feminism, the nerd voice, and David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s on a bit of a feminist roll lately. This week he rails against burqa banning, but also against burqas…and against tattoos.

(Just for fun, TMWL has dealt with burqas in the past:)

Mr Mitchell’s column is a lesson to me. Looky here:

And, while I’m at it, I think that it’s ridiculous to believe in transubstantiation, that considering the Bible to be the literal word of God reduces that supposedly omnipotent being to a muddle-headed maniac and that the Hindu caste system and Roman Catholic rules against contraception could have been invented by Satan. There! Now no one will be able to guess who’s killed me.

Reason, social justice, and feminism, combined with a healthy dollop of insult to the irrational belief systems of possibly half the population of world, pulled off with self-reflexivity and epeolatry that makes every highly verbal, progressive, atheist nerd girl go all wobbly at the knees.

Notice the “preemptive mockery,” as Sarah Vowell describes it when she talks about “The Nerd Voice” in The Partly Cloudy Patriot (which you should all read).

The nerd voice. Ms Vowell defines being a nerd as “going too far and caring too much about a subject.” (NB: Emily = sex nerd) The “nerd voice” is the apology that accompanies an assertion of deep understanding and detailed knowledge. It’s a wildly confident declamation plus a self-deprecatory shot at your own knowledge and opinions, thus knocking the feet out from under the would-be hater.

I rejected the nerd voice when I was young because I’m a girl and got socialized to say things like, “This might sound stupid but…” or “…but maybe that’s a dumb question” or “I could be wrong but…” At some point during my adolescence I rejected that kind of “good girl” apologizing because I DIDN’T think I was stupid, dumb, or wrong; I thought I was smart, interesting, and right. Why should I apologize just because my intelligence and knowledge make you feel bad? That’s your problem, I thought as a bumptious adolescent.

I’ve since been working on learning the nerd voice. I know that my life would be better if I could master it, because the function of the nerd voice is to make people comfortable with your knowledge, let them know that you know that it’s silly to know so much about something, that you don’t think you’re better than they are just because you know stuff and enjoy knowing stuff.

But the truth is that while of course I don’t think I’m a better person just because I know stuff (my access to education has as much to do with the privilege I was born with as the brains and persistence I was born with; it’s no measure of my worth), I don’t think it’s silly to know a lot about something. I’ve never believed that knowledge should be a source of shame. All my favorite people get unself-consciously excited about their areas of expertise.

And I do believe that deliberate ignorance (and the unwillingness to understand other points of view and thus learn) should be a source of shame.

Which is exactly the sort of sentence that should be accompanied by self-mockery and apologetic nerd voicing in order to avert criticism, but I can’t do it. I’m too fuckin’ sincere.

Maybe the nerd voice is easier for Mr Mitchell, since he’s speaking from the pinnacle of privilege? But, no – if he’s a WASPy, middle class, not too young but not too old, highly educated, highly paid, masculine-gendered, male-bodied, perceived hetero, he can say whatever the fuck he wants and the mainstream will not call him a harpy or uppity or a faggot or any of the rainbow of dehumanizing insults people are comfortable flinging at those with strong opinions but less cultural capital. He doesn’t have to apologize or preemptively undercut his opinions in order to prevent people from feeling threatened by his opinions.

Maybe what it illustrates is that knowledge and strong opinions are threatening even from the most culturally privileged sources.

Or hell, maybe it’s just being nice. Maybe being seen to value your own knowledge is just culturally less friendly than being ready, willing, and able to laugh at yourself. Maybe what we call “nerd voice” in people who care too much and go too far we would call “charming” in someone less intense. Those with knowledge and cultural capital need folks to like them if they want to be listened to, and if self-mockery is a way to reduce defensiveness, what’s wrong with that?

Anyway, the whole thing makes me want to find solidly nerd-voiced feminism. Suggestions?