Not a whole lot of people join Christianity nowadays; usually the movement is from Christianity to either nothing at all or to other religions. But when someone does happen into a Christian group, typically they make the move because they’re aching for a group to belong to and think they’ve found it. Christians have gotten good at exploiting that need, too. Unfortunately, when rubber meets the road, the tribe can’t live up to their marketing hype. Today I’ll show you what happens when the Geek Social Fallacies rumble with Reality–and why Reality always wins.
A Meltdown in the Parking Lot.
I come here, pay five dollars, three days, beat everything within sight, have a good time, sit down and drink a beer. Good times, good friends. I’m sorry: what else is there? It’s almost as good as the American dream.
A Darkon participant around the 15-minute mark
Darkon is a 2006 documentary about a large live-action roleplaying group (LARP); it’s streaming on Amazon currently. It’s a good documentary about a social phenomenon that was getting a lot of attention at the time. We’ve talked about it once or twice around here, I think, though it recently got my attention again during a discussion I caught on Reddit about some fallacies that feed into groups like it.
A LARP is a kind of a live-action Dungeons & Dragons game. People make costumes–sometimes rudimentary, sometimes very impressively elaborate–and assume the role of characters in the game. Usually these games are player-vs-player showdowns between various groups. The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) does similar stuff, but isn’t as oriented toward roleplaying in that fashion; usually it’s more open-ended and history-based, and it has a lot more room for crafting and artistic pursuits instead of being focused on a particular wargaming scenario.
Around about the 45-minute mark in Darkon, a young member has a total meltdown in a parking lot after a battle. (I never caught his name, alas; we’ll go with Meltdown Boy.)
Meltdown Boy has just discovered that he isn’t nearly as important, authoritative, or well-regarded a member of his group as he thought he was.
He’s been a member of his group within Darkon for a while now and feels like he’s a very firm, accepted member of it. He’s popped up sporadically already to talk about how much Darkon has helped him develop as a person and how much he values his involvement in the game and the friends he’s made through it–though I could immediately see that he hasn’t made much headway with what is very obviously a serious problem with anger management (he’s that scary kind of barely-controlled spluttering rage even in his best moments). Instead of learning how to manage his emotions, he’s learned instead a set of highly-ritualized behaviors that he thinks make a good substitute for that self-improvement.
But his group has just done something he really doesn’t like, something that the resentful young man interprets as disrespectful (remember our recent discussions about honor culture?), something that flies far outside that ritualized code of conduct he depends upon for his self-image. Even worse, the people who’ve committed this injustice upon him don’t care at all how he feels about the matter. As a result, he’s frustrated, humiliated, and upset. His response to these overwhelming emotions is to unleash a long rant on-camera about how hard-done-by he feels he is. It’s been a few years since I saw this documentary, but I could never forget how absolutely betrayed the young man sounded:
I still feel like there’s nothing I can do that will ever be good enough for the people that I want a little bit of respect from. I’ve been yelled at by my country members [in the game, I’m assuming] today. Nobody has, y’know, paid attention to any orders I’ve given. Even though I have, like, one or two friends in every country I know that I wouldn’t fit in anywhere else. And I don’t even fit in in my own country? Darkon is supposed to be my
excapeescape from that world that just keeps beating on you and beating on you and you can’t get out from underneath it. The problem is, is as much game and as much fantasy as is in Darkon, that real world mentality still keeps coming back. And that’s to be better than somebody else. And everybody, everybody I know, wants to be better than anybody else. I don’t. I want one person to say I’m as good as them.
Meltdown Boy could have been a member of any tight-knit group making similar promises to its members. (He also, for all I know, might not be neurotypical–I don’t judge him here and feel a great deal of sympathy for him overall. He’s sitting somewhere I’ve been too, more than a few times.) The problem isn’t Darkon; it’s the fallacies that feed into so many groups like it. He’s definitely not the only person in this documentary to be bitten by that thinking–just the one expressing that thinking the most dramatically.
Layers of Groups.
Everything’s gone. Everything that’s noble and good in this world is gone. And it’s just replaced with Wal-Mart.
Andrew, at about the 19 minute mark.
The reason I’ve chosen this vignette to illustrate today’s topic was because of how powerfully Meltdown Boy illustrates the value and power of in-group identification and rejection. In essence, he feels hurt and angry because the in-group he most identifies with doesn’t feel nearly as strongly about him.
The reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s put his faith into the Geek Social Fallacies–and has fallen flat on his face as a result.
The Geek Social Fallacies are false beliefs that many geek/nerd groups hold.1 Most of them are reactions to how those groups’ members feel about how “normal” groups treat them–they are the difference between, say, “jock culture” and “nerd culture.” Back in 2003, Michael Suileabhain-Wilson codified them in a post that became an instant internet must-read classic for anyone who seeks to understand why nerd groups operate the way they do.
Here are the Fallacies:
- Group members who ostracize other members for any reason are evil.
- Friends must accept friends as they are without question.
- Friendship comes before everything else.
- Everyone in the group is BFFs with everyone else.
- Friends do everything together, always.
There are a lot of permutations of the Fallacies–and corollaries, too–such as: everyone here is equal, our shared fantasy is much better than reality, our groups are better than “normal” groups, nobody’s allowed to have secrets here, and others.
Ultimately any group based upon the Fallacies is going to disappoint members eventually–while allowing others to take advantage of them precisely because of their firm-but-misguided belief in these toxic ideas.
We’re Not All the Same Type, Though.
Around 25 minutes in, one player, Danny, starts talking about himself in the third person. He’s declaring his belief in one of the corollaries of the Fallacies: everyone’s got the same standing in the group; nobody is more special than anybody else.
I like Danny, but sometimes Danny doesn’t have the balls to do what Danny needs to. . . Here, we’re all more or less equal when it comes to social stance. We’re all the same type.
Danny’s speech made me just cringe when I heard it. He so wishes that this was how society worked everywhere–that his self-confessed nerdiness could be accepted just as much as whatever he sees in the popular group in his community. He all but aches to be that kind of accepted, that kind of loved. In groups outside of Darkon, he’s viewed with fear and scorn as a very dumpy nerd kid who can’t relate well to others. But in Darkon he feels important, respected, valued.2
A few minutes later, when Meltdown Boy appears for the first time to talk about how he thinks everyone has “rage” that they need to let out (citation needed), I could tell that he, like Danny, clearly feels that Darkon is his family–his group–his dearest friends. They’re his handpicked family and they are obligated, therefore, to accept his anger problems without thinking less of him for it. When it becomes clear to him later that they are not the group he imagined they were, his disappointment all but crushes him.
This particular rant came to my mind recently as I read about a situation cropping up lately in gaming groups. A guy was banned from his gaming league’s events and he raised a very big stink about it–as did a few other guys just like him who were similarly banned from other games’ events. Gaming companies like Wizards of the Coast (WotC) are starting to take targeted harassment and bullying very seriously, and these guys are just the first crop of undesirables who’re getting banned for acting like undersocialized hose beasts in civilized company.
And wow, did those hose beasts not like this show of rejection.
One of them showed up on Reddit’s LegalAdvice subreddit to ask if he had any standing to start a lawsuit over it. Seriously! The legal eagles there laughed at him and uniformly said no, he didn’t, which he also didn’t take well. I’m guessing he either couldn’t find any lawyers thirsty enough to take the case or eventually figured out why everyone in r/LegalAdvice kept telling him to drop the idea. But the sheer amount of entitlement he displayed in that topic certainly speaks to his belief in the Fallacies: exclusion is evil; status is earned through simple longevity as a group member; he must agree with any and all actions taken regarding his status in the group–or the actions can’t happen.
Then someone posted this comment about one of the bannings (he said it copied from elsewhere, but I couldn’t find the original source):
because of nerd social fallacies they’ve also twisted things around so that telling someone to use hygiene, to not scream slurs, to not sexually harass is “gate keeping” and “harassment” whereas actual gate keeping and harassment is just part and parcel for protecting your turf from everyone who has oppressed you. also the thing about nerds and “logic” is that nerds are very strongly controlled by their emotions but very invested in considering themselves smart and logical so they make decisions based on their feelings and then smugly explain that their slurs and poor behavior are steeped in incontrovertible truths about the universeit’s kind of fascinating to me to be honest. but the important thing to know is that nerds have convinced themselves they’re a persecuted minority and that asking them to not be cruel and disgusting is harassment, whereas actual harassment is just justifiable and logical behavior to protect their hobbies and beliefs.
That quote pulled me right up on my haunches.
Does any of this sound familiar? It really should. Christians are now one of the most self-pitying groups in the world–with one American survey revealing that they imagine that they are totally persecuted when they’re still the most unfairly-privileged group in the country–and they need every unfair perk they can hold onto if they are to have any hope of survival in this post-Christian age!
But that ain’t the only way Christian groups are similar to nerd groups.
Why the Fallacies Fail Us.
In large part, the Fallacies fail groups because there is literally no check upon how far the Fallacies must be taken by the group members. If it’s virtuous to accept people as they are, then it is evil to criticize them–and all criticism will thus be taken as a deep betrayal by the group members. If friendship comes before all other concerns, then anytime a member must prioritize differently it’ll be taken as the unkindest cut of all. If all group activities must involve everyone in the group, then anytime a group member is excluded for any reason, it’s going to be seen as the cruelest thing ever to be done to anyone ever in the history of forever.
Unpleasant people just love groups that subscribe to the Fallacies. They can be as unpleasant as they wish and nobody will be able to say a word to them because that’s how the Fallacies work in the first place. They silence critics and criticism alike and make any kind of pushback into a sin that cannot be forgiven–only punished forever.
(This reminds me: My then-husband Biff once whined to our pastor that I’d stood him up for an anniversary date-night dinner out. Gene laid into me–until I revealed that the reason I’d done this terrible heinous thing was that my best friend had gotten into a very bad accident in a city a couple of hours away and was in the emergency room there with her car totaled. I’d gone with another friend to help her and we all hadn’t gotten back until the wee hours. Biff had omitted that information somehow. Gene took my side and laid into Biff instead, which made Biff extra-whiny for a few days, and behold, the field where I grew my cares was completely barren.)
Second, the Fallacies depend on everyone in the group to always follow the script. But that’s not possible in any group–there’ll always be a few people who really aren’t capable of following the scripts exactly. By providing no methods at all for the identification and ejection (or at least containment) of problematic members as long as they follow the scripts the group’s created, the Fallacies create a fertile hunting ground for predatory people seeking victims.
In addition, the ritualized behaviors that seem always to spring from the Fallacies are often seen as a panacea by undersocialized people, who think they can rely upon those scripted behaviors and rituals to replace their own lack of socialization–but those same ritualized behaviors can’t possibly cover all situations, and in the case of someone who wants to be abusive they can serve to grant that person plausible deniability about the damage they’re causing. Some of the very worst people I’ve ever known in gaming were exactly like that–they thought of themselves as Nice Guys™ who were
chivalric chivalrous, kind, and retro/old-school sophisticated. They were exactly none of these things, but because they’d always followed the scripts in the groups they were in they could tell themselves these lies and believe them–to the point of getting angry at others for not participating in their self-delusion.
Certainly these scripts don’t cover what happens when someone starts actively scaring off new members through their behavior. A healthy group can see that behavior for what it is and address it, while a broken system will barely be able to acknowledge the harm being done–much less rein in the person doing it. (I’ve seen this exact situation crop up everywhere from Japanese street-fashion clubs in small-town America to the biggest megachurches in the world. You can really tell how good a group is by how it deals with people like that!)
Third, the Fallacies tend to create dysfunctional groups that go on to demonize and antagonize groups that don’t buy as strongly into these beliefs. It’s not uncommon to see nerds, for example, try to say that “jock culture” (whatever they think that term means) is shallow, vain, pretentious, and focused on short-term goals rather than long-term development. But any group can be like that–even a group of nerds–while groups that reject those ideals can be tightly-knit and healthy groups, whatever they focus on. Healthy criticism and feedback can save the cohesion of a group and keep problematic members out of it, while criticism that is silenced can fester drama, abuse, and backbiting. Some of the nicest people I’ve ever known were total jocks and gym rats–while some of the nastiest were Christians, pagans, and gamers. It’s not the group’s focus but its dynamic that we need to carefully discern before associating ourselves with it.
When other groups are demonized like that, the group is in serious danger of falling into a tribalistic mentality–and that’s when the gloves come off for those groups’ worst elements.
Really, the real surprise is that more Fallacy-centered groups don’t dissolve into abuse. The cold hard truth is that all groups pretty much operate along the same lines. The ones who lie about it might not make that truth seem as obvious, is all.
Watch Out for These Fallacies.
When you see a group marketing itself to potential new members, look for the presence of the Fallacies. If it does, avoid that group. It’s that simple. And if one of their central tenets is that they accept people and love people for who they are unlike all those other ickie groups that don’t, run for the hills.
In terms of Christianity, churches often struggle to find that comfortable middle ground between stand-offish and creepily over-friendly–while still promising people that they’ll be a “church family” to that recruit that will provide them love and friendship (generally these promises are made informally rather than overt explicit promises in formal marketing attempts).
It’s hilarious to me to see how much advice exists for church groups about how to treat visitors and yet how often they fail to find that middle ground. They struggle because they’re fixated on a group dynamic that doesn’t work well outside of very insular cultures, one that allows group members to police–and punish–any shows of defiance. That doesn’t make them sound appealing to many potential new members, but the people in these groups value the dynamic involved far, far more than they value growth!
The more extreme the group, the less socialized the members tend to be–and the less able they are to relate to non-members. They use jargon around people who have no idea what they’re saying; they’ll create church building layouts and websites that totally baffle visitors. They’ve long ago lost their ability to sympathize or empathize with others, so they don’t understand that there’s a lot of stuff they do that’s perfectly normal to them, but which actively alienates or even offends outsiders to their culture.
But when potential members reject them, the Fallacies are right there to tell members that it’s okay because that person obviously couldn’t handle the truth. We’ll be talking about that next so I’ll let it go at that, but you can probably guess how much scorn I have for that attitude.
Our (Real) Family.
Some of us find our family, ultimately, in those who are related to us by bonds of blood or partnership. Some of us find it in those we call friends. And some of us find it among those we once called enemies.
Ultimately, none of us makes it out of this world alive. If we can find a few people who will put a loving hand on our shoulders when we find ourselves in deep pain, maybe even who’ll just sit quietly with us when there are no words that we can find at all, who can exult with us in joy and tell us when we’re wrong, that’s a treasure worth fighting any dragon to find and keep.
One of the biggest cruelties of Christianity is that so many groups make this hard-and-fast promise that new members are joining a vast network of friends that they can consider family–and then fails utterly to live up to that promise for anyone except for a lucky few. Most of the rest of ’em will eventually have to make peace with that promise’s false nature–and if they try to talk about their disappointment, they will only be blamed for caring so much about it.
Faced with such cruelty, it’s better to just walk away and try to find another group–
Or, one dares to dream, to create one.
You bawww, you lose. (I lost almost immediately.)
1 I use “nerd” and “geek” interchangeably; some people draw important distinctions between them but I really don’t. Nerd is a word typically indicating low social status, while geek is a badge of honor regarding one’s intense affection for and interest in something. Most nerds are geeks about something, while most geeks are nerds too, so I don’t worry about it.
2 Slate informs us that after the documentary was made, Danny did finally find a girlfriend–which was kind of his big story arc, so that was nice. But I haven’t found any mention of what happened to Meltdown Boy after the documentary wrapped, however.
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