Thursday, January 5, 2012

Night of Rage

So I was on the internet today, like I am every day because I crave the social contact even if it makes me crazy, and I must’ve read one too many blog posts because suddenly I was overwhelmed with the rage. I was reading a Dear Sugar column, something I usually love and which usually leaves me soothed or at least crying in a good way. Surprisingly, I felt that Sugars’ response to this particular letter writer really missed the mark. That’s probably why I started to read the comments, something I don’t often do. Unfortunately, most people in the comments seem to have missed the mark in the same way that Sugar did, only with less compassion and more self-righteousness.

The letter writer was asking Sugar for advice about her parents and about student loans. She was struggling to make payments and feeling a sense of despair, that her entire life would be defined by the crushing burden of her loans. Her parents were pushing for loan consolidation and she was feeling angry and resentful and even more afraid of future student loan payments.

Sugar seemed to respond to the despair as self-pity, and while some of her advice was helpful it came with less of her customary compassion. She also included kind of a long tangent about working for a living, putting yourself through school, and self-sufficiency which was basically an eloquent “pull yourself up by your bootstraps, mine were good enough” argument. This directly followed her statement that she was generally speaking a socialist, which made it seem even more odd.

The commenters doubled down on Sugar’s bootstraps response, calling the letter writer whiny, entitled, privileged, and selfish, with some of the kinder ones suggesting that she buck up and stay positive. Apparently lots of folks who read Dear Sugar are unfamiliar with the completely appalling state of the job market for new graduates lately, or with the astronomical increase in student loan balances over the last 10 years, or with the predatory interest rates currently being charged, or with the fact that student debt can haunt you throughout your entire life, un-erasable even by bankruptcy. This woman was not complaining about not being able to afford a new pair of Prada shoes. Student loan debt can leave you homeless and hungry, not to mention unable to access healthcare.

I should state right now that they were a good number of comments pushing back on the “suck it up” response, but they took awhile to show up and by the end of the thread I think they were still only 30% of the total comments.

The thing I found really appalling was the number of commenters telling the letter writer that it was her fault for getting herself into the situation in the first place, that she should have done the calculations and understood the risks when she took out the loans. Many implied that she had simply made a selfish or entitled choice to go to an expensive school because she thought she was too good for a state school or trade or vocational training or whatever it is they were thinking she could have done instead. Were these people conveniently forgetting that we leave for college and accept student loans when we are 17 years old? Had they somehow erased from their minds the advice that they got from high school counselors, admissions officers, parents, and family friends that student loan debt was the best kind of debt to have and that a good education was the best investment they could make? Did they seriously sit down with a calculator when they went to college and figure out how much they would be paying in student loans when they were 30? If they did they can have my next pair of Prada shoes.

I also found the number of assumptions about this person’s financial status to be stunning. She said that she was already frugal and never did she imply that she had gone to an expensive private school, yet snide comments about Harvard educations kept popping up. A stunning number of people also assumed that she was complaining about the fact that her parents were no longer willing to pay for her student loans. In fact both her original letter and a later comment made it clear that she had always paid for her own student loans and was upset because her parents were insisting that they be removed as cosigners which would result in her having to consolidate all her loans, increasing her interest and monthly payment and probably damaging her credit score.

I have to wonder if the commenters telling the letter writer to “keep her chin up” because “it’s only money” have ever been hounded by debt collectors or unable to get an apartment because of their miserable credit score. Did I mention that employers are also checking credit reports these days? This is not about resenting your menial dishwashing job; this is about wondering if you will be able to get any job at all. This is about wondering where you will live in six months. And when it is your parents’ desire to improve their own credit situation that is increasing these worries I think resentment is a pretty reasonable response.

It’s like people were looking for entitlement and selfishness and they manufactured it as soon as they the potential. A lot of commenters seemed unable to process the fact that even a state school student can rack up crippling student loans and even somebody who is incredibly frugal can still be bankrupted by their monthly payments if they can’t find a decent job.

It’s true that despair and self-pity don’t serve you, but I’m not sure that a kick in the ass is the best response to someone feeling despair in the face of a cruel and difficult situation. It’s hard to get past self-pity and despair if no one will validate your anger and fear.

One of the commenters who pushed back against the avalanche of blame made a point that I found very insightful. He said that while keeping your chin up and doing the best you can with the hand you’re dealt is a good emotional strategy for an individual person in a difficult situation, as a society that advice is what keeps us complacent. It allows us to continue to put all the responsibility on the individual people who are suffering and leaves no outlet for the rage against injustice that we legitimately feel.

Why are we as a society so eager to see entitlement, laziness, and selfishness in those who are struggling? Is this just about validating our own privilege? It seems to me that the lecturers are harboring a serious resentment of their own. Who is it that they are really angry with? Who is it that they feel isn’t living up to their responsibilities? Where is all this bottled up blame coming from? Is it projection? Do we accuse others of wanting something for nothing because in our hearts that is what we want? Are we trying to put a moral veneer on our unwillingness and fear to confront the status quo? Just out of curiosity has there ever been a cultural consensus that one generation was more hard-working than the one that came before it? Maybe it’s easier to see selfishness and entitlement than to accept how truly terrible things are for our youngest generation of adults. But that’s pretty flocking selfish and lazy.

Tellingly, when the letter writer commented later to say that she had found a way to move past her despair, it was her involvement with the new Occupy Wall Street movement that had given her a sense of hope and excitement. Somehow I doubt they recruited her with a lecture about bootstraps.