The first time I heard the term “disposable population” was during an interview with Henry Giroux, in which he argues that, because of the way we have understood social interactions as market transactions for the last 40 years, we have created a disposable population of young people for whom we feel no responsibility for. Each of us as individuals feel no responsibility because, since we now believe that every social interaction should mirror a market transaction, we only value short term investments which each of us benefits from individually. This neoliberal thinking, of course, pairs nicely with, and stands on the shoulders of, the mythology of meritocracy, something with us as Americans since our inception, which argues that individual actions, rather than larger social interactions, are the deciding factors in an individual’s success or failure in life.
Both of these concepts spoke to me as soon as I heard them. The fact that students are now mired in student loan debt before they even begin participating as an adult in our society shows the ways in which this neoliberal thinking has infiltrated our interactions. In one university I worked in New Jersey, which was also my father’s alma mater, the university’s dedicated funding in 2016 (funding made up of a combination of local, state, and federal taxes which does not fluctuate with enrollment) was 15 percent. The other 85 percent was made up by each student, through a mixture of what the students’ family could afford to pay outright, institution scholarships the student qualified for, and student loans. This funding model was completely flipped when my father had gone to this university in the 1960s. And this is not atypical. All of the colleges I adjuncted for in New Jersey (5 in total) had similar funding histories. This shows me how our thinking has changed in relations to our interactions with, and feelings of responsibility for, each other. In my father’s generation higher education was seen as a public good we would all benefit from in various ways (higher tax revenues from the higher salaries produced by specialized jobs, advancements in technology, quality of life, etc); therefore we should all have a part in paying for the majority of it. By the time we reach 2016, we have decided that whatever benefits a student acquires from higher education belongs solely to him or her and does not benefit us directly in any significant way; therefore that student is more or less on his or her own in financing it.
In addition, as a community college professor, I have always served these disposable populations. In the past few years I have become more militant in my Marxian critiques of capitalism because I have seen, through my students’ writings, how they have been traumatized both mentally and physically by the poverty manufactured by capitalism. I have had students who wrote about the precautions they need to take in the neighborhood because of its danger. I have had students who have wrote about how lucky they feel to still be alive after regularly hearing gun shots in the neighborhood they grew up. I have had students whose entire high school social circles were incarcerated. I have had students who longed to see loved ones who had been shot to death. One student had a tattoo of his sister on his forearm whom he had lost (he would not tell me how) when he was a child. Later on in the semester he disappeared for a week; when he returned he told me that he had been put in Bergen Pines (the local psych facility for the poor and uninsured) after he had cut himself.
In the neoliberal mindset in which I was brought up, it’s very easy to dismiss, and therefore dispose of, these students. If only their parents had been responsible, had behaved correctly, they would not be poor and therefore could have lived in better neighborhoods where they would not have had to deal with these traumas. If that last student’s parents had made better decisions, he would have had ample health insurance to deal with his mental health issues. But several large studies done since the 1970s argue that the behaviors we associate with poverty (unwillingness to work, wanting something for nothing, inability to delay gratification) are not the deciding factors in securing someone within a socioeconomic class because these traits occur more or less equally within every socioeconomic class. Therefore, other factors outside of an individual’s control has to account for the fact that (1) those in the lower classes who do not share these negative traits don’t move up through the classes, and (2) individuals with these negative traits within the upper classes aren’t pulled down into perpetual poverty.
And even if these studies showed that these traits are the deciding factors, does that mean that these students deserve their trauma? Deserve to be disposed of? In Marx’s Capital, he discusses “fetishism” which he argues is a system in which capitalism conceals the true nature of the relationships between people and things. For example, if I go into a supermarket to buy an apple, all I know about the apple is its price. I buy the best looking apple at that price because I want the most for my money. If I know that the supermarket a few doors down is selling the same apples for less, then I will go the competitor to buy that apple because, again, I want the most for my money. Buying the apple (this relationship between me and a thing) hides a myriad of other relationships of which both the apple and I am connected to. I have no idea who picked this apple and under what conditions; how little he or she was paid to pick it so that the price I pay ends up being lower. And even if I do suspect this, that this cheaper apple is brought to me because whoever picked it wasn’t paid enough to provide for themselves or families, I don’t care. I have been brought up to act this way in every market transaction; I have been trained to look for the highest quality product/service for the lowest price; if I can do this I have, in essence, “won;” I have, ideally, gotten at least the equivalent, perhaps sometimes more than I deserve, for the transaction. This “fetishism” then both conceals and naturalizes the cruelties of capitalism. If I am brought up to behave this way, then I believe that this is the way things naturally are, not only in market transactions but social ones as well; this is the natural (and therefore correct) way to interact with not only the products/services I wish to consume, but other people as well. Therefore, I can then dispose of these populations without feeling guilt because this is the way it’s supposed to be. I would argue that, along with the nefarious marriage of meritocracy and neoliberalism, this is where the mindset of the middle and ruling classes are at now.
The “disposable population” argument is part of a larger argument made by Giroux, in which he talks about “collective punishment,” (or as he expands on the idea, the “culture of cruelty”). Neoliberalism argues that our natural state is as individuals, but studies have shown that we are in fact much happier operating as groups. Giroux argues that, if we are not going to collectively look out for each other, because being in groups is actually more natural to us than existing as lone individuals, we will then collectively punish each other. This leads to an expansion of the police state both inside and outside of the classroom, where the slightest transgressions are met with violence, where small towns are given military gear to quell protests, where, as Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in regards to the police shooting of his unarmed black friend by an undercover cop, “great fear was crime and any hint—any inkling of crime…the police were empowered to do whatever they wanted.” Although other countries with much lower incarceration and murder rates show us that there are other, more humane strategies for ameliorating social ills through different combinations of social services administered through the state, within our county’s “culture of cruelty,” the default accepted response (essentially our social service administered through the state) has become violence.
I think this then is a good framework in which to understand the latest iterations of the gun debate. Although not the first mass shooting, I want to begin the time line with Columbine because, as far as my generation and my students’ generation are concerned, this is when the frequency of mass shootings increases, to the point of creating the atmosphere of fear in schools (as well as other public spaces) in which we now routinely operate. And before I continue, I want to note that when I refer to the NRA, I am referring to its leadership and a small group of influential members, not to every NRA member or gun owner. Polls show that majorities of gun owners in and out of the NRA want common sense gun control. They understand, as most legal scholars, including as the hard line Originalist Antonin Scalia did, that the Second Amendment, like every other amendment, is not absolute and can be restricted. Of course, how restricted and what restrictions then become the debate. But the NRA does not see it this way and have been doing everything they can to keep any restrictions from being put into place since they changed their mission from training gun owners how to use firearms safely in the 1960s.
Once Columbine happened, the NRA’s spokesman at the time, Charlton Heston, argued that Columbine was an “isolated incident” in which gun owners were being blamed because their opponents “want a villain.” If you look at mass shootings before Columbine this idea of an isolated incident is not true, but because perhaps the shootings before Columbine were more spread out and not as dramatic, they were not on the middle class’ radar yet, so the argument worked. This, along with intense pressure from a few of the members, defeated the law which would have closed the “Gun Show Loophole” which had allowed the Columbine shooters to obtain their weapons.
Interestingly, and important to understanding how this debate has evolved, is the way that Heston, in a now iconic image, ended that speech. To me this is where the actual argument from the NRA can be located. He held up a rifle and said, of anyone trying to restrict his gun use: “From my cold dead hands!” In other words: If, in order for me to own any gun I want, the price to be paid is your child’s life, then so be it. Your child is disposable. Even if this was not the intention of his words, this has been, as we have seen since Columbine, the consequence.
Fast forward to Sandy Hook. By now, as this time line shows, the frequency of mass shootings has increased and there is no way the NRA can argue it is an isolated incident. And, of course, what I believe to be their true argument, that our children’s lives are a fair price to pay for their unlimited right, probably wouldn’t go over well either. So the NRA’s President, Wayne LaPierre, then uses what I will call here, the unargument: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
I’m calling this an unargument because I’m not sure what else to call it. It functions the same as a logical fallacy in that its purpose is to shut down debate, but whereas logical fallacies somehow deflect from the argument to another subject, this statement stays on topic. For example, one of the most infamous logical fallacies being overused now by our President, Donald Trump, is whataboutism. Whenever he is presented with evidence of collusion with Russia, the President’s immediate response is “What about Hillary’s emails?” This then changes the subject we’re arguing; instead of arguing Trump’s possible wrongdoing, we are now arguing Hillary’s. Because Trump knows that he can not argue collusion on its merits, he uses this tactic to shut down the argument. But LaPierre’s quote stays on topic; we are still talking about how to solve the problem of mass shootings. But this suggestion, that we give more people access to guns, flies in the face of all common sense. If you want to bring down the number of shootings (which can only be caused by guns) common sense would say you need to reduce the number of guns. Someone can not be shot if the other person doesn’t have a gun. But instead we have this ridiculous claim to do the exact opposite of common sense.
And now, after Parkland, we have the same argument revisited, this time with more specifics. The NRA’s suggestions for changing the physical make-up of schools are frightening, moving schools from containing elements of the police state to actually existing as a police state. And then there is the latest flourish, arming teachers. Again, common sense tells us, as this ex-marine clearly demonstrates, these are not good ideas. We can then see that these unarguments are not actually intended to solve anything; they are intended, like logical fallacies, to shut down an argument that the side using them knows it can not win on merit. If the NRA used the argument that is actually driving them, that our children are disposable, that our children are the price we have to pay for their gun ownership, they would lose at the outset and common sense gun control would be enacted. And after the “isolated incident” argument no longer functioned, these unarguments became the only alternative.
But if this is case, why, 6 years after this idea was first proposed, are we still discussing it? Why are memes, on both sides of the argument, popping up in my feeds? Why are some of the articles I linked here feel the need to refute this ridiculous proposition? Why am I even writing this rebuttal? Because we have naturalized the “culture of cruelty.” Although the proposition is absolutely ridiculous, we in fact see it as an acceptable solution to be debated because, after decades of incarcerating people for minor infractions and for drug addictions, after decades of believing that the police are allowed to do what they feel necessary, including murder, to keep us safe, we only understand violence as a solution.
And if we look at my generation, and especially my parents’, I see no hope for change. My generation, now in our 30s and 40s, are too concerned trying to make ends meet with our own families to be of any real use politically. And this “culture of cruelty” has had the disturbing effect of infantalization on the bulk of our parents, the Baby Boomer generation. The selfishness of neoliberalism was too attractive for them to resist. Feeling no responsibility to their children or grandchildren, they spent the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries tearing down any social services through the state which had helped them and their parents, in the name of lowering their own tax bills. (Those of us in my generation lucky enough to make it into the middle class participated in this destruction as well in the twenty-first century). And, of course, the logical conclusion so far of this orgy of austerity happened last year with the latest tax “reform,” in which the bulk of savings will go to the top of the Baby Boomer generation while my and my students’ generations will be left with the bill long after their generation is gone. This is the behavior of spoiled and entitled children, not responsible adults.
But while the adults have been acting like children for the past 40 years, the aftermath of Parkland has showed us that the children are acting like adults. And why wouldn’t they be? Whether or not our current high school and college students have actually experienced a school shooting, the regular “active shooter drills” this generation has undergone is trauma enough. And if the adults are too busy acting like petulant children (giving themselves new tax breaks and posting memes about how entitled Millennials are) to fix this, it forces the children to become those missing adults. The Parkland students have used protest and social media in ways the center left could never affect because of its understanding of neoliberalism as a natural state. This generation of students understand that the cruelties of capitalism are not natural, are not our default as human beings. I hope that we have reached a tipping point now, that the Parkland students and my students and students all over the country, the first generation to come of voting age within the full fruition of this “culture of cruelty,” will not only get common sense gun control enacted, but change the way we view each other, pull back the veil that “fetishism” has thrown over us, tear down the ways neoliberalism has rationalized greed, and construct new, more compassionate ways for us to interact with each other.