The breakdown, with exceptions, falls into two categories: if you’re struggling under what seems to be insurmountable students loans, you’re all for student loan cancellation. If not, you’re not. This could all be chalked up to enlightened self-interest, which is just as sound a justification as any, even if it’s wrapped up in inapt analogies and the stories of personal misery that are so favored by the young and insipid these days.
But then someone like Roxane Gay comes along to remind everyone why it’s just one small bit of the lazy litany of grievances.
Much of political division about student loan forgiveness can be explained by the fact that people want to benefit from the social contract without adhering to its terms. Or they only care about the social contract as it applies to the right kinds of people And, of course, there is the bootstrap mentality — If I have achieved success, surely you can too — which is delusional at best. Then there are those who worship at the altar of personal responsibility: If you assume a debt, you must repay it. And worst of all, there’s the sufferance doctrine: If I have experienced hardship, you must experience hardship, too.
We have free, compulsory education through 12th grade, but not everyone has children, and not every child goes to a free public school. We have highways and interstates, bridges and tunnels, but not everyone drives on them. Gay has no children, but she pays her taxes. That, she contends, is the social contract, so why not revise the social contract to cancel her student loans?
Instead of explaining the rationale, she proffers the pragmatic response.
Damon Linker, a columnist for The Week, tweeted, “I think Dems are wildly underestimating the intensity of anger college loan cancellation is going to provoke. Those with college debt will be thrilled, of course. But lots and lots of people who didn’t go to college or who worked to pay off their debts? Gonna be bad.” This is what passes for political thinking these days — empty statements rising out of the notion that we have to govern from a place of fear about what might anger “lots and lots of people.”
And indeed, as was clear when this question was posed here, people will most assuredly be angry. But rather than seize upon the reasons why, Gay goes for the facile blow.
Here’s the thing about anger. We only seem to prioritize one kind — anger in reaction to progress. And we never seem to acknowledge the anger rising out of oppression, marginalization, and under representation. The end of slavery and desegregation angered lots and lots of people, and so did taxation, suffrage, marriage equality. Progress angers people, but change is not the problem. The rage and resentment are.
But we’re not talking about ending slavery, but canceling student debt, a distinction that only the laziest mind could ignore. Gay has loans to pay off a couple graduate degrees. She deserves a refund, for anyone who could be so incapable of thought was cheated by her university.
The analogies to public school and highways are poor in themselves, as they reflect benefits for any and every member of the public who chooses to avail themselves of them. Does every college accept every applicant? But more to the point, these reflect changes to the social contract, if you will, that was decided first and then put into action. These are not personal choices for personal benefit which, only after someone realized that their choices were poor or foolish, seek to be relieved of their burdens.
In public school, every student is theoretically given a basic education. What happens from there is up to them. They get to choose whether to attend college, and what degree to seek. If they choose a degree that fails to provide a remunerative future, and take out substantial student loans to pay for it, they are, without a doubt, going to struggle. This is a problem, both going in and coming out, and there is no shortage of fault, by the colleges, government, student, parents, advisors, and pundits who tell them to follow their passion and somehow they’ll end up riding unicorns on rainbows.
But what Gay does here is wrap it all up under the umbrella of “progress,” which might explain why some are called “progressives,” and why they are not the same as liberals.
Conventional wisdom seems to be that we must not trigger people by discussing radical ideas like universal health care, civil rights for the L.G.B.T.Q. community, reckoning with police violence and the carceral system, protecting women’s bodily autonomy, and of course, student debt forgiveness. Somehow, compromise has come to mean not doing anything to upset anyone who is completely fine with ignoring the most urgent problems of our day.
There is no compromise involved. There could be, at least in outcomes, but for Gay to suggest that there is any latitude on her chosen values is a sham. Adding debt cancellation to the laundry list of progressive desires doesn’t make it progress, and doesn’t make anything else on her list open to compromise. The problem isn’t that it “triggers” people, but that Gay wants others to pay for her wish list because her values are the “correct” values.
Students with loans are struggling. People who never went to college are struggling. People who went to college but paid their tuition or paid off their student loans are struggling. And some aren’t struggling, but they sacrificed for their choices, a concept foreign to Gay. It may well be that students were too young, too dumb, too shallow, to gasp that they were making choices to take on debt that would crush them in the future, and there is much to criticize about how and why this happened, and what to do about it. Adding it to the bottom of the progressive laundry list, and wrapping it up with ending slavery, is not an answer and may be the most insufferably lazy approach possible.
But then, Gay may not be the most articulate spokesperson despite her having attended Phillips Exeter before Yale, benefits that few others in Nebraska got to enjoy. Gay deserves a refund of her tuition rather than cancellation. Higher education failed her. Miserably. Too bad that colleges don’t offer a money back guarantee.