Student Loan Forgiveness as a Metaphor

I heard this frustrating and beautiful story on NPR last week (which is somehow lost in the web). When it comes to issues that actually have more than one reasonable position, NPR will generally try to give voice to opposing sides, so as I listened to this young woman recount the numerous ways (3 jobs while attending school, being hospitalized for exhaustion, etc.) and multiple years she had to struggle in order to keep her college loans low and pay back what she did take out, I assumed she would conclude as so many I’ve heard have, with Why should someone else get a free ride when I had to bust my ass to pay off my loans?

She didn’t. She didn’t want her younger brother or anyone else to suffer like she did.

What makes this narrator so compassionate? Perhaps it’s because she has a younger brother – a face to put to the potential suffering. Perhaps she’s just a generous person. Perhaps it’s because her parents are immigrants, and she’s grown up with the idea that you make sacrifices to make things better for others.

When I think about it, in my memory (utterly bereft of statistical backing) it seems most of the people I’ve heard complaining about student loan forgiveness are middle-class White men. Assuming (against all reason) that I am correct, why would that be?

I think it might come back to the lie of the American Dream. Those who buy into it have to believe, to a significant degree, that we have a level playing field. That we not only start the race from the same location, but with the same strength, speed, quality of coach, abilities, shoes and feet to wear them, instructions, familial and community support, nutrition, etc. They believe this even as they see that others cannot attend college at all, that some can pay for college painlessly, that some are desirable enough to be paid to attend college.

They say they worked hard to pay off their loans, as if that act of valor stands in a vacuum. As if others are not working just as hard, or twice as hard, for a quarter of their wages. As if the sacrifices they made, the luxuries they denied themselves, weren’t too extravagant for a large portion of the population to even shoot for, let alone deny themselves. As if people haven’t had to struggle through poor public schools, hunger, poverty, and unsafe environments just to walk through the doors of the college, and walked out with a lifetime’s worth of debt. As if the racial wealth gap weren’t a hallmark of American society and as if thousands upon thousands of Black people with degrees weren’t using their relative success to financially assist their systemically underprioritized, underpaid, and overburdened friends and family members rather than pay off their own loans.

I’m not saying I don’t feel it when things like this happen. I had a pang of bitterness just last week, when I found out that my old roof did not sustain enough hail damage to be replaced by my insurance company, when the house half a block away did. Why does she get the free roof? Why do I have to keep waiting that a giant storm hits before the thing starts leaking and the cost has to come out of my own pocket?

Because that’s just the way it goes. And I’m totally fine.

The idea of fairness on this fraught and complex an issue is, frankly, ridiculous. The world is a bizarre place and the number of factors contributing to someone’s financial and academic success are almost unimaginable. Justice may be possible, though we’re certainly far from that, too. Fairness is relative, at best. Besides, contemporary capitalism isn’t about fairness anyway. Maybe the loan forgiveness objectors should try communism.

And, all that aside, why would we ever want others to suffer as we’ve suffered? Do we think it makes things better? Yes, life is suffering, but Buddhism believes it is undesirable and avoidable thing, and we work on ourselves and the world to alleviate it. How do we alleviate it? By letting go. Letting go of our righteousness, our ideas of fairness, and everything else we’re attached to. It helps everyone, spiritually. And easing the burden of college debt helps everyone in practical terms as well. Without the stress of crushing debt, people are healthier and happier, rippling that wellbeing out to their community and easing the burden of the health case system. Without having to put hundreds of dollars toward payments every month, people could be saving or spending money on the products that “keep the economy moving” or buying healthier food or helping their neighbors or traveling to expand their minds and hearts. Without the desperate need to work a job, the best paying job, to pay off loans, people could be doing what they want to do, going into the fields they’ve trained for at what might be a lower starting wage, becoming entrepreneurs, working at nonprofits. People who came from poverty could start buying homes, building generational wealth, investing.

(the same could be said for universal health care, FYI)

Money encourages us to become very narrow in our thinking, because it breaks real, actual, complex costs and benefits into cold numbers. Perhaps your tally now shows -$100,000 dollars in paid loans and you see someone else at +$25,000 from the government. It looks unfair. But who is it unfair to? Everyone benefits from this, and what you have sacrificed does not change. I suppose you could argue that “my tax dollars are paying for their education.” Is that a bad thing? Don’t we want educated neighbors? Do you know what else your tax dollars pay for? The billionaire-expanding, environment-destroying, war-waging, and plain unnecessary crap we pay for? This seems like a far better investment.

Personal Non-Violence

punch(There may be a related “political non-violence” piece in the works, but that will have to go on the race blog. By the way: upcoming Race Blog!)

Since Trump’s electoral college win, we seem to have embraced more violence as a country. Not just the lunatic fringe of proud racists and anti-Semites, but also the liberal Left. Let’s call this the “punch a Nazi” philosophy, as it shone most blindingly after a video went viral of Richard Spencer being socked in the face during an on-the-street interview.

Many Facebook Friends loved this. Facebook Friends who didn’t were called racist or stupid or ignorant by fellow White Liberals. I didn’t get involved, because I’m allergic to commentdebate, but I watched reasonable people get taken down and shut down en masse.

I am not pro-violence. I think it’s bad for the perpetrator and the victim, and almost always creates more pain and suffering than it prevents. But not always. I am not a pacifist. I admire pacifism, but I am not a pacifist. At least, I don’t think so. One can only know one’s true stance when forced to defend it. Maybe I could look with compassion and kindness and forgiveness on someone who hurt me, but at this moment, I doubt it.

I believe in defending myself. I admire those who make a conscious decision not to – Jesus and his ilk – but I am a woman who has been physically assaulted and I believe in fighting back. Not just to avoid pain, but to show the attacker that women are not walking targets and hopefully discourage him (yeah, I think I can assume Him) from hurting another woman. If I were a man, particularly a physically imposing man, I could see how turning the other cheek might be illuminating as well.

I also believe in defending others. I would hope that if I saw someone being attacked, or knew an attack was imminent, that I would try to prevent it. It seems more likely that this would manifest as getting between than taking on, but I’m not opposed to physical action in this situation, either.

And I think that’s it. So if Richard Spencer (heretofore referred to as Fuckwad) were an actual Nazi: killing, deporting, and enslaving Jews, homosexuals, etc, I could justify personally taking up violence against him. But only – and this is the crucial element of my philosophy – if it did some good. You might say that Fuckwad promotes racism and anti-Semitism and slavery (which the fuckwad does), and that therefore he is a justifiable target, but does targeting him do any good?

Here’s where the pro Punch a Nazi contingent loses its rational footing. I get that you want to see Fuckwad punched; I get that you might want to punch him yourself, but punching him accomplishes nothing. I know many anti-Fuckwad folks laughed and cheered when they saw the video, but it did not accomplish any of the following things:

  1. embarrass him: he recovered calmly and smoothly, in a civilized manner, saying he’d taken a hit before, and continued with the interview
  2. hurt him: see above
  3. prevent him from spewing his calm vitriol: see above
  4. turn any of his followers in another direction: Fuckwad presented either as an innocent victim or as the masculine “man” they love to – platonically! – love. Plus, the attacker may appear irrational, violent, and animalistic, playing into the lie Fuckwad and team have crafted.
  5. move any anti-Fuckwads to worthwhile action: posting about how much you love violence against people you don’t love is not worthwhile action, not if you want to make the world a better place, as you purport to do

I cannot think of one positive thing the sucker punch accomplished, other than, perhaps, making me more wary of liberals. I guess that could be a good thing. If you can think of a positive impact, please let me know. Maybe there’s something I’m not seeing.

Pseu-Bus (soo-boos)* like myself probably shouldn’t say this, but one could better justify killing Fuckwad than punching him. I don’t condone that, either, but it would have shut him up. There’s a tiny, tiny chance that might have done some good in the world, though it’s really unlikely. If he were The Creator of these ideas, or the only public figure still promoting them, then yeah, removing him might dramatically weaken the support for those ideas; but he is far from the first and far from the last, and disabling him would more likely bring about a martyrdom than a dissolution of support. Again, let me be clear: I’m not endorsing this, I’m just saying it holds more water than the punching defense. No one wants to go back in time to “clock Hitler a good one.”

I am not a pacifist because we don’t live in a perfect world and I do think there is a place for violence. If we let go of our egos and reactive anger, that place would be really, really remote.

Beyond that, violence is not my role in the world. There may be a place for violence in the activism that is necessary to save an environment or society worth living in. But every movement has numerous roles – speakers, writers, artists, event planners, even bodies. Don’t look to me to be the muscle. I am an overly compassionate wuss. It breaks my heart to see footage of the losing bench in a finals game, even if it’s the Patriots. It breaks my heart to think of a dog waiting for its dead owner to come home, even if the owner is Fuckwad. I have never felt good after saying something mean to even a vicious, loathed person. Not if they seemed hurt by it, and if they didn’t, then what was the point? I lose either way. Right Speech and Right Action in Buddhism aren’t just about protecting the world, they’re about protecting yourself.

I guess what I’m saying, dear reader, is I am not the resource for all your Nazi-punching needs. I can’t take on that role until it’s the only role left.

*Pseu-Bu: pseudo-Buddhist; in my case, someone who has put together some semblance of a Buddhist philosophy based almost exclusively on contemporary Western interpretations of Buddhism.

To Explain or Exclude?

genderThere’s a tasteful sign in the most liberal of liberal coffee shops in my city that “asks that you use gender-neutral language when addressing its employees. Thank you.” Great. I have no problems with the sign. But I’ve whined to a couple of friends about not yet having the huevos to ask the business to clarify what they mean. Yes, I know what they mean, and most of their liberal patrons in their liberal neighborhood in one of the most gender-spectrum-friendly cities in the country know what they mean, but what about the ones who don’t? Continue reading “To Explain or Exclude?”

Oh for F&@k’s Sake: Swear Words and the Blinding Fog of Self-Righteousness

When I was in my 20s, I used to criticize people who would get, what I deemed, unreasonably offended at hearing a swear word. I resented the fact that movies and TV were censored for dirty language, that a person could get fired for accidentally cussing in front of another full grown adult. This resentment came out of the ignorant belief that, as far as I could tell, there was no logical reason to be offended by swear words. It’s true that the very idea of swear words is an abstract concept that we, as a society, just kind of made up. We pretend there’s some inherent evil within these words even though they cause no apparent physical or mental harm, not even to children. And that’s how I justified my smug indignation: If there was no scientific or logical basis to take offense at swear words, then, clearly, taking offense at swear words was unscientific and illogical, and a society can’t function properly when we treat unscientific and illogical opinions with the same level of importance as opinions based in objective reality, and therefore we should not humor people who believe in stupid things. Continue reading “Oh for F&@k’s Sake: Swear Words and the Blinding Fog of Self-Righteousness”