Re-appropriate and release

I’ve always worn the nerd badge with pride. I’ve been conscious of it my entire life. I think I correctly believed early on that nerdiness was a part of who I was without knowing exactly what that actually meant. The longer I spent out of the formal education system, the more I embraced this label to describe aspects of my personality and identity. Thinking now though, I’m starting to change my attitude.

Groups of people that feel labelled or marginalised in some way often seek to re-appropriate the derogatory terms that have been used to hurt them. Taking ownership of these hurtful terms seems to be an attempt to disempower those who used them as weapons by blunting their impact through repeated use. At the same time it also appears to give these groups a sense of empowerment and control over the use of the labels in ways that they never had before. Better to own the offensive word and try to redefine it rather than let those hostile continue to do so instead.

I can think of a few good examples of this. The gay and lesbian movement has done a good job claiming many of the traditional insults and derogatory names that have plagued their community for decades. Some sections of African-American culture have chosen to informally reclaim the use of the term 'nigger.' The SlutWalk movement, a group against victim-blaming and 'slut-shaming' have made this desire to re-appropriate the word explicit:

Historically, the term ‘slut’ has carried a predominantly negative connotation...whether dished out as a serious indictment of one’s character or merely as a flippant insult, the intent behind the word is always to wound, so we’re taking it back. “Slut” is being re-appropriated.

I am not comparing the generational struggles of gay rights, racism and feminism with that of nerd and geek culture, merely that these are examples of communities re-appropriating derogatory terms. I cannot be critical of this behaviour. I think it is a perfectly acceptable and useful tool against those who seek to hurt others in this way. But it should not be considered the endpoint of cultural or linguistic disarmament. It's simply not enough, and left like this can even be harmful.

The reason these words are used and eventually become candidates for re-appropriation is that they convey hurtful connotations. I don't think reclaiming these words can ever rid them of those meanings. All it can do it lift the veil and change their ownership. This may be a step in the right direction, but it's not enough.

Once they are reclaimed the next step is to gradually retire them. It is a slow process and success is difficult to measure, but the end point should always be the removal of the phrase from use by anyone, friend and foe alike. Without this retirement, the expectations and connotations of these words cannot be defeated and even the people who identify as members of these communities cannot help but live and operate by expectations defined by hostile people.

I'm going to be conscious of this and stop describing myself as a nerd to myself and others. Not because I don't identify with these people anymore, but because I do and I want things to move forward. Nerdiness to me is just attention to detail, passion and a little bit of awkwardness. None of those traits are shameful and no issues that occur as a result of these traits are unsolvable. This all might seem trivial but it is a first step. You might have a label like this that you need to shed. Think about what you might have to gain from doing so.