Sunday, 4 December 2011


There have been a few things that have inspired this post. I've really appreciated the voices emerging from the fat positive/size acceptance movement challenging the idea that anyone has any obligation to be healthy. Amongst others, there are some excellent posts on this is at The Fat Nutritionist and Raising My Boy Chick. But there is little equivalent of these when it comes to that other stereotype attached to fatness: laziness.

Then there's this image which has been going round on Facebook, which reads as follows:




(This image annoys me a lot).

There's personal experience also. I have a disability which makes certain tasks either extremely difficult or very slow. Particularly as a child, but sometimes still, I've been called lazy as a result of that. And on the flip side of that, I found some activities so incredibly easy that I could do them in half the time others did and spend half of that time staring in to space - and worried that I must be being incredibly lazy as a result. I have something of a terror of being seen as lazy, and at times have pushed myself to injury by taking on unsustainable amounts of work to avoid that.

And then there's the speculation on why the turnout at the election was so low. There have been a number of comments along the lines of "I don't mind people who make a conscious decision not to vote but I do when they're just too lazy."

When I started to think about laziness, I struggled to understand what exactly it was. It's something we talk about all the time, but none of the definitions I could find really made sense. is probably as good a starting place as any:

lazy [ley-zee]   Origin la·zy    [ley-zee] Show IPA adjective, -zi·er, -zi·est, verb, -zied, -zy·ing. adjective
1. averse or disinclined to work, activity, or exertion; indolent.
2. causing idleness or indolence: a hot, lazy afternoon.
3. slow-moving; sluggish: a lazy stream.
4. (of a livestock brand) placed on its side instead of upright. 

I think we can safely ignore 4 for the purposes of this discussion. 2 and 3 (and I know these are not specifically applied to people, but the associations are still there) have real value judgements implicit in them. 3 is related to speed. There are a lot of values we attach to speed (remember that 'I want to punch slow moving people in the back of the head' facebook group). Speed of movement, speed of thought, speed of learning. Huge issues there when thinking about disability.

When it comes to 1, here's the definition of idleness (and I promise I won't spend all this post quoting

idleness [ahyd-l]   Origin i·dle    [ahyd-l] Show IPA adjective, i·dler, i·dlest, verb i·dled, i·dling, noun adjective
1. not working or active; unemployed; doing nothing: idle workers.
2. not spent or filled with activity: idle hours.
3. not in use or operation; not kept busy: idle machinery.
4. habitually doing nothing or avoiding work; lazy.
5. of no real worth, importance, or significance: idle talk.

Everything there screams judgements on the value of work or activity. And we've all heard those before. Women's work vs men's work. Paid work vs unpaid work. Paid work vs unpaid work vs non work activities. Etc.

I think the first definition of lazy is the most interesting. It refers to not wanting to work, the favourite trope of beneficiary bashers everywhere. But if the definition of work is relatively complicated, that of activity is even more so. Not to be facetious, but what is not an activity? Watching television is as much an activity as running a marathon but only one of those activities would led the participant to accusations of laziness. So the way I'm looking at this is in terms of allocation of resources (and yes, I do find it deeply ironic that the image I posted referred to spoons). Laziness is a value judgement on how we, usually as individuals, allocate our personal resources. 

The image I posted earlier, the one that berates people for not washing the spoons? Think for a minute about what types of work are involved in washing a metal spoons versus manufacturing a plastic spoon. One is individual, the other is part of a process involving many people, which theoretically allows for types of work to be allocated according to people's abilities, for predictable shifts, sick leave. It may not in practice, but the idea is not alien. Washing a spoon isn't a big deal - unless turning on taps is painful or impossible. If you take lunch to eat outside the home and there are no washing facilities, it should be easy to take it home and wash it. If you don't have memory impairments that mean chances are the remaining yoghurt on it will end up going mouldy in your bag. If you have a car to put it in rather than cart it round with you all day, that makes things easier. If you can afford a dishwasher, that makes things easier. If you are responsible for a number of people, you're going to have more spoons to wash. And it's not going to be just spoons - the same extends to plates and forks and cups.

So there are two things going on here. One is presenting washing a spoon as an activity which takes a universally equal and minimal amount of effort, rather than a task that can be difficult or impossible or cause a whole series of problems, depending on the individual and their resources. The other is to compare two ideas of work: one linked with individual unpaid labour in the home; the other paid employment in often traditionally male occupations. The former is a trivial activity; the latter hard and excessive work.

Voting is an allocation of resources also. I think in this country voting, for most people, uses less resources than it does in most others, and I'm happy about that. But it still requires resources, mental and physical. To complain about someone not voting, you're claiming the right to a say in how they allocate their personal resources. And that may well be in ignorance about factors which either cause them to have less personal resources, or to have more demands on those resources. I know people are frustrated about the result of the election, and see - rightly or wrongly - a low turnout as partly responsible. But if increasing the turnout is a primary goal for you, berating individuals is not the way to do it.

Of course, as I indicated at the beginning of this post, laziness is implicitly linked to fat. 'Fat and lazy' is such an automatic phrase I had to stop and think about why they are associated. Of course, there's the obvious belief that lack of physical activity causes fatness - or fatness causes lack of activity - or... oh dear god people, please make up your minds. In any case, it comes back to the privileging of one activity (physical exercise) over others. But there's more to it than that. By being fat, there's an implied judgement that you have allocated resources incorrectly - you have consumed too much and you have worked too little. Accusations of laziness are simply the next strand of that. Your allocation of resources is a moral failing on your part.

We all have things we should do. But that is not the same as giving some activities inherent moral worth (as opposed to moral value attached to what happens as a result of these, which is a different question entirely) over others nor is it demanding a certain level of exertion, physical or intellectual, for a person to be considered worthy or 'not lazy'. I think judgements such as these are very common in activist groups - I'm sure I've made them myself and I've certainly had them made against me. But laziness is, when it comes down to it, full of implied fatphobia and makes - often heavily gendered - statements about what work is and isn't valued, something I've had more than enough of.


Maia said...

I really like this post - and think it's super important.

The idea that we know how easy things are from other people is both deeply ingrained and complete bullshit.

Soeone I know is fond of going on about how he doesn't understand how anyone can get library fines, blah-blah-blah so easy.

Deeply ingrained in this (and I think really important politically) - is the idea that people can't be trusted to be decision makers in their own lives. That we're not marshalling our resources and our needs and desires to the best of our ability in each moment - and I thinkt that's both deeply reactionary and a view of human nature I hate.

Random Lurker said...

I think people feel cheated when they see others not contributing as much to the common good as they feel (despite their ignorance about the other person's actual circumstances) they are capable of, and unthinkingly reach for.. lazy.. sterotypes, insults and attacks.

Psycho Milt said...

To complain about someone not voting, you're claiming the right to a say in how they allocate their personal resources.

No, you're not. You're just expressing an opinion, to which everyone on the planet most definitely has a right. Now, if you were to demand the govt make voting compulsory you'd be claiming a right to a say in the voters' allocation of personal resources, but that's a different thing altogether.

LudditeJourno said...

Anthea, as nearly always, I am in awe of your deconstructive powers, thank you :-)

BUT I think the example of the Facebook thing you hate can be read in more than one way. The way you have read it - I agree with your points about morality and the implicit fat hatred involved in "lazy". AND also as a plea for us all to consider whether or not cleaning up after ourselves would make a difference to our world in terms of resources and in terms of "who does" the cleaning up. That doesn't mean our capacity to clean up after ourselves should be judged, I completely agree with you. But what about entitlement to not have to? I am constantly struck in the western world by how often power means not having to clean up after yourself on the micro (I'm a big manager, I don't do dishes after meetings, someone else does that) and the macro (I'm a big company, I need somewhere to dump this crap, that river will do). Long comment, sorry, just feel like I want to hold onto that analysis as well as acknowledge yours.

anarkaytie said...

Excellent analysis, I really enjoyed reading that.

As a person who has mostly spent her life being excoriated for being too skinny, I have to say I see the whole 'body-size-normalising' debate as a feminist issue, where the judgements smack of misogyny.
My lack of curves brought me much abuse as a child and teenager (from family members, natch) and my ambivalence towards my body persists into mid/late adulthood.
I wanted to be fatter, I flatted with fatter faltmates and ate the same sized meals. I got skinnier, she got fatter, there was no logic, really. Dieticians have made me angry, journalists have made me scornful as they repeat steroetypes and myths - it's almost to the level where I'd say there's as much misinformation as the rape myth files.

Back to the election issues, it appears that there may have been structural barriers in the software running the on-line enrollment sites, which caused some young voters to give up on processing an enrollment.
I had feedback from at least two 18-25 yr-olds in my close family who complained that the links I'd posted to them didn't work - I encouraged them to fill out physical forms at the nearest post office, and both of them voted.
That information was not universally reported; also several right-wing spinners were doing their best to disable get-out-the-vote programs being run by other parties. No, I'm not naming or linking, you can work that one out by yourselves, it's the usual obvious suspects.

Gareth Hughes is calling for an inquiry into just why the voter turnout was so low, and whether issues around enrollment website complications had anything to do with low first-time voter enrollments.

Maia said...

There is a level it makes no sense that I forgot to mention - in my experience plastic spoons are rarely bought by consumers as a concious choice to washing a spoon (although I have many of hte same issues as anthea and I've made a decision to buy paper plates and cutlery if my dishwasher ever breaks - that's how much dishes ruin my life. So I'm not saying it can't happen. Usually they're given out in situations where people can't know they'll get their spoons back (takeaway places) or where there's a sudden need for spoons all in one place (confereneces and the like). I think it's really telling that hte cost of a plastic spoon is compared with the cost of washing a metal spoon - assuming that metal spoons just spring up where-ever they're needed - instead of having just an intense manufacturing process.

And ultimately that's the problem with the whole ideology represented in that spoon graphic - it treats structural problems as individual problems that if we can solve if we were just better - giving individual's control over things they simply don't have control over.

Ludditejourno - I think asking companies to 'clean up after themselves' is essentially a metaphor (companies after all don't have selves to clean up after).

And the idea that one should 'clean up after oneself' is based on the very ideas that Anna's is unpacking. It's based on idea of cleaning-up as non-work that anyone can do with ease. It renders the work of cleaning both easy and invisible (we should just all do it ourselves).

Anonymous said...

Isn't the poster making a point about how little regard we give to the environmental costs of producing disposable items? If the environmental costs of plastic spoon vs metal spoon that can be washed thousands of times were equal, I'd agree with your analysis - but they're not. It's not just about human effort, it's about human effort in relation to environmental costs. And it is amazing that in our society, we don't build environmental considerations into our analysis of the societal costs of creating a new plastic spoon compared with creating long-wearing objects and reusing them. How might things be different if the manufacturers of disposable items had to pay for the environmental impact of their products?

Also, the poster doesn't actually use the word "lazy". It uses the word "effort". Effort is defined as "A vigorous or determined attempt" - and when it comes to addressing the environmental impact of our society, we're not even trying. And we should be.

- Elley

(P.S. At my old job, we had plastic spoons in the kitchen, big bags of them, because we didn't have a dishwasher and people whinged about dirty spoons being left in the sink. The boss decided disposable plastic spoons was a great solution. Metal spoons were taken away. This meant that for those of us who didn't want to use throw-away items every day, we had to bring in a personal spoon, and wash it after using it, and take it back to our desk. Some of us did. Some didn't. The point is that by making only plastic spoons available, the boss was making a very clear choice that he didn't care about the environmental impact of the office as a whole.)

Anonymous said...

Don't disagree with lots of the analysis here, but i'd also suggest thinking about the cultures the image is most likely commenting on.

For example, US culture is shockingly throw away compared to NZ - i've seen numerous families using plastic/paper plates, cups, knives, forks at home, as a matter of course.

Plastic is also used simply to save time and money in public places like shopping centres, amusement parks etc, when actually using things that need washing would create needed jobs, and be far more environmentally sustainable. It's profit that is prioritised in every situation.

Throwing away is much cheaper and easier - despite creating huge problems and being an inefficent use of resources for a society.

I'm not suggesting that this is the intention of whoever created this image - most likely it is along the 'the choices we make as individuals change the world' lines. The debate about who benefits in each situation are worth having.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what the scale of the plastic spoon issue is? I was astounded to learn that in Japan alone there are something like 24 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks used and discarded each year. I get the point about the poster being a bit sanctimonious but it is difficult not to feel sad about such waste.

Julie said...

Just a reminder about sticking to the commenting rules please - Anonymous comments must have a consistent handle, as it says above the comment box. Anonymous comments which are unpleasant and do not have such generally just get deleted.