Where’s Mine?

People complaining about student loan forgiveness seem to feel there’s a fairness issue at stake. My experience suggests that about 90% of the people who lead with an “It’s not fair!” argument (as opposed to something based on justice) are disingenuous. They tend to see everything as a competition, a race, and any perceived advantage that they don’t get affects their position in the race. Forgiving student debt just means “those people” will be advanced closer to them or maybe even ahead of them and there’s no compensatory bribe on offer to put them back where they think they belong.

What never occurs to them is that the whole thing was rigged in the first place and that maybe they were screwed, too. Or maybe they know they were screwed, but can’t seem to grasp that the thing to be gotten rid of is the screwing, simply because.

I don’t know, but it’s nothing new.

To be clear, I’ve seen a lot of people who knew very well that the game was rigged who are quite pleased with even a little redress for other people. So we’re dealing with a handful (maybe) of people who are so invested in the rigged system that they can’t see their way past a sense of being unfairly handicapped and would prefer the rigging remain in place, so they have a shot at winning.

Winning what?

I don’t know. Frankly, I never did know. Life is not a race.

But boy we sure like to see it that way. Getting ahead, keeping up with the Joneses, beating the system, coming out on top, moving up in the world, winning the rat race, catching the brass ring, climbing the ladder…this is how we’ve been trained to see things and it infects every attitude we have. Some of us get over it at some point and realize that we’re being played. Some people seem to like being played. Others want to be the players. Anything that suggests leveling the playing field (another sports/competition analogy) is hateful because it looks like cheating.

Justice never enters into this except as a word used to cover the reality.

I did not go to college. There were many reasons for this, not least of them disinterest. I didn’t like school all that much and couldn’t see much value in another four years of jumping through hoops. The fields in which I have made my living, I managed to learn without higher education and all the rest I was able to indulge all on my own. Cost dissuaded me to some extent, and this was back when you weren’t likely to go into lifelong servitude to pay it off.

But society changed—our economy changed—and suddenly college was more a requirement than an add-on. The growing fields, the needs of employers, all these things necessitated more education than high school offered. In order to operate the country, we required more. Given that, it has always seemed fundamentally unfair to me that we then made people pay through the nose for the privilege of filling someone else’s requirements. (I have a very perverse attitude about this kind of thing. My first job out of high school was at a place with a dress code. I literally did not own a tie. They demanded one. I told them they could pay for it. Of course they did not. But, I argued, this is your requirement, why shouldn’t you pay for it? I won’t use the damn thing anywhere else! I met the minimum requirement by acquiring one tie and never taking it home. I left it at work and never washed it. When i left their employ, I left it behind. Petty, certainly, but still—their requirement, they should provide.)

But there are scholarships, grants, all kinds of things to offset the requirements and cover the costs. I don’t care. Because it’s not just employment involved, but class, social interaction. (I was turned down for a date once because I lacked a degree. Yes, this is probably rare, or it was then, but—is it? And why should that matter? We put too much, almost everything on that piece of paper, explicitly and implicitly, and then make it as hard as can be to get one. And the cost now suggests that many people who have managed to get one are in some way undeserving, so they will not be allowed to benefit, in even the most basic way, by being able to “get ahead” as expected.)

I have minimal problems with certain schools charging exorbitant rates—the Ivy Leagues, as they may be—as long as the basic requirements are not rendered punishingly out-of-reach. You want a Harvard education, fine, it costs more. But you just want a degree from a college to meet the requirements of society in given professions? No charge. It’s “our” requirement, after all. The individual does the learning, the name of the school has little to do with that (with certain exceptions). But then we have to be honest about the whole thing and hire according to qualification, not according to association.

The whole thing has become a money-making game that reinforces class distinctions—which we here are not supposed to have.

Damn right I’m fine with debt relief.

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Addendum 8/27/22:  When it became clear after WWII that the whole educational program being offered through things like the G.I. Bill was intended to provide for people in general (and later when racial barriers were being dismantled that barred minorities from access) there was a panic among the self-assumed Elites that the unwashed, the plebes, the commoners were about to share the same benefits and acquire the same functional credentials as the Chosen Children of the wealthy, the entire thing began to be undermined. We should remember that Governor Reagan dismantled the free university system in California, which had been working fine, but which displeased the powers that be. When the laws changed to prevent overt barriers, the only thing left to do was attack it financially and so the rise in costs, in lock-step with the diminishment in state funding, began. Characterize this any way you wish, the effect has been to erect a different set of barriers to those certain people and forces in our society feel should not be allowed to compete or share in that which presumably sets them apart. At every junction in history where a previous unquestioned assumption of inferiority or unsuitability was overturned that had kept certain people out, new “standards” were erected. One of the saddest consequences has been the debasement of the Humanities, because they do not as a rule lead to gold-plated incomes. You want to be a philosopher, fine, but if you come from a working class background and have to pay for it out of your own pocket, you will be crushed by debt for the rest of your life. In any individual instance, we can find many excuses for why what has become a global disgrace, but the aggregate effect is simply that only the few are “supposed” to get the rewards and the people in the “gutter” should stay there.

(Reagan’s ilk identified the rising sector of educated students as the source of a major pain in their collective asses because these kids knew better than to accept the bullshit and demanded change. Therefore, their opportunities to learn enough to challenge the Establishment had to be curtailed.)

The Chains Of Normal

Over my lifetime, one concept has popped again and again to tangle things in a web of pseudo-logic. It seems to go unexamined most of the time, until it emerges as the fulcrum of issues over systemic change. Normal. We seem ever in search of Normal. To be Normal, to return to Normal, to stop deviations from Normal.

But we have a damnable time defining what that is. I mean, really, just exactly what is Normal?

Normal has changed steadily over my lifetime. And with every major realignment, a new Normal becomes established and accepted and soon enough we find ourselves contending again over that which is Not Normal. It’s understandable that some people get confused and frustrated. I keep remembering poor Tevye from Fiddler On The Roof, striving to find a way to see the changes and accept them, always declaring his fidelity to Tradition.

It doesn’t help that we all have a different idea about what Normal is. Not necessarily wildly divergent ideas, but if the topic is pursued long enough, these small variations can emerge that throw the whole notion of Common Ground into question.

What is Normal?

More to the point, why should we always try to assert a common definition as if anything else will doom us to chaos and agony?

I see two concepts of Normal in conflict. They overlap, but are not the same. The first might be something like “that which supports a common and consensual equilibrium throughout a community.” Normal, in this case, might be construed as that much-acknowledged but hard to achieve “level playing field” we hear so much about.

That it is so difficult to achieve may be due to the other concept of Normal: “that which allows me to feel secure in my expectations and opinions.”

In my teens, men with long hair were seen as violators of Normal. You could point to pictures of Wild Bill Hickock all you wanted, and Society refused to accept that boys walking around with hair to their shoulders was in any way Normal. It wasn’t done. And while it may seem trivial today (because that background concept of Normal has changed) it created an ugly atmosphere in the country. (My freshman year in high school saw the football team assault the handful of “hippies” that attended my school and forcibly cut their hair off. Of course, three years later, some of those with the longest hair in the school were on the varsity team.)

Why should these things conflict? Well, that should not be difficult to understand. If you have an idea of what is Normal and then the community around you exhibits changes that cause you ill-ease, requires you to question your assumptions, or even, at some point, shift your politics or moral assessment, what we see most often is an aggressive denial of those changes, and at some point a reliance on a presumed set of standards called Normal.

“That’s not Normal!”

We can go down the list of things in the last 60 years that were opposed because they were not Normal. Civil Rights. Homosexuality. Women’s Equality. Opposition to these things often enlisted language and philosophies that seemed more involved and sophisticated than merely saying they were not Normal, but when you dig down you can see that, for many people, these were violations of personal desires to feel secure in their expectations and opinions. We know this because over time, all of this has become accepted—become Normal—for most of us. It turned out none of these things were actually dangerous to the community.

Opposing them was.

The perversity of these conflicting concepts of Normal can be seen in cases of those who engage in behaviors which they personally pursue but then hide because they realize this may not be Normal. The awareness of community standards drives the given behavior into hiding. Sometimes these behaviors are inimical, both personally and publicly. But attempting to be seen as Normal overrides even the logic of coming to terms with the deviation.

How to tell the difference? How, in other words, to “normalize” something and how to know when such normalization is not acceptable?

Start with a simple question: does this hurt anyone? (One should include one’s self in that question, but for practical purposes, look beyond.)

Help for certain problems is avoided by the overwhelming urge to appear Normal.

But we don’t actually have a good idea of what that really is. To each their own only goes so far, because the community had to be considered.

So perhaps a definition of Normal might be: “that which allows for a mutuality of conditions sustaining both community equilibrium and personal fulfillment in private choices.”

Ah, but what might this mean in practice?

Obviously, this would entail a recognition that personal concepts of Normal have limits. As would community concepts. (There was a time unwed pregnant girls were put in “homes” so they wouldn’t be seen out in public. A girl in my high school sued the public school system when it tried to kick her out for being pregnant—and won. Of course, many people expressed outrage that a pregnant girl would be attending classes with all of us “innocent” students. But this was what passed for Normal back then. And it changed.) So obviously some notion of harm would have to be better codified on both sides.

It could be worked out. We do it anyway, but it’s such a messy process that often leaves casualties behind. Those chains of Normal are loud when they get rattled. I think it’s an innocuous idea that becomes pernicious too easily. We’ve traditionally been too willing to censure, incarcerate, punish things that in the end only make certain people uncomfortable. Their efforts to suppress behaviors that ruffle their delicate sensibilities (or their power base) harm far more than not.

Just now we’re seeing that conflict play out over competing notions of Normal. Not to make light of it, but really, the outraged sensitivities of one group trying to reassert a standard of Normal that was revealed as inadequate decades ago is causing enormous harm.

Normal is a monster. I’ve had that cudgel waved over my head a good deal of my life, for one thing or another, most of it relatively innocuous in itself. “Why don’t you be normal?” And ultimately, the question had little meaning, because all it meant was “why don’t you be like the rest of us and not make us feel uncomfortable around you?” Well, in the end, their discomfort was not my problem, though they tried to lay it on me. And this was over things like hobbies or aesthetic preferences (my love of science fiction at one time). What might it have been like if the issues had been more life-threatening?

I would welcome a community-wide reassessment of what constitutes Normal. We have a heuristic appreciation of it and in some instances it works well enough, but given that the only constant is change, we need to have a clearer idea about it.

Fascism, after all, is the ultimate insistence by one group on everyone else about what is Normal. We’ve seen what that costs.

 

 

The New Look

This is the new author photo. At least, for now. I want to thank my pal, Tom Ball, for patiently doing a good job. Being the photographer means I’m usually not in the pictures, so it always feels a bit weird to be the subject. But Blank Slate Press requested “recent” photographs, but there really aren’t any, so…

Anyway, the Author as he is.