Occupational Rhetoric. How we deceive ourselves.

October 17, 2011


So, a lot of streets have been occupied lately. I’m sure there are a lot of great perspectives online for you to find about how evil corporations or protesters are and aren’t. I’m not going to debate hard politics or economics here, but I’ve been following these protests and watching folks argue on forums and visiting several sites where people take pictures of themselves with their stories in their hands. That’s when people dilute their beliefs down to punchy rhetoric and mantras. Some of these are alarming to me because they sound so motivated by fear. If you find it beneficial, when you consider them, separate them from your (and America’s) current economic situation and simply ask yourself if it sounds like a self-loving way to govern your life. These are not (hopefully) direct quotes from anyone, just general sentiments I encountered multiple times.

“I keep my head down and slither along without complaining, because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

This is the destiny of “hard work” as many perceive it. Nobody denies that you should work hard. And I mean hard, like a rock. A rock as hard and craggy as John Wayne’s weathered face and as quiet and cold as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Actually, if you could be a rock with no name, that would be great, please. Hard, tight, quiet, anonymous. Indistinct and going nowhere.

Unfortunately, “hard” has multiple meanings and people love to play with words until they start to take on definitions that make them feel safest. I think there are two activities that qualify as “hard work”. In one, you’re doing passionate, emotionally-invested labor that no one can do quite like you. You are the hard one, because this work is valuable. You’re solid. Strong. Even a little sexy.

In the other type of “hard work”, the work is hard, like a corpse (“dead-end job”) or again, a rock (“daily grind”). It’s difficult to do, mostly because it sucks. It doesn’t stimulate you and it doesn’t ask for your full potential. It’s definitely hard. To live with.

Sometimes we are forced by circumstance into the second kind of work, or we make the Hobson’s choice of it because we don’t see any alternatives. Either way, we can’t always imagine an aftermath, or visualize this experience as a means to an end, yet we also know it sucks. We can feel it in our bones and the air in our houses is thick with tension. So what do we do? Well, the best way to cope with suffering is to make it noble. If your job is a rut-stuck only-doing-it-to-live borefest, congratulations, you’re doing what you’re “supposed” to do. Good old American rugged individualism is strong within you, even though you are nameless and replaceable. Thank you for just shutting up and not making any noise, it makes life much easier. Thank you for sacrificing yourself for the rest of us, you individualist, you.

I don’t care what your dream job is in the context of this post. Maybe you genuinely want to make a career out of what most people consider drudgery. The point it is, if you’re not doing your dream work now, can you at least see yourself ever taking the steps to get there? Like, today? Do you feel you have a right to a destiny that you choose for yourself, instead of grumbling and accepting wherever you get tossed and leading yourself to believe it is noble? If you aren’t currently leading the life you wish, do you think you deserve to change that, or is it okay to be dissatisfied because so many other people are too?

“I suffered, so that means other people have to.”

This type of thinking makes my middle finger twitch because it is so ruthlessly callous. We Americans pride ourselves on being able to bootstrap out of any situation to the point where we feel a dull, resentful sting deep in our bowels whenever someone gets a lucky break or even just some outside help (like from the government). I’ve seen this get as petty as a college student being immensely offended when one of their classmates asked a friend about a project or even sought tutoring. When someone is embittered by someone else’s good fortune, their voice tends to get all icy and robotic, like the words are being channeled from somewhere else. “I. Worked. My. Ass. Off..”, or maybe, “In my day we walked FIF-TEEN MILES through the snow!”

The success of our society and species is based on cooperation to an absurdly obvious degree, so unless you actually tanned the rawhide and vulcanized the rubber of your strapped boots, it seems kind of silly to draw an arbitrary line that defines the minimum degree of healthy independence. For some people, you can’t truly be independent unless you’ve beaten the people around you. Hmmm.

While it would be neato if everyone could shake off their problems by willpower alone, that is not available to all people for all problems. The immense prevalence of psychologists, support groups and the self-help genre (hello!) speaks to the reality of troubled people mobilizing enough inner strength to explore the world for possibility. They don’t “suck it up” or let themselves be defeated by the idea that needing help makes you weak, they set out to effect a change. The notion of who helps who is cloudy and can be debated forever (self-help is really them helping you help yourself! or is it!?!?) and someone on a quest to define concepts of help and independence super-rigidly is probably creating a value system in their own image to cover up their insecurity. Life goes so much more smoothly when individuals and groups choose to help others and possess the dignity to accept help.

“You are not entitled to anything.”

Each subsequent generation apparently has an “entitlement” problem which is universally an atrocity because this entitled person is a straw man who, much like an actual man of straw, sits around doing nothing but smelling bad.

This statement is often chambered and fired without thinking through. It’s incomplete in its present state and relies mostly on its starkness and its ability to construct a real bastard out of the straw man who expects a free ride through life for lazing around. Just read that word “entitled”. The N, the T, the L, the way the vowels jump around the mouth. It sounds aristocratic and wussy. If someone has an entitlement problem, they must have a real problem.

I think the more accurate version is the much less punchy “you are entitled to quite a few basic and important things for free, and you are entitled to almost anything else in the world as long as you put forth the desire and effort”. The idea of being “not entitled to anything” couples these into one blanket statement that says, out of fear of being outstanding, “you are not entitled to anything good for free, and you are not entitled to anything awesome even if you work.”

The first part, which covers everything from general welfare to health care and education depending on your political views, is up to you. But I’m very interested in the second part. We really are entitled to quite a lot more than we think. Yes, we must work for our money and for our security, but we can work for more than paying off debts and buying groceries. We can work toward a dream, an unforeseen level of influence, creativity and meaning that enriches more people than we ever thought possible. Some people will tell you that you are not entitled, or do not deserve, or are not blessed with the ability to make such a fantastical wish a reality. The people who say things like this seem to think that even the fruits of honest labor have a ceiling. If you worked toward a comfortable life, great, you got what you deserved. But working toward something unconventional, with unforeseen results, makes people bristle and think you’re being unreasonable. The idea of “deserving” means such different things to different people.

What if you already deserved the wealth and the life you desired? What if you already had it, and just had to survive until the day it was delivered, doing the required work and showing the necessary compassion along the way? Entitlement can be created. If we work to make ourselves a person deserving of something, it becomes much more likely that we will have that something.

These three sentiments – the illusion of limitation, the desperation for arbitrary independence and the shaky divide between desserts and self-creation – are symptoms of fear. You can avoid caving in to the pressure of what society says you should be by strengthening the self. Self-trust, self-worth, self-reliance, self-help, self-love. Believing that because of who you are, you can achieve greatness, regardless social or economic or personal badgering. Now that’s rugged individualism.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Doug October 17, 2011 at 12:27 pm

I have read some articles about the protests, and what they want. Opinions vary, and that is part of the problem. If you asked the protesters what are you protesting, every one of them would give a different answer.
I wish we could ask all of them sitting in the street, and their supporters who are warm at home one question. What if you could have the 1950′s American dream? You get a job bolting wheels on a Chevy, full health care, enough pay your spouse does not have to work, and your kids get to go to a safe school. You can afford a house, not huge, but a home of your own. When you retire there is a pension until the kids put you into a home.
Would they take the offer? Honestly, I don’t believe many of them would.


Matt October 17, 2011 at 12:55 pm

You’re on point, Doug. Discussing the actual protests is like dancing through a minefield, and it would take a very long time to hammer out and requires that we not boil people down to slogans, mantras or commandments.


John October 19, 2011 at 2:06 pm

The American dream is not just one description. Your dream may be the house with the white picket fence and that’s great if it is. Everyone’s dream is unique because everyone’s talent and personality is unique. Our dreams, our talents and our personalities are not outside of ourselves, they are within. TV, movies, advertisements don’t tell us our calling, we do. Now, if only I could believe that. I need help to believe but a rugged individualist would not need that help or would they?


Sai K V October 20, 2011 at 3:19 am

Who wrote this article?


Matt October 20, 2011 at 5:08 am

i did. i’m the executive editor so i write almost everything.


Leave a Comment