Olivia Legaspi, a student at Haverford, writes about what working at McDonald’s has taught her about privilege [hat tip: Rod Dreher]. Legaspi, who suffers from PTSD but needs to work to fund her college education, notes that while at Haverford, she and her fellow students are encouraged to “to ask for help when we feel we need it, speak up when we feel uncomfortable, and prioritize our own well being over most other things,” at McDonald’s, she has to put others first and doesn’t have recourse to those strategies. On balance, she says, this was a good thing:
Before you encourage someone to practice “self care” in its current definition, think about in what situations this is actually useful or feasible advice….I’m grateful to have worked at McDonald’s: It taught me how better to handle my anxiety and how to put myself last in the name of efficiency and a common goal. McDonald’s strengthened my character, my work ethic, and expanded my capacity for resilience, valuable lessons which could not be learned in the “safe spaces” of Haverford’s campus. We must remember that putting oneself first is the essence of privilege, and that, in order to grow, we must leave this selfish mindset behind.
I’m temperamentally disposed to agree with her. Working customer service jobs can be a valuable part of anyone’s upbringing. If Legaspi had focused the unfairness of her situation, I would likely be writing a post about how she overlooked the positive aspects of working. So while I’m about to disagree with her, I do so in the spirit of supplementing, not negating, what she’s saying.
My disagreement: We should beware overlearning those lessons. While “putting oneself first”–or more accurately, being in the position to do so–“is the essence of privilege,” it’s sometimes necessary. My ability to go to the dentist and afford the visit is also part of my privilege. But I’m not going to abstain from those visits because others cannot enjoy the same treatment. (And to be clear, Legaspi is not saying I should. She is saying, in part, that recovery, survival, and self-care involve interacting with the real world, and that world is not going to out of its way to accommodate her needs.)
Service work doesn’t always expand one’s “capacity for resilience.” It can sometimes be degrading. Legaspi doesn’t deny that, but sometimes the solution to degrading circumstances isn’t always putting the customer (or whoever) first. Sometimes it involves engaging in the resistance necessary to keep one’s dignity in the workplace, or at least make the job more survivable. Legaspi doesn’t tell us whether or how she may have “resisted,” and I probably am too eager to see “resistance” where it isn’t, or to say it should be resorted to when it needn’t. (For some labor historians, an employee going on a bathroom break can count as “resistance to dominant structures of exploitation.”)
Still, Legaspi’s lessons need to be balanced against what a lifetime of such labor might entail. As Megan McArdle said in a different but relevant context,
I’m thinking it’s a lot harder to get out of bed on Monday in year 13 of your stint as a janitor than it was on day 300–and that it’s harder to get out of bed on Day 300 if you know there’s probably going to be a Year 13.
I’ll repeat that overall I agree with Legaspi. I am trying only to warn against the uses to which it’s possible to take her argument. I’ll close with the words of one person who commented to her column and with which I agree:
I’ve also worked unpleasant jobs: some of them early in my career when I didn’t have a choice, and had to stick them out; some of them much further along in my career, when I had the resources to wish my unpleasant boss well and quit. I wish those sorts of jobs didn’t need to exist. I wish nobody ever had to shut up and smile and take it, from an unreasonable boss or customer. But allowing the difficulties you encounter to shape and form you in virtue and discipline is a great thing. And having the wisdom to understand that this is what’s happening is even better. Well done.
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