Jesse Valencia wanted to earn a master’s degree in literature, instead he’s getting an entirely different education.
Here are the top 10 bullshit ideas I learned about in grad school. But first, a little background. I may lose some friends over this (don’t worry, I don’t “out” any of you), but to speak my mind, it’s worth it …
For my second master’s degree, I went for an MA in Literature. Since my first was an MFA in Creative Writing, I went for the second because I wanted to understand more about what made books and language tick. By that, I mean the actual structures implicit in texts … so I assumed I’d be learning about literature from the perspective of structuralism, formalism, deconstruction, and the like. Turns out I was wrong. Way wrong.
Apparently, “literary theory” refers to looking at texts from different socio-political lenses, rather than technical ones. I was not aware of this. Who cares about structure and form when there is colonialism to consider? Or race? Or gender? Or class? How can we use and interpret these texts to serve our politics today? This is the whole point of theory.
All of this was a big drag to me, and I’ve come out of that second degree feeling like I didn’t learn much. At best, all I learned was how to use literature as a tool for left-wing causes. I learned more about how to be an activist than how to be someone who knows literature. So, yeah, highly disappointing. I learned more about the things in this list than I did about literature.
I’m not going to deny that there’s some truth to the things on this list, because if there wasn’t, there’d be no inclination for anyone to put stock in them. The “bullshit” I’m railing against is the end product: the ideology that has sprung up around them, this culture of mass victimization and identity-affirmation that has completely consumed the left. It is the natural extension of the Millennial “me me me” ontological state of being. “Everything is about me and I’m the center of everything” has become “everything is about us and we’re the center of everything.” Not unlike the Borg from the Star Trek franchise.
So without further delay, the list …
1/ TRIGGER WARNINGS
Trigger warnings might be my least favorite thing on this list. They can include (among many other things) swearing, self-injurious behavior, drugs, suicide, depictions of medical procedures, violence, war, corpses, skulls or skeletons, needles, slurs, illness or differences, kidnapping, sex of any kind, death or dying, spiders, insects, snakes, vomit, pregnancy or childbirth, blood, and so on forever. Basically, all of the things that make books, movies, or anything else interesting. So, if you are a pro-trigger warning professor, you would “trigger warn” your students if any of this or similar content appears in the books you teach.
Trigger warnings, and other coddling types of things, infantilize society.
I don’t think people who could potentially be triggered should be given the option of whether or not they can engage in content. If that professor is teaching a book, then that possibly disadvantaged person is going to have to find it in themselves to overcome their hang-up. You can’t be swimming at the shallow end of the pool, avoiding the hard stuff. Everyone gets thrown in the deep end. If not, maybe the program you’re in really isn’t for you, or maybe you don’t belong there (see list point #2). At best, maybe put a disclaimer in a syllabus or something that says “the books we will be reading in this course contain content that some may find uncomfortable” and then put down the university’s psych ward number in case there’s any issues. Trigger warnings are bullshit. Life doesn’t have trigger warnings.
2/ IMPOSTER SYNDROME
For starters, I found the word “imposter syndrome” to be an insult to those of us who really are imposters. I didn’t go into these English programs because I liked to read books. I actually am not that much of a reader. I like to read comic books and stuff online, and I like to write, but I usually don’t read when I’m not in school. I read to learn things. Not because I enjoy reading. I force myself to read. I did these programs because they were the easiest for me to reach my goals and I’m lazy, not because I actually enjoy them. I needed the loans at the time. Sure, there were times where I really felt like I didn’t belong, like I wasn’t good enough and so on, but that never had to do with the material. That had more to do with the people I was going to school with. Also, if 70 percent of people experience it, maybe it isn’t as big a deal as we’re making it out to be. Maybe it’s so common that it’s just a natural part of going to school. Calling feelings of not fitting in or feeling like a fraud a “syndrome” is pretty dumb. Get the fuck over yourself and do the work. If you’re there, and you can get through shit without relying on list point #1, you’re just thinking too much and overanalyzing things. Imposter syndrome is bullshit.
Dr. Derald Sue, a psychology professor at Columbia University, defines a microagression as an “everyday slight, putdown, indignity, or invalidation unintentionally directed toward a marginalized group.” One example The Atlantic gave to illustrate this, in a very good article debunking them, is that of a Japanese-American girl who is asked all the time “what country are you from?” despite being born and raised in the United States. Annoying? Yes. Unfortunate? Sure. But aggressive? Nah. Catcalling is aggressive. Asking someone what ethnicity they are or where they’re from is not aggressive. It isn’t even microaggressive. They’re unintended, miniscule offenses, like not saying “thank you” when someone holds the door open for you. Let it roll off your back. Who can be the judge of whether or not they’re really aggressive? I can tell you that the person who feels offended by the so-called microaggression will have a list of terms at the ready to feel correct in their being victimized by it, and have plenty of rhetoric later on to justify their being so, and people who will back them up. So, yeah. Microaggressions are bullshit.
4/ CULTURAL APPROPRIATION
I didn’t hear about cultural appropriation until I saw someone criticizing that white Australian rapper chick Iggy Azalea for copping vocal stylings similar to black hip-hop artists from Atlanta. When I heard that, I laughed for a good five minutes. Was hip-hop born out of African-American culture? Yes. Does it belong solely to African-American people? No. Not any more than blues, jazz, or any other form of art or music belongs to any one group of people. Country music doesn’t belong to white people. There’s country music all over the world, and they all do the twangy singing thing. If you create something, and you put it out there, and you want other people to get into it and buy it and like it, it is completely retarded to get pissed off at people when they are then influenced by it. A lot of people said Iggy only became popular because she was white, and so she then should’ve shown respect to the black community by speaking out about issues pertaining to the black community. Why would she do that? She’s an entertainer. I just think her songs were better than theirs or more well-received and in the end those artists crying out “cultural appropriation” are just jealous. Culture is fluid. It is constantly taking new form. If I take something and change it and make it my own, it isn’t yours anymore. Cultural appropriation is bullshit.
People aware of and opposed to ableism would have had their alarms go off when I said the word “retarded” in the previous point. Basically ableism is like “if you say ‘retarded’ you’re hurting people who are mentally retarded and you must not like mentally retarded people.” The website Stop Ableism defines Ableism as “a set of practices and beliefs that assign inferior value (worth) to people who have developmental, emotional, physical or psychiatric disabilities.”
I don’t personally assign inferior value to people who have developmental, emotional, physical, or psychiatric disabilities. Those people are just as valuable as everyone else. They have equal rights to everything anyone else does, and I’ll fight on their side for that. If I say “that’s retarded,” I’m not assigning inferior value to people who are actually mentally retarded. I’m saying that whatever the thing I’m talking about is retarded, as per the definition of “retardation.” Where I get frustrated is when someone assumes I want to oppress mentally challenged people, or hate them or deny them access to something, because I say the R-word. If someone is offended by that term, or thinks I somehow think of disabled people as being less than myself, that’s on them. It has nothing to do with me. I need to be comfortable in my freedom to say the filthiest, basest of words if I need to get something off my chest and describe something using words other people find offensive.
There’s good to the anti-ableist movement, but I’m not going to stop saying that things or people are “crazy,” “insane,” or “retarded.” I’m just not. It’s bullshit. People who think I should stop saying retarded because it somehow hurts mentally disabled people are retarded.
As Melissa A. Fabelo once wrote, “Being marginalized in one area doesn’t negate your privilege in another.” Just about everyone can be both privileged and marginalized simultaneously, somehow. I don’t deny that this is true. I don’t deny that privilege exists. However, I think it presents a strange dichotomy that disregards other ways of thinking, feeling, and being that don’t necessarily fall under “privilege” and “marginalization.” People who adhere to victimhood culture and ideology will seek out ways people are privileged over others, or marginalized at the expense of others, and then try to pack all social experience into these ideas.
Language and society dictate a large portion of our society, but not everything. A great measure of individuality is denied in the process. A person’s hard work is discounted when you tell them they got to where they are because of privilege, be it a job, or acceptance into a university, and so on. You strip them of their own success, their own blood, sweat, and tears. It can be very disempowering. Are some people privileged over others? Sure. Is it everything? Absolutely not. Someone can be high on the privilege index and go nowhere in life because they fuck off all the time. On the other hand, someone who is low on the privilege index might have their shit together and go to the very top. So yeah, I’m not denying privilege doesn’t exist, but to say it’s everything is bullshit. There’s male privilege, white privilege, rich privilege, heterosexual privilege, ability/ableist privilege, thin privilege … all kinds of fucking privileges. Fight for equality, but deal with it. Don’t shame yourself because you’re privileged in some way. All I’ve seen is that it leads to pointless arguments and further divides people.
The problem is the focus. People who call out other people’s privileges, or tell them to check their privileges, believe that our social, economic, and governmental institutions are logistically geared towards favoring people who embody the various privileges, and that if someone takes advantage of their whatever-privilege, without being aware of their whatever-privilege, then there is something wrong with them. I don’t think that’s okay. Once I became aware of the various privileges I may or may not have, I immediately thought about how I could use them to my advantage to get ahead in life, not how I could fight against them for the benefit of society. I do not see anything wrong with this.
Largely, what I see is a tendency on the left to want to retool institutions to lessen the influence of privilege, thus making everyone more equal. Nothing wrong with that, but if you ask me, everyone in America has “First World Privilege” and “Consumer Privilege” and should be finding ways to heal the planet, end war, and lift everyone out of starvation and poverty instead of focusing on their little bubble worlds where their feelings might get hurt.
7/ SAFE SPACES
I agree with Clare Mohan on the subject of Safe Spaces. Encouraging avoidant behavior is potentially one of the most damaging things you could do to someone who has experienced trauma. We should want to build people up to be strong in the face of adversity, not enable them to cower and wail their way into a quiet room where they may or may not find an illusory sense of safeness. In an era of widespread terrorism and mass shootings, no space is safe. Nor is it anyone else’s responsibility to take care of anyone else’s symptoms. Avoiding shit that triggers you is only going to give whatever that thing is more power over you. Avoidance is weakness. You have to be able to face things head on, or find a way to, if you’re ever going to have a shot at becoming stronger and living a fuller life. Get tough. Move forward. Safe spaces are bullshit.
8/ INTERNALIZED OPPRESSION
Internalized oppression is largely defined as “self-hate,” where a member of an oppressed group believes and acts out the stereotypes created about their group. Like everything else on this list, it exists, but the extent to which it exists is questionable. Like I’ve stated elsewhere, these terms are largely favored instead of individual agency. If a woman wants to be a stay-at-home mother, not work, and live in a “traditional” sort of way where her husband provides for the household, this is largely assumed to be an internalized form of oppression (patriarchy, gender, blah blah blah). Did it cross anyone’s mind that maybe that’s just what she wants to do? Not everyone who acts out stereotypes about what groups they may or may not belong to are internalizing the ideas of their oppressors. Everyone makes choices. You can’t blame an oppressive regime for everything. At some point you have to be accountable for your own actions. So, yeah, bullshit.
9/ POLITICAL CORRECTNESS
It is incorrect to equate words with acts of violence, even if certain words and symbols can be connected to the collective trauma experienced by a historically marginalized group. But it happens. A lot. Yet, by blowing just about everything out of proportion, advocates of political correctness have actually made it easier for institutions like universities to impose censorship upon their students. Recently, a white male student at Colorado College, Thaddeus Pryor, was suspended from school for six months (six months!) for saying on an online forum that black women “… matter, they’re just not hot.” Okay. Sure. He’s an idiot. But a sixth month suspension? They were going for 21 months! People have found the suspension so ridiculous that even Montel Williams has spoken out in defense of the student. I, for one, do not see how suspending a student for saying something stupid is progress. You know what it does do? Feed the needs of the culture of everything I’ve described here. Stay in your bubble. Go to your special time out place. Nobody say or do anything that could hurt or offend anyone. Political correctness is bullshit!
And so, we arrive at our final bullshit idea …
10/ PROBLEMATIC LANGUAGE
Earlier in the year, the University of New Hampshire published a “Bias-Free Language Guide” to be used by students. Rightly, the guide was removed from the university’s website after the university’s President declared that “speech guides or codes have no place at any American university.” To be clear, I’m against calling anyone any kind of racial slur whatsoever. I am against all prejudice. I don’t think white people should call black people hurtful names, and I don’t think black people should call white people hurtful names. Straight people and gay people should not call each other names. Cis people should not call trans people names. And so on and so on. I draw the line where all of this becomes policy. We should not be forcing people to not call each other names. We can’t pass laws or enforce speech codes to stop people from saying whatever they want. We just can’t. In the name of everything we hold dear as a society, we cannot allow ourselves to cross that line. The people that do want to cross that line are the people that give liberals a bad name. They’re also the biggest party poopers ever. Among the words purportedly discouraged in the Bias-Free Language Guide were “American,” “mothering,” “fathering,” “illegal alien,” “Caucasian,” “homeless,” “poor person,” “obese,” “overweight,” “healthy,” “Orientals,” and “freshmen.” Yep. Problematic language is … you guessed it! Bullshit!
If we refuse to participate in the culture that’s built itself up around these and similar bullshit ideas, we are, to these activists, part of the problem. There are countless websites by these people with instructions on how to talk to this or that group of marginalized persons, or how to “correct” people when they say the “wrong” thing. They might boast of equality, but these people don’t really want you to treat everyone as equals. They want you to treat everyone as special. More than that, they want you to change your entire way of thinking and being in the world so that you think like them. Otherwise, you need to be confronted. You need to be brought to their side. You must be assimilated. Resistance is futile.
And I just think all of that is bullshit.
So, looking back on these ten, my advice to all incoming students everywhere is “don’t take any shit from these people.” And to marginalized persons at risk of assimilation I would say the same, adding, “Don’t be a coward. Don’t crumble under pressure. Your success is deserved and you belong there. Respect yourself and others and don’t put bubbles around you or others. Resist the assimilation!”
And if you’re angry at me for writing this, calm the fuck down. I will stop tone policing the day you stop thought policing.