Workers' Rights Are About Dignity As Much As Wages


I was on a radio show in Minneapolis, listening to the callers tell their tales of economic woe: an eight-month job search followed by a job at half the person's former pay; an eighteen-month search leading to serious depression; a five-year search leading to nothing at all. During a commercial break, my host -- the amiable Jack Rice -- noted that almost all these stories were told in the third person, usually as something that had happened to a spouse. Were some of the callers just too embarrassed to own their own stories--too crushed by the shame of layoffs and unemployment?

Shame hangs heavy over the economic landscape: the shame of the newly laid-off, the shame of the chronically poor. It's easy enough for enlightened members of the comfortable classes to insist there's no reason for shame: You didn't bring the layoff down on yourself; you didn't determine that the maximum wage in your line of work would be in the neighborhood of $8 an hour.

Snap out of it, I want to say. Blame the economy or its corporate chieftains. Just don't blame yourself!

But shame is a verb as well as a noun. Almost nobody arrives at shame on their own; there are shamers and shamees. Hester Prynne didn't pin that scarlet A on her own chest. In fact, it may be wiser to think of shame as a relationship rather than just a feeling: a relationship of domination in which the mocking judgments of the dominant are internalized by the dominated.

Shaming can be a more effective means of social control than force. The peasant who stepped out of line could be derided for daring to question his "betters." The woman who spoke out against patriarchal restrictions could be dismissed as a harridan or even a slut.

It doesn't always work, of course. Dan Quayle and rightwing writer Charles Murray attempted to restigmatize out-of-wedlock births by restoring the old pejorative term "illegitimate." But somehow the country wasn't ready to label millions of babies bastards.

Shame was far more effective in the buildup to welfare reform. Consistently stereotyped as lazy, promiscuous parasites, welfare recipients largely failed to rally in their own defense. I remember talking to a young (white) woman who professed great enthusiasm for draconian forms of welfare re-form -- only to ad-mit that she herself had been raised on welfare by a beloved and plucky single mother. That's deeply internalized shame.

The ultimate trick is to make people ashamed of the injuries inflicted upon them. In many cultures, rape renders a woman an unmarriageable pariah. In Pakistan today -- one of our more embarrassing allies -- a woman who brings charges of rape can be punished for adultery. Even in America, often a woman's first response to sexual harassment or assault is to feel soiled and shamed, as if she had brought the unwanted advances on herself.

Something similar goes on in the case of the laid off and unemployed, thanks to the prevailing Calvinist form of Protestantism, according to which productivity and employment are the source of one's identity as well as one's income. Not working? Then what are you? And to put the Calvinist message in crude theological terms: Go to hell.

In case anyone fails to feel their full measure of shame over unemployment, there is an entire shame industry to whip them into shape: the career coaches, self-help books, motivational speakers, and business gurus who preach that whatever happens to you must be a result of your own attitude. Laid-off and coming up empty on your job search? You must be too negative, and hence attracting negative circumstances into your life. To paraphrase one career coach I encountered during my research for Bait and Switch: We're not here to talk about the economy or the market; we're here to talk about you.

Shame is a potent weapon, but it should never be used against the already-injured and aggrieved. Instead, let's turn it against the aggrievers.

Shame on Ford and GM for putting all their eggs in the SUV basket and then laying off thousands.

Shame on the CEOs who make eight-figure incomes while their lowest-paid employees trudge between food banks.

Shame on Congress for leaving us with an unemployment insurance program that covers only a little more than a third of the laid-off.

All the rest of us should hold our heads up high.

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