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Let's stop isolating geek, Net culture

By Jon Katz

30th April 1999

Joan McDonald has been a teacher in a New York State suburban public high school for nearly three decades. "While deeply saddened by the tragedy in Littleton," she wrote on April 27, "I am appalled at the resulting backlash our students are forced to suffer" in the wake of the Littleton massacre.

The last thing we need in the 20th Century, she wrote, is another witchhunt.

But that's what we're getting. McDonald described what hundreds of other teachers, administrators and students have been reporting all week - an assault on speech, dress, behavior or values that the media, politicians and some educators deem uncomfortably different, aka geek, nerd, Goth, the usual labels.

In a Gallup poll this week, 82% of Americans surveyed said the Internet was at least partly to blame for the Colorado killings. And schools across the country were banning trench coats, backpacks, black clothing, white make-up, Goth music, computer gaming shirts and symbols. They installed hotlines and "concern" boxes for anonymous "tips" about the behavior of non-mainstream students. Kids who talked openly about anger and alienation, or who confessed thoughts of revenge or fantasies of violence against people who'd been tormenting and excluding them, were hauled off to counselors.

Thus the students already at risk, already suffering, have become suspects, linked in various thoughtless ways to mass murder and - consequently - more alienated than before.

"I just came right now from the counselor's office," e-mailed DrgnD. "I scored a thousand. I had on a long coat, was wearing black and loudly told the jerk sitting next to me that I'd do my best to kill him if he ever called me a 'trenchcoat freak' again. I am now officially on probation. He is not."

Among the many other consequences of the Columbine High School tragedy: the cost of being different just went up.

Take the Goths, one of the distinct subcultures singled out by the press and linked to the Littleton bloodbath. Gothwalker says he wrote his principal after his school made plans to ban black clothing, trench coats and Marilyn Manson music. Goths have been e-mailing me for months now.

One of the most individualistic, interesting, and yes, gloomy subcultures, Goth is a style - of music, dress, state of mind. In general, Goths wear black, hang out on the Net, experiment with androgynous styles, are sometimes drawn to piercings, tattoos and white makeup; and love Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy and the Cure. Among their cherished authors are Sartre, Burroughs, Shelley and Poe. Fascinated with death (a taboo in the media and certainly in schools, along with sex and the open discussion of religion), Goths see it as a part of life.

In general, though, Goths do not hurt people. They brood; they emote; but the idea that they are murderous is a cultural libel.

One of the educational system's pervasive responses to Littleton was to lecture oddballs and geeks about the importance of not slaughtering others. One thing geeks and nerds hardly need is patronizing, offensive lessons about the importance of not committing massacres. They're probably one of the least likely cultures in American life to commit homicide; their weapons of choice are electronic flames, not machineguns.

Of the thousands of e-mail messages I got this week (4,000 between Friday, April 23, and Wednesday, April 28, is my best guess), not one advocated violence or supported assault, murder or revenge.

Although many expressed sympathy for the killers as well as the victims in Littleton (unlike, say, Time magazine, which accompanied cover photos of the killers with the headline, "The Monsters Next Door"), no one threatened violence, supported it, or approved of it.

But the stories of physical, verbal, emotional and administrative abuse that came pouring in were stunning, a scandal for an educational system that makes much noise about wholesomeness and safety, but has turned a blind eye for years to the persecution of individualistic and vulnerable students.

The "Voices from the Hellmouth" series I wrote for Slashdot, an open-source Web site, and free! this week demonstrated the power of interactivity and connectivity. Kids passed it around to one another, to parents, friends, teachers and guidance counselors.

"My seventeen-year-old son handed me a printout of your Littleton article," wrote Bagatti. "No one seems to think that peer abuse is real or damaging. I would like to see any adult report for work and be taunted, humiliated, harassed, and degraded every single day without going stark, raving mad. Human beings are not wired for abuse."

One of the clear messages from all of the e-mail was that it's time, long overdue, for geeks and nerds and the assorted "others" of the world to assert themselves, to begin defining and standing up for their rights, perhaps with the help of the communicative possibilities of the Net. And to begin the work of restructuring American schools - barely changed in generations despite the ongoing Information Revolution - and their frequently warped procedures, infrastructure and value systems.

At the very top of the agenda: Freedom from abuse, humiliation and cruelty. Geeks, nerds, and oddballs have the right to attend school in safety. Teachers and administrators have an obligation to make dignity for everybody - not just the popular and the conventional - an urgent educational concern, in the same way they've taken on racism and other forms of bigotry.

Geeks who are harassed and humiliated should report the assaults, and perhaps using the Internet, take their complaints farther if they are ignored or further victimized. Online, they can receive support, advice, even counseling if necessary. Judging from many of my e-mail messages, it is.

Each generation has the right to determine its own culture. Culture isn't just symphony orchestras, movies about dead British royalty and hard-bound books. For some, culture is now also gaming, Web sites, chat and messaging systems, TV shows, music and movies.

No generation has the right to dictate to another what its culture ought to be, or to degrade its choices as stupid and offensive. Yet geek and nerd culture is continuously denounced as isolating, addictive and, now, even murderous.

Games like Tribe, Unreal, Quake, even The Legend of Zelda, and yes, Doom, can be astoundingly creative, challenging and imaginative. They are often demanding, played in communal and interactive ways. Some people may be uncomfortable with some of their imagery.

But youth culture has frequently been offensive to adults - that's often the point - and culture has always evolved. Adults seem to have no memories of their own early lives. Early rock and roll was likened to medieval plagues by the clueless journalists and nervous educators of the time.Now, next to some extreme forms of hip-hop, Chuck Berry seems as dangerous as Beethoven.

Adolescence is a surreal world: Kids who don helmets and practice banging into one another for hours each week are deemed healthy and wholesome, even heroic. Geeks are branded strange and anti-social for building and participating in one of the world's truly revolutionary new cultures - the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Or for being isolated or lacking school spirit. Or for listening to industrial music or wearing odd clothes. But perhaps geek kids are isolated partly because schools don't provide them with any means of connecting.

Educators need to radically expand their notions of what culture is, and to reconsider the messages of disdain they continuously send some of their potentially most creative students.

Inhabitants of a new world, with a new culture, geeks often find that the old symbols don't work for them - pep rallies, proms, assemblies, etc. In fact, scholars like Janet Murray of MIT (Hamlet on the Holodeck) are beginning to explore the ways in which interactivity and representational writing and thinking may be changing the very neural systems of the young. Instead of banning Doom and Quake, schools should be forming Doom and Quake clubs, presided over by teachers who actually know something about the online world (my e-mail indicates that there's one frustrated geek on the faculty in most schools). Any school with a football team ought to have a computer gaming, Web design or programming team as well. Geeks ought to see their interests represented in educational settings, not simply to feel pushed to the margins of everyone else's. When these new interests and values are recognized and institutionalized, geek kids may have more status, and feel less like aliens in their own schools.

Schools need to provide choices. Educators love to talk empowerment, but few seem to grasp what it means. Geek kids are not, in general, docile and obedient; their subculture is argumentative and outspoken. Online, each person makes his or her own rules, goes where he or she wants to go. Increasingly, it's a difficult transition between free-wheeling cyberspace and the oppressive, rule-bound Old Fartism that dominates American education.

"School sucks," e-mailed Jane from Florida. "It's run like a police state, and it's boring and clueless."

Kids raised in interactive environments - with zappers, Nintendos, computers, sophisticated games - complain that they sometimes struggle in environments where adults stand for hours droning at them about passive things. This doesn't mean they are dumb, just different. Their digital world is much more vital, colorful and engaging that their educational one.

Geeks are used to choice, a landmark cultural and political issue for them. It's the responsibility of schools to create more challenging and interactive environments for its students - a benefit for all younger people who need to learn how to analyze, how to question, how to reach decisions, not just how to take notes and then check the right boxes on the midterm.

And: freedom. Why does the First Amendment end at the school door, when many kids, especially geeks, have spent much of their lives in the freest part of American culture - the Internet? Online, people can speak about anything: Dump on God, talk about sex, flame pundits, express themselves politically and rebelliously. In school, no one can.

Geeks, perhaps more accustomed to free expression than their non-wired peers, increasingly and disturbingly refer to schools as "fascistic" environments in which they are censored and oppressed. All kids can't have absolute freedom all the time, but many kids, especially older ones raised in the Digital Age, need more than they're getting. Without it, they will become increasingly alienated.

A gaming Web site like PlanetQuake gets more than 70,000 visitors a day; Planet Halflife gets about 30,000. GameSpy, which helps gamers connect to local games, draws between 60,000 and 80,000. Estimates of online gamers in the United States alone run as high as 20 million people. The half-baked notion that this activity sparks kids to grab lethal weapons and murder their peers sends a particular kind of message to the millions of kids gaming on and offline - that the people responsible for educating and protecting them (politicians, therapists, journalists, educators) have no idea what they are talking about, and are posturing in the most ignorant and self-serving ways. It's hard to imagine a more alienating lesson for the young than that.

Finally: Access to popular culture and to the Internet isn't a privilege. It's a right. For many kids, the Net isn't alienation, but its alternative; it's their intellectual, social, cultural and political wellspring. They need it to learn, to feel safe and connected, and to function economically, socially and politically in the next century. Obviously, no rights come without responsibilities - and those should be spelled out both in schools and in families. But access to the Net and to other facets of one's culture ought not be a toy that parents and teachers are willing to dispense to "good" and "normal" boys and girls. For many kids, it's their lifeblood, and it shouldn't be restricted, withdrawn or used manipulatively except under the most serious circumstances.

It already seems clear from the stories coming out of Colorado that the two young killers were severely disturbed, victims of mental illness about which we know, to date, very little. The media roadshow - increasingly our leading transmitter of national hysterias - that quickly engulfs stories like these demands answers, and has an endless supply of experts happy to go on TV and supply them.

But Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, along with the completely innocent people that they slaughtered, are also victims deserving of compassion. Their illnesses may or may not have been exacerbated by social cruelty and alienation, they may or may not have been affected by access to violent imagery and/or lethal weaponry. We may never be able to answer the questions their act has provoked. Human minds, for all we're learning about them, sometimes remain mysterious, human acts inexplicable.

Reading all these messages this week, I've been overwhelmed by the outpouring of suffering generated by the experience of going to school, and by the brutal price people have paid and are paying for being different. Few people commit violence in schools, but way too many have fantasized about it.

These messages were, in different ways, all saying the same thing. A humane society truly concerned about its children would worry less about oddballs, computer games and clothing, and more about creating the kind of schools kids would never dream of blowing up.

- - - -

This article could not be find again on the Internet, but it is clearly a compilation of the content of three other articles from Jon Katz. You'll find also many E-mail; messages.

Voices From The Hellmounth, April 26, 1999

More Stories From The Hellmmounth, April 27, 1999

The Price To Be Different, April 29, 1999

We selected some quotes from the e-mail messages


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