the time, yet I never thought about it in this context.

    I suppose the best revenge is living happily and nerdily amongst the cooler, sadder detractors.

  8. I was bullied pretty much all the way through high school and it really messed up what little self-esteem I had. I am now clinically depressed and extremely lonely. I just can't stand the fact that people think that they are better than others. Being called a "nerd" or a "geek" is like being cut down from being human. It feels like they are saying that I am an overly simplified stereotype that is inferior to the rest of humanity. Thats what it feels like to me. I don't know if I have aspergers or not but to me, its not a syndrome. Its not a DISORDER. THEY ARE THE DISORDER. It is so humiliating to me to know that people think that they are so much better than so called "nerds". Now they call it a disorder...


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