culturally, it’s often conflated with self-sufficiency; in my opinion (this is all my opinion) a deadly mistake. self-sufficiency is a deadly mistake, if not for the individual who mistakenly believe themselves to have achieved it, then for the network of exploited individuals and resources abandoned unacknowledged in their wake. self-sufficiency is the big american entitlement, yet more toxic detritus of manifest destiny, that attractive delusion feeding into many of our most destructive behaviors: isolating and estranging us to the extent of normalizing homelessness.
agency is the rate of exchange for an ever decreasing percentage of the populous grinding planetary resources to worse than nothing as a means of maintaining their illusion of self-sufficiency.
that’s right. you heard me. i am positing that the illusion of self-sufficiency strips us of agency. not just one side or the other of the privilege divide. it’s both sides and the infinity of shades in the middle. everyone and everything is impacted by this destructive illusion. we’re all in this together, kids: realization no. 1 of claiming agency for yourself.
among the privileged, the way the mechanism works is: you have things that others do not. with the things that you have, you are able to get more things. material things, sure, but also immaterial ones, matters seemingly assumed among those fortunate enough to enjoy them:
social acceptance a reasonable path to sufficient employment privacy access to profitable network connections praise and acknowledgement upward mobility in the job market the ability to move through public spaces without suspicion non-judgmental assistance from healthcare providers sufficient access to healthcare respect in the workplace employment security effort resulting in some degree of intended achievement, not punishment
one does not want to lose those things they have, of course they don’t! so they refuse to investigate why such intangibles are so easily obtained; in fact, many will become confused and even outraged at the suggestion that they have access to intangibles others do not. this is a defense mechanism.
not investigating the roots of privilege means conformity. plugging in to the system. not thinking too hard. not questioning very much. not taking responsibility or even acknowledging the potential for one’s environmental, economic, social, or emotional impacts. an individual benefiting from multiple privileges denying they have privilege, that is a core demonstration of someone who has not developed agency.
because: agency means thinking. agency means questioning. agency means not conforming.
privilege still strips the not-privileged of agency, though not because they’re being placated by a welfare state. like anyone silenced by systemic trauma for more than four decades could tell you: the not-privileged are trapped in the margins of the privileged’s fearful drama around losing their privileges. any privilege, even, especially those they angrily insist are not real privileges. and, yeah.
it shouldn’t be a privilege to walk past law enforcement without being stopped, questioned, and beaten to death for no reason.
it shouldn’t be a privilege to be listened to, believed and served in a timely manner at an emergency care facility.
it shouldn’t be a privilege to hold hands with your spouse at the park.
but it is. because of systemic oppression, some people get those things. others do not. erasing the problem will not solve it.
let’s start with a “simple” example: respect in the workplace. are you someone who works in a white-collar profession, somewhere generally operating within regular business hours? do you have even basic benefits - paid leave, healthcare, a personal workspace, reasonable climate control, reliable bathroom access, someone you can have a confidential face-to-face conversation with if there’s a problem impacting your workplace performance before you are fired because of it? does labor day mean a day off, for you?
whatever conflicts you may have with other employees, are you generally respected as someone performing a job, any job, needs to be respected?
if so, think for a few minutes about hourly wage big box retail workers. think about your perceptions, your attitudes, the way you treat someone on the other side of the cash wrap. (the cash wrap is the counter where you pay for your purchases.)
there is so much stigma and victim-blaming associated with working in big box retail that even when it was recent, i’ve chosen to edit that period of my history out of resumes. handselling a gap with no idea of how to do so seemed better than facing down yet another snickering HR employee who finds it hilarious that i recently worked for a year and a half in chain retail and now i think i could ever work for the same institution she does.
yeah, i guess that is pretty funny.
to someone enjoying the privilege of employment security, at least.
about me: i moved to a new city during the job market crash. i averaged 40 hours a week applying for jobs for a year, three years, five. i went to job fairs. i went to seminars. i took the perspective that the “job acquisition process” was an important job unto itself, albeit one that was extremely expensive ($143.61 for one fiasco of a four-part interview in different parts of the city for a part-time entry level contract job that i never got so much as a form letter rejection email about, and i already had plausible clothes), frequently traumatizing, and offered no compensation but the “joy” of doing it. i tried really hard. i tried so fucking hard. i almost killed myself trying. i burned myself out on trying and i just kept trying after that, because if i died from not being able to get a job, whose fault was that but my own? nobody believed that there was any plausible way that i really could be trying as hard as i claimed i was trying without landing something reasonable. i needed to scale back my expectations, right? i needed to broaden my search, right? i needed to try harder, right? i needed to try harder than i was capable of trying. so! i did that! i did all those things and then i did contradictory things and then i did other things and i did: things and things and things and things. i did things until i should have stopped and then i did things some more! i did the wrong things! i always did the wrong things! even when i was doing the exact things the seminars and internet research and my partner's mother kept telling me to do, it did not land me anything reasonable.
i landed a prestigious unpaid internship. with it, i built a unique and transferable skill set and made connections in one of my potential fields. i took pride in my internship. it gave me a modicum of hope for my chances in an era when i struggled with situational depression to the extent of occasional motionlessness. i felt like i was engaging with the community, understanding more about people, starting to trust my new home as somewhere i could continue to reside and maybe even love.
then i couldn’t afford to keep doing it, so i left.
two years into this process, my reserve bottomed out. i couldn’t get freelance work reliably, and sometimes clients weren’t, um, entirely scrupulous about making good on invoices. i was living at my boyfriend’s parents house, the two of us in his childhood bedroom, a matter only somewhat more complicated and emotionally taxing than your most pessimistic assumptions. i needed steady income: to keep up on my credit card debt. to maintain my car. to pay for job interviews. i needed to get out of the house more often. i needed a reason to move around. big box retail was what i could get and yeah, it was awful. as much as americans fetishize the shopping act and gods, do we ever rub ourselves raw over that consumerism aggressively penetrating every pore of our daily experience, those workers without whom our most holy shopping act would not be possible? additionally, they must bear the burden of consumer shame, and that burden is mighty. you can tell a great deal about the quality of a person by the way they treat chain retail employees. companies, too, but let’s not even go there.
the point is: it’s a hard fucking job, typically performed for nothing even resembling a living wage. people in their twenties regularly working more than 40 hours a week who can’t even afford to move out of their parent's houses with the help of multiple roommates. why are we okay with this as a society? even the most basic benefits, like reliable hours and sick days are almost unheard of. sick days are an especially sore point for the chronically ill author, because i gotta tell you: the number of threats to staff wellness encountered over the course of an average shift can include exposure to god knows what chemicals and pathogens saturating product shipments, cleaning human excrement off the floor, customers attacking you over COUPONS
(dude, if you can’t afford it without a coupon, you can't afford it. don’t come at me over the counter calling me a r-word cunt for refusing to violate the terms of my employment so you can “save” three dollars on a purchase you’re putting on a credit card. yes, that happened, no, i did nothing to provoke it, and no, i was not even allocated five emergency minutes to sob it out in the break room: corporate kept us so chronically understaffed that there was no one else in our gargantuan establishment to cover my register while i got my shit together after being triggered at work worse than i could remember being triggered at work since that repeat caller at the bookstore who’d trap you with stupid questions on the phone to jerk himself off. thankfully, the next customer in line was nicer, though none of the 25-30 people standing there staring at this interaction acknowledged that it had happened or asked if i was okay afterward, which made it very bad for my already traumatized brain in other ways.*)
retail workers deserve as much respect and humane treatment as you would offer anybody else you might encounter in the course of your daily dealings. instead? they are marginalized. they are minimized. they are mocked in the media. snickered at by HR employees. they count among that class of workers expected to work harder on labor day. and new year’s day. and thanksgiving.
“but they get overtime?” again, check your privilege. there is no legislation requiring private employers to offer any form of additional compensation for any holiday. any private business can demand staff work regular hours on christmas day and only pay them regular wages for that work. anyway, think about it. after taxes, an hour of time and a half for federal minimum wage won’t cover beer and a burrito at chipotle. yeah, let me iron up my polo and khakis and walk out on what might be my last opportunity for a holiday dinner with my loved ones so i can enjoy eight hours of aggravated assault from people who refuse to consider me a human being.
look, kids: it’s a job. it’s doing something instead of nothing. it’s doing what you gotta do to make a buck in a system that doesn’t want to cut a break to an already struggling income bracket. isn’t there some cultural mythology about the humble origins of he who eventually became CEO?
come to think of it, i haven’t heard that, in a while. ever think about that?
*the r-word and all its “adorable” apologist variations (INCLUDING THAT DAN SAVAGE ONE) count as a huge trigger, for me and for a lot more of us than a lot of people seem to realize. it is not ethical language. it’s a dehumanizing slur. “idiot” lives in that same neighborhood, right along with “moron.” if you don't know what i'm talking about, investigate the etymology and usage history of these words - better yet! talk about them with a dis activist - and you will understand why. then HELP STOP THE ABLED PRACTICE OF USING INSULTS THAT REFER TO NATIVE INTELLIGENCE, or, in fact, anything about someone's body or cognitive function that is outside of their control. don’t insult people by naming them disabled. if you must insult, do it by accurately naming the willed behavior that has offended you. be creative. have fun with it, but push back on the cultural institution of using abled, racist, gendered, homophobic, misogynistic, classist, or any kind of privilege-based slur. stop doing it yourself. talk to your loved ones when you catch them doing it. it seems like a lot of work. it is a lot of work. it’s been hard for me and i’m still catching myself using language i don’t want to be using on a fairly regular basis. however, it’s a matter of agency, and by that i mean: i know that work is worth it.