Your Feelings on the Student Debt Crisis Are an Instant Empathy Test

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Your Feelings on the Student Debt Crisis Are an Instant Empathy Test

Yesterday, thousands of us who have been too stupid to leave Twitter were forced to read the following tweet, which I am now forcing on you:

It's an infuriating tweet with terrible logic, and it's easily parodied: “Curing cancer would be a slap in the face to all those who struggled and died from it!” Or this:

Philip Klein got ratio'ed to high heaven, but there were also enough people who agreed with him that the entire episode leaves a sour taste in the mouth. It's the conservative mindset drilled down to its essence, and as such, to borrow a phrase from a Twitter follower, it's an instant empathy test. If you fall into the category of someone who has paid off his or her loans with some level of difficulty, there are basically two ways to respond, and we saw them immediately. There's the empathetic way:

Or the callous way:

If we operate in good faith, it’s not difficult to understand the mindset behind that second tweet, which is prevalent in conservative circles. The organizing idea is that hardship is a fact of life, and that bailing people out of this hardship isn’t just wrong, but fundamentally unjust. We all have to struggle, you see, and life isn’t about making things easy for people who have chosen to take on this financial burden. After all, they didn’t have to go to school!

There are a few problems with this…

1. Inevitably, the people making these arguments have struggled far less than they let on. Not all of them, to be fair, but many—they’ve either had more financial support than most, or they’re totally blind to the racial/cultural/systemic difficulties they’ve never had to face.

2. This “work your way out of debt” mindset completely erases any need for reform. If fighting your way free from student loans is just a matter of bootstraps, then we don’t have to think about what’s actually happening and why it’s a legitimate crisis that ruins lives. This is why the “I paid my bills!” talking point is particularly annoying coming from someone older, who went to school before education costs ballooned (along with housing costs, and etc. etc.) and could pay their entire tuition just by working a part-time job. Needless to say, that is no longer possible, and like many shallow conservative talking points, it’s deployed (accidentally, in some cases) to obviate the need for real change. If we talk about personal responsibility, we don’t have to talk about societal responsibility.

3. For those who truly struggled with criminal levels of student debt, yet somehow want to see everyone else endure the same struggle, well…it gets back to that old idea of empathy, and the bizarre lack thereof.

For what it’s worth, multiple studies have shown that conservatives are less inclined to experience empathy in a variety of scenarios, particularly if the victim is not a member of an “in-group.” Conservatives may be just as empathetic when it comes to friends and families, but an unknown kid struggling with student debt? Forget it.

Full disclosure: I came out of school with just north of $30,000 in school debt from a private college. I’m 36 now, and 15 years later I still owe $12,000 (I’ll end up paying about $47,000 total when all is said and done, which is probably the number we should talk about when we name our debt), but I’ve been employed since I left school and the monthly payments of about $220 have never really hurt me—the interest rates for the two loans are 4.5% and 5.0%, and I set them on automatic debit. My parents were school teachers and later school administrators, and we were not wealthy, but my I was my mom’s only child and they planned well. Compared to many of my peers, especially those who went to private college without a ton of financial aid, I am “lucky.” I know people who have graduated with six-figure debt, and not all of them go on to lucrative careers.

All that said, I suppose I fall into the category of people who are diligently paying off student debt without getting in too far over their heads—at least so far. I could easily spout off about how I’ve “struggled” to repay my student loans, but that would be a big fat lie. Sure, I’d love to have that money back, but the truth is that it hasn’t been much of a struggle at all.

I don’t claim to be the world’s best person, but I can say this: Struggle or no struggle, there will never be a time in my life when I believe that young people should be saddled with misery-making levels of student debt. This has been true before and during the process of paying off my own loans, and it will be true after. I am only too aware of how life in America can be a story of punishment, even if, technically, we each make our own decisions when it comes to loans. Sure, someone has to voluntarily sign for a $40,000 loan they can’t afford, but often that person is pursuing a goal, hoping for a better life, or just praying for a way out of a seemingly endless cycle of poverty. And as a child of relative privilege, I also understand how young people can be blithely ignorant to the consequences of their decisions, their minds clouded by visions of the future, and their brains, thanks to evolution, still stuck in a more impulsive, risk-taking mode. And I understand that those who escape the consequences are people like me—people who got an English degree, of all things, from a college that didn’t specialize in English and cost $40,000 per year, but whose parents looked out for him.

Not everyone can make a blatantly dumb choice like mine and avoid financial pain. Whether the original decision to sign for a loan was a “good” one or not, it takes a unique kind of cruelty—a thoughtless, selfish kind—to think that we should blame the student, rather than the broken, punitive, profit-hungry system that sets traps for anyone who dares to have a dream.

Your feelings on student debt are an instant empathy test—do you believe that a broken system crippling thousands of people in this country should be fixed, or do you want to revel sanctimoniously in the punishment of people who can’t dig themselves out?