Why Do We Accept Labor Abuse? On Learned Helplessness, and the Viet Cong

I come from an abusive and dysfunctional family. For the first seven years of my life, my parents abandoned me to the care of my grandparents and a great aunt, and pretty much anyone else who would feel obligated or coerced into taking me. I grew up feeling that I didn’t belong anywhere – and that sense that I had nowhere to call home made the world feel like a very dangerous place. And frankly, it was.

I have absolutely nothing negative to say about my grandmother, who had herself been orphaned at a young age, and who was extensively abused by nuns in the orphanage where she was sent. She was a beautiful, loving, creative and spiritual woman – deeply Catholic in her religious practices. She attended mass regularly, not just on Sundays, and even sang in the choir right up to the year she passed away. She is the only person in my family I can think of with great love and appreciation, and know that she loved me. I certainly loved her. She did everything she could to nurture and raise me. I have nothing good to say of anyone else. My grandfather was a vicious and violent alcoholic. So was his son, and ultimately his daughter in law. My great aunt was a pedophile who sexually abused the little girls of the family. And my own parents don’t even deserve my mention. When I was seven, the only reason they brought me home was so that I could serve as their babysitter for my newborn sister.

Just about anyone who endures extensive abuse at a young age knows how much damage it does to your entire being: your mind, your emotional structure, your trust structure, your ability to set and maintain boundaries, your sense of self-worth…..the harm is deep and long-lasting. It has taken me the better part of my adult life to heal, and I realize that it’s a job that will never end. But I have learned some important things.

I’ve learned that some wounds are forever. I think of them as a kind of emotional/psychological shrapnel. Embedded in you forever, it waits until there are certain activities, events, accidents, that can trigger the pain. The best you can do is stay aware of the fact that it is the OLD wound you are feeling, and not put all the focus on what caused the current activation. Another way to think about it: Say your foot was crushed in a terrible accident, and had to be reconstructed with many surgeries and physical therapy and that you still had a slight limp because of it. If someone accidentally stepped on that foot while you were dancing, the pain and incapacitation it would cause has much less to do with your clumsy dance partner and everything to do with the previous extensive wounding. You need to learn how to accurately assess the current wounding while separating out your needs and responses which arise from the old wounds.

I’ve also learned that an abusive childhood has a kind of deep, magnetic familiarity to it. And, sadly, that familiarity is not the same as “normal” — it’s woven through with the abusive experiences that were so constant in our experience.  This, also, is something abused people know well enough. It’s why you are drawn to the alcoholic abuser lover when you had an alcoholic abuser as a parent or grandparent. It is why you are easy pickings for a sexual abuser, since your boundaries never formed. It doesn’t feel good, but it feels familiar. And, unfortunately, feeling good is not familiar. Feeling worthy is not familiar. Feeling loved is not familiar. And because they are not familiar to us, their strangeness signals danger – a very sad thing, really, since we flee from the very experiences that would provide us with an atmosphere more healing and more joyful. Instead we move toward the familiar that brings more of the same misery, fear, danger, harm and struggle, suffer, dream for a better life.

It’s one thing to get conscious about all this. It’s another to actually rewire your psyche so that the right things, the healthy things, the powerfully positive things are what attract you.

While a lot of literature has been written about the ways we replicate our abusive relationships with the lovers and friends we choose, not so much has been written about the ways we reproduce our abusive atmosphere in the work we choose.

This brings us to faculty labor abuse in corporatized academia. While it is only one example of the kinds of abusive work situations many people now find themselves enduring, it is the one I know.

As a child, one of my only places of joy was school. I excelled as a student, got excellent grades, loved learning. I would go to school with a fever if I could. I would limp there with two broken legs if allowed. School was my safe place.

It’s not unusual for children who are physically abused to “go into their heads” – and many children who experience abuse of the body become more, shall we say, “head locked” – all their energy moves up into the head, into the intellect, which they trust much more than they trust their body. They don’t feel safe in their bodies, since that is where pain and memory of pain exists.

So I was an eagerly intellectual person who loved nothing more than the college campus, once I was old enough to go to university. I loved nothing more than researching, writing papers, being the best student, being the promising young scholar. I thought I’d found my calling and that I would live at the bosom of Mother Academia for the remainder of my life. For someone who never internalized a sense of “home” and “safety”, I felt that I was finally wrapped in security and well-being.

But my entry into academia corresponded to the years of corporate takeover of our universities. By the time I was ready to teach, the only jobs available in my region were adjunct jobs. And since by then I was married to a trial attorney whose work was very much based in our city, I had little choice but to focus my own search regionally. These were the days when few had fully grasped what was happening to the profession of the scholar. It was too soon to see that this adjunctification, this “casualization” of our chosen occupation was nothing less than a creeping ruin. These were still the years when we just entering the profession believed that teaching of any kind was preferable to not using our training, and that a full resume of teaching part-time while continuing to search for full-time employment looked better on a resume than working in another field. Of course, it’s clear now that the part-time contracts marked you as an undesirable to those hiring committees. It also – and this is important – marked us psychologically. It trained us to accept the abuse of poverty wages, insecure hiring, disrespectful treatment, dehumanization. I think back now to those experiments in learned helplessness conducted at the University of Pennsylvania and realize that a similar kind of experience was being endured by those of us in that first generation who would become “career adjuncts”.

It took me years to realize that the increasing misery and self-loathing, the anxiety and agony I was feeling was very, very much like that of my childhood. It took years for me to realize that I was, once again, in the paralysis of the abuse victim – and that my chosen profession had brought me to a place that exactly replicated my childhood (and that includes sexual abuse, which will be saved for another conversation except for me to say that the elder men of the professoriate, the old professorial elite, saw the women graduate students as part of their list of perks. We were on the menu, shall we say).

Academia no longer felt good to me – but damn if it didn’t feel familiar.

This was not me responding in some overblown way to an old abusive history.  This was me recognizing, from my own hard-won experience, what abuse looked like and felt like, and what it cost a person to endure it.

So the university system is abusive.  Of course it is.  It abuses the people most central to its purported mission – the scholars.  It abuses its students.  The shifts caused by the takeover of the corporate culture have caused a lot of misery.  And is there ever dysfunction. When I look back to my childhood world – the dysfunction took the form of secrecy, denial, sexual and physical abuse, ever-existent fear and anxiety. Pretense of normalcy had to be maintained at all times. University dysfunction is not much different. There is a lot of secrecy; corporate academia does everything possible to keep secret from parents, students, the population at large exactly what kind of sweat shop the college campus has become. There is a lot of pretense, a lot of denial around the fact that administrators have created a sort of edu-factory. Those “admins” who have never taught a day in their lives are designing courses rather than the scholars who have trained for an average of 10 years apiece to credential themselves. Needless to say, there is little quality learning possible in the kind of cookie-cutter courses being created. We could all list hundreds of examples of why the university that exists in 2018 has to be in denial about its failures as an institution of higher learning. Sexual abuse? Always. Ask any female grad student. Physical abuse? Well….while contingent faculty are not being beaten by administrators physically, the poverty wages, lack of health insurance and benefits, lack of job security or professional support is professional abuse, as well as emotional abuse. Living under constant strain, stress, humiliation, anxiety…..I’d call that emotional abuse, wouldn’t you?

Flash back to my beloved grandmother. She stayed in her miserable marriage to the alcoholic and abusive husband. She raised her children – both of whom were entirely warped by the experience despite her best efforts. She did her best to protect and care for her grandchildren, myself included. But she never ever stood up and fought back. Instead she went to mass. She said the rosary every day. She placed faith in a god that never ever protected her – not from the abusive nuns of her orphaned childhood and not from the abusive husband.

My grandmother died at 66 from breast cancer – I think of the root cause as a broken and diseased heart. But here is the thing: my grandmother refused treatment. She refused to do anything to prolong her life. She chose death. She confided in me that it was her one act of refusal.

I am approaching my grandmother’s age, and have been thinking a lot about her life and her choices. And I realized that I was a lot more like my grandmother than I wanted to admit. She stayed in the abusive situation until it wore her down so much that she embraced death. I stayed in abusive academic work, feeling myself to be beaten down more each year, wrestling with suicidal ideation, sometimes feeling that death would be preferable. I even gave an interview with Stacey Patton which went viral, in which I told her, “Suicide is my retirement plan.”

I’m a good person, a gifted person, an extremely well-educated person. I did my human, imperfect best to raise my children with love and support, yet I know now that my children suffered because of my career choice and the financial insecurity it brought into our lives. I know that they suffered from the amount of anxiety and insecurity I constantly felt. In short, my behavior was very much like my grandmother’s. I have poured a lot of my sorrow into my spiritual work. And I have not sufficiently fought back against my abusers.

Oh, and “staying for the children”? It didn’t work for my grandmother, and it doesn’t work for us in academia. Our students are being warped and ruined by what masquerades as a university experience, too. We can’t stay for them in any positive way – that was the last thing that kept me hanging in. But I finally realized that what little good I might be able to do for the students in my short time with them was undone by the great harm they faced. In the end, I was part of their exploitation by giving myself up to this corrupted system.  You can’t stay in an abusive environment in order to protect the children; you have to fight and end the abuse.

So, a few years ago, I left academia for good. But I have not left the fight. It’s taken me this past year or so to work on healing and getting my strength and my will back.   But now, I believe with all my heart that my warrior abilities are greatly enhanced by being outside the institution. In reference to the old “inside/outside” strategy, I’d like to say that our “inside” ability to fight has been nearly non-existent for lack of a sufficiently terrifying “outside”.  Everyone knows that our government would never have worked with Martin Luther King as an “inside” activist, if not for the far more terrifying prospect of Malcolm X and those perceived to be the more radical elements of the civil rights movement, fighting on the “outside”.   I have known for a long time that my personality is much more in harmony with the Malcolms of the world, so I feel certain that I’m where I belong.

If my grandmother had fought, if my grandmother had freed herself, she might have wanted to stay alive. But instead she struggled with her need to forgive the most rotten people around her, trusting that some day they would somehow, magically, become better people. Her broken heart ultimately led her to embrace an early death in despair. I don’t have any such illusion.  I forgive nothing.  I don’t expect magic or a religious miracle.

Let’s talk, finally, about the experience of abandonment. My parents abandoned me. I know what that kind of betrayal feels like. And I accuse the full-time faculty, the education unions*, the legislators, of abandoning the growing number of scholars being pushed into penury. Four decades.   Where were the full-time faculty, those of that last generation of full-time professors who were on the inside and saw, probably better than anyone, what was happening? Where was their anger? Where was their refusal? Where was their determination, if not to protect the ever-increasing number of faculty poor, to protect their profession?….to protect academia? When they were still large in number, why didn’t they rise up? Where were our legislators? Where were the education unions? For way too many years, the education unions were interested only in representing full-time faculty. When did they wake up? It was only once they saw their union dues dipping toward zero that they realized that the majority faculty was not full-time anymore, and that there were thousands and thousands of potential part-time faculty union members on every campus across the U.S. – bodies whose money they needed to fill up their coffers. Even then, those unions didn’t really beef up their game until they realized that outside unions like the SEIU and the USW were organizing on campuses.  The result:  Abandonment and betrayal by those we should have been able to trust.

Here is the last thing I want to say. When you are living in an abusive situation, you do NOT ask the abuser to try and abuse you a little less. You don’t say, “I know you beat me every night, but can you, maybe, only beat me four times a week?”

That’s what the unions and administrators like to call “incremental change”. We hear that phrase everywhere these days. Be patient, we are told. It will take time to get that $2/hour raise, or to have job security, or a sense of safety in your life.  Or food in your refrigerator. How many decades of patience should we wait?  As we all know, justice so long withheld is no justice at all.

So please pardon my language when I say fuck the living shit out of THAT. Fuck it hard.

My alcoholic abusive grandfather lived into his late 90s. He lived a full thirty years longer than the woman he crushed.

Abusers. Exploiters. Bastards. Predators. They live too long. They feed on the rest of us.

It is our right, as trained professionals, as those who dedicated decades of life in academic training and research, in preparation for an honorable career, to demand the FULL restoration of our professional role and stature. It is our right to demand restitution for the years of labor exploitation, wage and benefit theft, as well as the harm suffered by lack of professional development. No more incremental bullshit.  And let’s take a page from those teachers in West Virginia.  When the unions told them to be patient, they told the unions to fuck off, and they marched, state-wide, out of their classrooms to get what they demanded. If the unions are too weak or too unwilling to take a more radical stance, we will have no choice but to do it without them.

I’ll go farther and say that, not only is it our right to make these demands – it is our responsibility. It is our responsibility to fight for full restoration of our profession, not only for ourselves but for those who come after us. For future scholars and for our students. For our society, which is in desperate need of its scholars and intellectuals. It is our responsibility to fight to save the institution of higher education, and to rip it from the talons of those truly vile soul-suckers who have possessed it for too long.

Corporate colonization of academia has now destroyed two generations of the country’s scholars, and is on the way to destroying generation #3.  It is destroying the institution of higher learning itself. It has ruined the lives of students, pulling them into an educational pretense and burdening them with lifelong debt.  The death knell is ringing louder and louder each year. The corporate colonizers don’t care, because except for the illusion they pay PR firms to maintain, they aren’t in it to serve the mission of academia.   For many years now, I’ve used the term corporate colonization very intentionally, because I see this as a complete, sweeping domination of one culture over another.  I think of it the way I think of the colonialism of the last century.  A powerful culture, in this case, the corporate culture, has conquered the academic culture and uses that domination to create a slavish underclass — those members of academic culture are now the dehumanized creatures serving at the end of an economic whip on the college plantations.  And those who could and should have fought against it have become the apologists and functionaries of the new power, the way the upper class Vietnamese learned French, converted to Catholicism, sent their children to study in Paris and looked the other way as their own people were being beaten and starved on the rubber plantations.  I look to the work of scholars like Trinh T. Minh-Ha in understanding what happens to a culture once it is crushed by the dominance of a foreign power.

We have been abandoned and betrayed. There is no denying it.  And just as those aristocratic Vietnamese functionaries continued to serve foreign powers until the fall of Saigon, the aristocratic functionaries of academia will continue to reap the benefits of the role they play; they will continue to keep their boot on the neck of the majority faculty and the students as long as they are rewarded for it.

In short:  The cavalry ain’t coming.  Not in the form of full-time faculty allies, not in the form of unions, not in the form of legislation.  WE are the cavalry.  It is our responsibility to see this fight more clearly, and to enter it with guns blazing, and to win.

That’s what I’ve learned. That abusers feed on crushing others. They depend on our growing sense of helplessness and hopelessness. A lifetime of knowing the wickedness of this sort of person has taught me, finally, that you don’t go begging to your abusers. You don’t cower.  And what is true of the microcosm is true of the macrocosm. You don’t go begging to those in positions of brutal domination.  You have to neutralize them, to eradicate them. You crush them to end them crushing you. You do what you have to do to defeat them and liberate yourself. You go Viet Cong on their ass. I can envision and embrace this once I imagine that I am fighting for my children, that we are fighting for all our children.  We are fighting for the coming generations.  We are fighting to rescue our culture and our society.  It’s much bigger than our individual struggles.  Abusers will never give you anything other than abuse. And if they are forced by some external power – whether it is a restraining order, or union bargaining or new legislation, to give back some of what they stole from you, it will be done with barely concealed rage and with every intention to steal it back from you again. This is true of individual abusers and it is true of abusive systems and institutions.

Here is what we have to do:  Refuse the abuse. Completely. Take back every single one of your rights. Don’t ask for them. TAKE THEM. Don’t sit like penitents at a bargaining table weighted against you. Don’t say thank you for the slightly-increased pile of crumbs you receive. One result of our abuse is that we accept the abusers’ definition of who we are, of what we are worth, of what we should expect. Screw them. Take the board room. Take the whole pie. Take the whole campus. Take control of your life and your profession. Defeat them. You don’t bargain with the devil.  You exorcise him.

The worst thing you can do is be “reasonable”, or “patient”.   Our civility has been our biggest weakness.  It is time to get fierce.

It is time for an academic Dien Bien Phu.  It is time for an academic Fall of Saigon.

What the hell does that mean?  It means we come together with a determination to get as radical as necessary.  We don’t look to the unions, because they are too weak — they’ve shown that they are unwilling and unable to get radical enough.  We come together with all scholars across the U.S. and into the other countries facing this sort of takeover.  It means we come together with our students, both past and present to add their fight with ours: demanding mass student debt forgiveness and free university tuition.  It means some of us take control of the campuses.   Others of us walk off, all across the country, as students refusing to matriculate to colleges that fail and ruin them, as a majority faculty refusing to set foot in a classroom unless total administrative control is ceded to the scholars. Until there is no career administrator on any campus in the country. Until all sovereignty is in the hands of the scholars and their students. Until the corporate model of universities has been smashed to pieces and academia once again restored to its true mission. Until our universities are run cooperatively by scholars and students for the purpose of scholarship and learning and the social good.

Should we do this?  Hell, yes.  Can we do this? It will take a massive shift in the way we think about ourselves and the way we experience our strength.  But, yes, we can do this.   How do we do this? By any means necessary. Yes, obviously, it is yet another borrowed phrase….but it is the only rallying cry we should allow. The only true way forward.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

*I want to say that it is my observation that the SEIU and the USW — unions that were not traditionally the “education” sector unions — saw the need and responded by stepping in to unionize contingent faculty.  They have been more determined and more ferocious in their efforts, and remain so.  But they entered the battle late — at a time when the corporate control of our universities was more fully cemented into place.  That has caused the fight to be arduous and slow.  The progress has been excruciatingly slow, which means that the suffering of the majority faculty has not been helped much.  You can’t stop the hemorrhaging once so much blood has been lost.  I still, however, hold out more hope that those unions, and other unions which represent a wider field of occupations, could help us in greater radicalization, and could call on a wider population of workers to join us in walk-outs, work stoppage, general strikes.  I would welcome their increased ferocity.  But I can’t any longer support a process of inch-by-inch incremental change as the only hope in ending the widespread suffering of this corporate takeover.


About junctrebellion

'Junct Rebellion was established to raise awareness of the corporate colonization that has taken over our U.S. universities, beginning in the 1980s and growing more and more dire with each decade. Our state universities used to be free, or very low-cost; they used to employ full-time faculty; they were run by faculty for the purpose of disseminating scholarship, to fellow academics and students and to society at large. Now, stratospheric tuitions and crippling student loan debt have been normalized, 80% of faculty across the country are hired on "adjunct" contracts, usually lasting one semester at a time. Classes are designed and overseen by administrators who have never taught. Administrators outnumber both faculty and students on most campuses across the U.S. In short, our academic system has been hijacked by for-profit "business models" and corporatist values. Education is a social good and should be seen, valued and supported as such. It is not a commodity. Our students are not sacrificial lambs. Our scholars are not untouchables, to be starved out of existence. Please join us in our efforts to restore high-quality academia to American society.
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1 Response to Why Do We Accept Labor Abuse? On Learned Helplessness, and the Viet Cong

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    I should have remembered to thank Beth for the reminder to revisit this post — liked it then, meant to re-read and comment but didn’t get back it before forgetting. Searched for it today on Junct FB page to share from there.

    Admittedly. I was at a loss to the Viet Cong connection (asking myself “is this a call for guerrilla tactics?”) until I got down to the colonialism connection. Indeed the higher ed system is twisted example of interior colonialism — and the image still evokes guerrilla insurrection.

    SEIU has a problematic history of making deals with bosses when it comes to contracts but at least organizes groups that major unions have overlooked. UAW targets graduate student workers, uneven record there too. Less of a major, CWA’s Campus Workers is probably my fave. That said, I have to agree that it’s all too little too late — unless the imo impending collapse of the system opens new possibilities to combine with organizing ferocity.

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