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Geeks and the culture of umbrage

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What are geeks anyway? And why are we so damned touchy?

Finding geeks to observe in the wild is simple. Troll us. Provoke us. Poke us. We pour from our hives and swarm.

Chef and master troll David Chang showed us how earlier this month—not that anyone needed a demonstration—by declaring in GQ that he hates “fancy beer.” That was all it took. Fish in a barrel. The usual circles erupted.

“I just lost all respect” for Chang, tweeted BeerAdvocate bro Jason Alstrom. “Opinions are like assholes though this is straight up #douchebaggery.”

Maybe Alstrom was right. I happen to agree with his choice of words. But was he right to take the bait? Why were any of us dumb enough to click on that piece?

Or to put it another way: If we keep clicking on obvious douchebaggery, who are the real douchebags?

Even as I write this I am guilty of perpetuating the discussion. But there is a lesson to learn, and learning it—if we can—would save us all a lot of precious time and energy.

Political journalist Michael Kinsley has written frequently about something called the “culture of umbrage.” He did so as early as 2008 and has elaborated since then, arguing that it had gone beyond politics to “infect the general culture.”

“The news is constantly full of people taking offense, or pretending to take offense, at things other people have said.” He added: “Americans need a thicker skin.”

The most distressing thing is that this is not new. We know about it. Yet we remain caught up in it. We keep on clicking the clickbait.

Media use it to grab traffic—and there are few innocents there. Politicians use it to raise money. And Michelin-starred chefs like Chang who run their own restaurant groups and have hit TV shows use it, apparently, for a bit of extra publicity. Because clearly he needs it.

A popular craft brewer spoofed Chang by declaring that he hated fancy Asian fusion food. More click-bait.

This is no longer cutting edge stuff. It is Marketing 101.

I compare it to whacking a hive with a stick. That brings us back to geekery.

All geeks have their little hives. Being a geek, in the modern sense, means having more knowledge on a topic than the average person. It may also imply being overly proud of that knowledge. Beer, wine, video games, GOP politics; whatever. We build our knowledge into a comfy little nest, relatively safe from the uncertain and often hostile world beyond. “Geeks” were originally circus freaks, after all. There remains a misfit connotation.

Thus the defining trait of the modern geek—in the umbrage culture, at least—is hypersensitivity. Overreaction.

A dramatic example is the ongoing GamerGate controversy, full of portents and warnings for other geekdoms. To an outsider it looks like nothing so much as anonymous nerds reacting with violence when their misogynistic status quo got whacked with a stick. They whacked back. It got ugly.

The beer world has its own share of misogyny—can we talk about that some other day?—but so far there have been no lashings-out on the level of GamerGate, which led to at least three women leaving their homes under threat. The great sprawling pub of beer geekery has many nooks and noise levels. But we like to think that, overall, it is pretty chill.

On the other hand… The Chang-bait Fiasco was hardly the first example of rousing the crowd to relive, like Groundhog Day, that old cartoon with the stick figure declaring that it can’t go to bed yet, this is important… somebody is wrong on the Internet.

Let them be wrong. Life is too short. Beer is about pleasure.

Any asshole can whack a tree with a stick. Too often the results are sadly predictable.

 


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