Off The Wall: Civil “Hard Work” Debate

I just stumbled across a long letter posted on HuffPo, from a gentleman named Charles Clymer, in reference to my post last week about “hard work.” Suffice it say, Charles and I don’t see eye to eye on everything. Unlike most of my detractors though, Charles writes pretty well and remains refreshingly civil. Since I’m currently sequestered in a hotel room somewhere in Orlando, I thought perhaps I’d respond in kind.

Charles: Dear Mike Rowe,

Hi, I’m a fan of your show. Although the mindless-reality-watching genre of television tends to irritate me for its shallowness and pride in ridiculous antics, your program is quite wonderful. I feel I learn something about the shit various occupations encounter (sometimes, literally). It makes me grateful for their efforts and more empathetic.

Mike: Hi Charles. Thank you. Those two things – education and gratitude – have been among The Top 5 goals of Dirty Jobs and Somebody’s Gotta Do It. (Just behind ratings and good humor.) I appreciate your interest in both.

Charles: Last week, Melissa Harris-Perry warned on her program that we should be careful when using the phrase “hard worker” because the term has become a conservative buzzword for dismissing, for one example, single moms who do work hard but are characterized as lazy and entitled. She told viewers that she keeps a photo of slaves working cotton fields on her office wall to remind her of the relative nature of the term “hard worker.”

When one of your followers asked for a response (given that you’re something of an expert on occupational variety), you seemed to dismiss MHP’s comments by saying “To me, it sounds as though Melissa is displaying images of slavery or drudgery in her office to remind herself of what hard work really and truly looks like. That’s a bit like hanging images of rape and bondage to better illustrate the true nature of human sexuality.”

Mike: I dismissed her point because it relied upon a gross generalization. To suggest that “hard worker” has become a “conservative buzzword,” is to paint all conservatives with a very broad brush, in my opinion. MHP stated that all conservatives described single-moms as “lazy” and “failures who suck off the system.” She then walked that back when her guest, quite rightly in my opinion, pointed out that she was generalizing.

Charles: You also said, “I suspect this is because Melissa believes – as do many others – that success today is mostly a function of what she calls, “relative privilege.” This is fancy talk for the simple fact that life is unfair, and some people are born with more advantages than others. It’s also a fine way to prepare the unsuspecting viewer for the extraordinary suggestion that slavery is proof-positive that hard work doesn’t pay off.” I really want to believe that you’re earnest in this assessment, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and walk you through a few reminders.

Mike: Well, I try to avoid earnestness whenever possible, but if the benefit of the doubt is offered, I’ll always take it.

Charles: When MHP talks about “relative privilege,” she’s alluding to how people have very different life experiences not just based on class and occupation but also race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. You seem to think she’s only talking about occupation, but it’s far more complex than that.

Mike: Is it? Seems fairly simple to me. Life experiences vary dramatically from person to person, and those experiences are influenced by things like race, gender, sexuality, intelligence, attractiveness, and a long list of other attributes out of our personal control. I get it. I’m just not persuaded that “relative privilege” constitutes a good explanation for why an individual fails or succeeds. I believe that anyone – regardless of their gender, race, or sex – can dramatically increase their odds of success by learning a skill that’s in demand, and working their butt off. That doesn’t mean that success is guaranteed to anyone, or that some people don’t have it easier than others. It just means that who we become as individuals has less to do with where we start, and more to do with how we choose to act. Ambition, character, diligence, persistence, work ethic…these things are still available to everyone. And combined, they can still overcome anything.

Charles: From what I can tell, although you don’t really align with a political party, you believe in the conservative “bootstraps” theory: that people just need to put their shoulder into a task, have good ole American gumption, and they’ll be alright. Work hard, work hard, work hard, and the rest will come in due time.

Mike: Yes and no. I’m more conservative than not, but I would not agree that the “bootstraps” theory is the province of conservatives. I have some very good liberal friends who credit their success to hard work. In fact, I have no successful friends who would say that hard work was not a factor in their prosperity. But to be clear, I would never suggest that hard work alone is enough to get ahead. It must be accompanied by the mastery of a useful skill, and some measure of desire.

Charles: Or maybe you believe in a slightly more realistic version: work hard, despite the world being unfair. Even if things don’t work out, you have the moral claim that you gave it your all. And that the end result has little to do with race or gender or sexuality.

Mike: Closer. But don’t forget the educational component, and the desire to prosper. Without ambition and skill, hard work alone can very easily devolve into the kind of drudgery MHP keeps on her wall.

Charles: Although I disagree with these theories, I don’t think they’re out of left field. I get it. You were raised to believe that you can do just about anything with hard work. So was I.

Mike: Not to belabor the point, but no. No, no, no. I was raised to believe that hard work alone guarantees nothing. However, without it – all the ambition and all the education in the world, are pretty well useless.

Charles: We were both born as white males, and like it or not, we enjoy a lot of privileges that others don’t. Studies have shown that even though we may face economic inequality, our race and gender (and sexuality) make it a lot harder to get into poverty and a lot easier to get out of poverty. Moreover, they make it far easier for us to achieve success.

Mike: As an accidental member of the group you describe, I can’t dispute any of that. But as an individual within the group, I really couldn’t care less about the “relative privilege” of my particular batch of humanity. Consequently, I don’t experience any “relative guilt” for being born white, straight, and male. If I were predisposed to that kind of thinking, I’d also have to feel guilty for being healthy, curious, and born in the USA. And I don’t.

Charles: This has the unfortunate side effect of making us believe that if everyone else just works as hard as we do, they’ll have a similar likelihood of succeeding. I’m not saying SUCCESS is guaranteed, but rather, that the PROBABILITY of success is the same for everyone, regardless of our race and gender and sexuality, etc. And that’s just not true. To say nothing of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and our generally misogynistic, homophobic, Judeo-Christian history, what has been demonstrated time and time again is that folks will struggle more to succeed if they are not white, not male, not heterosexual, not cisgender, and not some form of Christianity (and often, Judaism).

Mike: Agreed. No sensible person would argue that everyone has the same odds of success. Some people have an easier time than others. We all get different cards, and must all play them as best we can. Who would argue otherwise?

Charles: I could offer you a never-ending list of horrific statistics that reflect how much the odds are stacked against anyone who isn’t born like us, who isn’t born a white, straight male.

Mike: Again, and with great respect, so what? I could offer you a similar list. Statistically, it not also “proven” that those born with lower IQ’s are at a similar disadvantage? What about ugly people? Or fat people? What about those born in the third world? Statistically, aren’t they doomed to struggle more than those born here? If you’re going to discount the importance of hard work among the “privileged,” why limit your definition to American males who are white and straight?

Charles: With that in mind, let’s go back to the “relative privilege” argument MHP makes. She’s talking about how Republicans, for a long time, have used coded terms like “welfare mothers” and “entitlement programs” and linked them directly to this awful, slanderous image of the American black woman as lazy, entitled, and leaching off the government. They don’t publicly come out and say “lazy black woman” (maybe behind closed doors) but they do everything short of it.

Mike: You’re generalizing Charles, just like Melissa did. It’s no less offensive to imply that all Republicans behave as you’ve described, as it is to suggest all black single mothers are lazy, entitled, and stupid. Both claims are fiction. What’s true, is that some individuals have slandered the image of American black women, and some of those individuals have been Republicans. But now, you and Melissa have slandered half the registered voters in the United States in the exact same way. Do you see that?

Charles: MHP was trying to make a point — and a rather good one — that the term “hard worker” is a way of othering people of color but especially women of color and especially women of color whose way of life may not reflect the “wholesome” dinner table of a Norman Rockwell painting. It is a vicious — and violent — judgement based on racist views.

Mike: We disagree. Melissa’s comments were in direct response to a guest who said Paul Ryan was hard worker. Her admonishment to be “very careful” about the use of “hard worker” was a lecture out of left field, a bizarre accusation fraught with political correctness. Mostly though, it was just one more assault on the idea that success still requires hard work, no matter who you are.

Charles: I don’t think you mean any harm when you wade into these issues, but I am concerned, at times, with your 1) lack of awareness about your white privilege, male privilege, etc. and 2) your need to “stay above the fray” by offering something resembling wisdom that supposedly stays away from all things controversial, yet obviously supports viewpoints that reflect the minds of the average white American on controversial issues.

Mike: You’re correct. I mean no harm to anyone. And while I appreciate your concern, I can assure you I’m well aware of my many blessings. I’m just not all that impressed by my race or my gender. Or anyone’s, for that matter.

Charles: It’s a really neat trick, even if done unconsciously. You can paint yourself as “not wanting anything to do with politics” while clearly offering opinions that will resonate with a fanbase that tends to have white privilege, male privilege, votes conservative, etc.

Mike: I run a foundation that awards work-ethic scholarships to people of all races and genders and political persuasions. I have a TV show that lots of people watch who may or may not share my views on this topic, or any other. I also represent a variety of national brands that would no doubt prefer I keep my opinions to myself. Well, that’s not gonna happen. But I can try to be as forthcoming as possible around issues that interest me or impact my business. And I can try to do it as politely as possible.

Charles: But wait, you say, “I have black fans and women fans and feminist fans and liberal fans.” I’m sure you do! Because as it turns out, lots of people are interested in the jobs you profile and what “hard work” means across the spectrum of occupations.

Mike: Actually, I didn’t say that; you did. And you’re probably right. But again, I don’t care about the color of my fans any more than I care about the color of my friends. It’s just not that important to me.

Charles: But I also think viewers approach your show with different motivations, regardless of it not being your intention. You have a large fan demographic of conservative white males who tune-in to see a manly man do good, honest work because this country is going to hell in a hand basket, and your persona (which is quite charming and genuine) resonates with their vision of America from a simpler time.

Mike: Maybe. But I also have viewers like you. What makes you assume you’re in the minority?

Charles: It’s an understandable sentiment (well, kinda), but it willfully ignores the reality of poverty and race and gender in America: the millions of women of color in this country who DO work hard in minimum wage jobs (jobs American needs to get done) but can’t seem to get ahead, let alone keep their head above water, and yet, remain the only demographic that constantly serves as a whipping post for conservative politicians.

Mike: Careful. You’re doing that thing again. You know, the broad-brush slandering of half the country with grossly distorted generalizations. Gotta be careful with that.

Charles: And more than that, it ignores how the pictures MHP has on her wall depict an historical injustice that is directly linked to the plight of people of color, women, and other groups, today.

Mike: It’s true. The number of topics that my shows ignore are legion. But two things remain consistent – hope, and the power of the individual.

Charles: So, that term “hard worker” doesn’t just mean someone who works hard; it’s chock full of implications that are harmful and degrading to so many Americans who deserve our respect and assistance, not our derision based on racist, sexist stereotypes. Just food for thought. I’d love to see you feature this dynamic on your show and in your online commentary.


Mike: Don’t hold your breath. There’s no shortage of shows out there that tell us how “unfair” the world is. Personally, I don’t think we need anymore. Likewise with online commentary. How many more voices do we need proclaiming the end of opportunity in this county?

In the coming year, people are going to try and get elected by telling us the system is rigged – that there is no point in even trying to get prosper. My shows don’t do that, and neither do I. Dirty Jobs and Somebody’s Gotta Do It are both proof positive that hard work, persistence, knowledge, and passion can still allow any person of any background to prosper. As messages go, that’s the one I’m sticking with.


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