Friday, January 02, 2015

For the love of nerds

One of my main themes is the nerd love story. (See, for example, my novel.) The shy, socially-awkward (yet adorable) kid suffers humiliating rejections, but ultimately wins out. For me, this is the most obvious type of underdog story to write. As my parents explicitly taught me, it doesn't matter whether you're popular in high school. If you are the smart kid, then you have the tools to be a success in life.

You may recall one of my many complaints about the Harry Potter series was that despite being unpopular/bullied as a teen, after a certain number of years of being a successful adult, someone like Snape would grow up a bit. Emotionally. Well, there's a short essay by a professor at MIT (making the rounds of the Internet) that suggests I may be wrong on this point.

Amanda Marcotte is right that Laurie Penny is way too nice to this guy (so Amanda compensated by perhaps going too far the other way -- though her piece is quite funny). A personal friend and colleague of my husband also wrote a response that is spot on. But there's one key point that I don't think any of these folks hit on, which I would like to address.

Life is not fair. If you are one of the brainiacs, then you have an unfair advantage over others. Because being one of the smarties endows you with a magical little thing called problem solving skills.

Suppose you look around and you see some guys who logically shouldn't be desirable to women ("Neanderthals" in the above professor's terms) having lots of success attracting women. You believe that what you have to offer to women is actually better, yet women somehow fail to grasp this. If your solution to this conundrum is that women are simply too stupid to act in their own self interest (all of them! Or at least all the ones you might potentially find attractive), so you decide to spend the next twenty years stewing in your own bile over the unfairness of it all, then you are an idiot.

That's the only reason people are responding to this guy's rant, by the way. Stupid, frustrated men who have concluded that the problem is the entire female half of the human race are a dime a dozen. There are whole subnetworks on the Internet devoted to their rantings. Here's a typical example. What makes the professor's essay noteworthy is that people are astonished that someone could be smart enough to be a professor at MIT and yet be dumb enough to make an ass of himself in such a public way.

The thing is that it's not that hard a problem to solve. People of all different desirability levels solve it every day. If your offer is desirable, there are plenty of ways to find the people who will want to take you up on it, and if it's not, there are ways to make your offer more desirable. If you're looking around and wondering "Why him and not me?" -- don't ask it as an angry rhetorical question, ask it as a serious question. And apply your analysis and problem-solving skills to come up with effective strategies to solve it.


Donna Banta said...

Good grief! What a twisted individual. Amazing how some people can't get past high school. Even highly successful and educated people. And yes,you're right. Ask the question seriously - a little self awareness instead of self absorption is key.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Donna!!!

I know it's just some petty thing, but it annoys me because normally I find math guys adorable, but this ass is really giving mathematicians a bad name.

He's surprisingly logic-impaired for a math person. Notably he's conflating two problems that aren't more than tenuously related: (1) the fact that he was unable to attract girls as a nerdy teen, and (2) the fact that it's not OK to make unwanted sexual advances. Even if he had lived in a magical world in which random groping was merely considered mildly impolite, I sincerely doubt this would have helped his popularity with the ladies...

C. L. Hanson said...

p.s. to self:

The interesting thing about my own reaction is noticing my own bias towards optimism about human nature. I want to believe that the natural trajectory is towards increasing mental health, and consequently wisdom and happiness.

For nerds in particular, I want to believe they're basically like Rex Wendell (see "a story I never tell anyone" for what I'm talking about). This reflects my own experience and the experience of my friends.

Just yesterday I saw a link to this interesting longitudinal study on men's mental health. (I hope someone has done a similar study on women...). There's a lot of food for thought in the study, but I'd just like to quote one passage that is coincidentally relevant to the discussion at hand:

Mature defenses are our “involuntary psychological coping style” – the ways we instinctively respond to and deal with setbacks, frustration, pain, etc. Immature defenses include things like passive aggression, projection, and denial. They seek to put the responsibility for what happens on other people. In contrast, men with mature defenses take ownership of what happens to them, and try to figure out a healthy way to deal with life’s challenges. These healthy coping methods include things like keeping a sense of humor, finding a gratifying alternative when you can’t get what you want, being altruistic, and facing problems with resilience and stoicism. Mature defenses are a huge factor both in rewarding relationships, and success in one’s career;

Marcotte's analysis is right, though, that that professor's problem is a narcissistic failure to develop empathy. And, as much as I want to believe that sort of outcome is just some sort of mysterious anomaly, I think in reality it's probably not so unusual.