Lying Down, On the Job: The Ableist, Racist, Classist Underpinnings of 'Laziness'

Lindsey Weedston I Society & Culture I Commentary I June 9th, 2016

Hello, I'm a lazy Millennial.

In other words, I'm from a generation that has worked more hours for less money than any generation before me, but occasionally I eat a granola bar for breakfast instead of pouring myself a bowl of cereal. According to some, including many writers of online thinkpieces, that's enough to make me "lazy."

But the problem isn't me, or young people in general, or any group that's historically been decried for its idleness. Like Millennials, groups that are called "lazy" are often the hardest-working people around. They're just subject to ableism, racism, classism, and other bigotry that codes exploitation or exhaustion as "unwillingness to work."

I myself have had a very confusing relationship with "laziness" from a young age, often being called "lazy" for enjoying reading and video games by the same parents who praised me for always getting my homework done on time.

Needless to say, I became rather confused about the quality of my work ethic. Was I lazy or not? In my teens, I developed an anxiety disorder and a perfectionism that made academic shirking impossible, but the constant state of worry disrupted my sleep and left me so exhausted that I would often come home from school and go straight to bed for a nap. Sometimes, all I could do was lay in bed, awake, ruminating on everything I could possibly worry about.

But because I was in bed, this was called "laziness."

In adulthood, I encountered yet more inconsistencies about what it meant to be "lazy." Like many young adults, I started out working in the food and customer service industries, before I eventually got a job as a content writer for a digital marketing company.

I worked so little at that office job, I couldn't believe it. I could spend multiple hours each day scrolling through Tumblr or playing on social media. My "work" time involved reading articles vaguely related to my work-mostly because there wasn't much work for me to do. Compared to being on my feet all day, being expected to work every moment on the clock, it was nothing.

I worked three times as hard at my food and customer service jobs as I did at any of my digital marketing positions. And yet contemptuous thinkpiecers keep on describing people who work in those industries as "lazy." Why don't you get a REAL job? Like reading Tumblr while sitting at a desk, instead of busting your ass at McDonald's.

According to Dr. Alison Munoff, a licensed clinical psychologist, "laziness" is nothing more than a value judgement.

"'Laziness' is not a personality trait, it is simply a matter of a lack of proper motivation and reinforcement, as it is a behavioral pattern rather than a part of who we are," says Dr. Munoff. "The ability to actively approach a task in a time-effective manner changes depending on the task and its value in our lives. For example, in a situation of obtaining limited resources, people find themselves quite motivated and resourceful, meaning that this task is simply a priority based on its value and necessity, and has little to do with someone's personality. Unfortunately I find that when asked about the first time people were told they were being 'lazy,' it was from a parent or caregiver who was unsuccessfully attempting to motivate the child without a good understanding of the way this idea would be carried forward."

In nature, animals spend a lot of their time being idle. Most of the footage shot of big cats like lions are of them lazing around. Part of this is because many of them are nocturnal, but it's also because animals will hunt, forage, and eat until they're full, and then most of the rest of their time is spent conserving energy. Laying around doing pretty much nothing is completely natural. It's adaptive. Yet laziness has this negative connotation in many human societies. And that negative connotation is often deployed in ableist, racist, and classist ways.

Basically every race of color has been called "lazy" by white people in the U.S. at one time or another. This is completely absurd considering the fact that people of color built this nation with their bare hands. From the Chinese immigrants building our railroads to our entire economy being built on the backs of black slaves, the United States owes everything to exploited, underpaid, and incredibly hard-working people of color.

Today, we can all enjoy reasonably priced produce thanks to the many exploited Latin undocumented immigrant workers picking our fruit and vegetables-labor that is so intensive that we "non-lazy" white people simply can't handle it. And let's not forget that all of this land was stolen from the Indigenous tribes that were here before we floated over and laid claim to it all. Isn't stealing other people's hard work supposed to be lazy?

Or is it just that it's easier to call people lazy than admit that you exploited them?

Even if you're not racist, you've probably used the idea of laziness in a way that hurts a lot of people. I still struggle with an anxiety disorder and go through bouts of depression, and a lot of what's involved in these mental illnesses looks like what people call "laziness." Depression saps your energy and makes everything seem pointless. Anxiety is paralyzing, making even some of the simplest tasks (like calling people on the phone) seem daunting, so I avoid them.

Combine the two and you've got me huddled into a ball on the bed, unable to do anything but listen to Netflix playing in the background. It looks like laziness, but I'm actually engaged in an exhausting war in my own head. Anxiety is like pushing a giant boulder in front of you wherever you go, and depression is like dragging a giant boulder attached to your legs by chains.

People with physical illness and disability are also prone to being accused of laziness, especially if that illness or disability is not visible to others. There are people who are nearly constantly in pain or constantly fatigued, but you would never know by looking at them. These individuals work much harder than able-bodied and "healthy" people. Not only do they often have to work to survive because disability payments (if they can get them) are not nearly enough, they have to navigate a world that caters to able-bodied people, and they have to navigate that world while their bodies work against them. But article after article decries the "laziness" of people who use motorized carts or take elevators up one floor instead of using the stairs, not for a second thinking that there are people who wouldn't be able to shop or go up floors at all without these "conveniences."

It's not just articles, either. Politicians demonize people who are too sick or disabled to work, calling them "lazy" as justification for taking away the meager allowance our government gives them-which is not enough to live on, let alone cover medical bills. That ableism intersects with classism, with people assuming that those living in poverty or on welfare must be too lazy to go to school or get a better job. Racism shows its face here, as well, particularly in the myth of the "welfare queen." And the hatred leveled at fat individuals under the guise of thinking them "lazy" can be very intense.

It's easier to think of someone as "lazy" than to face the fact that school costs too much, that better jobs are inaccessible, that childcare is unaffordable, that people are forced to work so hard for so little that there's no way they could have enough energy to attempt schooling or finding better work, and that what we give to people who can't work is insufficient to the point of being shameful. I could say that calling people lazy is, in itself, lazy, but it's not just an intellectual shortcut. It's a defense mechanism.

Everyone has a finite amount of energy. Some of us have greater drains on our pool of energy than others, whether it comes from the stress of racial microaggressions, the stress of poverty, or mental or physical illness. Needing more time to recover isn't laziness. Having less time or energy to make breakfast than the previous generation isn't laziness. When you take a second to look into the reasons behind the behavior, you'll never end up finding laziness. Because laziness isn't real.

This was originally published at The Establishment.