Unpopular Opinion: I’m a Nerd and I Loathe xkcd

Linking to an xkcd that’s maybe somewhat related to a topic is certain nerdy millennials’ version of “Simpsons did it!” Not this particular millennial nerd, though. I am a philosophy major cursed with a long, detailed memory.

For a decade, emblazoned below every single one of the comics that made deconstructed art with stick figures who discussed philosophical concepts, was this warning message:

Warning: this comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors).

The first time I saw it, I absolutely loved it.

That is, I was deeply grateful to the warning, with all its blatant loathing for my kind. For once, a STEMlord was being obvious about his hatred and gatekeeping of lowly folk like myself who chose to study such easy-peasy topics as ethics. I am not so desperate as to beg to go where I am not wanted, so I disavowed xkcd.

It turns out that I am a nerd blasphemer of some kind. Not only is “the xkcd” for some vaguely-appropriate topic added frequently to conversations I try to have online, but people also go to bat for the webcomic like they’re getting paid for it. My objections to it are met with disbelief.

“What warning? It’s not there, I checked.”

Ah yes, the coward’s way, to remove a strongly-worded thing when you’re popular enough to want an even bigger audience and don’t want to scare them off. No apology or explanation, though.

“It’s clearly a joke! It also warns away both adults and children.”

The strong language joke is a replication of viewer-discretion-advised warnings, a mainstream media precursor to other types of content warnings. These were the butt of many jokes made by people in my age bracket since many of us were children when we started (sometimes furtively) watching or listening to content with such warnings. The warning for adults is clearly meaningless nonsense.

The warning admonishing liberal-arts majors that they are not smart enough to comprehend the stick-figure philosophy rehash, though? Not really a joke. It is a repetition of a commonly-held belief that getting a degree (or even just taking a course) in anything but STEM is a waste of time and money.

Humanities Hate

People think that non-STEM majors are a drain on society, lack in academic rigor, and were probably better off not going to school in the first place. Atheist types insist that STEM is what makes you lose your belief in religion. At the same time, STEM types love to talk about philosophical concepts in a context-free way, as though they were the first to think of such matters.

None of this anti-arts line is necessarily objectively true, some of it is patently false, and all of it is why so much of the tech world lacks in basic, well, humanity. We’re looking at a future built by people who can’t get their heads out of their own perspective enough to realize such basic things as the fact that menstruation is an incredibly commonly-experienced phenomenon that affects the health of a significant portion of the population. We’re looking at people controlling our ability to work and live who can’t fathom the way most of us work and live. Precious few people are pausing to think about such STEM-deficient topics as ethics or societal impact.

All these are the sorts of things the liberal arts focus on, but as non-STEM disciplines continue to be derided, devalued, and defunded, fewer and fewer people who aren’t privileged enough to study and learn for its own sake will be granted access to it. Fewer and fewer STEM types will be exposed to enough of it to care, either.

It’s already happening. I’ve fought a lot of atheists and skeptics who insist to me that philosophy is silly and pointless while screeching “fallacy!” at anything I say that they don’t like regardless of its logical validity. The irony is lost on them.

Certainly not on me, though — I also have an English degree in addition to the Philosophy BA and can identify several types of irony, thank you very much.

Jokes that simply replicate some kind of actual real-life bigotry aren’t very good jokes in the first place. All I read in the “warning” was the attitude I’ve encountered for most of my life towards the humanities.

As of 2016, the warning message no longer festoons every page of xkcd. It was quietly disappeared by xkcd’s creators without any acknowledgement that it existed in the first place, let alone was removed. I’m still not reading xkcd, though, and STEMlord supremacy persists in the worst ways — so I’m still not willing to pretend none of it ever happened.

Unpopular Opinion: I’m a Nerd and I Loathe xkcd

9 thoughts on “Unpopular Opinion: I’m a Nerd and I Loathe xkcd

  1. 1

    I’ve gotten defensive about XKCD before, but I have to admit a lot of the time the jokes seem to be attempts at referencing the most obscure data/computer/science topic Randall has. Don’t know anything about Map projections or an algorithm some coder learned in one college class? You’re SOL. There’s definitely content that gains fans by making fans feel smart, and both XKCD and Intellectual Dark Web type content attempts to do that. That’s an overlap that doesn’t exactly make me feel comfortable.

    As a STEM major and recovering STEMlord, I really agree with you that a complete devaluing of things like philosophy and history are negatively impacting the way of life for most of us. Scientism has really bothered me a lot for the last couple of years, and after seeing sciences’ underbelly as a practice has really revealed just what a human practice it is and how surrounding culture can impact it. Unfortunately a lot of atheists and online bros seem to think that everything will be just sorted out with more science and technology without much talk about implementation.

    There are XKCD comics that are near and dear to my heart, or changed how I think about things. Not to change your mind, because your criticisms are spot-on. But they were good content for a developing white male like myself. I’m sure there are others with shitty messages that might not have stuck with me but might have stuck with others.
    -https://xkcd.com/1053/ (just fantastic)
    -https://xkcd.com/145/ (not without obvious flaws, particularly disparaging neopronouns and somehow pretending binary pronouns aren’t constructs. But it solidified my belief in the singular “they” for this high school male before I even was aware of transgender folks)

  2. 2

    I’ve gotten a chuckle or two from xkcd over the years, but that dig at liberal arts majors has always grated on me. (I studied the visual arts, meself) Merely removing it without any kind of apology is a pretty cowardly move.

    Also, I could never understand what the name of the comic was supposed to mean.

  3. 3

    Some xkcd comic topics are so obscure that a web site dedicated to explaining the comics has popped up:


    Regarding the suggestion that philosophy has limited utility, that may be changing. The folks designing self-driving cars have found the academic philosophy work on the trolley problem to be useful.

  4. 4

    At last, a fellow xkcd-loather. It’s always annoying when someone’s contribution to a thread is “obligatory xkcd”. No, it’s not ever obligatory. More often than not, it’s oversimplified rubbish. But pithy!

    I am a STEM person (theoretical physics), but always thought the dismissal of philosophy and the arts by some folk (like deGrasse Tyson, Krauss, Hawking, etc) to be profoundly ignorant. They should know better.

  5. 5

    I don’t think that “Warning” was intended as a dig at liberal arts majors at all; to me it always felt more like a way of saying “these jokes might not be funny to you if you aren’t deeply into coding (or whatever), and I’m going to say that before you get a chance to make fun of me.” I think everyone, whether they are STEM majors or liberal arts majors or just really into something not related to education at all, has found themselves laughing with their fellow enthusiasts about something that would have no interest (and make no sense) to those outside the group. The difference is that laughing at math jokes probably makes you a lot more of a social outcast in your formative years than most other specialized humor; hence defense mechanisms like the “Warning” that used to accompany xkcd.

    I’m guessing (I have no inside information here) that the reason the warning was removed was because it was being interpreted as being anti-liberal-arts rather than its intended use of “reclaiming” the STEM-geek humor label.

  6. 6

    I’m not *explaining* anything about what he meant, because I don’t know what he was thinking. I’m telling you how I reacted to it, and I could be totally wrong about how it was intended. I’m just drawing connections between what he put on paper and my own personal experience, which is how you’re supposed to react to art I think.

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