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No Small Roles, Only Small Actors

The first time I ever cleaned a toilet was at Camp Towanyak in the summer of nineteen eighty something. Each cabin rotated through various chores, and on this day my cabin was cleaning the Rec Hall. I was maybe 12? I had never cleaned a toilet before, but I knew that toilet brushes existed, because I knew that there wasn’t one. Maybe there was one somewhere, locked inside a supply closet? I will never know . . . but it’s hard to believe that there wasn’t a toilet brush for a toilet that, evidently, got some pretty heavy use, given the condition it was in that day, and given the fact that logically, this should have been a different cabin’s job only the day before.

(Only now, tonight, all these years later, does it occur to me that maybe the reason the toilet was so dirty was that previous child-workers, finding no toilet brush, had simply not cleaned it.)

It was utterly and completely filthy, the worst toilet I have ever cleaned (and I worked as a janitor during graduate school, and I cleaned at a *factory*, so . . . ), and I cleaned it with a sponge and no rubber gloves. For some reason (I was a total slob as a child, so it’s not that I liked cleaning), I approached the task matter-of-factly and even derived a certain amount of satisfaction from seeing just how much improvement I made in a short amount of time.

What I’m trying to say is that you can’t scare me with toilet cleaning. It’s a job.

I was cleaning someone else’s toilets again today—the company I work for does this thing each year where all of the employees spend the whole afternoon in groups volunteering at places around the city. I was at the homeless shelter where, among other things, I cleaned every toilet, every shower, and both urinals. And I was thinking about this oldie-but-goodie from Jacobin that a friend posted yesterday about the insidiousness of the “do what you love” (DWYL) mantra. Tokumitsu writes:

By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. . . . Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.

She talks about the class privileges of those who get to do “lovable” work and how “For those forced into unlovable work, it’s a different story. Under the DWYL credo, labor that is done out of motives or needs other than love (which is, in fact, most labor) is not only demeaned but erased.”

She doesn’t mention another mindset for approaching unlovable work, which is to “do it out of love” for something other than the work. Back when I used to be Catholic, I would clean the church sometimes with this other woman, and she used to irritate me by making all these noises about how this was degrading work that we were doing for love of Christ, or some such nonsense. I did love Christ, but I thought it was silly to need to do these mental gymnastics to try to make cleaning toilets into “lovable work”—cleaning toilets is simply work, and I didn’t see it as degraded and I also didn’t want to exalt it.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics can provide some information on jobs that might be “lovable” or “unlovable” in their Occupational Outlook Handbook. Here, we can learn things like that of the 808 job categories that the OOH tracks, 104 require less than a high school diploma (janitor is one of them); 333 require a high school diploma. Whether these jobs are lovable or not, everyone knows that the 1.8 million people working for minimum wage or less in 2018 have seen their wage’s purchasing power erode during the past ten years, the longest period Congress has ever gone without raising the minimum wage.

In a terrific essayfrom 2016 that unfortunately is not freely available online, Heather Howley criticizes President Obama’s September 2015 remarks on education as providing young Americans with “a shot at success.” Howley writes:

It is difficult to pinpoint when the American dream transformed from something in which everyone was a potential participant into a lottery-like “shot at success.” Although always a rhetorical trope used to minimize social inequality in the United States, the American dream has been downgraded by both political parties, suggesting that a middle-class life is now reserved for the semielite—the ones who complete college and choose an in-demand career. Plans to eliminate tuition at community colleges or four-year public institutions will benefit the students who attend as well as their communities. Educated populaces are more economically productive, healthier (physically and relationally), and more engaged in the democratic process. However, these benefits, as great as they are, do not provide a solution to the destructive inequalities that affect low-wage workers.

Cleaning is important work. I know this from common sense, but I also know it because the university where I used to work cut its janitorial budget in 2013, which has led to problems with fruit flies and mice ever since. Cleaning toilets is not degrading work; if you think it is, you’re wrong. But the lopsidedness of how we think about work means that workers in Tokumitsu’s “unlovable jobs” are treated as degraded, and those in “lovable jobs” (some subset of the 272 out of 808 jobs in the BLS’s Occupational Outlook Handbook that require a bachelor’s degree or higher) are exalted.

This is why a lot of people who hate school take out loads of student debt to go to college: it used to be you could have a good life without a college degree, but now you can’t. This is part of my own ambivalence that developed around teaching at a non-elite university: students who take out tens of thousands of dollars of debt, who often leave without a degree (but with the debt, of course), who would have been perfectly happy working in an “unlovable” job if only we as a society would decide to treat all workers as performing valuable work and as deserving stability and a decent wage.






One Reply to “No Small Roles, Only Small Actors”

  1. We do need to be better about treating all workers with respect. (I’ve seen a lot of folks post “I was raised to treat the janitor with the same respect as the CEO,” but I’ve rarely seen such people act so.) We also need to be better about treating the non-working with that respect.

    But the deliberate fools, of which there are many, servants of the Stupid God…execration and opprobrium for them.


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