Friday, June 12, 2015


Samuel Delany linked the other day* to a tumblr called Shit Rich College Kids Say.  He remarked:
This one requires a little thought, but work your way through it ... And by the way, it's not all rich college kids. But it's enough of them to be noticeable. And it's also noticeable that over the last decade a lot of not so rich kids have been saying it too, not to mention faculty. Things will be better if you understand what's at stake here, and life will make a little more sense.
Delany's a college professor, so he has more direct interaction with students than I do these days.  When I looked at the tumblr, the first, most current entries were these:
Having a good sense of humor is so much more progressive than taking offense to everything. If you go looking to take offense to things, you’re going to be offended
I don’t know why you got so offended by that joke [targeting lesbians]. I mean I don’t think it’s offensive and I could probably even be considered a little bit bisexual at times.
The Stupid is certainly strong in these, but that's nothing new, either on college campuses or in society at large.  As I read more of the entries, though, the more baffled I got.  What, aside from playing "Ain't It Awful?", is the point?  I wrote a comment asking "Are we talking about the entries about being offended? I'm working class, and I think we need to rethink our approach to that issue." Delany replied:
Ultimately, I don't think this is about being offended and not being offended. It's understanding where people are coming from and not understanding where they are coming from--and why or why not certain arguments do or don't make sense--at least as I read it. But Duncan, I'll certainly look again. If you could point out some of the ones you find problematic, that might be a good place to start.
I realized that when Delany looked at the tumblr, the entries I quoted above might not have been posted yet, so I found the links and replied to him.  Another person, who'd directed Delany to the tumblr originally, paraphrased its mission statement: "omg These Assholes Are Our Nation's Future".  This seemed even stranger to me.  As Delany, at least, must know, these assholes are also our nation's present and past.  In the past, college education was more or less limited to rich kids (with a scattering of poor scholarship kids), and we may be moving in that direction again.  But like all schooling, college was, and is, a process of socialization.  It doesn't just teach students facts or skills, it teaches them courses (discourses, to be more exact) and limits of thought and conduct -- though it can also teach them to transgress those limits.  As Tom Lehrer might have said (but didn't), education is like a sewer -- what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.

Another one: "Wait, isn’t transgender when they have boy parts AND girl parts?"  This will be risible ignorance to those who are more informed than the average person is about sex and gender, but even they/we should be careful.  I can't think of many areas beside gender where the level of even informed discourse is so low.

Now, this one is especially weird, I thought: "I’m a trisexual - I fuck girls, guys and tr***ies."  The idea that relating erotically to trans people as well as cis people puts one in a separate category is not unheard of, though among our Speakers Bureau volunteers the preferred label is "pansexual."  I get that the person quoted thinks he's being funny, and I get that he's using blunt, crude language, but there's the weird part: someone thought that "fuck" is inoffensive, but "trannies" was so beyond the pale that it had to be censored with asterisks.  Except for "trannies," though, I see this kind of crudeness all the time among hip, class-conscious queer academics I know on Facebook who have a very sensitive nose for privilege in others, though less so among themselves.

I'm not sure that Delany and I are "reading" SRCKS the same way.  The mission statement claims that it's not intended to demonize other people. "Most of the original content is said by our [the moderators’] friends–who we are friends with ... Lots of my friends when they start learning new shit tell me to put up their old quotes so they can remind themselves never to be that way again," according to some of the FAQ responses.  But the entire lack of context in or for the posts makes it difficult to know what the mods' intentions are.  The title of the tumblr itself doesn't help -- are the rich college kids talking shit supposed to be the mods and their friends, or someone else?  A "we" or something to that effect would help a great deal.  And wouldn't it make more sense to provide some sense of how those people who were "that way" before came to be the way they are now, whatever it is?  As it's set up, the easiest and most natural way to read SRCKS is a finger-pointing exercise at a more or less depersonalized if not demonized Other.  The Microaggressions tumblr I've mentioned before makes similar disclaimers about its intent, no more persuasively.

A strange one here: "[R]ich college kids do not have as many excuses to be so ignorant. They just lack incentive to learn that their bullshit opinions are bullshit."  Oh, you think so?  Privilege is a shield as well as an enabler, and growing up in comfort and safety produces and encourages ignorance of what lies outside that shelter.  You'd think from this that "their bullshit opinions" were the rich kids' own, rather than something they'd learned from their parents and their class.  (The origin myth of the Buddha literalizes this: Prince Gautama's parents deliberately kept him isolated from awareness of human suffering until he was almost thirty.  Not until he glimpsed debilitating age, illness and death outside the family palace did he realize that not everyone had it as good as he.  Many parents have more foresight than Gautama's: instead of trying only to isolate them, they inculcate their children with rationales for their privilege and the disadvantages of others -- the Others are inferior, lazy, etc.  This allows people to believe that they deserve their good fortune even when confronted directly with the misery of others.  It doesn't always work, but often enough.  Non-rich kids have more reason to try to understand why the world works as it does, but there's no guarantee that they'll find better answers.  And the University historically is just as likely to be a repository of those justifications for privilege as to undermine them.

Some online conversations I've had on these matters don't make me more optimistic.  Even graduate students and post-docs in edgy specialties like Queer Theory or Post-Colonial Studies don't exhibit a firm grasp of the concepts they're working with.  Instead of learning from Foucault, for instance, American academics have turned his work into Scripture to mine for proof texts.  Critical thinking is seldom in evidence, and jargon (which is valid in itself) is used as a substitute for thought.  Learning to shoehorn one's thinking into the Procrustean bed of the academic paper too often produces distortion rather than clarification.  (Recently I listened to a grad student reading per paper on Queer Theory and Popular Culture, and I was struck by the way its rhetorical strategies steered away from substantive discussion.  The result was a kind of abstract poetry, where the language had its own logic and requirements that took it away from lived experience.)

I just looked again at Shit Rich College Kids Say, and I'm even less clear on what its mission is.  As I write this, the newest post is an appeal for help for a "homeless trans girl" and her mother.  There's another similar appeal posted on the landing page.  Is this what rich college kids say?  And it's no dismissal of the plight of many trans people to say that I don't trust appeals like these when they turn up on Facebook (because they're usually out of date at best, bogus at worst), so why would I trust a reposted item on this tumblr?  Do the moderators vouch for their validity?  These were followed by a call for submissions to a projected (online?) anthology on the ostensible theme of Road Trips from Hell, though it was hard to make that title fit up with the description.  And then, finally, another Ain't It Awful post about a "psychology professor" who said something dumb about Caitlyn Jenner and trans people in general.  Followed by a weird and not terribly coherent post by a moderator who said that person was upset by intra-community complaints being posted to SRCKS, when it 's supposed to be for inter-community complaints.
discussions about intra-community issues belong intra-community. not here where 41,000 other people can indiscriminately invade the conversations, manipulate the arguments, and deny the humanity of the subjects in question.
Talk about meta!  The post is in its way an example of what the writer is complaining about.  But as far as I can tell, manipulating the arguments and denying the humanity of the subjects in question is the purpose of this tumblr.  This writer just wants to be sure that the right people are having their humanity denied.  It would be reasonable simply to say something like: "The topic of this tumblr is inter-community conflicts, in order to enable certain minorities to play Ain't It Awful about certain majorities and run around crying Someone was offensive on the Internet!  We're not playing Ain't It Awful about conflicts within those minority communities, though they certainly happen and are cause for concern."  The writer puts per concern in terms of not airing our dirty laundry where those mean ol' Outsiders can see and exploit it, which is an old controversy in numerous communities including LGBTQ ones.  I don't object to defining and limiting the content of a publication, nor do I object to people having a place to vent their complaints and enjoy their ragegasms.  (As a blogger, I could hardly cast the first stone.)  But it seems to me that SRCKS is part of the problem.  The posts don't have any context, they don't lead to any kind of thoughtful discussion and aren't really meant to.  I look at sites like it and think "omg, these whining, unreflective babies are the LGBTQ community's future!"

*Actually, several months ago.  I'm plundering the drafts folder again, though much of this post was written today.