Nerds: Stop hating women, please

One comic creator's rant is just the latest example of misogyny in geek culture.

Tony Harris is in no way a household name. But as the artist behind some of the most critically acclaimed comics in the last 20 years, noteably Starman with James Robinson for DC and Ex Machina with Brian K. Vaughan for Wildstorm, he was a hugely respected figure in the industry.

"Was".

Today, Harris posted a rant on his Facebook wall, which was re-posted to Tumblr by Jill Pantozzi, the associate editor of The Mary Sue, a site dedicated to "girl geek culture". Harris writes (and I've not edited this in any way):

I cant remember if Ive said this before, but Im gonna say it anyway. I dont give a crap.I appreciate a pretty Gal as much as the next Hetero Male. Sometimes I even go in for some racy type stuff ( keeping the comments PG for my Ladies sake) but dammit, dammit, dammit I am so sick and tired of the whole COSPLAY-Chiks. I know a few who are actually pretty cool-and BIG Shocker, love and read Comics.So as in all things, they are the exception to the rule. Heres the statement I wanna make, based on THE RULE: "Hey! Quasi-Pretty-NOT-Hot-Girl, you are more pathetic than the REAL Nerds, who YOU secretly think are REALLY PATHETIC. But we are onto you. Some of us are aware that you are ever so average on an everyday basis. But you have a couple of things going your way. You are willing to become almost completely Naked in public, and yer either skinny( Well, some or most of you, THINK you are ) or you have Big Boobies. Notice I didnt say GREAT Boobies? You are what I refer to as "CON-HOT". Well not by my estimation, but according to a LOT of average Comic Book Fans who either RARELY speak to, or NEVER speak to girls. Some Virgins, ALL unconfident when it comes to girls, and the ONE thing they all have in common? The are being preyed on by YOU. You have this really awful need for attention, for people to tell you your pretty, or Hot, and the thought of guys pleasuring themselves to the memory of you hanging on them with your glossy open lips, promising them the Moon and the Stars of pleasure, just makes your head vibrate. After many years of watching this shit go down every 3 seconds around or in front of my booth or table at ANY given Con in the country, I put this together. Well not just me. We are LEGION. And here it is, THE REASON WHY ALL THAT, sickens us: BECAUSE YOU DONT KNOW SHIT ABOUT COMICS, BEYOND WHATEVER GOOGLE IMAGE SEARCH YOU DID TO GET REF ON THE MOST MAINSTREAM CHARACTER WITH THE MOST REVEALING COSTUME EVER. And also, if ANY of these guys that you hang on tried to talk to you out of that Con? You wouldnt give them the fucking time of day. Shut up you damned liar, no you would not. Lying, Liar Face. Yer not Comics. Your just the thing that all the Comic Book, AND mainstream press flock to at Cons. And the real reason for the Con, and the damned costumes yer parading around in? That would be Comic Book Artists, and Comic Book Writers who make all that shit up.

The simple misogyny on display would be enough to ruin most people's view of Harris, to be honest, and to them I apologise for going further into the issue. Clearly, even writing about how great cosplay (dressing up as characters from… well, anything, really. Some great examples here) was, and how welcome female cosplayers were at comic conventions, wouldn't render the tone of this rant any more acceptable.

But the views Harris expresses aren't just held by virulent misogynists – instead, they are depressingly common in "geek culture". Too many nerds have basically internalised the stereotype of themselves as ugly, friendless losers and decided that anyone who doesn't fit that stereotype – particularly women – is a "fake geek", taking advantage of the fact that being a geek is now "cool".

The stereotype has been bubbling around various geek cultures – gamers, comics and sci-fi fans, and even niche ones like board- and tabletop-gaming enthusiasts – for some time, and a number of pieces have been written about the damage it does to women in the community. The Mary Sue's Susana Polo, for instance, says it better than I could:

I understand the desire to weed the “posers” out of your personal life and interactions. But I have never, actually, in the flesh, met a “fake” geek girl. Or guy. I don’t think those people actually exist outside of painful daytime news segments, the occasional job interview (where, in this economy, I’ll excuse anybody for trying to be a little bit of something they’re not), and internet memes. But I understand.

But who are you to say that a stranger, someone you’re never likely to meet, is not genuinely interested in the thing they appear to be interested in? Who are you? I just… what? I’m rendered incoherent. Here at the Mary Sue, when an actress goes on a talk show and describes her personal affection and involvement and enjoyment and FANDOM for geek properties, we take it at face value. Why? Because we don’t actually have a reason not to. Because the alternative breeds a closed community of paranoid, elitist jerks who lash out at anyone new.

The proper response to someone who says they like comics and has only read Scott Pilgrim is to recommend some more comics for them. The proper response to someone who appears to be faking enthusiasm is to ignore them and not project their actions on an entire gender or community. The proper response to someone who appears to want to be a part of your community is to welcome them in. End of story.

And the same applies to this specific example. Jamie McKelvie, designer of the much-cosplayed Captain Marvel, reiterates:

I've never met a cosplayer who isn't a massive fan of the thing they are cosplaying. Also: some of the sweetest people you could meet.

But here's the thing: even if the cosplayer has never read any comics other than the one they're dressed up as – even if they've never read any comics at all, and just enjoy the dressing up – it doesn't matter. Nobody is going to take your hobby away. At worst, at absolute worst, it is someone finding enjoyment in a different aspect of something you like. At best, as Polo says, it is a future friend, someone who could be a part of your community, and someone to spread your love to.

Or maybe some nerds just don't want women in the clubhouse.

Tracy Ho and Demir Oral cosplay at Comic-Con 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times