Is it hip to be square?

One of my all-time favourite novels is Geek Love by Katherine Dunn.

It’s not what you think.

Its about Circus Freaks. Circus Freaks were the original ‘Geeks’.

I am not sure when the word transformed into a derogatory term for kids that liked science and maths in High Schools across the US (and I guess secondary schools in the UK, but my husband said he never heard the word until much after he had left school – he’s British) but it was definitely a label en force when I was a high school student in the 80s.

‘Geek’s weren’t alone – there were other divisions too. Freaks, Geeks, Jocks and Frocks – were the major labels.
The rough breakdown was:

Freaks did drugs
Geeks did maths
Jocks did sports (or cheerleading)
Frocks were in the marching band

I am not going to tell you which category was assigned to me by my peers. Probably like most kids; I could have realistically fit into several categories; but that wasn’t really allowed. Jocks were ‘stupid’. Frocks were kind of dumb. Freaks were stoned. ‘Geeks’ were brainy and going to MIT, but never had a hope in hell of a social life or any sort of romatic relationship.

I not sure how many of my classmates bought into this way of thinking – I had friends in all of these categories – but, nevertheless, it was still a label. For people that didn’t know you, these categorisations completely affected your social life as an adolescent. ‘Geek’ was a bad word back then; it certainly wasn’t something most kids wanted to be.

Geek has very recently become near as dammit synomous with ‘skeptic’ and ‘scientist’ (or ‘science lover’). Mark Henderson just published a ‘Geek Manifesto’ there was a ‘Geek Calendar’ two years ago (to raise money for a good cause, Libel Reform). It is, I think, an effort to reclaim the word to make it ‘cool’ (or as Huey Lewis said ‘It’s hip to be square’) or at least make it be ‘ok’ to be a ‘geek’; but I worry.

I worry because its easy to talk about how cool it is to be a ‘geek’ when you are 35 – 40, when those high school labels no longer apply, but I am not sure how beneficial it is for kids at secondary school, where labels are often much more important. Adolescence is a damn hard time and labelling schemes among adolescence can be devistating and difficult. I understand that some people would argue they are trying to ‘take back the word’ but I am not sure this is a good word to have; its original definition it means Circus Freak.

I worry because I think it’s divisive. The term ‘geek’ (or any label) creates an ‘us against them’ mentality. In this case ‘geeks’ are cool where implicit in this phrase is the counter ‘and you are not’. It seems more beneficial, and indeed more positive, to convince people that they can think in an evidence-based way too. There is, after all, nothing special about it – it’s just a different way to think about things. I worry this label creates a mentality of ‘geeks (aka ‘smart’ people) understand this while ‘others’ cannnot; or more simply ‘Geeks are cool, you are not.’

Evidence-based thinking, being excited about science and maths, isn’t just the purveyance of a ‘geek’ it is something anyone can do and should be allowed to do without being swallowed in a label.

I used to go annually to the Tennessee Valley Fair, when I was a kid and like any good US state fair it had a Midway with (scary) rides and ‘freaks’. As a 7-year old I found myself, entirely by accident, amidst the ‘geek’ tents where you could see bearded ladies, goats with 3 legs and deformed humans of all variety. It really upset me; I remember thinking but they are people too, why do we have to put them on display and call them ‘geeks’?

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain is a bio-physicist in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford (UK), but she blogs in a personal capacity. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain
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8 Responses to Is it hip to be square?

  1. Freaks did drugs
    Geeks did maths

    I don’t think this division works. In my twenties I was part of a large very heavy drug using freak scene nearly all of whose members were geeks; mathematicians, physicists, biologists, engineers and technicians. ;))

    • I think none of them really work, but I think in adolescence we are exposed to a larger range of diverse personalities then we often are thereafter. At that age, at least in my experience, those labels are much more divisive (true or not).

  2. Stephen says:

    I know at least one kid who strongly resists labelling as a geek but is happy to self-identify as a nerd…

    http://youtu.be/yp194ZQ4YGM

  3. bandgeek says:

    Never heard of Frocks before. People in the band were always geeks (née nerds). And freaks were called burnouts in the 70s.

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