The Myth of “Unskilled Labor”


If we look at reality for more than an instant, if we look at the human beings passing us on the street, it’s not bearable. It’s not bearable to watch while the talents and the abilities of infants and children are crushed and destroyed. These happen to be things that I just can’t think about. And most of the time, the factory workers and domestic workers and cashiers and truck drivers can’t think about them either. Their performances as these characters are consistent and convincing, because they actually believe about themselves just what I believe about them — that what they are now is all that they could ever have been, they could never have been anything other than what they are. Of course, that’s what we all have to believe, so that we can bear our lives and live in peace together. But it’s the peace of death.

– Wallace Shawn

For those of you who know Wallace Shawn simply as Vizzini in The Princess Bride, or as the Grand Nagus in Deep Space Nine, it might be surprising to discover the thinker behind the actor. If you haven’t read his essay “Why I Call Myself a Socialist,” I encourage you to follow the link above and do it, now.

In the meantime, a thought:

A post I wrote last week touched on the topic of “unskilled labor.” In an election cycle defined, at least partly, by the question of the minimum wage, and the level to which it should or should not be raised, I think this is a rabbit trail worth following.

You’ll notice that I place the words “unskilled labor” in quotes. That is because, simply, I do not believe such a thing exists. In reality, this is a distinction we make in order to justify valuing the work of certain individuals at lower levels of pay than that of others.

A professional is someone who does their job well, regardless of the line of work they are in. A barista or a waitress possesses a different skill set than my job demands, but it’s a skill set nonetheless. And their expertise is worthy of our respect.

Sadly, though, what they usually get is our scorn and impatience. They get to not only serve us; they get to put up with us in all our vainglory, as well. If the waiter, say, takes just a little too long to refill our water glass. Or if the gas station attendant is cleaning the restroom right when we need a pit stop. (Of course, had we arrived and found dirty facilities, we would have complained about that, too.)

There is a Spanish word that springs to mind: menospreciar. Literally, it means “to assign a lower price.” To value less, a habit born out of a false sense of superiority: after all, they are “unskilled,” right?

And yet, our day is built on the backs of these “unskilled laborers.” The woman who rings us up at the gas station or the fast food joint; the man who cleans the lint traps at our laundromats; the people who stock the shelves at our grocery stores, so that we don’t have to visit the warehouse each time we want a can of tomatoes or a stick of butter; or the folks who pick the apples that we so conveniently find, laid out and ready, in the produce section–in short, our lives as we live them would be impossible without these amazing and ubiquitous people.

Furthermore, if added value is the criterion by which cost is determined, then these lovely people deserve more than most “skilled” workers receive. Think about it: how important is what you do, really? None of us bats an eyelid when our favorite actors or sports figures threaten to walk out because their paycheck is too low on zeros. But perish the thought that the people who serve us our food or keep our workplaces clean get any more money than they should.

I catalog books, which requires a certain level of skill. But at my most skillful, I’m not nearly as indispensable as the guys who collect my trash or make sure the milk on the shelves hasn’t gone bad. These people are in disease prevention, just like the doctor who charges you $100 an hour to take your temperature. They are, in their own way, healthcare professionals.

Me? I just make sure books line up in alphabetical order. Helpful? Sure. But not exactly “Save the cheerleader, save the world” material.

“Unskilled labor” is the backbone and foundation of our existence. How dare we then begrudge these people, these professionals, an actual living wage? The $15/hr demand carries a moral weight that far outstrips the statistical considerations with which we counter it. What does it matter that more jobs are created if the ones that already exist cannot support the people who fill them?

What it comes down to is this:

These “unskilled laborers,” professionals all, take care of us day in and day out. So is it really too much to ask that we take care of them, too?

What I Believe, Pt. 2: What I Don’t Believe


Have you ever noticed that arguments for God have a way of either fading away into incomprehensible philosophical gobbledygook or degenerating into the intellectual equivalent of a VeggieTales video? In the final analysis, it seems that God exists…well, because God exists. Because we really, really, really want/need him to. Or her. Or it. So we make up an exalted system of apologetics that claims to be beyond the reach of critical thinking, while at the same time embracing one that requires no critical thinking skills at all.

Here’s a passage from a book I cataloged the other day, God’s Not Dead: Evidence for God in an Age of Uncertainty, by Rice Broocks:

If you were walking through the woods and found a turtle on top of a fence post, you could rationally conclude that it didn’t get there by itself. Someone put it there. Even if you didn’t have an explanation for who did it, you would be reasonable in assuming that time and chance wouldn’t eventually place a turtle on a fence post.

I once saw a stalk of hay that had been shoved through a telephone pole by a tornado. So, I’m fairly certain that some force besides “someone” could have gotten that poor turtle on top of that fence post. But set that aside for a moment, and look at Broocks’ argument as it stands. (An argument, I might add, from a book written with an adult audience in mind.) It’s a turtle. On a fence. Can all the three-year-olds say “Heeey!?!”

On the other side of this equation, of course, we have the infamous Anselm. In the Proslogion (c.1078), the Archbishop of Canterbury first put forward what has become known as the ontological argument for the existence of God, which I quote in part below:

Even the Fool, then, is forced to agree that something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought exists in the mind, since he understands this when he hears it, and whatever is understood is in the mind. And surely that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought cannot exist in the mind alone. For if it exists solely in the mind, it can be thought to exist in reality also, which is greater. If then that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought exists in the mind alone, this same that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought is that-than-which-a-greater-can-be-thought. But this is obviously impossible. Therefore there is absolutely no doubt that something-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought [i.e., God] exists both in the mind and in reality.

Even in translation, this “proof” sets the eyeballs spinning faster than you can say “Anselm’s an idiot.” Here’s a paraphrase from Princeton professor Gideon Rosen:

(1) Suppose (with the fool) that God exists in the understanding alone.

(2) Given our definition, this means that a being than which none greater can be conceived exists in the understanding alone.

(3) But this being can be conceived to exist in reality. That is, we can conceive of a circumstance in which theism is true, even if we do not believe that it actually obtains.

(4) But it is greater for a thing to exist in reality than for it to exist in the understanding alone.

(5) Hence we seem forced to conclude that a being than which none greater can be conceived can be conceived to be greater than it is.

(6) But that is absurd.

(7) So (1) must be false. God must exist in reality as well as in the understanding.

After referring to this proof, theologians and philosophers have a way of nodding sagely, gazing mystically into your eyes, and saying: Trust me. It’s not meaningless. It’s DEEP. All I can say is, if you can follow that, Rand McNally wants you.

So, the existence of God is either so simple a concept that any idiot can capture its essence in reductionist (read, childish) analogy, or it is so complex an idea that not only does the being in question defy the understanding, so do the very arguments for that being’s being. And these are the folks who insist that the theory of evolution is too full of contradiction to be true…

The conclusion, I think, is straightforward: We need to formulate a God who is beyond formulation, beyond “mortal comprehension,” so we devise explanations that are also beyond comprehension. At the same time, we need to formulate a God whose formulation doesn’t require a whole lot of thought, so we invent simplistic, cute little aphorisms that turn the Absolute into children’s lit. We need to live at these opposing extremes, because that keeps us from accidentally straying into the space between. Because that’s where the scary answers live.

Once we stop relying on people who are “smarter” than us, and patronizing the rest, we suddenly find ourselves forced to acknowledge the failure of our conclusions to fit the evidence. It becomes more difficult to remain the passive receptors of what, given the traditional view of God as omnipotent being, can only be called divine arbitrariness. The inescapable contradiction in the suffering mother’s need to “beg” a “loving Father” to stop tormenting her child becomes, like its object, inescapable. We begin to realize that God, as Broocks and Anselm conceive of him, is either responsible for the evil that happens in the world, or he isn’t in control; that he can’t at once be both guilty and innocent, saint and sociopath; and that none of this jives with the stuff we’ve been taught since that first Sunday School class convinced us we had it coming.

We need to stop defending God, and demand that the God-concept defend itself. When this happens, a whole new picture emerges that requires a reformulation of that concept, one that stops forcing the evidence to fit the conclusions and begins to draw conclusions that fit the evidence. I have been accused by some of being (and assumed by others to be) an atheist, a question I will take up again at another time. However, I will say this: insofar as the God of Anselm and Broocks is concerned, there is no question. I no longer accept the existence of such a being. The evidence, as I suggested before, just does not warrant the conclusion, illustrate the idea as you will.

In 2004, playwright and actor Wallace Shawn, better known as Vizzini of The Princess Bride, conducted an interview with philosopher Noam Chomsky (in a book soon to appear on the Big List), and I leave you with one last quote, from that interview, in which Chomsky comments on God as ethical plumb line:

…You can find things in the traditional religions that are very benign and decent and wonderful and so on, but I mean, the Bible is probably the most genocidal book in the literary canon. The God of the Bible–not only did he order His chosen people to carry out literal genocide–I mean, wipe out every Amalekite to the last man, woman, child, and, you know, donkey and so on, because hundreds of years ago they got in your way when you were trying to cross the desert–not only did He do things like that, but, after all, the God of the Bible was ready to destroy every living creature on earth because some humans irritated Him. That’s the story of Noah. I mean, that’s beyond genocide–you don’t know how to describe this creature. Somebody offended Him, and He was going to destroy every living being on earth? And then He was talked into allowing two of each species to stay alive–that’s supposed to be gentle and wonderful.

You do the math…