You Are Not Your Productivity: Musings on Disability, Anti-Work Philosophy and Youth Liberation

Fun facts! ...Well the facts aren't exactly fun but...

Fun facts! …Well the facts aren’t exactly fun but…

A friend of mine linked from a site called The Body is Not an Apology: Radical Self-Love for Everybody and Everybody and specifically an article entitled “You Do Not Exist to Be Used:” Dismantling Ideas of Productivity in Life Purpose, by Gillian Giles. All of these are fairly click-bait-eque titles with your usual social justice jargon and an aesthetic that reminds you of every Buzzfeed imitator site you’ve been on…but the content is usually still good.

These sites often frustrate me because they go with a very forgettable format that everyone else does and always seems to have the same topics written by the same authors. I’m not saying the content is bad or that the work these sites are doing isn’t important or necessary but it just feels so rehashed and boilerplate, it gets tiring.

Anyways, that’s part of the reason why I typically don’t read sites like this (Everyday Feminism is another exemplar of what I mean) but it isn’t always good enough reasoning and in this case I felt compelled to check out an article that looked promising and related to the site.

It lacks quite a bit in formal argumentation, mostly Giles just makes hard assertions and then keeps reinforcing them without much elaboration, only further critique of the idea of productivity under capitalism. But the critiques themselves are good and the language used is fairly effective in conveying their meaning, so I definitely liked it.

Let’s take a look:

My childhood was colored by my experiences navigating my disabilities. At an early age I was diagnosed with ADHD, hearing loss and dealt with a neuromuscular disease that was later in life diagnosed as myasthenia gravis. The school system by far was the arena where I experienced the most difficulties navigating as disabled because of its centering of productivity. Ever since the age I was able to attend school, academia has been a primary source of stress and poor self-worth for me.

I also grew up having ADHD but I didn’t have these other disabilities and I’m also not black (as the author is) so my own personal experiences will be different then theirs. Obviously, from my perspective, I was accepted a lot more by my peers because I was already normalized from the start given my race. My sporadic lack of production was just seen as “misbehaving” or simply falling off the wagon of good behavior instead of being intrinsically lazy or “a problem”.

It’s still true though that I was forcibly put on medication (children don’t have much say in this stuff, especially when teachers and parents agree on something) and that I was separated from the “normal” kids. They did this by putting me on an IED (individualized education plan) for 10 years and making me sit in classrooms with everyone from folks who had anger issues (throwing desks and chairs), to those who were just “problem kids” and anything else.

It was a humiliating experience that I never had any control over. At the time I don’t think I felt consistently humiliated but I did feel pretty consistently othered in ways that I wasn’t sure I really wanted to be. I felt like the other kids didn’t take me seriously or didn’t think I was smart enough to be seen as “normal.”

But, admittedly, none of this really impacted my studies for the most part.

Whether it was because of the medicine, my own personal will or my genuine interests in academics, I never showed many signs (especially in middle school and early high school) of not doing my best to focus on my studies and taking school seriously. I was lucky in that I was white and didn’t have any physical disorders that impaired my ability to be able to complete tasks, therefore I was often considered “abnormal but acceptable”.

This isn’t the case for folks who are disabled in physical ways and especially not when you have intersections of race and class going on as well. Whether you have muscle issues, or you’re confined to a wheelchair or perhaps you have some sort of chronic pain condition, the way you interact with the world is going to be very different from me and other folks whose disabilities or impairments we’re able to (usually) compensate for.

I can usually mask the fact that my ADHD is still an issue for me (albeit of a lesser kind) but in the workplace where many things require my attention sometimes it comes out in the form of poor short-term memory. Or perhaps I’ll get easily distracted by something and then my autism will kick in and I’ll start hyper-focusing on it (I don’t consider being autistic an inherent disability but it is related to how my brain functions so I thought it was worth mentioning).

Work and school are both brutal environments that reinforce and teach us to self-enforce these concepts of productivity and that our lives don’t matter unless we’re writing in our textbooks or getting the orders ready exactly on time. Our lives somehow hold less meaning if we don’t have jobs or we’re seen as losers and outcasts of society. People make up excuses or use euphemistic language like, “Oh, I’m just between jobs right now.” because they’ve likely been taught to be ashamed of the fact that they haven’t been able to find work and thus be productive.

As Giles writes:

From a young age we are taught that our bodies and our purpose is to produce within effective normative means. That in order to be something of worth, you must prove productivity. The ideology of productivity in life purpose extends far beyond the school system. Expectations of productivity range from being able to get out of bed on a bad day, reproduce children, ride a bike or be successful in an academic task. In failing to be useful, we are told we are not of value or valued as less than. It is these bodies that fail to meet social standards of productivity that are most often marginalized.

To be clear, I don’t have anything against productivity per se’. I don’t thnik there’s anything inherently wrong with doing things in a fast and effective way that still meets your goals satisfactorily. But I don’t think that productivity under capitalism in particular is an unhealthy way to frame the concept of productivity. Because it turns it into a personal matter that involves messy concepts like self-worth and identity.

It involves things that we don’t and shouldn’t tie up with our personal identity just so we can feel better about ourselves. Sometimes these things are even used as tools so people can feel like their better than other folks and this is where these already toxic concepts become externally toxic as well and begin harming others.

People start thinking: “Well, Jimmy couldn’t even do 5 math problems in a minute and therefore I’m obviously a better person than him! Ha, what a slacker! He’s probably a lazy good for nothing whose parents didn’t raise him right!” Kids especially, who may have been taught by their parents or society around them without the necessary critical thinking skills that should accompany any child stuck in power relations they didn’t choose, are susceptible to these thoughts.

Giles elaborates more on how this happens:

Within the economic and social landscape, the bifurcation of the normative abled bodied citizen and disabled one creates an assumption that a proper citizen is an able productive one, that the economic and social value of personhood is conflated with restrictive notions of productivity. The result of this binary is that the disabled body is rendered as other, less useful then simply as just less.

It is the inherent ableism of society, of capitalism’s productivity, that teaches us that we must be of use, that we are tools to be used to produce and that our entirety our purpose is hinged on a framework of productivity.

Ableism is another serious systematic issue and it’s one that I haven’t focused on as much as perhaps I should. But it generally relates to a culture that ties up our efforts and their consequences with our character. I don’t mean to suggest that what we produce says nothing about ourselves. If someone keeps producing (let’s use an extreme example) some sort of weapon that could only really be used for offensive means, we may want to be cautious about this person.

But it’s trickier when we have something like the results of a standardized test, or the results of you trying your hardest at work, or even the work you try to put in socially. If you don’t go out a lot and don’t try to meet new people and tend to keep to yourself, some folks may just presume you live a sad and lonely life. And while that’s possible it’s not always the case since we have very introverted people in this society who’d just rather be by themselves for the most part.

The “tools to be used” especially applies wherever there are systems of power such as the teacher over the pupil or the boss over the worker. As Robert Anton Wilson said, “communication can only happen between equals” and the school system and workplace makes communication very difficult because its based on many hierarchies of not only race, gender and class but also of how able bodied you can be.

I’m fortunate in that I can handle retail and service-based jobs. It’s really difficult at times and often times I feel like I come back from my shift a bit more tired than other people might if they weren’t autistic and introverted. But in any case, I’ve proven time and time again that I’m able to handle it, even if it’s certainly not my favorite thing in the world.

One of the worst parts of all of this is that shame carries a lot of weight:

The shame and isolation I felt as a child surrounding my productivity are traumas that still follow me and impede on my self-worth.  Even now when trying to keep up with capitalist demands of labor and productivity with work and daily struggles this notion continues to catch up with me. I’m just beginning to unlearn these behaviors, to deconstruct internalized ideas about how my body is to be used, what purpose I am to have and the shame of not being able to fulfill these expectations.

My own personal struggles have more to do with feelings intellectually non-productive than anything else. If I’m not engaging the world in a critical enough way or in a way that provokes others to some sort of thought, I feel like I haven’t done enough with myself. I feel like I haven’t accomplished enough or “proven” myself for the day in some important way.

And that’s really hard for me, to feel like I’m right back in school and am regarded not as smart as I know I am or can be. When people poke fun at my intelligence it tends to sting more than other insults because I spent most of my academic life being passively bullied by other kids about my aptitude, called “sped” and generally “othered” by the system.

My intention here isn’t to compare my experience and Gile’s but to show where I particularly fit in in this complex network of oppressive systems that happens under capitalism.

I’ll close this article by quoting Gile’s concluding passages:

Practicality and function do not factor into how you should be treated in regards to your humanity. Your personhood, your value does not correlate with how measurable your achievements are on a wider scale or how they benefit the capitalist underpinnings of society.

You do not exist to be used.

The body is not a tool to be used or disposed of regardless of your ability or productivity. Do not let any system or person convince you that you are disposable or less because you cannot be used to measure up to ablest notions of work. You are not here to fulfill a purpose or function that’s been set out for you that’s normative, expectable or respectable.

Your life is of purpose because it’s yours.  Because you’re here, you exist in this moment to be here to be as unapologetic and unwaveringly unproductive as you so desire. Life’s purpose is for you to define; its value is inherent.


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