A friend of mine asked me to write this up. We were discussing a student of hers that had hurt her. A religious leader, she had taken him in when he was awkward, and brought him into her fold. He worked his way into the social hierarchy, and then, betrayed her trust and slandered her name. She was asking why.
Geek Esteem Syndrome (GES) is something I came up with, half jokingly, as a means to explain why some people seem good and kind when they are awkward, but then become jerks when they find their way out of their awkward phase. For me, the first observations came when I noticed a few of my roommates dumping their girlfriends. The relationships were good, and their girlfriends were good to them, often supporting them through thick and thin. When I asked them why they were ending good relationships, they gave the same reason: they wanted to play the field or date someone else. No longer seeing themselves as awkward, they wanted to trade up, get a better model, and go for that cheerleader that always snubbed them. The women who loved them while others mocked them were discarded, and often hurt badly in the process.
In my years as a student of the human condition, I’ve seen this occur in other ways. The bullied kid denounces bullying, until he finds him or herself in a position of power with an acceptable target. The silent kid who is kind to all despite being mocked turns around and becomes the source of harmful mockery and gossip once he or she finds his or her voice. The friend you stick up for for years who seems loyal, but suddenly stabs you back. In these cases, the person seems kind, gentle, and loyal, but then changes and becomes the person that has caused him or her so much pain.
Now the reason that “esteem” was thrown into title is that one common factor is that the changes were preceded by an increase in self-esteem. In most cases, this self-esteem boost is earned. They graduate from college, they get promoted at their job, etc. (though in some cases, the boost is artificial, such as creating a cohort of self-reinforcing awkwardness or having their orc mages make it to level 20). But then something goes wrong, and this legitimate self-esteem triggers something deep within them that causes their response to be excessive.
Why does this happen?
Seeing that this has never been studied (as I’m am first writing about it here), I can’t say for certain. However, this does fit into a theory about the human existential crisis. As humans, we are torn between our animal and symbolic selves. The animal self gives us the needs and desires thathelp us to live life, but also terrorizes us with the threats of death and loneliness. The symbolic self creates social structures to protect against death and loneliness, but at the cost of the instant gratification of our needs and desires. We end up walking a treacherous tightrope because of this, balancing between the needs of our material bodies and those of the social reality we build around it. Deny the animal, and we detach from reality, deny the social, and we get exiled into the world of terror and guilt.
One of the the things we have built into our society, however, is that we can grant some people more leeway than others when navigating the social sphere. Police officers and soldiers are allowed violence. Doctors and teachers get to have extra authority behind their ideas. Politicians get to make the rules we follow. Generally, each permission granted comes with extra responsibility. Violence is only used against the guilty or in the service of protection, those who wield intellectual authority must continually study and evaluate their ideas, and politicians must make their decision in the interests of their constituents. But sometimes the animal sneaks in and the responsibility is forgotten. After all, who wouldn’t want to have the right to hurt whoever hurt them, would like to say what they want without challenge, and make all the rules?
With Geek Esteem Syndrome, the offending geek has been living in a world where he or she has played by the social rules while watching others game the system. The bad boys get the hot girls the geek wants. The teacher can get away with telling the geek to “shut up” despite the geek being able to prove he’s right. The bully gets to humiliate him with no recourse. But the geek has to play by the rules because he hasn’t been granted the status that would give him or her leeway.
But when he see his status rise, the geek has a choice to make: realize the fault in the system, or act on his envy of those who take advantage of it. Most will realize and fight the fault, remaining loyal friends, helping those in need, walking others through the problems they once experienced themselves, etc. But the others are only waiting for their chance, their shot to game the system and take the liberties they’ve envied for so long. Their casualties are just part of the game, as they themselves once were.
That is Geek Esteem Syndrome.
Is this phenomenon exclusive to geeks?
No. If you look into a lot of different groups, there are similar manifestations. Zen sickness, blackbelt-itis, Jerusalem Syndrome, Glastonbury Madness, mage-itis, Glen Beck, etc. all have qualities similar to GES. In all these cases, the people reach a level of status, or have some otherworldly experience, that allows them to feel justified in throwing off the social restraints that keep people decent. They become unquestionable authorities who cannot be challenged, have the right to demand their desires, and abuse those they can justify as worthy.
How do you treat it?
Not being a real, recognized disorder, there is no studied treatment for it. However, there is hope. GES and the similar manifestations can be discovered by holding people transparent and accountable. Science has a peer review system intended to make sure that what is said under the name of scientific authority has been evaluated (note, GES has not been submitted for peer review). Police and soldiers have a code of ethics and a chain of command to control violence. Politicians have the scrutiny of the media to expose any corruptions. These structures make sure that abuses are easily found and abusers are penalized. For GES, similar social forces and self-policing methods can be applied. People just have to be willing to call out bad behavior, but still leave routes for people to make amends without excessive guilt and shame so they can be allowed to return to decency.
Is there a means for prevention?
A good social ethic is the best defense against GES. If you make certain behaviors socially unacceptable, regardless who performs the behavior, you can break the method of justification that enables GES. Bullying and harassment, for instance, would be wrong based on their application, not based on whom they are applied. Doing this closes the loopholes that others exploit to game the system. In addition, when problems arise, expose and address the problems. This way, when a person has to choose between recognizing the fault in the system and envying those who game the faults, there is more weight given to recognizing the faults.