It all started with trash.
The town where I live recently experienced a bit of a delay on the part of the private sanitation company contracted to pick up our refuse. It was inconvenient, for sure. No one wants garbage baking in the summer sun too long.
Like any respectable suburb, the town has a social media presence. As the days passed with no sanitation pickup and our unwanted matter piled up, the neighborhood became restless. Like many modern American communities, the folk went online to vent their frustration.
There were calls for the mayor and town council to step up and figure things out. I couldn’t argue with that, since my fellow New Jersey dwellers and I pay some very high taxes. Then, of course, came the torrent of vitriol. There were also theories aplenty about the cause of the delay. There’s a labor shortage in the U.S. at the moment, no one can deny that fact; it’s part of the disruption caused by the still-lingering pandemic.
Ah, but what’s driving said labor shortage? A ready answer was provided by a number of folk: it’s because our state is providing too much money for unemployment, you see. The extra cash is disincentivizing people from working. Because, you know, people are lazy. That was the gist of the sentiment.
The prevalence of this hypothesis was disconcerting. It got me to thinking once again that perhaps America has a perspective problem when it comes to humanity.
One Nation, Under Toxic Mythology
I’m just going to say it: American society is laboring under some mass cognitive distortions. I believe some of these distortions stem from our unique, toxic mythology of the Rugged Individual. We have a deep cultural obsession with extreme individualism that gives too many of us a severe Social Darwinist streak.
It’s the Rugged Individual mythology that birthed the illusion that successful people succeed in a vacuum. Meaning, we tend to believe the rich and famous became rich and famous through sheer personal exertion and force of will. This perception encompasses the idea of the self-made man.
Like all toxic ideologies that steep us in negativity, the self-made man needs a “villain” against which he must be contrasted. There needs to be a scapegoat onto which we can pour our disapproval and ire. This brings us to the conceit of the lazy man.
According to self-made man mythology, the lazy man lurks everywhere. Why, he could even be your next-door neighbor! While the self-made uphold the “flawless” Puritan work ethic that made our country “great,” the swelling ranks of lazy men take advantage of the labor of others. The lazy sit around soaking up the free money handed out by liberal politicians while honest folk do all the hard work.
The contrived dichotomy of the self-made man versus the lazy man is a textbook example of the cognitive distortion known as polarized thinking. It also mixes in a heaping helping of overgeneralization and maybe a pinch of its spicier cousin, labeling.
This gross recipe boils down to this: when we allow cognitive distortions to reduce other people to one-dimensional caricatures, it makes it all-to-easy to deny them basic human dignity. This fundamental lack of respect, and the resulting cynicism toward others, is an entropic force constantly eating at our social cohesion.
Alternatives to the Lazy Man Hypothesis
The cognitive distortions of the self-made man hypothesis leave no room for anything other than an either-or binary. The dogma of the Rugged Individual strips away the wonderous variety of the human experience. So, let’s counteract such lack of nuance and use our capacity for logic to consider other reasons why people might not go back to work. Specifically, let’s use the profession of sanitation worker as our framework.
Could it be that the pandemic has shown us mortality on a mass scale, which tends to make one question one’s life decisions? Sanitation worker is a vital job, no doubt, but it’s hard physical labor. Some people might be considering a career move because we’ve all been reminded that life is short. Therefore, many of us are taking our time to look for new opportunities. For some, this may mean going back to school or training for a new trade, learning new skills, and increasing their education.
Perhaps the sanitation company they worked for previously didn’t pay them a livable wage. Perhaps their manager treated them poorly. Maybe those who still want to be sanitation workers are looking for other companies that will compensate them better. Maybe they want to make sure their next manager is more humane.
Perhaps sanitation workers experienced a huge uptick in workload because of stay-at-home orders during the pandemic. Maybe they were injured on the job, or they just became burnt out mentally and physically due to hauling unprecedented mountains of trash created by everyone being trapped at home.
The bottom line: despite what cognitive distortions like polarized thinking or overgeneralization might try to tell us, there’s always more than one motivation for human behaviors. Deep down, we all know this fact. But the siren song of our negativity bias is strong, and often overrides our capacity for logic and nuance.
Note: I’m not suggesting there aren’t people who consciously take advantage of unemployment. I’m not discounting the fact that there are people who have adopted a lazy attitude, for whatever reason, and are willfully milking the system. But let’s use some discernment and avoid overgeneralizing to declare that all people on unemployment are lazy, okay?
Take the Heroic Perspective Toward People
It may take more effort, but don’t take the easy path of simplistic thinking in the face of life’s complexity. There is no shortcut to living an open-minded life. Just like your body, your mind needs continual training to become resilient and flexible.
I’m not asking you to see only the positive about people. I‘d never advocate that you wear “kumbaya blinders” or think that people are just shiny angels. Nor would I say that people are inherently conniving and only worthy of your suspicion. Rather, I’ll always advise you to approach people from a place of neutrality.
The heroic mindset urges us to take people as they are, both the good and the bad. Ultimately, heroism is faith in humanity. We should see people as having the potential for good, not as potential problems. See others as independent beings who make choices and decisions that can result in a limitless scope of directions. Don’t interact with people from a place of prejudgment or bias. Instead, give them the benefit of the doubt. Treat them as innocent until proven guilty, rather than the other way around.
Is laziness just not doing what you don’t want to do?
We are far more interdependent than we realize, or at least than we care to admit.
More from Anthony Simeone:
Focus your energy on fighting limiting ideologies, not people.
In an age of toxic populism, cynicism, and apathy, everyday heroism is an antidote.
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