So, now that the Big Guy has spoken, I suppose I should get back to my job of providing something vaguely readable during the times he’s not posting. (For the record, my lack of a post last week was due to a disruption caused by jury duty. But on the other hand, that’s one person who won’t weasel out of damage to a motor vehicle caused by failure to maintain a safe following distance!)
I was reading a collection of ‘Penny Arcade’ strips last night, and that triggered, as it always does these days, a wealth of contradictory emotions. Mainly because I used to really like Penny Arcade, and then it slowly dawned on me that these guys weren’t making fun of assholes with no self-awareness and an obsession with video games to the point where they cared more about them than actual human beings…that was pretty much who they were.
The tipping point was this news post:
Which has to be a high point for oblivious privilege in action. “They’re not censors, though – oh, no no. You’ll understand it eventually; what you need to do is censor yourself.” Yes, to some extent we do. Because everyone does. We don’t say every single think we think, we don’t illustrate every single concept that pops through our head. We run it through a little filter that asks, “Is this worth talking about? Will this ruin someone’s day, week or life? Am I being a jerk? If I am, is my art demonstrating something sufficiently important about the human condition that it’s worth causing offense?” If you don’t do that, you’re not striking a blow for freedom of expression and the openness of art; you’re just being an asshole. Self-censorship, as he puts it, is part of growing up. I felt at the time that maybe he and Gabe should do that, and while I’ve heard they eventually had a revelation along those lines themselves, it hasn’t been enough to really draw me back to the strip.
But it did occur to me, as I was reading those old PA strips, that telling a geek to “grow up” is a very loaded term in and of itself with a lot of connotations that culture has packed into it, and there’s a profound disconnect between the way some people mean it and the way other people hear it. (See? The eventual topic rears its head, like a python ready to strike.) Because let’s face it, part of the core of any geek’s identity is that we continue as adults to take an interest in things society has commonly ascribed to children.
It’s not just video games, although that’s certainly where it’s at for the PA crew; geeks like Legos, model rockets, cartoons, movies with robots and spaceships and explosions, comic books, action figures, and TV shows prominently featuring crazy men from outer space with magic time-traveling boxes. Our love of these stories and the items of totemic significance associated with them (yes, you thought it was just a FunkoPop of Agent May, but it’s an item of totemic significance!) is so intrinsic to our identity as geeks that we can’t imagine who we’d be without these things. It would deprive our life of joy to give them up. (And the use of “we” here is intentional. I include myself in this one hundred percent.)
It’s less common than it was, or at least it seems less common than it was, but a lot of adult geeks spent much of their teenage and young adult years being told by one authority figure or another that since most of these things were originally intended for children, and even the things that weren’t contained cultural signifiers that connected them to things intended for children, that mean they must be exclusively intended for children and carrying our love of them into adulthood was a sign of profound immaturity. We were expected, as we moved into adulthood, to abandon our interest in these things in favor of socially acceptable adult leisure pursuits like golf and watching golf and watching reality shows and reading Tom Clancy novels. (Or something like that–as an extremely geeky person who’s never heeded that expectation, I don’t really know what “normal” adults are supposed to do with their free time.) That geekiness, which was part of our core identity, was something that we had to fight for if we wanted to keep it. We had to resist the demand to “grow up”.
So when guys like Gabe and Tycho are told, “Hey, you really need to grow up,” what they hear is, “You need to stop playing those stupid video games, give up drawing those stupid cartoons that nobody will ever take seriously, and go out and become suit-wearing members of productive society with jobs in graphic design and copy-editing respectively.” It’s a fundamental attack on their identities, the core of who they are, and so they have come to actively resist maturity. And they are being used here, perhaps unfairly, as representatives of an entire segment of geek society that does the same thing but they’re doing pretty alright for themselves so they can probably cope. The point is, when a geek hears, “Grow up,” it means to them “Stop being a geek.”
There is another meaning, though, and I want to set it out here for any geek who’s ever responded to those words with pride in their immaturity. Growing up can mean developing emotional maturity, an understanding of and respect for the feelings of others. It can mean understanding that as fun as video games and movies about spaceships are, they’re not as important as people, and that it’s more important to make the other people around us feel accepted and welcome and happy than it is to have everything exactly the way we want it. That sometimes means not saying something we want to say, or doing something we want to do…or yes, creating something we want to create. It means accepting responsibility for our mistakes, because we’re all going to make them sometimes, and trying to make it right rather than doubling down on them in an effort to prove some sort of nebulous, ill-considered point about “freedom of expression” (*cough* Dickwolves *cough*).
Basically, if someone says to you, “Oh, grow up!” and your response is, “Never gonna happen,” and you sit there smiling smugly while they look at you like you’re something they want to scrape off their shoe, you should know that you probably misinterpreted their meaning. You were thinking they were saying, “Stop being a geek,” but what they were actually saying was, “Stop being an asshole.”