Tag Archives: geek

On switching places

I’ve been reading some of the discussion on Scott Aaronson’s comment on his difficult youth as a shy geek with a very conscientious style of feminism. An excerpt:

My recurring fantasy, through this period, was to have been born a woman, or a gay man, or best of all, completely asexual, so that I could simply devote my life to math, like my hero Paul Erdös did. Anything, really, other than the curse of having been born a heterosexual male, which for me, meant being consumed by desires that one couldn’t act on or even admit without running the risk of becoming an objectifier or a stalker or a harasser or some other creature of the darkness.

Someone replied, essentially, “You can’t really mean you would trade places with truly oppressed people.” Aaronson replies:

I feel incredibly lucky to have gotten to a place in life where I’m happy to be who I am, with a wonderful wife and daughter and a job doing what I love. But with a slightly-different roll of the dice? I would absolutely have traded places with any of the people you mentioned—the poor black kid, the gay kid, any of them. I wouldn’t even have to think about it. Are you kidding me?

I wouldn’t have written what I did, if that wasn’t honestly how I felt. And I wonder if this isn’t the crux of so many people’s failure to understand me: the only possibility they can contemplate, is that I can’t grasp how badly other people have it. That I would’ve gladly traded places with them, despite knowing how badly they have it, is a fact they won’t assimilate no matter how often I say it.

Which got me thinking about how different people’s experiences can be wildly different even within the same group.

One noticeable thing about jail is that people react very differently to it. Most everyone is miserable, but some of them put together a semblance of normal life (working out, writing letters, conducting intrigues, reading all the Game of Thrones books). One of the most charmingly normal things I ever saw on a segregation unit was two women playing “battleship” from their respective cells, calling out coordinates through the cinderblocks.

Recently a client on his first real incarceration told me he wasn’t sure what was so bad about jail. There was nothing that really felt like punishment to him, no physical torture. His childhood was worse: “I was always getting beat and stuffed in closets, so this ain’t a big deal to me.”

But some people lose their minds. Some people (especially immigration and other non-criminal detainees) can’t handle the loss of status, the shame of wearing a uniform and shackles. Some people have panic attacks. Some can’t eat or sleep. Some lose touch with reality.

The same circumstances can have vastly different effects on different people. So to say, “I would rather have been poor or gay or black than geeky and shy” doesn’t make a lot of sense. Who is the you that is being transformed? Is that person still shy? Is that person still prone to feeling horribly sad and ashamed? Because you might just have a terrible time in whatever group you land in.

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On ostracism

Today I heard a radio story about the Amish and was thinking how well their community functions. They’ve very deliberately chosen family and social cohesion over convenience. They have low rates of crime, substance abuse, and obvious discord. Crime or drug use by Amish is likely to make the news precisely because it is so rare.

They’re not a dying breed – quite the opposite; their population is constantly growing. I can’t find research on whether the Amish are happier than other people – part of me wonders if the pressure to conform affects their quality of life. But given that social connection is strongly correlated with happiness, I’m guessing they’re at least as happy as other Americans.

But what happens if you’re bad at being Amish? You are shunned, temporarily or permanently. Part of how the community does so well is sampling bias – bad Amish stop being Amish.  And some stop being Amish voluntarily – supposedly 15% of young people leave the community.

I was also reading an insightful list of Geek Social Fallacies and was struck by the one about how geeks hate to ostracize people like they have been ostracized.  “Nearly every geek social group of significant size has at least one member that 80% of the members hate, and the remaining 20% merely tolerate.”  Or, as Eliezer Yudkowsky put it, well-kept gardens die by pacifism.  He recommends ostracism for keeping a community in good order: “It’s a large world out there and there are literally hundreds of millions of people whom you do not want in your community, at least relative to your current ability to improve them.  I’m sorry but it has to be done.”

And yet it feels so yucky.  It makes my community better, but what happens to those people after they’re expelled?

But maybe I’m worrying too much.  You might be bad at being Amish, but maybe you’d be good at city life.  Maybe you drive everyone at Less Wrong crazy and you might fit in better at the local meetup for tango dancers or organic food enthusiasts.

Of course, there are people who are actually really bad at fitting into any kind of civilization, and some of those people are my clients at the jail.  It’s not pretty.

(Returning to the topic of therapy for niche cultures, there is a therapist for Amish people!  But he’s not Amish.)

A therapist who speaks geek

Cultural competence is a pretty big deal in social work.  Ideally every client has a therapist who’s well-versed in their culture.  If you see a Cambodian child with red marks on her skin, does it mean she’s being abused or that her family is practicing traditional Khmer medicine?  It makes a big difference when you’re deciding whether to call child protective services.  Even if clients just have to spend a long time explaining that what they do is normal in their culture – that’s a waste of time that could be better spent on actual therapy.  And sometimes you just want someone who gets it without you having to explain it.

And so there are practices that specialize in subcultures.  I know of several Afrocentric therapy centers in Boston and one center for Latinos.  My father-in-law says a lot of Jewish clients pick him because he has a Jewish last name.

But culture isn’t just about ethnicity.  You can find listings of therapists that specialize in transgender clients, or in BDSM.

I was talking to a friend recently about the intersection of depression and Asperger’s syndrome.  And I was thinking about how hard it might be to find a social worker who was competent in geek culture.  Psychiatrists, probably easier.  I don’t know any psychologists, so I couldn’t tell you.  But I was far and away the geekiest person in my social work program, and I’m not even that serious a geek anymore.

I remembered reading a good article (which I can’t find, but here’s a similar one) by a social worker who specialized in gamer culture.  She found her clients who were in to video and computer games had a hard time finding therapists who didn’t consider their hobbies pathological.  Most therapists wouldn’t feel the need to “fix” the fact that a client played golf every weekend – so why should they treat World of Warcraft so differently?

Geek competence isn’t just about culture, either.  It’s about how you use information: do you Google “Asperger’s and depression” to see what’s out there?   Did you read the Cochrane reviews on how well antidepressants work for his age range?

And of course it was Google that answered my question: are there therapists that specialize in geeks?

Why, yes!  In Seattle.  (“Also treating nerds, dweebs, dorks, gamers, and bronies.”)

There’s an enjoyable series of web clips about a fictional therapist who helps her clients “find their inner geek”: Geek therapy

There’s also an unrelated Geek therapy podcast.

I’m excited that this exists.  This seems like a niche I would really enjoy working in.