Sam Sapirstein discusses Talia the Sinner.
We must learn to respect brave people who might be flawed. We cannot afford not to.
Like so many young Millennial Jews from the east coast, I’m an atheist. But I take seriously the notion of sin, at least as I understand it. We are all sinners, in that we are all, right now, imperfect. We have been imperfect. Our corporate elites gleefully hold this against us. We learn to hold it against each other, lest one of us stand up.
Yelp recently fired one Talia Jane from her shitty customer service job after she posted an open letter to her CEO on Medium about her life in poverty. I say her life – but few who’ve publicly responded to her letter mention how she spent the bulk of it depicting the plight of her coworkers as well. She wrote of how Yelp demoniacally accepted high turnover and low morale to maintain wages that low, a hierarchy that steep.
But Google “yelp open letter,” and you’ll get the more famous response by Stefanie Williams first. Do the same on Facebook, and you’ll find user commentary that closely mirror Stefanie’s feelings.
Complaints of “our generation” feeling entitled. An accounting of past experience, followed by a critique of Talia’s, and a balancing of the two. If you’re hoping I’ll try to demolish Williams’ case point by point, I won’t. Point by point misses the point:
Paying someone $8.15 an hour in a city with such high costs of living is a crime, no matter your judgment of the victim. Few can stand up directly to bad treatment, let alone claim the right to do so. If they do, they are exposed as flawed. Their histories mined for mistakes. Their photos probed for little moments of dignity that are spun into claims of hidden luxury. The rebel stands exposed as less worthy than someone else. The simple facts about the outrage get lost.
And we deliberately lose them. When it comes to those who dare to question our elites, we often limit our moral universe to those who can withstand all scrutiny without tarnish. That instinct may seem conservative, but liberal do-gooders are susceptible too; when they proudly lay claim to the absolute saddest cases, they often disqualify the slightly less sad by default.
Some of you feel jealous of Talia, too. I do. I never spoke up against lousy pay. She did. It’s also easy to want one’s pain to matter more than hers – some of you reading have lived much harder lives than either Talia, Stefanie or I.
All of this is frustrating. Through frustration we close our minds. And when in the mood to judge harshly, we mine the rebel’s story for inconstancies or shortcomings. If you felt that closing sensation after reading about Talia, this post is especially for you.
So before we continue, if you’re (still) frustrated with Talia, I have just the thing. It’ll feel great, trust me: take a deep breath, close your eyes, and expand that mind. Grow that moral universe, until it includes Talia, and people even less perfect than her. Let it accommodate all who complain in sin. Do it, even if a second ago you couldn’t. It’s actually easy if you try. And it feels great.
The people who stand up to our elites will not always have made choices that under scrutiny seem airtight. They will not always be the poorest, or the wisest. And we all seek to avoid those mistakes that, however small, could disqualify us from being worthy of a voice. But poor or not, I think many working Americans fear that if they suddenly try to raise their voice, as Talia did, they won’t just be fired; the world will also ask, “what’s your story? Where’d you get those chips?”
The fact that Talia’s letter should incur so much wrath and meaningless scrutiny is the very reason to write the letter in the first place. For each brave soul to ask publicly for a raise, as Talia Jane essentially did, there are thousands more who get fired for asking quietly. If her privilege as a white English major makes it easier for her to speak out in the first place, then it also reveals how steep a hill the less privileged must climb.
Rejecting cases like Talia’s will not help level that hill.
Talia’s act is one among many that help illustrate the complete moral bankruptcy of our economic system. It is a messy act, committed by an imperfect human whose story will never be the most compelling of all. I just hope it still makes it easier for the next person to stand up.
The life history of Talia Jane is irrelevant. The histories of Stefanie and I (we’re both writers, have worked several crappy jobs and are almost 30) are also irrelevant. The bullshit benefits and nutrient-poor snacks at Yelp are irrelevant.
What matters is that paying people so little is a travesty, however not compelling we deem the case of each worker. Every day, more people come to this conclusion. Occupy Wall St, and now Bernie Sanders, are symptoms of this shift.
Minimum wage is the problem in this case. It would be in every case to which it applies. It’s time to lose our fear of having our sins exposed if we stand up – or for joining in solidarity with those who do. Maybe, if we all do it together, we can win.
Photo: Taken by Sam Sapirstein