The Privilege of Righteous Indignation and Why You’re Not The Boss of Me

I have piece in Slate on for-profit college students.

The TL;DR version: critique structures and not people; descriptive statistics are not prescriptive; respect for-profit students’ agency even while examining the constraints on their agency.

It’s a nuanced enough argument even for academics. I have no illusions about how it goes over with a general audience. Thus, I do not bother reading comments.

One comment, however, found its way to me. I really only responded because the platform of the tweeter was significant enough to warrant that I exert authority over the contextualization of my argument:

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Alex MacGillis is with The New Republic, a smart-ish publication. I thought it worth a little hassle to express his mischaracterization of my argument. He disagreed, of course. It happens.

What followed was mostly logical fallacies and gaslighting and such. That’s fine. It’s the Internet! That would be boring to talk about. More interesting to me are comments that followed about writing:

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They prompted me to articulate what is largely, for me, an internal dialogue about  my writing process. They also gave me an excuse to talk about something I’ve as yet only mentioned in passing: the privilege of being righteously indignant.

It was not lost on me that my Slate piece was taken up by both for-profit boosters and critics. I let the words speak for themselves. The fact remains that I do not write with an eye towards how public relations firms will contort the message for their own purposes. I also do not write to assuage the fears of the privileged or to score points on the experiences of the unprivileged. Despite what some might believe, I’m not even interested in fame although I would not look a gift horse bearing a lump student loan payment in the mouth.

I’m afraid I’m more annoyingly earnest than that. I truly believe that all I’ve learned to do, been trained to do as an academic, comes with a responsibility to share it with people. My decision process for publishing usually involves some calculation of whether the argument is mostly self-aggrandizing, if it contributes anything at all to a debate, and how much time I have spent waiting for someone else to say the thing I would say. That’s a negative–positive—positive causal relationship, by the way. If it passes that test and I have the time, I write the thing. Mostly I write it here. Almost anything you’ve seen from me elsewhere results from an invitation. I rarely pitch because I am clear that my primary job right now is completing a PhD.

Writing to ward off PR campaigns strikes me as a really good way to fail at two of my three publishing criteria. The only thing rarely interesting enough to be misconstrued is a self-aggrandizing essay that is so milquetoast that even bottom feeders can’t muster the energy to leave an internet comment. And, few essays can make a contribution to a debate not yet raised by someone smarter, more connected, or more important than me if the essay is hedging against making anything akin to a declarative point for fear of being PR fish food.

I simply cannot let hypotheticals and counterfactuals change how I write. It seems to me that’s the easiest way to never write anything that matters.

And the subjects about which I write often matter to me. That should be evident to regular readers. I have a rule. I never, ever hit publish when I’m mad. I write when I’m angry, but never when I’m mad. I do not have the privilege to be that gloriously, publicly irrationally emotive even when my content may be factually accurate and well-reasoned. In this regard, I have come to understand that being righteously indignant is a type of privilege I am not afforded.

I speak only for myself here but performing the righteous part of indignation requires a kind of immunity from the subject that I do not have. It is like discovering poverty while writing at local Starbucks. Of course you can be righteously indignant! There is POVERTY and you have SEEN it with your own eyes. I had a professor once who, I think, hated me a little because he liked to show us these horrible images of Dalits in India. Every week for a semester it was all dire images of poor, rural, brown people defecating in holes. When he’d shout, foaming at the mouth, “have you ever SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS?!” I’d always say, “yes.”.

Because I had.

My family is from rural Eastern North Carolina. Brown people peeing in outhouses was a real thing there until at least the last time I visited a few years ago. Indeed, I have been a brown person peeing in an outhouse. Images of abject poverty can make me angry, sad, mad even. But to be righteously indignant about it requires a revelatory moment of awareness I’ve never experienced. Poverty has always been there. Poor brown people have always been there. Predatory institutions have always been there. Struggling moms trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents have always been there. Vets mistreated by their government when they come home alive instead of neatly in a box have always been there.

I get how it can be news to some of you that people are victimized by systems legitimated by your nation, countrymen, and god. But I’m black and female and southern. I call that Tuesday. Before for-profit colleges it was insurance companies squelching on paying policies to poor blacks. Before today’s GI Bill was ripped off black vets were systematically obstructed from accessing their GI benefits. For me, these things have always been there. Righteous indignation at recognizing them now would be disingenuous. That doesn’t mean I do not care deeply about the issues but it does mean that I cannot perform status culture markers of indignation to emotionally reward others for their come-to-Jesus moment.

Further, I am under no illusions about the contradictions I embody. I am many attributes considered the natural domain of white men in a black female body. That confuses people. Should I give in to the elitist disingenuousness of righteous indignation I am more likely to compromise my research than I am to make any difference. And to be of use to the people I care about, to contribute to issues I care about, I am more useful as a researcher, even one embodying role conflict and confusion, than I am a righteously indignant agitator who can be easily dismissed as a loud mouthed black body. I may still be dismissed and I often am. Indeed, how many people would dare deign to tell white male writer with half a PhD, dozens of published articles, and an academic affiliation the meaning of what he wrote? Despite it being an almost no-win proposition, I still think it better than pretending to be something I am not to the detriment of the arguments I put forth.

And, my argument on for-profit colleges is clear and well documented. If you give me a minute I’ll even give you a couple of books, a diss, a few articles. As it stands, it is very easy to read what I say my argument is. Of course, that requires you accepting that I am the authority on what i write. I am, of course, but you would have to accept that. If you do, and you read me, you’ll find that I think it is easy to rail about predatory for-profit colleges but far harder to examine the conditions under which millions of the least of us find themselves with few viable options but to pay too much for a credential that offers too little. I could cry on Dan Rather about the indignity of it all or I could push self-proclaimed progressives and liberals to accept their own culpability in maintaining an economic and social system that has trapped millions in a maze of poor options. I could reduce the failures of for-profit colleges to the characteristics of its mostly poor, brown, female bodies but I choose, instead, to lay bare the political alchemy that transposes lives into profit margins.

That may not be angry or polemic enough for you but I do not have the privilege of performing public hissy fits and retaining my authority on the subject I have experienced, examined, and researched for almost a decade.

Sure, I could perform it anyway to fool myself into thinking I’m something I am not but if my first rule of writing is to never hit publish when I’m mad, my first rule of life is to never, ever, ever lie to myself.

9 thoughts on “The Privilege of Righteous Indignation and Why You’re Not The Boss of Me

  1. Like like like like like like like. A million times like. I am stunned and humbled by your honesty. My favorite admission in this essay is “I truly believe that all I’ve learned to do, been trained to do as an academic, comes with a responsibility to share it with people.” because that’s what drives me also. And while my platform is far less public than yours, I am just as determined to wake people up to a critical consciousness as you have undoubtedly done in this essay.

  2. This is such a great post. And I admit selfishly that this resonated for me with my own experience with blogging. Can’t count the number of times I have read “righteously indignant” posts that went viral, but still thought to myself, I would simply get no respect if I wrote like that – even if the post might be popular, it’s not worth it. I don’t use swearwords in my posts; I don’t aim to “entertain”. I don’t rant and rave (if I can help it, and I think I can). I try to make coherent arguments, without relying (too much) on personal anecdotes. And I tend wait overnight before I hit “publish” on something. I hadn’t thought much about the reasons behind all that, but you just nailed it here – as always. Thank you.

  3. Long-time reader. First-time commenting. I enjoy your blog and your Twitter feed. And a fan of all things righteously indignant. Saw the exchange going down in real-time today. Your arguments (and, more importantly, your research) on for-profit higher ed are, indeed, well documented and clear. I work at Apollo Group. As for public relations, we’re more likely to point folks to our institution’s writings (forgive the plug: Or, in the case of journalists with platforms and how we engage with them, we’re more likely to want to speak with them directly about their writings, and answer their questions, –rather than emailing them with: “Oh, yeah, hey, go read this sociologist’s piece over here…URL…but not her other stuff over there… URL.” Not how it works.

  4. It’s pretty clear that Mr. MacGillis is not what anyone would consider a careful reader. There is no ‘pro-profit’ intention or claim anywhere in your original piece.

    Having said that I was intending to question your assertion about “snarky attitudes” towards customer students until I thought about some of my colleagues and their inability to comprehend why anyone would make a choice we in public education see as having so little value for investment. And I was struck again while painting along a stretch of the Baraboo River hard against the decaying apartments and abandoned warehouses whose occupants have been discarded by the larger community. A local cop came by to see what I was up to and said, “you can live in this community your whole life and if you choose not to see this, it isn’t there.” Kids whose alcoholic / drug addicted parent(s) barely register their presence. And btw, these aren’t brown kids. These are desperately poor, small town white and Indian kids who’ve never even witnessed someone make a decision based on best outcome scenarios.

    Yeah, people are going to choose whatever’s sold to them; especially if they’re only offered one choice and are desperate to try and change their lives for the better.

    Keep writing. Press on.

  5. I thought both your Slate piece and this were interesting.

    I’m a vet who got his undergrad degree while on active duty in the 1980s, from an unconventional non-profit (state-controlled) accredited degree-granting institution. I attended four traditional colleges before using the Regents’ External Degree Program to assemble scattered credits and test results into a degree. (This process is now formalized as “Excelsior University” and is run by New York State, not any for profit entity). I did run into some college snobbery in seeking a few jobs, but unless your career is in academia or inside-Beltway punditry, hiring managers tend not to care about your degree. It must pass the ticket-punch of HR managers, who tend to be less educated (even when well-degreed!), less directly concerned about performance, and paradoxically, more prone to school snobbery. Their concern is process, not whatever Firm X is supposedly doing, and the larger the firm the more they cut at cross-purposes to its institutional and financial course.

    After a successful career (a couple of them, in fact), I invested a large amount of money and a great deal of effort in a business that I did not save. It failed. We were able to pay our workers what we owed them, but the firm went Chapter 7 and left some customers and creditors less than whole, stiffed the SBA for a loan, and of course zeroed out investors. Including me. I realized I needed to know more about business, and thought an MBA or a Masters in Finance would do that.

    When I got off active duty, I did very well on the GMAT (99th percentile) and was recruited by B-schools, but didn’t go. Those same institutions that wanted me in my late twenties had less interest in my forties. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this full time.

    After looking at over 50 programs I chose one at a school of many years’ standing, but with a new-ish MBA program, regionally but not AACSB accredited, and that I could do online and classroom courses in (the campus was an hour away from my home). The MBA focused on an industry I’d just lost two years of my life and a large six-figure sum in.

    I cannot compare my MBA coursework to anybody else’s. However, I can compare my post-MBA performance to other B-school grads I’ve worked with, and see what I’ve learned versus what they have. I don’t have stories about famous professors; a friend of mine did classes with Stephen Walt and Steve Levitt while at Chicago, and I particularly envy him his interactions with Levitt. But I did have professors that stretched my mind. Maybe I have a smaller-than-yours mind, but maybe there’s such a glut of PhD talent that good professors are everywhere if you seek them (and are lucky, as I have been). I think I know what Levitt would say.

    I did not get the contacts that I’d have gotten at Chicago or Wharton (two of the schools that wanted young-me in the 1980s). But I’ve subsequently worked with Chicago and Wharton grads, and I’m never the dumb guy in the room. They did cover some things my program didn’t (for example, we never used Porter’s Five Forces to analyze competition, something that’s big in Chicago, and I’ve had to learn on the job). But to my surprise I had more facility with some quant metrics than the big-school guys. And I did an in-depth examination of a specific industry, and performed a capstone project that had some positive effect on an enormous and ongoing regulation change at the regulating agency.

    After all this, my old school sold itself to ITT Tech, so now I’m a graduate of the most reviled for-profit of all, “Matchbook University.” There’s irony in that.

    I paid as I went out of discretionary money. I spent less on personal stuff and instead, chose to use that money to put ideas into my head. I have never owed a dime in college loans. I never drew on the GI Bill (as someone who first went in in the Carter years, I was locked into an inferior variant called VEAP anyway. I PAID INTO this and never saw a dime from it, which is typical).

    My personal opinion, then, bottom line:
    One, the for-profit school can be useful to someone seeking a mere ticket-punch. (That’s what, 90% of the undergraduate market?). It’s especially good for someone seeking to execute that ticket punch as rapidly as possible with the least incremental application of time — when I got my undergrad degree, I was in an active duty Special Forces unit and couldn’t schedule conventional coursework. When the educational advisor told

    Two, you can get a decent education out of online classes and for-profit colleges. The biggest variable isn’t even the quality of the school, it’s the quality of the student. (And isn’t that one of the metrics used to criticize the for-profits, sometimes?)

    Three, a for-profit school will not have the cachet or snob appeal (same denotation, different connotation) of a major research institution for the forseeable future.

    Four, there are debt-free paths to education. They get a lot less press, maybe because there’s less money in it for middlemen.

    I see young people being encouraged to take on massive debt to pursue their dreams. This is a bad idea when their dreams are unclear. I don’t need the MBA to see that some of them will get a negative return on investment. Again, this is especially problematic when young folks know they want “to go to college” but have no firm idea WHY or what they are going to learn. If you have a plan, and it’s a sensible plan, a for-profit school might be what you need, and it might not. If you don’t have a plan, a for-profit and Harvard or MIT will be equally pleased to take Uncle’s money and spit you out with no degree and crushing debt.

  6. I know Alec from college, so I found this entire post and the Twitter back-and-forth which spawned it fascinating. Especially since I am not a white man like Alec, but a Black woman like you. I very much appreciate what you’ve written above about privilege, as i very much appreciate your writing in general.

    I am curious about the opposition set up by this passage: “And to be of use to the people I care about, to contribute to issues I care about, I am more useful as a researcher, even one embodying role conflict and confusion, than I am a righteously indignant agitator who can be easily dismissed as a loud mouthed black body.”

    What if one becomes the latter precisely because one has tried to be the former, to the point of being so accomodating and conciliatory that one ends up being the target of sociopathic abuse and then speaks up in ‘indignant agitation’ because one is pushed out of the academy?

    I ask the question above thinking about what you wrote about not being surprised by inequality, predation, exploitation, because you are a Black woman from the South. But not all of us grew up as aware and came from immigrant backgrounds in which we were taught, falsely, to believe going to the same elite schools as people like Alec meant that structural racism/sexism/inequality aren’t as salient and constraining as they in fact are. Anyway, I’m not disagreeing with you, just acknowledging my own past ignorance.

    And yes, certainly better for a Black woman to write with the authority of the PhD from within the academy than be dismissed as ‘just another Angry black Woman’ without a PhD and thus not worth listening to.

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