A lot of the time I seem to only pick on liberals who sympathize with the anti-work movement. Now, granted, their sympathies are often very surface level but they’re still better than the out and out contempt that anti-work theorists get from conservatives. Immersing yourself too much in the former and not the latter, you can sometimes feel like you’ve gotten a slap of cold water first thing in the morning when you switch contexts. It stings for a second and then you realize where you are.
That was similar to my response to this post by the American Enterprise Institute which is well known for its conservative biases. For the lazy among us (myself included of course) the post deals with a talk mostly unrelated to work, it’s mostly about social norms in society and what we could do better to develop them in the “right” way.
One such norm that was brought up during the Q&A (and to be clear, this is all I’m focusing on for sake of space and relevance) was the cultural norm of “non-work”. Specifically that norm within the groups of people who are “prime age” and are obviously able to work, yet refuse to do so, for whatever reason.
The response is littered with so many objectionable ideas, I figured I’d go piece by piece:
We do not feel comfortable talking about social norms, and we don’t feel comfortable talking about cultural norms, and we don’t feel comfortable talking about rights, and we don’t feel comfortable talking about duties. As a society, our comfort level with those topics has eroded dramatically over the last several decades. And along with the erosion of our comfort in discussing those issues, we have seen an erosion in those norms in themselves.
I hate to break it to Strain (Michael Strain, the person answering the question) but you are discussing social norms right now and then going to put it on Youtube where it’ll be further discussed…like on here. Where is the discomfort about norms, rights and duties coming from? Strain doesn’t say. Where is this discomfort actually happening in practice? Has the internet not made it massively more easy to talk about any of these things? Strain makes no comment on this.
Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that Strain is trying to make some sort of rhetorical implication here that those darn “SJWs” are to blame for this. But I’ve been in social justice circles for more than a few years at this point and boy all they seem to talk about is cultural norms! They can’t seem to stop talking about the rights people should or shouldn’t have (particularly minority groups) as well as the duties we have to each other in everyday life and in politics.
Is it the colleges who are to blame? I can’t comment much here as I only went to college for a year, but within that time there was pretty much nothing not talked about in the classes or outside of them. Granted, this was back in 2010-2011 so maybe college has dramatically shifted in the past 5 years, I can’t honestly say either way. Maybe it being a private rural college in northern New Hampshire biased my experiences in some unique way. But my (admittedly limited and anecdotal experience) doesn’t point to any sort of heavy erosion in being able to discuss these things.
It used to be the case that if you were an able-bodied, 35-year-old guy — say it’s the year 1960 or 1965 — and you weren’t working, you would feel social stigma, and you would feel like you weren’t leading the kind of life that you should in a normative sense, to a much stronger degree than a 35-year-old guy in the year 2016 feels that stigma and feels he’s not leading the life he should. And I think that is a problem.
You don’t think people feel stigma these days? Based on what, exactly?
I still see TV shows that mock other characters for being out of jobs (Rick and Morty, though I love it, is guilty of this) and I still see or hear people muttering about how they’re “between jobs” instead of simply saying they’re unemployed. The language of not having jobs when you’re able to is wrapped up in social stigma.
Does Strain believe that the stigma that used to be (perhaps) more obvious and less contested means that the stigma isn’t there at all anymore? Many people would call the people Strain is talking about lazy, leeches or even parasite. If that isn’t a form of stigmatizing what people do in their own free time, I’m not sure what is.
To be clear, I don’t have any clear statistical analysis either way on the rates social stigma about these things. I can point to previous articles I’ve written about on this topic (like here) and speak to my own personal experiences but I’m unaware of any attempt at actually graphing this stuff out. That doesn’t mean it’s not out there and heck, maybe it even supports Strain’s points, how would I know differently? But that doesn’t seem likely to me.
But okay, let’s say this is for some (unexplained) reason happening. Why would this be a problem? It’s only a problem if we presume that social stigma (i.e. shaming) is a positive method for affecting people’s minds. But I’m not convinced that it is, so it’s hard for me to run with this argument very far even if I accepted its premises.
To speak personally for a second, I engage in self-critical analysis a lot. And often times that becomes a form of shaming (“the inner critic”) and it doesn’t make me want to do better so much as make me want to throw myself on my bed and feel shitty about myself for the rest of the day. And I’m not alone on this, I’m well aware of many of my friends struggling with many of those same issues. It doesn’t matter if it’s them doing it to themselves or other people, shame is often a counterproductive thing for them to engage in for themselves or to receive it from others.
I’m aware this is more personal stories and anecdotes from friends, so here’s a bit of data:
Research over the past two decades consistently indicates that proneness to shame is related to a wide variety of psychological symptoms. These run the gamut from low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety to eating disorder symptoms, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal ideation (Andrews et al. 2000, Ashby et al. 2006, Brewin et al. 2000, Crossley & Rockett 2005, Feiring & Taska 2005, Feiring et al. 2002, Ferguson et al. 2000, Ghatavi et al. 2002, Harper & Arias 2004, Henderson & Zimbardo 2001, Leskela et al. 2002, Mills 2003, Murray et al. 2000, Orsillo et al. 1996, Sanftner et al. 1995, Stuewig & McCloskey 2005; see also review in Tangney & Dearing 2002).
The negative psychological implications of shame are evident across measurement methods, diverse age groups, and populations. Both the clinical literature and empirical research agree that people who frequently experience feelings of shame about the self are correspondingly more vulnerable to a range of psychological problems.
So again, I don’t see the lessening of social stigma (even presume it’s actually happening) as an issue.
And I think people in Washington who have platforms and engage in public leadership — not the least of which are elected leaders — need to be more comfortable talking about that. And a recovery of a cultural norm, that if you can work, you should be working… and a recovery of a cultural norm that if you can work, you should be providing for your kids… and a recovery of a cultural norm that if you have an obligation to society, you should contribute, and add your skills and your talents and your efforts to your community, and to the broader fabric of the country in which you live, is necessary to solve these problems.
This is where things get really bad.
It’s bad enough that Strain is encouraging some sort of return to the idyllic America where everyone worked and loved it, never complained and was always happy to do what their boss told them to do. But he actually wants that not just implicitly codified into the culture but explicitly through policy decisions. I can’t decide which is worse, the spontaneous orderings of harmful cultural biases that relies on millions of people or the centralized top-down decisions made by a government that’s not exactly well known for treating stigmatized groups with lack of prejudice.
In any case what defines “can” work? How much should people be working anyhow? And if they’d rather stay home and take care of their kids, their families, their parents, then why not do that? If they’re volunteering, organizing or otherwise providing value to their communities in some informal way, why not do that? Is work the only way to create value in societies?
That last question was rhetorical, of course it isn’t.
What obligations do we have to society anyways? I know I’m going slightly past the central topic of this talk at this point but one of the basic premises here (that both conservatives and liberals share) is that we have some “obligation” to society. But why? And where did this obligation come from exactly? I’m not saying we should treat everyone poorly but I don’t see what “society” even means here. Our neighbors? Our elected officials? The government? Rich people?
Why should I (or anyone else) care about a country that has just elected a fascist?
I think policy can help create that cultural norm. And I think the strengthening of that cultural norm can help make policy more successful. So there are synergies here. And I think we underestimate the degree to which public leadership and public messaging can help.
When you talk about this here in town, people act like this is a problem that can’t be solved and that there is no recourse. I just don’t agree with that, and again, I would look to leaders in Congress, I would look to the Speaker, I would look to the President-elect and see if they’re willing to take the next four years and make an issue of this, and to talk about it in an honest and forthright way.
When you expect yourself to resist the prevailing cultural norms of society, expect resistance in turn.
And be ready to call it out for what it is and critique it at your pleasure and whim.
There’s a good Oscar Wilde quote on this that I can’t quite remember and can’t find but basically:
Laws (“policies”) are best at stifling the individual spirit, not helping us in its full development. Whenever we see laws being crafted for our own benefits, we ought to run in the opposite direction.
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Trump is being inaugurated this Friday, be prepared.