Thursday, November 11, 2010

Revenge of/on the nerds

Recently, I was walking down the street reading Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane when a group of kids (shall we guess 13 year olds?) passed me in the other direction.  We were a little way past each other when one of them called out “NERRRD”.  Another thought he’d repeat the dose, and throw in an F-bomb for good measure.

Momentarily overcome by the impression that I had just met the reincarnations of Voltaire, and dwelling on the thought that my own children would live in a world benefitting from their mighty intellectual prowess, it gave me the chance to think on anti-intellectualism.  Clearly, demonstrating an interest in reading and the ability to read and walk at the same time marked me as something ‘other’ to those kids who had so recently mastered chewing and breathing, and the other is something contemptible.  But there have been times when this has gone rather further than childish name calling.

There are frequent examples of populist movements of various kinds (socialist, fascist, and anything in between) portraying themselves as being “of the common man” in contrast to some intellectual elites.  Usually it comes from attaching stereotypes like honest hardworking simple folk versus self-indulgent, good-for-nothing smarty pants.  Of elections in Indiana back in 1843, the Rev. Bayard Hall wrote:

We always preferred an ignorant bad man to a talented one … since, unhappily, smartness and wickedness were supposed to be generally coupled, and [like-wise] incompetence and goodness

Generally this remains at the level of just encouraging distrust of people who spent too much time in “book learning” – once in a while it crosses into open hostility.  The best known recent example would be the Khmer Rouge whose persecution of intellectuals went to the point of targeting people wearing glasses (under the presumption that the reason you would wear glasses was to read).

Far earlier than that, during the reign of China’s First Emperor there was a period that earned the title the burning of books and burying of scholars.  Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi was very concerned at anything that he perceived as a threat to his rule, even destroying histories and writing his own to defend his legitimacy.

Chancellor Li Si Said: "I, your servant, propose that all historian's records other than those of Qin's be burned. With the exception of the academics whose duty includes possessing books, if anyone under heaven has copies of the Shi Jing, the Classic of History, or the writings of the hundred schools of philosophy, they shall deliver them (the books) to the governor or the commandant for burning. Anyone who dares to discuss the Shi Jing or the Classic of History shall be publicly executed. Anyone who uses history to criticize the present shall have his family executed. Any official who sees the violations but fails to report them is equally guilty. Anyone who has failed to burn the books after thirty days of this announcement shall be subjected to tattooing and be sent to build the Great Wall. The books that have exemption are those on medicine, divination, agriculture and forestry. Those who have interest in laws shall instead study from officials.

What affect would it have on your game if reading was made illegal, if books were being destroyed?  What would become of the brainy characters, the wizards, professors, or librarians?  How will they get the information they need, is there a black market of some kind?  What kind of persecution would they have to deal with?

In many ways, having the anti-intellectual side being the bad guys is the soft option, it’s too easy a choice for the typically bookish RPG player.  Why not swap it around and act out that narrative of ignorance being close to godliness?  What if people were right to distrust knowledge – what if there was something that people need to avoid knowing?  Like the eponymous play from King in Yellow, but more widespread, there’s some information that people have to be protected from.  What if it was something that was the inevitable result of science or philosophy, so that the enemy isn’t a single book, but learning in general?  Do the players have to take on the role of the Firemen from Farenheit 451?

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