"They ruined it!"
Some years ago, I was helping some friends keep their little comic shop open by assisting them at their dealer room table at a local sci-fi convention. This was in the days before sci-fi conventions really hit big outside San Diego, so this convention had taken advantage of a local hotel’s enormous volume of convention space by allowing itself to be double-booked with another convention (to get a cheaper rate on the space). In this case, the sci-fi convention was running the same weekend as a drag queen beauty pageant. As we were packing up on the last day, we ended up pushing a cart of gear out to the parking lot alongside some folks from one of the queens’ retinues (literally dressed like Cinderella footmen), and one of them quipped “we should totally blend our shows next year! Star Trek’s just another kind of drag!” He wasn’t wrong.
Everybody’s a nerd about something. Don’t lie, you know it’s true. You might not call yourself a nerd. You might try and hide it by calling yourself a “fan” or “enthusiast,” but get real, you’re a nerd. Is there any substantive difference between trekkies in Spock ears at sci-fi conventions and Raider Nation weirdos roaring on the sidelines? You might think so at first glance, but really?
There’s no shame in nerding out about your thing. Everybody has some harmless pursuit, interest, or hobby they’re really into. It’s normal. So embrace your nerdery. Now that we’ve settled that, I want to bring something to your attention: nerd rage. What is it, why should you care, and what do you do about it?
Nerd rage happens when you decide that the creators of your thing have ruined it with a new decision. Maybe your favorite comic book gets a new writer who is awful. Maybe your favorite show has a casting shakeup you can’t stand (ask your mom if she knew anybody who lost their mind when the Beatles broke up). Maybe your team inexplicably trades a crucial player. Maybe a film franchise you loved as a kid gets “rebooted” in your adult years and it’s a dumpster fire. Maybe the manufacturer of something you love (cars, guns, shoes, deodorant, whatever) redesigns the thing and it’s stupid (remember New Coke?). Maybe a club (or political party) you’ve been an out-and-proud member of for years gets a new leadership slate you find shocking. Whichever way, you say to yourself “that’s it! It’s ruined now!” and get really angry at anybody who disagrees. Maybe you even take to the internet to flog the bosses of your thing about their awful decisions, and let them know in no uncertain terms that they’re dead to you now.
You have almost certainly seen a friend gripped by this rage. You have probably felt it yourself. I would bet a dollar it happens to 99% of us at some point. For something that is ultimately of little consequence, it’s weird to get so mad about it. And let’s be clear, nerd rage is always about something of little to no consequence. Whatever it is that has sparked your nerd rage can’t actually harm you. It’s not truly dangerous. Additionally, your nerd rage won’t change anything. The creators or managers of your thing don’t know who you are, and your rage won’t affect them at all. It’s all you. It may seem huge, but in comparison to almost anything else, it’s really nothing worth getting so worked up about.
It makes no sense to be so unjustifiably overtaken with emotion over something so ultimately irrelevant to your real life. But it happens all the time. And since it’s so common, it bears asking: what do you do about it?
Up front, let’s agree that getting past your nerd rage is healthy, but can be challenging. Rage feels good. It’s a rush, and that rush can be weirdly addictive, especially if you take it to the internet and find an anonymous bunch of fellow ragers willing to howl as a pack. There is always a temptation to try and sustain the rage so you keep feeling the rush. But it’s not healthy to sustain it. Nursing your rage, or worse proselytizing it, is going to cost you friends and hurt you long term. So you need to find a way past it. Let’s talk about dealing with it yourself, and how to deal with it in others.
Working Through Your Nerd Rage
First, let’s admit that telling someone to calm down never works. It seems like it should, but it doesn’t. You hate it when people tell you to calm down. You hate it because you feel totally justified in your nerd rage. You loved Ghostbusters, and that all-girl reboot ruined it! You loved America, and Trump ruined it! How could the Patriots let Brady go and ruin it?! Have you SEEN the new electric Mustangs?! Your thing was awesome, but now it’s awful, and you can’t love it anymore. You feel betrayed, and feel totally justified in being enraged about that.
Rather than ask you to please calm down, I’m going to ask if there’s not still something about your thing you can love anyway. Yes, the new Star Trek is lame. But there are still decades of old Star Trek you loved and can still love. All of that is still there. You can still treat it like an old friend and enjoy its company. What if you just ignore the new stuff and keep loving the old stuff?
There is an external and internal benefit to that. Externally, ranting about your nerd rage just drives people away from you. It feels huge to you, but to everybody around you it’s just trivia. Unless somebody is as big a fan as you they probably won’t understand what you’re even talking about; that only makes you go harder (and probably start being mean to them about how ignorant they are of this thing that has overtaken your world), and that makes them withdraw further from your increasingly nasty outlook and sour demeanor. Letting the cause of your nerd rage remain your focus makes you grumpy and unlikeable. Choosing instead to ignore the part you hate but still love the part you loved helps ease you back from your public ranting, and your friends will be thankful for that.
Internally, ignoring the part you hate while still loving the part you loved makes it possible for you to see a new part you can love again. Yes, the original Mustangs were awesome, and the current electric ones look dumb. But remember when Mustangs got all rounded and dumb-looking back in the 90s, but then the Ford design team brought the cool angles back a decade later? If you had abandoned your Mustang love in the 1990s, you would have missed the love you could have felt for the really cool throwback-evolved stylings of the early 21st century. There’s nothing wrong with picking and choosing specific parts of your thing to love, and ignoring the parts you don’t.
The fundamental trap of “they ruined it!” is the deep-seated belief that there will never be more of your thing. This dumb thing that you hate right now is the end, and so you’re stuck with it. But in many cases the makers of your thing aren’t done making. If you can ignore a misstep or bonehead decision made by the makers of your thing, you give yourself space to be pleasantly surprised when they remember what was awesome about it to begin with and bring that cool back with another new release. The 2016 Ghostbusters was awkward and stupid, but the makers recognized the error, and Ghostbusters: Afterlife was a lot of fun again. Can you just ignore the 2016 one and still love Ghostbusters? Sure you can. And your friends will be relieved that you can smile about proton packs again.
Helping Your Friends
I will repeat here that the worst thing you can say to a nerd rager is “calm down.” You don’t want people saying it to you, so don’t say it to other people. Nerd rage is intensely personal. It’s about taking deeply personal offense at the perceived ruining of a thing you love. Your friend’s nerd rage is the same as yours, and just as you need to come to terms with it yourself, your friend needs to spend some time reflecting and thinking to figure out how to get past it. Be patient.
What can you do? Two things. First, you might gently suggest to your friend the “older stuff you can still love” idea. Yes, Mel Gibson went on a drunken tirade about Jews while being arrested on a DUI, and that was awful. But Lethal Weapon and Braveheart are still big dumb fun movies. Modern Mel might be a terrible person, but you’ll always have The Road Warrior. After having made that suggestion, wait. You know from your own nerd rage process that you have to come to terms with it internally. There’s no forcing this process for somebody else. You can plant the seed here, but your friend has to tend the sprout.
Second, if and when your friend does move on from the nerd rage, never speak of their rage again. It’s just as awful to say “I told you you were overreacting” once your friend has calmed down as it is to say “calm down” when they’re in the grip of it. 99% of the time, coming to terms with nerd rage and moving on brings a certain twinge of shame. Your friend is realizing it was all a little silly, and so what your friend would really like to do is pretend it never happened and just avoid the subject in the future. If you try and get them to admit anything about it, though, you will destroy your friend’s process, and your friend will have to start all over.
The process may evolve out loud and right in front of you. You may notice your friend’s rants shifting in tone over time, from “It’s ruined!” to “Well, that part is the worst but this other part is still okay I guess” to just not talking about it anymore. That’s your friend working it out: emotionally metabolizing the nerd rage, moving on, and hoping to get away with pretending it never happened. You need to let your friend pretend it never happened, and not point it out or bring it up. Ever again.
You might read that and think it’s manipulative, or somehow enabling. If your friend has been an outraged dork for a while, you may feel justified in expecting some kind of apology or admission from that friend. But remember that nerd rage is about something of no real consequence. It doesn’t need to be anything to stay offended by. It comes to us all, and it’s on each of us to extend some golden-rule grace to one another about it.
With so much comfort around us today, and so little real suffering to worry about in our immediate lives, nerd rage is an evolutionary twist of our modern society. Understanding it is an important step toward emotional maturity. Understanding how nerd rage can be overcome and moved beyond is a critical interpersonal skill. Let’s be kind, to our friends, to ourselves, and to the things we love.
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