Monday, April 5, 2010

The Politics of Clean(s)ing

From the Pagan celebrations of renewing energies simmering below the surface between Imbolc and Beltane, to the purifying rituals and fasts of the Lenten season leading up to the Easter holiday of rebirth and resurrection, to the secular traditions of "spring cleaning" — it seems the topic of cleansing always pushes its way up through the muck and dirt and caked layers of old dead leaves during this time of year, much like the tulips and daffodils and, I suspect, responding to the same warm sunlight and cool rains.

My usual rituals of spring cleaning have been put on hold this year as I pack up to move from my old apartment into my new home with my partner. The process, a kind of ultimate spring cleaning (except with more cardboard boxes and lots of heavy lifting), has given me a new appreciation for all those past years of intense nook-and-cranny scouring and scrubbing and clearing out the cobwebs of the previous winter. I can immediately tell those places where the cleaning "took," and those hidden corners that I overlooked time and again, now revealed in all their glory of tumbling dust-bunny mountains. And of course, there really is nothing quite like the first deep-cleaning of the new season, with all the windows thrown open and the vernal breeze rich with hyacinths and the first hint of magnolia mingling with the citrus scents of eco-friendly cleaning supplies.

And so, I've been thinking a lot recently about cleaning, and cleansing.[*] In particular, I've been thinking about the ways in which clean(s)ing puts us into relationship with others, with the landscape and with the Song of the World, or rather, how so often it fails to do just that. I call this the "politics" of clean(s)ing, in the sense that it concerns the how's and why's of living in community, and our responsibilities (and response-abilities) in such relationship.

About the Cleaning-Lady

To illustrate the importance of the "politics of clean(s)ing," I want to focus first on what I consider to be the epitome of an unhealthy relationship, a kind of cleaning dystopia. Now normally there are very few things that would provoke me to unequivocal judgment in this blog; I try to respect others' rights to think, behave and define themselves and their values each on their own, in hopes they will do the same for me, and I would rather engage in mutual discourse than a contest in condemning. But you are about to witness, dear readers, a departure from this general track in the following statement: I know of absolutely no reason (with the exception of those who are physically unable due to age, illness or disability) for anyone to have a housekeeper, ever.

courtesy of Luc Deveault, via flickrMy reasons for such a strong view are manifold, but they have their origins in my up-bringing by a strong feminist mother who also, as it happens, was an incurable pack-rat. The fact is that the title of "housekeeper" is for good reason practically interchangeable with "cleaning-lady" — it is a job still dominated almost entirely by women, almost all of whom are underpaid and overworked. My sense of social justice cringes at the very notion of patronizing and perpetuating such a horrifically sexist and demeaning profession (and I must reject the notion, as I've heard some Libertarians argue in support of prostitution, that by exploiting women who have no better options, we are somehow doing them a favor).

The logic that supports this degrading profession — and believe me, there are few jobs more degrading than cleaning up someone else's waste and filth — is that it would be ridiculous to pay someone a living wage to do work you could very well do for yourself (if you were so inclined, which of course you are not). It is the same logic that exempts severs and wait-staff from minimum wage laws (after all, you could have gotten your own food... though, of course, you didn't). The result is an ugly mess of unhealthy relationships lurking just beneath that gleaming surface that we would like to call "clean."

Consider the following: out-for-hire housekeepers are often paid according to the number of houses they clean, which gives them quite a large incentive to clean a given house as quickly as possible, and move on to the next. As a result, they often focus far more on the appearance of cleanliness than on actual, deep-cleaning itself. And can you blame them? The job of housekeeper rarely comes with job security or benefits, such as health care, and on top of that, you don't get paid if you don't show up. Which also means that housekeepers will often show up to work even when they are injured or ill, which is much more frequent in a job that involves hard physical work and dealing all day with other people's germs. Whether for reasons of speed or because she is feeling less than full of vigorous health, or quite often both, a housekeeper will likely cut every corner she can, wiping down that kitchen counter once with an already-used rag from the bathroom rather than wasting time prepping a clean one and scrubbing to kill all those invisible germs that we can't see anyway. And really, it's not her house, so why should it matter to her? There is, after all, a subversive logic that plays in the heads of the working-class housekeepers and waitresses as well, which is that if the client or customer really cared about the work, they would have done it themselves, and what you're really paid for is the task of keeping up appearances. Every once in a while, you might find that wizened Buddhist woman who treats waiting tables at the local diner like a Teahouse Practice; or the devoted housekeeper who sees the task of cleaning and sterilizing other people's homes as her small homage to Mother Teresa... but such saints are few and far between, and most folks are just fellow human beings struggling to make ends meet.

The sum total of all of this? We invite someone into our home — this place meant to be a family space of comfort and safety, rest and sanctuary and warm memory — and this person brings with her the systemic violence of lingering sexism and injustice and very often poverty; she brings with her the illnesses, frenzied stress and repressed resentment of a demeaning and difficult job; she brings with her all those literal germs from all the other houses she's cleaned that day, not to mention the harsh industrial chemicals that are just as bad for the earth as they are for the human body... and when she leaves, we survey our domain and call it "clean." And yet, how could this be clean? How could this truly be healthy? We have invited in countless violations of kindness, honor and responsibility — we have welcomed in a reality rife with invisible illness and imbalance for the sake of a superficial glimmering appearance, and in the very act of doing so we have relinquished our own responsibilities.

courtesy of Perfecto Insecto, via flickrWhy Cleansing Matters

In some ways, the argument that if you really cared about the work, you would do it yourself, though often bitter and self-justifying among those who work in the "service industry," has a deeply relevant point. Cleaning puts us into relationship with the places and objects that we clean — but more specifically, it is work that restores our relationship with all those things that we have used up and worn out with our daily living, often taking them for granted or overlooking them as our grime collects and our handling wears. The process of cleaning is our chance to re-attune with these, to demonstrate with our hands and our care, our time and concentration, the gratitude and respect that they are due. During this time we spend cleaning, we become willing attendants to those objects and places that have continually served us, patiently and reliably and without protest. For the Pagan who views all of the embodied, physical world as sacred, cleaning is a sacred act of cleansing, in which we purify our relationships with a space and its dwelling spirits (whether literal or metaphorical) by redressing the imbalances of carelessness and inattention that can so often creep into our lives.

This is the why of cleansing, but the how is also intensely important. The cleansing process puts us in touch and in tune with an object or space so that we can establish a healthy and respectful "working relationship." But as any good ritualist or spellcrafter knows, when we set about the work of clearing away the mirky or harmful energies and the lingering spiritual echoes of a place or object, we also engage in opening ourselves and emptying ourselves. We give ourselves a chance to start fresh with a new sense of freedom grounded in the present, the here-now. Household cleaning tasks are often slow and repetitive — the same sweep of the broom or swish of the mop, the same turn and twist of the dishrag, the same back-and-forth of the scrub brush on the shower tile — and so they can become a kind of embodied meditation similar to that of smudging a sacred circle or cleansing a crystal. They require and help to cultivate self-discipline, gradually quieting the riot of thoughts in the mind and bringing the attention into focus on the most mundane of details.

And so this is why, I think, it is in the spring that we find ourselves so often thinking about cleaning and cleansing. Not only is cleaning a natural and practical way to direct those energies that come bubbling up from beneath the long-frozen ground and pouring down from the ever-higher sun, but it provokes a kind of revery in the mundane. The freshly washed curtains sway in the breeze beside the newly dusted windowsill, on which sits the most mundane and common of things: a few fresh-cut flowers in a vase. And life urges us to stop and smell the flowers, to slow down, to give our attention willingly and reverently to those little things that are tripping and tumbling over themselves in offering, that give of themselves endlessly and utterly fill our lives, a glass that runneth over with the generous fecundity of spring and simple things.

[*] The two words trace back to the same Proto-Germanic roots meaning "to gleam" or make bright, with cleanse retaining its older spelling and pronunciation and clean, once used only as an adjective, taking over in the common usage. I have noticed that cleansing often tends to evoke a kind of formality and sacredness that cleaning does not, and so I will use these two terms in this way: cleaning being the mundane process, and cleansing being cleaning with that extra bit of umph added in (let's say the "s" stands for "sacred").


  1. What a wonderful, wonderful post :) Thank you.

  2. I am left wondering how many professional cleaning persons you have met.

    My cleaning lady is deaf, and gets disability from the government. As a result, she only takes cash, and she charges $15/hour. She recently bought a house. She has her clients provide their own cleaning supplies, as every person has different preferences. She hand-washes every floor (and loves our extra-high Cal-King bed, because she fits right under it all the way to the back). She changes rags, and even wash-water, multiple times per room, and washes every surface twice. She is conscientious and thorough. She jogs 6 miles every day, and runs half-marathons for prize money. She called and cancelled when she felt sick. She is in Florida enjoying herself this week.

    She is _not_ what I would call a "member of the downtrodden masses".

    Meanwhile, she does a very thorough job, and I am now able to tackle ordinary day-to-day cleaning tasks without horrible allergy attacks. If the dust is allowed to build up for more than 3 days in any given room, cleaning it sends me to bed, juiced up on anti-histamines, for 24-48 hours. How can I stay on top of all of the dust in the entire house with a timeline like that?

    I know people with cleaning ladies who take advantage of the presence of the cleaning woman to force themselves to straighten, and then work side-by-side with their housecleaner the entire time the cleaner is there. Why? Twice as much cleaning happens, and big projects therefore have more man-hours (or rather, woman-hours) available to them. Pulling apart the china cabinet is a daunting task, and one not entered into when there are only a few hours available.

    Yes, cleaning does allow for spiritual cleansing; I get that during 3 hours per day of cooking, and 12 loads of laundry per week. Sorting laundry is wonderfully cleansing! I also scrub my counters many times per day, in that repetitive, monotonous way that results in turning off the frenzied thinking and allows for personal contemplation.

    If you know of a way to keep house, when you have 4 kids (ie mess-creating machines) home all day, 2000+ square feet to keep clean, and a severe dust allergy, I'd love to hear it. Until then, I am going to keep my housecleaner, who is thorough, trustworthy, and puts herself, her needs and her health in front of all else.

  3. Ali, the cleaning lady in your caricature in no way resembles, even the tiniest bit, the people I've hired to help out with household work in the past. I've got someone coming over in two weeks to help me out with spring cleaning, since I want to move the furniture around and beat the rugs out and such, and that's beyond my power to do alone. I appreciate your comments about the spiritual power of housecleaning - I think that part of your post is really beautiful. I'd be curious to know what a professional housecleaner would think of the rest of it. Mine makes more than I do in terms of hourly wage (though admittedly my corporate masters provide way better bennies), sets her own schedule, and I provide the cleaning supplies. She's an artist in her "real life" and uses cleaning work to support herself and give herself the time to do her artwork which she wouldn't have with a 9-5 job.

    Do you feel the same way about professional childcare? There certainly are a lot of parallels.... is it anti-feminist to hire childcare? that would be sort of mindbending.

    on another tangent, I saw this today, linked in a completely different context:
    I'd be curious for your opinion on it - I found it annoying for reasons I can't put my finger on. I suspect you probably could articulate what's wrong with that picture much better than I could.

  4. Peregrin, Thank you. :)

  5. Nettle, I can appreciate that you personally have not had the same experience I describe, which as I said was a dystopian view expounding on absolutely everything that could potentially be unhealthy and unbalanced (and of course, I didn't even mention the tendency, especially further west in this country, to hire housekeepers who are not even legal citizens and so have even fewer protections and benefits). But the truth is that the various aspects of the scenario I describe are not all that uncommon even when they don't all occur together and, more to the point, a given individual who hires a housekeeper, especially from a cleaning or maid service, has very little control over how many of those negative aspects they can avoid. Speaking as a working class person myself having actually held these types of jobs (often in precisely the scenario you describe, as a way to support my art and give me a flexible schedule), I can assure you that even the best job as a housekeeper, waitress or grunt-worker is still often exhausting and disempowering. Your situation may be one of the nicer ones, both for you and the woman you hire... but it is largely because you lucked out. The vast majority of housekeepers aren't struggling artists supplementing their income (in the same way that the vast majority of strippers aren't upstanding college girls paying their way through school... this is a nice lie we tell ourselves to make us feel better).

    My main objection to hiring a housekeeper is that it is a way of relinquishing control and shirking personal responsibility. You may luck out and hire someone privately as you describe... but this is certainly the exception to the rule and not at all characteristic especially of people who work for cleaning or maid service companies.

    Now, hiring folks for one-time or occasional jobs because there are tasks that simply can't be done by one individual is something different. Those jobs are often low-paying and less than ideal as well, but if you need help to move heavy furniture or professionally clean your carpets... well, yes, there's not much of a way around that unless you have wonderful friends (like those who just helped me move yesterday because Jeff's foot is still broken). But that's a far cry from having someone coming to your house weekly or even daily to do very basic housework, in my opinion.

    Childcare is another matter, and I should point out that my problem with housekeeping isn't only or even primarily that it's "anti-feminist," but that it's exploitative no matter who is doing the work. One thing I've noticed is that people are far pickier about who takes care of their child than they are about who cleans their toilet. Childcare is a difficult job and, yes, there are some similarities in the demographic make-up still being mostly skewed towards women. On the other hand, good childcare can actually provide great benefit to the child without necessarily being exploitative or demeaning for the childcare provider, while even the ideal housekeeping job, assuming it pays enough to be a person's only job, provides no real benefit to the housekeeper or even the house, and the only benefit it has for the house-owner is an escape from doing the cleaning themselves. Again, I am referring to a regularly-used housekeeper doing basic cleaning, not hiring people to help do one-time large tasks in which the house-owner may even participate.

    I would be interested, too, to hear what a full-time housekeeper would think of this post... as, so far, the only folks who have objected to it are those who have hired housekeepers, not anyone who has done that kind of work themselves (incidentally, Jeff and I both have experience doing similar grunt-and-cleaning work, and neither of us thought the characterization was that far off the mark).

  6. Ali, thanks for the good answer (I sort of suspected that you had one). The model I describe is really common in my area and what I think of when I think of someone who cleans private houses - what you describe is unfamiliar to me but I can take your word for it that it's something that happens commonly in other places. It's not as though I have any extensive experience with hiring people to clean my house.

    I'm still not really following you on the essential difference between housecleaning and other types of work. There are a million things that I could do or learn to do for myself but don't. All these things could potentially have personal and spiritual advantages that are passing me by because I pay someone else to do them. What's the benefit of taking my bike to the bike shop instead of getting out a manual and tools and doing it myself? I suspect it's pretty much the same as the benefit of hiring someone else to vacuum my rug - I save some time and don't have to do something I wouldn't enjoy.

    "I can assure you that even the best job as a housekeeper, waitress or grunt-worker is still often exhausting and disempowering" could read as "I can assure you that even the best job is still often exhausting and disempowering" and be just as true. In my life, I've done heavy agricultural labor (the very gruntiest of grunt work, I promise), spent time in retail hell, and am now at my current corporate desk job - all of these have been exhausting and disempowering in their own special ways. Doing work for pay that you don't want to do is essentially disempowering, whatever its nature.

    I'm not really sure where I'm going with any of this - these are just the questions that come to mind here.

  7. Nettle, I guess for me the difference is one of specialization. Yes, in general, I do prefer self-reliance and hands-on care to relying overly on other people. But then, I am no mechanic myself and do not have the tools or the skills to, for instance, fix and/or build a bike (though I can maintain one properly).

    But cleaning is such a basic skill that requires absolutely no special training or equipment. It's one of those Things I Learned in Kindergarten: clean up your own messes. And it is precisely because cleaning is something anyone can do, that those who do it to earn money make so very little in return, despite the actual amount of effort they put in respective to other forms of work. Whereas the stockbroker or the professional photographer or even the plumber can make hundreds, thousands, even millions of dollars per hour by utilizing special skills and/or catering to the extremely rich by offering services they can't hire out to illegal immigrants or single parents working two jobs. It's why Jeff makes four times as much as me, even though I work longer hours at a job that demands much more of me physically as well as emotionally: he makes toys for rich people, while all I do is serve people coffee.

    Of course it's true that even the best job can be disempowering and exhausting, and attitude is a big reason why I can wait tables without running myself into the ground and coming home bitter every night. But I think it's a luxury of the higher classes to say that because any job will be miserable with a bad attitude, that therefore a positive attitude alone can transform any job into a well-paying dream-career.

    The act of cleaning your own space can be a sacred process that brings you into a more harmonious and appreciative (and yes, humbling) relationship with those aspects of your daily life. The act of cleaning someone else's space not only robs them of this opportunity, but is likely to be fraught with all kinds of stress and expectations involved in converting a potentially sacred experience into a commodity in the market economy — rather than humbling, it has the very real potential to be humiliating. It's the difference between the pleasure of cooking at home, and working the grill in a McDonalds. No amount of attitude adjustment can make these two things truly equal, in my opinion.

  8. ok, this is a long blog, and a long series of responses. very interesting. i'm going to try to respond to this coherently, but i suspect that i will miss a few points. in any case...

    1) i am a cleaning lady, a housekeeper, a domestic. i also have a masters degree. i am a legal resident of the US, and, though this is not perhaps my ideal job, i do prefer it to other jobs of a similar demographic (fast food, desk work, and coffee shops)

    2) i absolutely agree that there is much to be gained by cleaning your own space, both spiritually and physically. i constantly encourage packrat and chronically messy friends and family to learn to do this sort of thing themselves, if they can. there are unquestionable benefits to it.

    3) on the other hand, i see no reason why cleaning shouldn't be treated like any other service. if you don't have the time or inclination to do it, you can pay someone to do it for you. so what? maybe you have severe allergies like a previous commenter. maybe you're ill. one of the women i clean for is wheelchair bound. maybe you just feel like your time is better spent doing something you love instead of something you hate. that's great- i will happily take your money.

    4) i am self-employed, and thus not with one of the dreadful companies you talked about. they are bad. but the problem is not the job itself, it's the exploitation. i think we can all agree that exploitation in any form is bad, and "domestic" jobs like mine do often lend themselves to exploitation. this is bad.

    5)however, the way to counter-act this is not to do what you did, which frankly i found offensive. you speak as though my job is shameful, and something i shouldn't do. i don't understand why. also, you speak as though it's self-evident that i would do a bad job- what possible motivation could i have to do a good one? let's see- first of all, i'm getting paid to do it. for many many people that basic agreement alone is good enough- you are paying me to do work, so i will do that work. secondly, i view my job as a service. i'm good at it, and i take pride in doing it. yes, it's hard labor. yes, there are bits of it that can be a bit squeamish. but i am providing a service, one which in many cases is very needed. furthermore, your attitude, or one similar to it, is what motivates many people to treat domestics badly- the sense of shame and embarrassment that they feel at hiring someone like myself, or that people have when they find out what i do (you have a masters degree, and you clean houses? what a waste), only encourages them to treat us with condescension and distrust. why? because i made a different choice than someone else might have? how about instead, we acknowledge that it is hard, dirty, and physical work, and pay money and respect accordingly?
    by your assumption that you should do your own dirty work, i am forced to assume that you would also volunteer to take your own trash to the dump, or to work at your local sewage plant. these are all vital services that we think nothing of, but which are significantly better paid jobs.

    yes, exploitation is bad. yes, for many of us, cleaning can be a good spiritual practice. but not for all of us. and the way to deal with exploitation is not to shun the industry, but to work to make it legitimate and respected.

  9. I have certainly done plenty of this kind of thing in the past -- I've done farm work, cleaned up service stations and convenience stores, made sandwiches, stocked retail, etc. (Actually, I think the retail was the worst -- absolutely soul-sucking embedded-in-consumerism stuff.) I have worked full-time at a desk job and then come home to do the cleaning for a family of six. Ali, of course, is a waitress (at a 'family' restaurant, not one of the posh ones ;-) ), and has been for years.

    I think Ali made it pretty clear that cleaning for someone unable to do it for themselves is a very different matter. And, as she also said, it is certainly possible to do this kind of work with the devotion and care that it deserves.

    The crucial point, I think, is this: is it right to pay someone to do something basic that you can do for yourself? (And relatedly, is it right to accept money to do such work?)

    I think I agree with Ali: it's not right. For many reasons, but to address a few points Thora in particular mentioned:

    * If you do this kind of work, you're enabling someone else's bad prioritizations. For whatever reason, someone has decided that cleaning up after themselves is not important enough to them, so they want to pay you (probably a pittance) to do it for them. This someone needs to reprioritize. I don't care how busy they are, or how important their job is. I'd say the same to President Obama. It would do him good to take the Red Phone off the hook and vacuum the White House carpets.

    * How about taking away the garbage, or cleaning up our sewage? Excellent points, and in my opinion, the same principles apply. Yes, we should be dealing with our own garbage and cleaning up our own sewage. If people had to haul their own garbage, I guarantee they wouldn't make as much of it. And people should be using composting toilets and similar waste-renewal systems.

    I'm not able to do this myself. But this is the essential point: even though I'm a long way from perfect in this regard, I acknowledge the imperfection and hold it as a goal to work towards improvement. I buy very little, minimize packaging, reuse everything I can, etc.

    We should not give up our lofty ideals because we can't see how to achieve them. It is too easy to rationalize away our ideals, saying that hey, it's not so bad, and anyway, I have every right to, and who are you to judge, and everyone else is doing it... That diminishes us. We have to hold to our ideals and acknowledge our imperfections, and aspire to perfection, even if we never reach it. With time and effort, we can often get a lot closer to perfection than we thought. :-)

  10. Schrute Bucks4/09/2010 1:15 PM

    Some of these arguments are eerily reminiscent of one Mr. Dwight K. Schrute:

    Why tip someone for a job I'm perfectly capable of doing myself? I can deliver food. I can drive a taxi. I can, and do, cut my own hair. I did, however, tip my urologist...because I am unable to pulverize my own kidney stones.

    I guess it all depends on how you define the word "basic" and also strongly on the situation at hand along with how the person doing the work is being treated. I can think of oodles of tasks and jobs that people I know don't do (farm their own vegetables, fix their own cars, sew their own clothes, etc.) that are certainly easy enough to do, yet, they pay other people to do those things for them instead. Not to mention going out to eat or buying coffee or any other product from a place that can easily be made at home without the middle person involved. But nobody is complaining about all these tasks/jobs because if we all focused on doing all of them all the time by ourselves and on our own, we'd probably get very little else accomplished. So we ask others for help and hopefully we try to repay them for their help in various ways. Unless of course somebody is promoting primitivism, in which case I have a whole lot of other stuff to say about that road. As long as we make an effort, though, to not degenerate into a thoughtless, lazy creatures while making sure that those we bring into our lives to help us do what we would like to do without exploiting or taking advantage of those folks, then I don't think we can just lay down a blanket statement like "such and such is not 'right' or whatever." I personally think that there will be situations where paying somebody to clean up stuff is not 'bad,' even if I myself would never pay for someone to do that type of stuff, but then in other situations it could be a 'horrible' thing to do. But again, it depends on the situation at hand.

  11. Well, it's been years since I've done house cleaning for money, but it was the least demeaning job I held while I was working summers to help pay for college. I worked for myself, felt totally free to "fire" employers I felt were disrespectful or exploitative, and at the end of the summer, the wealthy woman who was my primary employer gave me a tip that was about the equivalent of a week's pay for me.

    I didn't clean houses for less than minimum wage, but for more money than I could make any other way. This meant that I got hired by people who could afford my services--mostly rich people--and I thought some of them made very strange economic decisions. I remember one day when the house I was working in, which normally sheltered three family members, encompassed a staff of a pool-cleaning guy, a babysitter, a crew of carpenters working on a project my dad would have polished off solo in less than an hour, and me. And I was amused when the daughter of the house did not know until she saw me operating it that her family _owned_ a vacuum cleaner!

    But I enjoyed the work, which I am good at when I have time and energy, and the lack of hovering supervisors or politicking co-workers. I wouldn't have paid me that much money to do what I did, but, well, I won't pay more than $30 for a pair of pants, either, to this day. I'm a cheapskate.

    But, if I were a cheapskate who could afford it, I totally would hire someone to clean my house, in a once a week with a vacuum cleaner and mop sort of a way. I enjoy doing what I have time to do, but, you know, nobody else is going to grade my classes' essays. I wind up with way too little time to write, to be with friends, or to have a spiritual life. And while I CAN put up with a mess in order to try to squeeze those things into a life that leaves very little time on the margins for anything but my day job, if I could afford to hire it out, I would.

    And I'd give the girl, or woman, or guy, doing the work what was given to me--what I was fortunate enough, due to accidents of geography and demographics to be able to insist upon: a decent wage, a set of clear expectations, and some basic respect... as well as the privacy and time to simply get on with a job that, yeah, can be contracted out in a way that is demeaning to no one.

    There is a part of me that thinks I ought to be able to do it all with grace and style, and without hiring any help. But as I get older, I find that I'm grateful that my own mother was not above hiring a housekeeper when her own life was most hectic. And whether it's someone to push a mop around or someone to mow my lawn or haul away my trash, perhaps having done the work myself allows me to feel unembarrassed about letting it be somebody else's turn now. Once upon a time, I had youth and strength and time on my hands, but very little money. Now I find myself middle-aged, with a reasonable amount of money... but fading stocks of those other resources.

    So, from time to time, I look around me and see if I can offer a trade. That's all.

  12. And by the way, Jeff: I disagree with you on wanting Obama to take the red phone off the hook and roll up his elbows around the White House. I suspect you meant it as hyperbole... but it's not, really. I do not grant Obama the luxury of going off duty while his primary job, working for me, is yet undone. He has several years to go before he can enjoy the virtuous sleep of one who sweeps under his own bed, as far as I'm concerned.

    And I take that principle as applying to me, too. As a teacher in a public school, I owe it to the parents of my students that if I'm going to work my butt off, I do it first for them, and only after that for the pleasure of hanging out my own laundry.

    Which, as you know, I do.

    But to the extent that I'm making moral compromises, the ones that don't involve my position of public trust--getting the damn essays graded (What, again? Ugh!)--morally and ethically must come first.

    (I will be trying hard to remind myself of that by Sunday night this week, you may be sure. It's going to be a loooong weekend, and mopping the floor, if I can work it in, is going to be a damn fine change of pace. But I know what I need to take care of first. People trust me with their kids--my rugs are not as high a priority. Period.)

  13. Well... I guess I'm alone on this one. I had a much longer follow-up to everyone's comments, in which I decided that if I was going to be accused of holding ridiculously offensive views and making judgmental statements, I might as well take off the kid-gloves and be frank about my reactions to the fact that apparently not hiring a housekeeper is now a radical suggestion in this culture. After talking it over with Jeff, I have decided to sleep on it. Well... most of it. I do want to share one paragraph, because I think it's incredibly important and provides some grounding in actual fact to counter much of the anecdotal evidence appearing in these comments. Hopefully after reading, you will understand a little better why I remain unconvinced.

    According to the Bureau of Labor's Occupational Employment Statistics complied in May 2008, the average hourly wage for "Maids and Housekeeping Cleaners" (372012) is $9.05/hour, with an annual income averaging $18,830 (even the 90th percentile average annual income being only $23,880). (Interestingly, the category listed as "Janitors and Cleaners, Except Maids and Housekeeping Cleaners" (372011) listed an average hourly wage of $10.49/hour and an average annual income of $21,820. Still not great, but draw from this discrepancy what conclusions you will about lingering systemic sexism.) Here are some more stats to compare: The category of "Waiters and Waitresses" (353031) average $9.58/hour and $19,920 annually (I fall below this average because I choose to work at a very inexpensive restaurant — despite graduating as valedictorian with distinguished interdepartmental honors from my college class, Thora). Those in the "Waste and Liquid Waste Management" (518031) industry average $15.84/hour and $32,940 annually. Auto-mechanics (493023) average $20.74/hour and $43,140 annually, while fine artists (271013) average $23.96/hour and $49,830 annually.

    This post was never meant to be about whether or not housekeeping was a good job; I think it's pretty obvious that on average, despite an individual's superlative dignity, integrity and work ethic, it is not. The focus of this post was on the attitude of those who hire housekeepers, which Cat's story only serves to confirm. In a community striving towards social justice and ecological responsibility, can we expect our children to know where their food, clothing, water, shelter and electronic gadgets come from, and at what cost, when they don't even know where the vacuum is or how to use it? Are we comfortable working for, let alone becoming, people who would rather pay someone to clean than donate to charity or support the local theater or take family vacations to the nearest national park? Do we want to be "a culture that would rather drive fancy cars than breathe clean air or look at the stars"? In response to all of your comments, first I felt shocked, then I felt embarrassed, then angry... but now I feel simply sad. Is the Buddhist saying, "after enlightenment: chop wood, carry water" worth so little to us today, even those of us in the "counterculture"? Would we rather defend someone else's right to work for us than strive to do better work ourselves? Do we count our self-dignity at so little that we feel it's okay to laugh at the screwed up priorities of our employers, so long as we can make bank? Perhaps my views are radical, even crazy. If this is true, I find it saddening, but I still will not shirk the task, even if it means going it alone.

  14. First of all: wow. You've taken this whole deal quite further than I thought a person could. Bravo. All your questions and references to "Buddhist" bum-poetry helps nada, either, considering the situation. If, and only IF, we had a world where some people didn't need to make money in order to survive, than you might have a very good point on your hands. Unfortunately, we all need to bring in money so that we can live because, aww shit, that's the way the world is right now. We can obviously all do our part to correct that and change it, but we do have to work with it, otherwise we will become dependent on someone else who then has to provide for two. One of the main problems with any job is the attitude towards that job. We, as a society, have declared certain jobs "less" than others, but for what reasons? Why is it that many people treat a waiter differently than a PhD professor? Perhaps if we can adjust our attitudes a bit more, than the problem wouldn't be as large and at the same time, the treatment of workers would be improved and perhaps even the freedom of the workers as well. Choosing to clean as a means of obtaining money is by no means a shit job nor should such a person be treated any worse than somebody who does something deemed "more important" by society. And while I agree that many children should be aware of responsibilities (cleaning up after one's self and all that) and perhaps even pitching in to clean the house, aren't you therefore transferring the "indentured servitude" role to one of "child slavery?" I mean, shit, when I was a teenager I would gladly help out around the house to keep things up, but at the same time how often was that little guilt trip scenario of "helping around the house" used to gain my participation in other "home activities," like doing yard work or fixing various parts of the house or whatever. And as for your "donations to charity," while this may sound lovely to those who can't think past the count of three, why not tell those same children that you gave that money to a worker who needs a few dollars to support themselves while they pursue a career in the arts, typically a field that takes years to find a niche in. It may not sound as grand as a trip to a national park, but I assure you that the person on the receiving end of the payment may have a thing or two to say about that as well, like "Thank you." The problem, to me at least, doesn't seem to be in paying somebody to do cleaning work, but perhaps the attitude that is cast upon those doing such jobs. No person should have to feel put down for doing a particular job (within reason of course) because it might not be as grandiose as the next job. It's one thing if the person has to do such jobs against their wills or in poor conditions or something along those lines, but the majority of the problems stem from other peoples attitudes towards the jobs being done. There's nothing wrong with serving people food or cooking another person's meal, but there is something seriously wrong with an attitude that treats a person who does a task for them as a "server" or "servant" in a subordinate manner. So maybe attack the thing that counts, which is the attitude and not the actual task.

  15. Someone posted a comment anonymously and then deleted it, but I received it via email and it has prompted me to make this clarification: when I say that housekeeping is not a good job, I do not mean that the work is inherently demeaning or exploitative, as I hope I've already made clear. It would be silly of me to say something like "Hey, this work is inherently disgusting and miserable... you should try it!" Yet I spend most of this post and subsequent comments talking about precisely why folks should view cleaning as a kind of cleansing, as something that can be sacred and deeply beautiful and meaningful. In fact, I would have hoped that my view of clean(s)ing as something desirable and beautiful would have been the main focus of this post, giving folks a moment's pause and maybe even a reason to say to themselves, "You know what, I can approach this task as something more than merely a dislikable chore I would rather pass off on another if I could afford to..." Apparently, I failed miserably in accomplishing this by mixing in too much uncomfortable social justice nonsense and not including enough applause for navel-gazing.

    No, what I mean when I say that housekeeping is not a good job is that on average it is not a well-paying, secure, full-time job at which one can make a decent living in the long term... anecdotal evidence notwithstanding. (Folks who feel that housekeeping is a life-calling and the way they can contribute most powerfully and meaningfully to the world and their community may choose to see this job primarily as a gift of service without expectation of fair compensation, and that is their prerogative. Does this characterize the job of housekeeping on average? No. Does it, on average, lead to any kind of spiritual growth or love ethic on the part of the person hiring the housekeeper? I doubt it.)

  16. Oops, nevermind, apparently the post wasn't deleted and Blogger is being wonky. But as of this moment it is still showing up directly above the one I just posted.

  17. Two points:
    In your original post, you wrote that a house keeper or cleaning lady "brings with her the systemic violence of lingering sexism and injustice and very often poverty." Setting aside for a moment the fact that there are surely others in the position I was in years ago--college students or others who are doing the work temporarily--there is implicit in your observation an assumption that it is a problem to bring poor and oppressed people into our homes to work.

    I understand this instinct: I was appalled and repulsed, when I lived for four years in Virginia, to notice that the layout of towns was different than what I was used to from the North: I found that there were big, shady, main streets with large, comfortable homes of rich people, and right behind them, around a corner, there's be huddled tarpaper shacks filled with poor black families.

    It grossed me out: here were all these rich people sitting in their fancy houses, utterly comfortable with looking out their windows, and in many cases literally gazing out on poor people.

    And it also occurred to me to wonder, even back then, whether the Northern model--affluent, mostly-white suburbs, neatly separated from rotted-out, impoverished, black and Hispanic city cores--was really such an improvement.

    How much of the problem is less about an objection to exploiting others than it is to the visibility vs invisibility of the FACT of exploitable, vulnerable Others?

    If I take the daily presence of poor people--whether across my back fence or in my house pushing a vacuum cleaner--as an opportunity to desensitize myself to poverty and exploitation, then that's a bad thing. But if I refuse to hire a poor person to do a job that I could do myself, in order to avoid feeling uncomfortable with a daily reminder of the existence of poverty and my own relative wealth, isn't that a kind of cop out? Isn't it better to go ahead and hire someone, but then pay them a living wage, treat them as an equal and a human being, and push myself to do more to address systemic exploitation beyond my door because it is no longer invisible to me?

    This is not a rationalization, Ali. I think I am aware of this every time I pay someone to come into my home to do a job for me, and every time I have a conversation with the janitors, lunch ladies, and classroom aides at my school.

    It would be so easy to forget the existence of poverty, if I could distance myself from the physical presence of people who are poor. With modern technology, it is possible to live a very comfortable middle class life and do just that.

    But is it really the best thing to do? Really?

  18. I know. I said two points. The other can't be made. Because I am overdue for serving lunch to my hubby, who is in the middle of a day of tutoring his AP kids.

    I'm not even going to try to parse the ethics of that fact; I will try to come back if I can.


  19. Well well Ali, what a hornets nest! This is, of course, the issue that dare not speak its name:class.

    If you can choose to be a cleaner to order your life in a way that suits how you want to spend your time, good for you. If you’re one of the legions of women who can’t speak English, have dubious legal status, have received a poor education and have to make money by any means possible then perhaps the least dangerous and soul-offending way in which to do it is to become a cleaner.

    "Apparently, I failed miserably in accomplishing this by mixing in too much uncomfortable social justice nonsense and not including enough applause for navel-gazing."

    Social justice isn’t what we *do*, Ali and quoting hard stats isn’t going to change that. If you were to quote stats about trees being cut down or landfill you’d have an easier time.

    When people sneeringly say ‘But this is how it works, stupid,” it demonstrates either depression or stupidity. It works that way because I, you, we chose for it to work that way. There are other ways to live, Gods know how our ancestors managed with any number of kids and no washing machines or vacuum cleaners. If you’re physically or psychologically able, clean your own house and bring up your own kids. That bringing up our own children should be mind-blowing is well, mind-blowing! What next, paying someone to blow your nose and wipe your bottom?! If you're not very good at it - and few first time parents can be - then get all the help available *in order to learn how to do it well.*

    Increasingly, having swallowed the shadow of A Woman’s Right To Work, we find that we don’t know our kids and care rather too much about what the neighbors think. That’s status neurosis. Having someone crawling around on their knees cleaning up your dirt, is good, how?

  20. Hey, Clare! Chill! "When people sneeringly say ‘But this is how it works, stupid,” it demonstrates either depression or stupidity."

    First of all, yes, there's an element of observation of injustices around class issues in some of our responses, and I will include mine. But did you see anything that even implied that I, or that the majority of the rest of us who disagree with Ali and your bottom line on this, think she is stupid for having these concerns? I think you did not.

    It always makes discussions go better when they occur between people who are actually in them, and involve responses to what has actually been said!

    And in what way will my vacuuming my own rug help to lift a poor woman out of poverty?

    Frankly, I think I could make a pretty good case that by paying someone else to vac my rug (or plow my driveway or babysit my kid when I'm at work) so that I have the time and energy to teach schoolkids, many of whom are from impoverished families, thank you very much, I'm doing more to change lives than I would be if I either lived with the cobwebs or stayed home and tidied them all myself.

    Now, I'm not saying that staying home is inappropriate, nor that there is nothing meaningful about living lives that are simple and focused enough that we can keep up with our own house work and childcare.

    I am saying that turning a weighed individual decision to hire help into a moral wrong is, well, overly simplistic. Unless we're going to push the rest of the way, and urge everyone to, as the Middle Eastern Rabbi said, sell all we have and give it to the poor.

    I'm not ready to do that, yet. I choose to live a live that allows me to have a house--one with woods in the back yard, to nourish my spirit, and that's big enough that I can invite in guests, and hopefully nourish theirs in turn. To do that, I must work long hours. Some of that work helps break down barriers against justice; all of it helps pay my mortgage. I recognize that the world is not a just or fair place, and I try to do what I can--everything from trying to incorporate some of my efforts toward ending poverty and oppression to not actively exploiting workers poorer than I am, whether they're cleaning my house, driving my bus, or plowing my street and driveway. (Nothing says that hiring someone means you have to treat them like a bastard, after all.)

    Having someone crawling around on their knees cleaning up my dirt is good when I respect them, pay them a reasonable living wage, and do my own work in the world that also helps to carve out a little more room for kindness, empathy, and respect in it.

    If that says status neurosis to you, you're either very young or think very differently than me. I'm afraid I am unable to see my actions, provided I pay someone well and treat them as an equal, as immoral in any way. You've succeeded in scolding me, Clare... but not, I'm afraid, in convincing me.

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. Ironically enough, Ali got off work around noon (from her 'low class', menial waitressing job) and since then has been cleaning the house, while I sit around uselessly with a broken foot. So she hasn't had a chance to answer the latest batch of comments. ;-)

    Two things from my own heart:

    1) Re Obama cleaning the Oval Office -- actually, I wasn't being hyperbolic... I think (a) the president has way too much power and responsibility for one person, and that power and responsibility should be broken up among many many people with more local duties, each of whom should then have plenty of time to do some vacuuming, and (b) even granting all that -- any time he's spending NOT bringing ALL our troops home is time better spent cleaning. So I stand by my statement.

    2) Cat, you provide a tremendous service and do awesome work and your hours are way too long and you aren't paid nearly enough. Naturally, and rightly, you value that work over the state of your house. But you should not have to make that choice. The solution is not for you to hire a housekeeper, I think; there are other options. The ideal solution, of course, is for more teachers to be trained and hired. (A preferable way to lift people out of poverty, wouldn't you agree? ;-) ) Obviously you have no control over that, but maybe you can find someone to help you with some of your other tasks, so that you can get the benefit of cleaning your own house?

  23. Jeff:
    I've cleaned my own house and the houses of other people many times over the past forty-nine years, and I'm afraid I just can't buy the basic premise that there is something inherently different about scrubbing floors than there is about digging ditches, painting walls, hauling garbage, or raking leaves.

    Manual labor happens. Sometimes it happens on a large scale. I see nothing more or less ethical in hiring someone to scrub my floor than to walk my dog or repair my porch. Provided respect and a fair wage are part of the package, and that I see neither the work nor the workers as somehow "beneath" me, I remain convinced that it is possible to be entirely ethical to hire someone to do work I could indeed do myself, but for reasons of my own, choose not to.

    There are indeed issues around the dignity of work, class and racial justice (or the lack of it), and priorities and spiritual anchors that are worth considering in making this decision. So far, I am in agreement with you and with Ali.

    But a flat moral assertion, that those who physically can do housework are unethical if they choose to hire someone? Well, I can only endorse that if I agree that the yardstick we're using is Jesus's advice to the wealthy man to sell all we have and to give it to the poor.

    Which is a point.

    But short of that? I think it becomes a case for individual discernment--serious inward ethical questioning, yes. External thou shalts and thou shalt nots? No. That's hubris.

  24. Hi Cat,

    “Unfortunately, we all need to bring in money so that we can live because, aww shit, that's the way the world is right now.”

    The subject of employing people to do the jobs we’re not willing to do for ourselves is as old as the hills. Some of us will say that, since poverty exists, we should give people money to do jobs we don’t want to do. Some of us will say, that’s not doing much to help lift someone to their potential.

    Our individual experiences necessarily reflect our own lives rather than the lives of others. My own include working as an English nanny (High status, high wages, own suite of rooms, paid holidays) in homes that also hired Filipino maids (Low status, low wages, typically sleeping in what you or I would call a cupboard, often without a window, with a bed and a light bulb, half a day off a week.) Whilst anecdotal evidence is rich and illustrative the Bureau of Labor's Occupational Employment Statistics which Ali supplied some posts back demonstrate the low wages of Maids and Housekeeping Cleaners in the US. Low wages = low status. Low status = abuse. Literature through the ages, serious media reports about people with low status, and no doubt our own experiences suggest that we do not, in fact, treat each other as individuals but alter our ways of being dependant on how we rate each other hierarchically.

    For me, this kind of debate is less about anecdotes and more about principals. For me, a principal might be that a cleaner should be paid the same as a therapist or private tutor or any other specialist who can do something I can’t. If it’s a matter of not wanting to do cleaning, then cleaners should be paid more as a luxury service. A deeper principal is that being alive is an extraordinary thing and being involved in our own experiencing of it a privilege.

    As Jeff proposes, Presidents, Prime Ministers, all of us are kept focused when we have to clean up our own mess. There is, perhaps, a wider principal there. Jeff also describes an alternative to working ourselves to distraction and not being involved in the simple day-to-day reality of life itself. More teachers, (nurses, public service workers) higher hourly wages, less hours worked. Scandinavia, for instance, embraces free trade and little financial regulation as well as having different understandings of what is possible.

    One of my many personal failings is that I find it increasingly difficult to read and practically impossible to write winsomely about the ecstatic solace of raindrops as a reflection of some wisdom or other, something that much Pagan writing has been reduced to. I haven’t read that here, and as a principal, Paganism seems less and less involved with what Real Life ™ might be – visceral, very often difficult, and for the majority of the world downright unpleasant. There are very few Pagan Filipino maids. Their experiences are not part of the discourse.

  25. I wanted to chime in here right away to say that I really appreciate all of the comments and feedback going on right now. Yesterday I spent all day working and then unpacking, and I have much left to do today, but I hope to spend some time writing up a response of my thoughts on the matter to post, either here in the comments section, or as a new post, or possibly both.

  26. It sounds as if one of your biggest complaints about housekeeping as a profession is that the person doing it can be abused. (Physical labor, poor wages, etc.)

    I'd like to throw into the hornet's nest the following thought that I had after perusing all of the comments this weekend:

    ALL jobs where a person works for an employer open a person up to being abused and undervalued. To wit: the definition of an employee is someone who yields more profit for than their employer than they cost the employer (in wages and benefits). If a person cannot bring more profit to the employer than they themselves cost, _they_will_not_be_hired_.

    Several self-employed maids and former maids spoke up here; they were able to charge their own rates and choose their own clients, and the quality of the work resulted in them being retained by their clients and getting recommended to other potential clients. These people may have spent time doing menial, dirty work, but they are in some ways better off compared to large swaths of the population, because they have pride in their work and only work for people who appreciate it.

    Salaried employees are routinely undervalued in ALL professions, and the mentality that goes with being forced to go every day, because your boss expects it, is a huge, soul-sucking black hole of time and energy, regardless of whether you are part of a maid service or a 9-to-5 computer programmer or other office worker.

  27. @ Emily: This is so only to the extent that employers and employees agree that value is measured in money.

    I've worked in the world of non-profits and the public sector most of my life, and when I didn't, I mostly worked for myself. And while I've certainly been disrespected by clients and by employers, in the non-profit world and out of it, I've also had the experience of working for a salary and/or a wage, but having everyone who is part of the transaction aware of and acting like they're aware of a worth that's not measurable in dollars.

    Soul-sucking does not need to be an inevitable part of working for a living. Ironically enough, it often is, both for those who are poorest and best off. But there's a fair number of us in the squishy middle who get to have our cake and eat it, too... a living wage AND a sense of being valued in our work.

    And I think all of us can bring with us into the workplace the radical notion that the people we work with and who work for us are human beings, and deserve respect.

    Just a thought.

  28. My original plan was to type up my reply to all of the various comments left on this post and to share it all at once, in its entirety, for those of you still interested in continuing the discussion. However, after three straight days of writing (after eight pages of notes and outlines, and 8,900 words in the final essay, which it took me 52 minutes to read out loud to Jeff), I find that I have only covered the first of the two intended parts of my discussion. Still, I feel that I owe the readers and commenters here some kind of response before life intervenes to make the issue less compelling or, at the very least, less immediate. So please accept this first half of my reply and feel free to respond as I continue to work on the second half (which, as I anticipate in my writing below, I hope to be much more interesting and relevant in any case).


    I want to say, right off the bat, that I am grateful for all of the discussion this post has generated, and that while I do not agree with many of the arguments put forward in the subsequent comments it is not because I think poorly of those individuals or consider them to be "jerks" (as I was accused of thinking in a related thread on Facebook). I also want to say that while the conversation here has been pretty civil, albeit intense at times, I did receive some comments on Facebook that I found personally insulting or in poor taste (accusations about failing to think or engage with ideas and/or people, statements about failing to fulfill my obligations to my readers, direct insults about my writing being condescending, complaints about my brief responses being too cursory and thoughtless and my long responses being overblown and exaggerated). I have taken my time in writing up the following reply so that (a) I will, to the best of my ability, be responding at least somewhat dispassionately to the ideas involved, rather than reacting emotionally against personal affronts, and (b) so that, despite critics who think long-winded replies are obnoxious, at least I'll no longer be accused of not thinking through my ideas and their implications. If you find the following response to be condescending, infuriating or just too long for your taste — don't worry, you're not alone. But I hope this is not the case and that what I have to say might be at least a little interesting and worth the time to read.

    So what follows is a very long investigation of all of the assumptions and logical arguments that went into the writing of the original post, and my responses to many of the counter-arguments put forward in the comments afterwards. Please do not think that because I have not changed my opinion, it is because I have not listened closely and thought deeply about all of your ideas and objections. And please do not take personal offense when I say that, on the whole, no one replied with a counter-argument that I had not yet considered in coming to the conclusions I did (in fact, some I even directly addressed, however parenthetically, in the original post itself, and I will attempt to point out where I did so whenever I can).

  29. The Shape of My Argument

    One thing that becomes immediately apparent to me in reading through the many comments is that most of you focused on only one half of what is irreducibly a two-part argument. The argument made in the original post takes this form: (a) here are some of the potential negative consequences of doing x; (b) here are some of the potential positive consequences of doing the alternative, namely y; in conclusion, (c) generally I believe it is better to do y than x. The counter-arguments provided in the comments focused almost exclusively on the first part of this argument, offering many opinions on why my discussion of the negative consequences of doing x were inaccurate, exaggerated or simply in error. Now, I disagree with many of the counter-arguments put forward (and I will get to that in a second), but first I want to point out that, because of the form of my argument, lessening or even wholly disproving (a) does not necessarily affect (b) or (c).

    Imagine that (x) and (y) are two sides of a single scale, and our conclusion (c) is influenced by which side is "heavier." For every positive consequence of doing y, we add a weight to the (y) side to make it heavier and for every negative consequence of doing x, we add an "anti-gravity-unit" to the (x) side to make it lighter, and vice versa. Personally, I found many of the positives on the side of (y) (i.e. doing your own housework) to be quite heavy and moving, and many of the negatives on the side of (x) (i.e. hiring a housekeeper) to be quite impressive in their negative quality. In my view, this swung the scales decidedly towards (y) as a fruitful, meaningful and natural alternative. This did not seem to me to be a radical argument in any way, shape or form. But supposing for just a minute that I really am wholly and completely wrong about (x). Is this enough to even out the scales, or possibly even tip them in (x)'s favor? Only if I am also completely and wholly wrong about (y) as well and the positive "weights" I found in (y)'s favor are also exaggerated, inaccurate or flat-out wrong. Yet even those of you who argued against my conclusion suggested that you, too, found my arguments in support of (y) to be powerful and moving (Nettle, for instance, in one of her earlier comments). In the end, even if (x) turns out to be positive, unless it is "more positive" than (y), I am inclined to stand by my original conclusion (c), that is: in general, it is better to do y than x.

    This is why I have not yet been swayed to change my opinion on this matter. Not because I have not listened to or considered your points carefully enough, but because even when I agreed with some of them (and there were plenty of points commenters made with which I do in fact agree), they did not strike me as "heavy" enough to affect the overall conclusion. Perhaps your counter-arguments could potentially serve to mitigate the dire tone of my original post to some extent... but without addressing the second half of this two-part approach, the conversation inevitably remains lopsided. I actually point this out in the original post itself, when I state that I do not know of a reason why someone should hire a housekeeper instead of doing their own housework (excepting age, illness or disability — the role of exceptions in the formation of a logical argument is something I will also come back to later). In other words, one effective counter-argument would be to offer a compelling reason why doing x is not only neutral, not even simply good in itself, but why it is actually better than doing y. No one, as far as I can see, actually attempted to provide such a reason, but focused instead on the task of establishing (x)'s neutrality. (If you have a compelling reason after all, please chime in and let me know — but please also finish reading the whole of this reply first, as you may find your response has been addressed already in some of my arguments further on.)

  30. In responding to your comments, therefore, I will again follow this two-sided approach to the question of our relationship to cleaning and cleansing. First, I will address those counter-arguments presented in disagreement with my first assertion, (a), that doing x has potential negative consequences. Then I will go back to my second assertion, (b), that doing y has some profoundly positive consequences, and I will attempt to elaborate on some of the philosophical underpinnings of my view, in order to point out how they differ, sometimes sharply, from some of the unexamined cultural assumptions used in counter-arguments against assertion (a), and at other times are completely in keeping with some of the arguments made by yourselves in the comments. In my personal opinion, I find the second half of my argument, in which I talk about the positive consequences of doing your own housework, to be much more meaningful, powerful and relevant than the first part of my argument. But perhaps this is only because I am personally much more inclined to appreciate "pro-active" arguments for making positive change than I am "reactionary" arguments against making poor decisions. We all make poor decisions in our lives sometimes and trying to avoid every single one of them can leave us feeling trapped and restricted to the point of suffocation — all the more reason to focus on those positive changes and creatively-engaging activities that we can do, and that can bring us joy and gratitude as well as benefit to others.

    Counter-Arguments in Support of Hiring a Housekeeper

    Many (though certainly not all!) of the counter-arguments you presented in the comments were of one (or sometimes both) of two main types: an unnoticed logical fallacy, or an unexamined cultural assumption. Some of these flaws are subtle and easily missed, others are very, very common and so we've learned to overlook them. Often cultural assumptions and logical errors function in ways that are mutually supportive, making them almost impossible to notice in the flow of a conversation (especially one that is emotionally intense or prone to distractions and interruptions, like those taking place in a blog comment thread). Because I have spent a lot of time arguing some admittedly outside-the-mainstream ideas in the past, I've become pretty familiar with some of these counter-arguments, which tend to come up again and again in only slightly altered forms around almost every controversial topic you can name (including vegetarianism and pacifism, two of my old favorites — for this reason, I might, if I have time, point you back to some previous blog posts and comment threads in which I have argued against these same logical fallacies and cultural assumptions in the past).

  31. The Limits of Knowledge and the Primacy of Individualism

    One of the mot frequent logical fallacies has already been largely addressed above, and more widely it is formulated as the following: "the absence of evidence is the same thing as evidence of absence." This mistake usually happens when someone is trying to prove a negative, i.e. to prove with absolute certainty either that something is impossible or that something doesn't exist. The absence of irrefutable evidence in favor of the existence of deity, for instance, is often taken by atheists as evidence in support of the irrefutable absence or nonexistence of deity. In this particular discussion, the fallacy appeared in a more tame form, and was expressed in the argument: "I have not experienced any negative consequences from x, therefore x does not have any negative consequences" (or, in a slightly tweaked form, "if it is possible that there are no negative consequences of x, then x is a perfectly good thing to do" — this second variation is more like mistaking neutral evidence, rather than a lack of evidence, for favorable support).

    It might seem at first that I fall back on this fallacy in reasoning through my own argument, when describing the dystopian scenario of hiring a housekeeper as a compilation of all the potential negative consequences and unhealthy relationships that might result, as if this is concrete proof that such consequences are always the case and no positive consequences or healthy relationships are possible. However, I am careful to point out that this is a collection of details to consider, and not a definitive characterization of all relevant scenarios possible. As I discussed already above, if even a few of these negative aspects or consequences are present, the main thrust of my argument has hit the mark, and in the off chance that no such negative consequences can be found, this is only enough to argue for neutrality in this particular instance and we still then require some evidence of positive consequences in order to be relevant to the final conclusion.

    Another fallacy is that anecdotal evidence holds as much weight as or may even replace a broader perspective that surveys and takes into account general cultural trends. In order to counter this tendency within many comments, I quoted earlier some recent statistics about relative wage and earnings, to illustrate that while my characterization of housekeeping may not always be true, it is still a fair description of the work in general. I had hoped to be able to supplement this information with some further demographic details culled from old college notes and my various sociology books, but they are unfortunately still packed away after my recent move. Luckily, Clare has stepped in with some anecdotal evidence of her own to lend that touch of immediacy and emotional resonance that sometimes only a personal account can deliver. (Note, however, that Clare's personal accounts can no more take the place of that broader perspective than can Thora's or Nettle's or Cat's or anyone else's, and it is by collecting all of these accounts and many others than we can slowly come to understand the vague shape and color of the "Big Picture," such as it may be.)

  32. It seems to me that these two logical fallacies are so common today because they are supported by an unexamined cultural assumption that I have decided to call the "Inherent Right to Fist-Swinging." In modern Western culture, we put a tremendous emphasis on individualism and individual rights, and when speaking about the limits of these rights, we often recall the saying, "your right to swing your fist stops at my nose." In a kind of bizarre twist, we often extend this argument to the assumption that, "my capacity to speak about the value of fist-swinging cannot extend beyond my own nose." Rather than exercise our ability to gather information, perceive patterns and make general evaluations regarding the virtues and drawbacks of certain actions, we restrict our opinions to only those things we have directly experienced, lest we trespass on someone else's fist-swinging rights. We might safely make statements about our experiences of swinging our own fists without being challenged (or, when we are challenged, such debates devolve quickly into he-said-she-said shouting matches), but we cannot dare draw any broader conclusions, nor may we draw conclusions about anything we have not directly experienced.

    With this unexamined cultural assumption in place, it becomes obvious why anecdotal evidence comes to hold so much more weight and relevance than the analysis of large amounts of collected data. Such data speaks for no one in particular, and therefore exists in the murky, uncertain realm "beyond my own nose" about which we feel uncomfortable and even fundamentally incapable of making value statements. The fear of trespassing however unknowingly on the rights of others has also worked to transform the territory of neutrality into one of positive preference. An argument that puts limits on our ability to speak confidently about universal or broadly-applicable virtues and values (because we can't know for sure that a given person might not actually enjoy doing x and benefit from it, for instance) is seen as one that appears to preserve the sanctity of the realm "beyond my own nose," keeping it free and clear of our meddling opinions, which is itself a good thing. In other words, if something isn't absolutely bad all the time, then it has the potential to be at worst merely neutral, and refusing to form an opinion about something which is neutral is, in fact, a good thing. Thus, the absence of irrefutable evidence (for instance, if we cannot prove for certain that doing x always has solely negative consequences for everyone) is mistaken for the irrefutable evidence of absence (i.e. our inherent inability to make value statements that might apply to others), and this in itself is viewed as a positive good, insofar as it preserves the sanctity of the realm of others' fist-swinging rights. This is slippery and convoluted thinking and gives rise to the common assumption that, because we cannot know everything about everyone, therefore we cannot claim to fairly evaluate anything about anyone except ourselves.

  33. The Sin of Hypocrisy in a (Class-)Free State

    The next few logical fallacies tend to show up during counter-arguments utilizing a particular brand of rhetoric to expand the limits of an argument beyond the bounds of its original conclusions in order to prove that it is inconsistent or hypocritical. One such fallacy is really better described as an inappropriate or sloppy use of analogy. While analogy can be a particularly powerful tool when used to lay bare the fundamental relationships and logical connections between two ideas by substituting alternative examples and seeing if "the logic still holds," it can be badly abused if it is used instead to presume or imply similarity. Take, for instance, the analogy kitten:cat::puppy:dog, or "kitten is to cat as puppy is to dog." The relationship between the first and second of each of these pairings is that of child or youth to mature adult; however, because both pairs also hold other similarities in common (e.g. both are small, furry mammals that have been domesticated into common household pets), one might draw certain irrelevant or unsupported assumptions about what this analogy is saying either intentionally or implicitly about cats and dogs as larger categories. If we were then to make a claim such as, "kitten is to cat as calf is to cattle," a person who was distracted or confused by the irrelevant similarities of the first analogy might draw from this new analogy the false conclusion that we mean to claim that cattle, too, are common household pets. They might go on to reject this new analogy, objecting that it is not logically sound precisely because cattle are not pets.

    I bring up this point more in anticipation of future counter-arguments than because of past instances (although Cat's response to Jeff's hyperbole regarding Obama's cleaning habits could potentially be considered a variation). Later in this discussion I will be speaking about cultural assumptions that have been used in support of hiring a housekeeper, and substituting other situations or examples in which such assumptions might also function, in order to examine whether or not we always come to the same conclusions. I will appreciate it a great deal if you pay careful attention to the logical construction of these analogies and do not mistake them for statements about similarity. For instance, if I bring up the fact (as I did in the original post) that certain Libertarians argue that by hiring prostitutes we are doing them a favor because otherwise they would be unemployed, and I compare it to the argument, made a few times in the comments, that by hiring housekeepers we are doing them a favor because otherwise they would be unemployed, I am not suggesting that housekeepers are prostitutes. Rather, I am looking at the way in which the statement "at least doing x is better than unemployment" functions as a counter-argument, in order to discover if it is really a substantive or relevant objection.

  34. Another fallacy that hinges on mistaken similarity takes the following form: "if x and y hold characteristic z in common, an argument in support of (or against) x must also be in support of (or against) y, regardless of whatever other relevant characteristics x and y do not hold in common." This argument was actually used several times in your comments above: first when Nettle asked me if I held an equally negative view of hiring child care providers because, like housekeepers, they tend to be women doing what is traditionally considered "women's work," and again when Thora assumed that because I value cleaning as an aspect of self-reliance, I must therefore believe that we must all take our own waste and garbage to the dump as well. Now one salient characteristic that both waste management and child care happen to hold in common, and which distinguishes them both from private household cleaning, is the role of community involvement. I am a strong believer in the saying that "it takes a village to raise a child," and while I do agree that the role of the parents in a child's life and development is of utmost, possibly even paramount importance, I see no reason why this cannot also be supplemented appropriately with the care and support of non-parental child care providers in ways that are beneficial for everyone involved. However, I would not argue that child care providers can completely replace or take over the responsibilities of the parents. Likewise, the management of refuse and waste is not merely a private concern, but one of social implications for sanitation, health and even infrastructure; this is why waste management workers are hired by the city and paid with taxpayers' dollars. However, once again, I would not suggest that waste management workers hold the sole responsibility for the garbage generated by a community (I refer you to the following parenthetical paragraph, below). Meanwhile, the maintenance of a private household is by definition a private concern of the individual homeowner(s); it is therefore precisely the epitomic realm in which both waste management and child care find their expressions in personal responsibility. In my opinion, I feel that this attitude towards private household cleaning as being naturally the realm of personal rather than social import may actually be reflected in the generally lower status and wages for housekeeping cleaners (as compared to child care workers, waste management workers and even "janitors and cleaners" hired to maintain public spaces such as schools, office buildings, etc. — as per the employment stats listed in my earlier comment).

    (Incidentally, however, my views of cleaning as a valuable form of self-reliance do in fact extend to waste management as far as an individual or household is capable: I believe we should strive, through reduced consumption, reuse of materials, recycling, composting and home water-recycling and -filtration systems, to lighten our burden on community sanitation as much as possible. Like Jeff, I can't help but wonder if more people would find it in their best interest to reevaluate their consumption habits and reduce their waste if they were left to deal with the consequences of those habits directly, rather than having their waste shuffled quickly out of sight via convenient roadside service. Though I would not seriously suggest we do away with garbage pick-up entirely, I do try to form healthier, more socially- and environmentally-respectful habits based on this awareness.)

  35. The final fallacy-of-similarity that I want to address is one I have already mentioned: that is, the role played by exceptions in the construction and support of an argument. I notice that although I was careful to mention at the very beginning of my original post that exceptions such as old age, poor health or disability could certainly be valid reasons to hire a housekeeper, they were brought up time and again in your comments as though they were powerful counter-arguments against my more general claim about the benefit of doing your own housework whenever possible. It seems to me that the reason so many of you either unintentionally overlooked or deliberately ignored the qualifications I made sure to include in my original argument might be because of an increasingly prevalent tendency to assume that if there are potential exceptions to a particular given principle, then that principle must not have any value worth working towards. This kind of thinking is also very common among people who reject the vegan/vegetarian diet as a viable alternative to the Standard American Diet (SAD), based on the argument that some individuals suffer from particular (although exceptional or relatively rare) forms of nutrient absorption problems, or by proposing the (again exceptional) scenario of being lost and starving in the woods and resorting to hunting out of necessity. Again, this argument is used when dismissing the principles of nonviolence as ineffectual, by bringing up dire circumstances of self-defense against sociopathic homicidal maniacs or other similarly unstoppable or irrational forces, as if these characterized the majority rather than the minority of cases.

    The use of exceptions which are relatively uncharacteristic of most of the people to whom a given principle might apply, in order to argue against the worth of that principle in general or as a whole, is really a very weak counter-argument in itself. But I include it here as a fallacy-of-similarity because I think it exposes a flaw in how we make comparisons of value; i.e. in such an argument, we take the exception as the norm towards which we conform our expectations of ourselves and others, rather than striving towards the norm laid out by the general principle, even when such a principle is far from a radical ideal. In other words, we tend to look towards those alternatives that we resort to in times of extreme difficulty or under unusual circumstances, as harmful or lamentable as they may be, in order to define the standard of everyday behavior. Because we might react instinctively with violent defense against a maniac, we assume that violence is an acceptable norm of daily life; because we might resort to eating animal flesh in harsh climates or extenuating circumstances where better food is not available, we assume that meat-eating is the basis of an average healthy diet. And because a small minority of the population may require the assistance of a housekeepers or because we might ourselves one day become too sick or too old to clean for ourselves, we feel comfortable justifying the reliance on a housekeeper as an acceptable practice even during the healthy prime of our lives.

  36. The problem with such an approach is that, when we take for granted that the norm should be defined by those rare exceptions, we tend to see in ourselves and in others a similarity with those exceptions. And so, for example, every instance of violence becomes in our minds an instance in which we are defending ourselves instinctually against an irrational maniac (even when this is not in fact the case). Likewise, one reader of my original post claimed to suffer from dust allergies that, as far as is known, she has never exhibited in the past decade, and which have only begun to plague her now that she has both the financial means and the social pressure to hire a housekeeper. In such a situation where we are expected by others or even by ourselves to conform to an "exception" that will justify our violation of a generally valuable principle, we are likely to begin believing, whether consciously or subconsciously, that we are in fact such an exception and to exhibit symptoms or problems accordingly.

    I believe that one reason we have this tendency to define ourselves and others in terms of "exceptions" and to thus dismiss principles that might otherwise have value for the greater majority is, in part, related to the point I made above about the "Inherent Right to Fist-Swinging." If we cannot know for sure that another person is not indeed a legitimate exception, then it is more valuable in our estimation to "play it safe" by downplaying the value of the ideal or higher principle so as not to trespass on another's rights or cause unintentional offense by appearing judgmental. But I think that the use of exceptions as supposedly powerful, and potentially even definitively devastating counter-arguments goes beyond this, to the issue of hypocrisy and our cultural assumptions about freedom.

    What all of these fallacies-of-similarity have in common, as I mentioned above, is the attempt to extend or warp an argument beyond its intended, logical conclusion and thus demonstrate that it is inconsistent or hypocritical. To prove an argument is inherently hypocritical is assumed to be a fatal blow to the value of such an argument. Indeed, in our culture it is much worse to be a hypocrite than to be a failure, and we assume it is also much more likely, so that any occasion when someone fails to live up perfectly to the values they espouse, we accuse them not of imperfection, but of hypocrisy. If a person who upholds the values of pacifism cannot always perfectly conform to the ideals of nonviolence, but may occasionally slip up out of ignorance or natural human shortcomings, then the philosophy of pacifism itself is assumed to be impractical, hypocritical and relatively valueless. (You will also notice in this conclusion again the assumption that a principle must be judged not in terms of its broader implications but by the individuals who embody it, another example of our cultural assumptions about the primacy of individualism.) In this way, too, if a person who argues in favor of the value of self-reliance cannot be completely self-reliant to the extreme of total isolated independence from others in all cases — a ridiculous notion considering our nature as social creatures and our physical as well as spiritual interconnection — then the principle of self-reliance is dismissed as hypocritical and valueless.

  37. Why is hypocrisy considered such a sin in our culture? For a time, this question puzzled me. But I have come to believe that it is because of another common cultural assumption which goes largely unexamined today: that our society is a free and open one, and one in which "class" exists only insofar as it is an incidental stratification through which we can pass almost effortlessly in fluid social mobility. It is often said that Americans show a great amount of "can do" attitude — certainly it was that sentiment that became a catalyst and catchphrase for the most recent successful presidential campaign — and we believe this quite readily about ourselves at times and, perhaps even more importantly, about others. With such an assumption in place, we therefore conclude that anyone and everyone is fully and completely capable of living up to and realizing whatever particular values or principles they claim to hold dear. We may not always hold ourselves to these standards; after all, we are very much aware of all of the limitations, restrictions and obstacles that we face personally every day and which might prevent us from reaching our ideals — all the more reason to identify ourselves as and show solidarity with others who may be "exceptions." And so we find ourselves suspicious of anyone who aspires to any ideals with which we might potentially one day take exception. We assume, first of all, that if they express such ideals it is because they are not exceptions themselves and must not have mitigating circumstances of their own. We accuse them of not having considered such exceptions, of being unfair in their expectations of others, and of being hypocritical in the application of their values to themselves when we discover that they are not actually perfect or perfectly capable. This is often true regardless of whether or not a person has in fact behaved hypocritically, and our mistrust is only reinforced by the fact that so many of our public figures and political and cultural leaders do so often hide behind a mask of very real hypocrisy.

    Oddly enough, because our underlying cultural assumptions often slip by unexamined and can inform our attitudes without us consciously noticing their effect, we are perfectly capable of holding two contradictory assumptions at once. Such is the case with our assumption that this is a completely free and open society full of can-do people who have no excuse for failure or imperfection, but who are also, as it happens, woefully crippled by myriad exceptions, handicaps and extenuating circumstances around which we must constantly tiptoe with care if we are to avoid accusations of prejudice, ignorance, imposition or, worst of all, hypocrisy. We may, during any given argument, swing towards one of these views rather than another, depending on how we view the individual against whom we are arguing, but many of us comfortably hold both in our arsenal of counter-arguments, ready to use this one or that one when the other one fails us.

  38. The Broken Window Fallacy

    There is a parable told by Frédéric Bastiat in an essay (published one hundred and sixty years ago, in 1850) that illustrates starkly what he called, and what has since come to be quite well known as, the "Broken Window Fallacy." In Bastiat's parable, a shopkeeper's son accidentally breaks a window and the shopkeeper must hire a glazier to repair it; when the shopkeeper laments the incident, onlookers remonstrate him, saying that certainly this unfortunate event at least benefits the glazier, and after all what would become of the glaziers if windows were never broken? But, Bastiat says, "if, on the other hand, you come to the conclusion, as is too often the case, that it is a good thing to break windows, that it causes money to circulate, and that the encouragement of industry in general will be the result of it, you will oblige me to call out, 'Stop there! Your theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen.'" In other words, such a conclusion can result only from the narrow consideration of a single economic transaction, and takes no account of all of the other potential uses to which both the glazier and the payment given to him might have been put instead. The shopkeeper, had his son not broken his window, might have instead spent the money on a new pair of shoes or a new book for his library, or on food for his family, or on a night at the local concert hall, benefitting the cobbler or the printer or the grocer or the musicians. Likewise the glazier, had he not been employed repairing the broken window of the shopkeeper's place, might have been employed to fashion windows for the new town hall or the beautiful new church being built, or perhaps he might have had some even greater personal project to which he could have devoted himself and that would have had the potential for greater enrichment of both the personal and the financial sort. "Thus, the child did not bring any net benefit to the town. Instead, he made the town poorer by at least the value of one window, if not more."

    Yet despite the obvious flaw in this kind of specious reasoning on a small scale, the Broken Window Fallacy is employed with gleeful abandon even today to justify everything from the economic advantages of war to the misguided spending practices of state infrastructure projects. It has become the common wisdom of economists and politicians to cheer on the industries of warfare and weapons manufacturing as providing essential opportunities for employment and economic growth, especially during times of hardship and recession, and yet such industries not only pour tremendous amounts of human labor and material resources into crafting objects which will inevitably be destroyed — indeed, this is their whole intended purpose — but which do no small amount of damage themselves before their own eventual destruction. In short, the military-industrial complex takes the Broken Window Fallacy to new levels of myopic stupidity and has become, essentially, an industry devoted to the manufacturing of Window-Breaking Machines.

  39. However, there are subtler forms of this fallacy no less unfortunate in their application. When the coal mining industry began to crumble and collapse, leaving a great number of the working class unemployed across central Pennsylvania, the state turned to the reliable wisdom of the Broken Window Fallacy and put many of them to work in road construction through the Department of Transportation (more commonly known as PennDOT). Intentionally relaxing standards for construction and maintenance, they were able to employ many who might not otherwise have had the training or skills for such work; in addition, the less competent repair work would often last only a year or two before needing further maintenance, ensuring an endless round of construction projects and an indefinite number of employment opportunities stretching into the future. As a result, years later, many of these lowered standards (and the resulting lower pay for less-skilled work) persist and the condition of the roads state-wide has continued to grow worse and worse. Such an approach, though not nearly as misguided as the wanton and intentional destruction of the military-industrial complex, has certainly left the state of Pennsylvania poorer in the long-run with barely a benefit to the workers themselves. (Contrast this to the city of Pittsburgh, which responded to the decline of the city's once-thriving steel industry by actively encouraging the growth of careers in medicine, education, architecture and most recently "green technology," as well as funding cultural programs in the arts.)

    I bring up these examples not to distract from the original discussion regarding the relative merits of hiring a housekeeper, but to illustrate in what way these examples utilize, applied on a larger scale, some of the same logical failings and cultural assumptions many of you used in your own counter-arguments. For what the Broken Window Fallacy really concerns itself with is the too-often unseen or unrecognized detriment, to both the individual worker and the community as a whole, of employing someone to do unnecessary work, what we might call the "cost of opportunity." This may be true even when the work, such as that of the glazier, is otherwise potentially enjoyable or well-paying, but it becomes especially relevant when we begin to speak about menial and traditionally "lower-class" work. In such instances, the fallacy manifests itself most readily in the counter-argment, already previously mentioned, that insists: "at least doing x is better than being unemployed." Such is the objection, almost word for word, that the townspeople of Bastiat's parable make to the complaints of the shopkeeper, and yet it is one, as he points out, that rests on assumptions about the unseen and a narrow consideration of alternatives.

  40. One red flag that should make us immediately suspicious of the logic behind this counter-argument is that it is almost never used to justify a regression to some previous economic state (I say almost never, knowing full-well the resurgence in marketing for so-called "clean coal" alternatives in central Pennsylvania in recent years), but is instead used practically exclusively to defend the current status quo. The logic "at least doing x is better than being unemployed" was once used to argue against the raising of the minimum wage that would force businesses to lay-off elevator operators; yet after the resulting invention of the automatic elevator, few would suggest that we have done a great disservice to those who, for lack of elevator operator work, have found themselves homeless and starving on the streets. Likewise, having fought valiantly in this country to establish child labor laws to protect the rights, health and safety of those underage, rarely do we hear an argument supporting the repeal of these protections so that families might be relieved of their burden in times of financial or physical hardship. Such suggestions immediately present themselves to us as ridiculous and wrong-headed, as does similar reasoning when it is applied to circumstances in other countries or cultures far below the lowest acceptable standards of our own. Thus we make no objection to the call to boycott sweatshop-manufactured clothing produced by workers being paid seven cents an hour. We do not worry that, as a result of our boycott, such workers will be forced into poverty and starvation, since to our eyes they must already be living in such conditions to accept so pitiful a payment.

    My point here is not to suggest that housekeepers are equivalent or even similar to unprotected underaged workers or grossly-underpaid sweatshop employees in the Third World (please see my discussion above about the use of analogies for clarification on this matter). Rather, I mean to illustrate that, under certain conditions, we find the counter-argument "at least doing x is better than being unemployed!" to be clearly flimsy, pessimistic and sometimes downright backwards in its outlook and assumptions about the world. In fact, the conditions under which we reject this kind of reasoning could be characterized most generally as precisely those times when we have clear evidence for the viability of more advantageous alternatives. In this, we are often lacking in both optimism and imagination, refusing to believe such options exist or are even possible unless they have been fairly well-established for us among the norms of our own contemporary culture, and leaving others to take on both the risk and the resistance of establishing more progressive standards for the future. But if we can only accept the Broken Window Fallacy as reliable and soundly-reasoned wisdom in situations where we are fundamentally uncertain about the potential alternatives, then it must also be clear to us that our relative reliance on this logical fallacy is determined largely by what our cultural assumptions tell us, overtly or implicitly, about the unknown.

  41. So what are the whisperings and whistlings in the dark that arise from our cultural assumptions when it comes to the question of housekeeping and other forms of menial labor? In my experience one particularly pervasive assumption — which might even be described as the most persistent and driving primary anxiety of a capitalist society — is that, to put it simply, there are only a limited number of "good jobs" available, and its corollary, that these are always fewer than the size of a given population. There is no particular reason why this must absolutely be the case, and indeed we have very little evidence to believe it to be inherently and irrevocably true other than the insistence of practically everyone else around us. Yet the healthy functioning of a capitalist society rests on this incurable belief, tied intimately to the (presumably loose) stratification of class, as the impetus to competition behind our strivings for creativity, innovation and efficiency. Even those of the highest class buy into this cultural assumption. As only one example, the doctor examining Jeff's broken foot recently treated us to his impromptu ponderings on his son, third in his class at a prestigious local private school, working diligently to "beat out" the two Korean kids above him, apparently under the impression that there are only two well-paying job openings available for prep-school graduates.

    When the competition even among the upper classes for meaningful and gainful employment is so fierce, those of us with the liberal ideal that everyone deserves the right and opportunity to work often find ourselves defending the strange and unfortunate notion that, in order for this to be possible, we are obligated to create "bad jobs," relatively low-paying and unskilled work that we might otherwise do for ourselves or find creative alternative methods to avoid altogether. Thus, the Broken Window Fallacy slips in practically unnoticed to bolster our belief and alleviate our quietly nagging guilt, assuring us that this is to the benefit of the workers as well as the community because without such jobs available many of the people so employed would soon find that all of the better jobs had already been taken. Thus we shift our focus from our own choice about how to use our financial and material resources, to the apparent lack of choice that we assume others must face which would lead them to pursue even the lowest-paying menial work, and so we offer such jobs as a kind of consolation prize to those to whom life has handed the short straw, lest they be left with nothing. This, at least, is what we tell ourselves in excuse, though rarely do we refuse or even pause to consider when the latest technological advancement allows us to replace telephone operators, factory assembly line workers, bank tellers, agricultural workers, gas station attendants, grocery store cashiers and any number of other positions, with automated systems or technological tools that give us the same level of competence or personal control. Indeed we roundly acknowledge that higher levels of education open up greater, not fewer, opportunities for employment, in part because they equip us with the skills and creativity to forge wholly new career paths if we choose, while the viable options for menial labor erode under constant threat of being rendered redundant or irrelevant by the next wave of technological innovation. Still, we persist in the belief that it is the market of well-paying and respectable career options that is glutted and only by hiring others to do our own undesirable tasks can we, with patronizing affection, offer that helping hand so desperately needed.

  42. The slightly more sinister assumption lurking behind this logic is the belief that some people — due to personal disadvantages of background or education, gender, race or ethnicity, personality, or physical or mental deficiencies — simply are not capable of doing any better. Accordingly, this counter-argument suggests, by creating Window Repair work for such individuals, far from doing them a disservice, we are in actual fact doing them a favor. Here again we see the insidious work of two cultural assumptions in collision: the assumption that in a free and open society of can-do citizens no one would be working a low-paying, menial job unless they were essentially incapable of doing any better, and the habit of mind that assumes that if they are incapable of doing better it is due to the exceptions of personal disadvantage (such as disability or lack of intelligence or initiative). Such exceptions, as I have discussed already, are believed to be much more common than they truly are for a variety of reasons, and offer more acceptable explanations of disadvantage than an acknowledgement of broader social trends (often existing in that uncertain space "beyond our own nose") where systemic injustices and inequalities might function apparently beyond the scope of any one individual's or group's ability to neatly control the results. It can often be difficult, even among the highly-educated, for a person to gain enough cultural and historical perspective to develop a firm grasp on social trends and their myriad consequences, whereas almost everyone can name at least one friend or coworker who has benefitted from a diligent work ethic or some well-timed brown-nosing, while another has been passed over for promotion time and again due to a confrontational personality, laziness on the job or even poor personal hygiene. We are not only prone, in a culture preoccupied with individualism, to believe more strongly in the individual's responsibility or culpability for finding work, but it makes more immediate sense to us, for we are often more likely to see the immediate causes and effects on this smaller scale than the echoing, shifting tides of systemic conditions stretching back for several generations.

    All of this assumes, of course, that such menial work is undesirable and ideally avoidable, and yet there is often an oddly-reasoned view that accompanies our patronage of those whom we hire for such tasks, that would have us believe that because even the best job can be miserable and demeaning under certain repressive or unfortunate circumstances, therefore even the worst job can be a welcome dream-come-true if approached with the appropriate attitude. It is this kind of thinking that leads some Libertarians to the defense of prostitution as a woman's rightful alternative to the poverty of unemployment, and leads others to the defense of housekeeping and similar menial work because it is a more dignified or more ethical alternative to prostitution. In both cases, the argument applauds those individuals in situations of disadvantage for "owning" the conditions in which they find themselves and making the best of the situation through hard work and a kind of stubborn humility. What such rationalizations hold in common is the readiness to believe that attitude is everything, and the willingness to view our exploitation of someone else's disadvantage as a twisted form of generosity and empowerment.

  43. The Location of and Right to Self-Identity

    An unexamined but pervasive cultural attitude that colors and complicates this discussion to the point of inanity is the deep-seated assumption that a person's self-identity is defined primarily by how they earn money. This unacknowledged view brings us immediately back to the concerns raised in my discussion about the "Inherent Right to Fist-Swinging," and threatens to transform almost any discussion about how we choose to spend our time, energy and resources into a discussion about the demands others have the right to make on us for these things. It is this cultural assumption that, I believe, truly lies at the heart of the transformation of my actual argument about the drawbacks of hiring a housekeeper, into the one portrayed as and responded to in your comments, namely an imagined argument about the drawbacks of employing housekeepers (plural), as if they were a single, monolithic group of individuals whose self-identity rested solely in their line of work, and whose self-identity as well as livelihood is therefore threatened by my particular perspective.

    The fact that there are indeed some (exceptional) individuals for whom housekeeping and other such work is a calculated (and often temporary) choice that confers advantages such as self-employment, schedule flexibility and independence, only serves to reinforce this view. In such a situation, an argument against hiring a housekeeper might, if taken seriously by too many people, negatively impact such individuals' ability to find this type of employment (though they would, presumably, have other options available to them). Yet, these individuals will argue, isn't it their right to work as a housekeeper if that is the profession they choose? Of course, you won't catch them arguing for their right to work as an elevator operator, a gladiator, an assistant juniper-berry picker, or a lunar tour guide — such a counter-argument is, as usual, confined only to the relevant aspects of the current cultural status quo one feels is in need of defending. And so we come to a discussion about the precise location of such work-related self-identity and the implications of the belief in an individual's right to choose.

  44. For in this highly individual world, I agree whole-heartedly that a person's self-identity is something sacred, to be celebrated and cultivated with care and craft. However, if we assume that this self-identity rests exclusively or even primarily in that person's choice of career, and yet we persist in our belief that it remains of the individual's choosing, then we are led to some rather unrealistic and even contradictory conclusions about the nature of the market economy and the function of its producer-consumer relations. The fact of the matter is that consumer choices, not those of the workers, largely dictate what types of work will be available, and what little power workers are able to exert to this effect, for instance through organized labor unions, is often constricted in focus and negligible on a larger scale. It is our choice as consumers to support certain industries over others, to overlook the injustices or harmful consequences of this one while speaking out against the similar effects of that one; furthermore, we are very much aware of this power of ours and understand that it is to be wielded carefully and consciously whenever possible.

    However, when we insist that anyone who chooses to earn a living and create a self-identity based on a particular form of work has the right to demand our compliance and support for that choice, we find ourselves squeezed uncomfortably into the same fist-swinging paradigm that would restrict our own choices of lifestyle to those safely within the bounds of "our own nose," fearful that any more wide-spread implications might trespass on another's right to their chosen self-identity. To my mind there is little difference between the argument that we are wrong to praise the values of self-reliance and cleaning our own homes at the apparent expense of those who choose to be housekeepers, and the argument that we are obligated to support not only the troops, but the war, simply because some individuals have chosen to be soldiers. The logic is the same in both scenarios, though I think most of you would object to the latter. The question of what right individuals reasonably have to choose the means by which they earn a living is an essentially different question from our rights as individuals to make choices about how to best spend our time, energy and resources — for while one is a relatively simple question of employment that can be answered at least in part by the current circumstances that exist in the market economy, the other is a question about our self-identity as creative beings engaged in shaping the world around us, and it is here, precisely in this realm "beyond our own nose" that we share with and engage with each other in ways that render our self-identity meaningful.


    To be continued....

  45. When I was a small child, I used to accompany my mum when she went out cleaning other people's houses. Since then, I've always had enormous respect for anyone who does this kind of work. As a totally blind person, I always feel a bit guilty, and do question whether I really need a weekly cleaner. I think I really do while living alone. I do my own dishes, and I do try to keep surfaces clean, although I'm sure I miss things, which the cleaning person can hopefully rectify. When living with someone else, I'm more than happy to do my share of cleaning, since I can be monitored and told about what I missed. Vacuuming is particularly difficult in this regard. Maybe I'm making too many excuses for myself, maye not. But thanks for making me think about it. I think the points that Cat and Anonymous made are telling, and I have no wish to exploit anyone.

  46. I see that many commenters don't like what you have to say - or are wrestling with it - but I agree to an extent. I worked for one morning as a housekeeper at a bed and breakfast. I spent the entire morning angry and grumbling. After lunch the boss called me in, handed me a wad of cash and said "Lets not kid ourselves, this just isn't your movie." I've never forgotten those words, and no, it isn't my movie :)

    I don't want other peopel cleaning up my mess - as a middle class american it makes me very, very uncomfortable. And I don't want to clean up other people's messes - again, as a middle class american it makes me angry.

    I think there are times that it is appropriate to use your talents to do one thing and your money to hire someone to do something else... but it should be a very thoughtful decision. Its a matter of personal responsibility - sometimes taking it means paying someone to vacuum your house, often it means vacuuming your own damn house :)

  47. Blimey. I read and enjoyed this post when you wrote it... I never dreamed it would get the amount of responses it has :-) You will forgive me if I respond without reading them... I'm here to comment on your post rather than join the debate. I understood your post to describe something lost through removing an act we can beneficially take responsibility for (namely cleaning) and placing it in the domain of the other (the cleaner).

    I was moved to thinking about my previous profession, nursing. Even as a charge nurse and as a ward manager I have never been afraid to bury my arm elbow deep in shit but always seemed fairly alone in that attitude. When I trained, I was taught (fallaciously I believe) that nursing was changing, that nurses were becoming resource managers. In the UK, nurses provide "clinical" intervention while housekeepers/domestic staff clean (except in cases involving potentially infected waste).

    It was not always thus. It seems to be a political move on the part of nursing to be seen as a profession, and professionals don't clean, do they?

    But what have we lost? We have lost that absolutely fundamental relationship between good hygiene management and effective healthcare. UK hospitals have become dirtier in my living memory with rates of MRSA and similar infection climbing, and elderly relatives who also nursed recall the days when the nurses' role included scrubbing and cleaning, because they knew that a dirty ward was an unhealthy (un-wholesome) one.

    So it now becomes a political issue. Government set standards and targets, appoint "tzars" and establish manager's positions with hygiene management roles. Yet the solution is so simple. Have those with responsibility for healing, clean. There is indeed something sacred about caring for the whole.

  48. Adam, I find your discussion of nursing fascinating, and I think you're likely right on the mark about the disconnect that's going on there. I see something similar (as I hope to go into in the second follow-up post I'm in the middle of working on) between our attitude towards cleaning and the worrying state our ecosystem(s) and local landscapes.

    It also strikes me that my introduction to Paganism came through a woman writing online about "Christian witchcraft," and one of her essays that has always stuck with me was her post "in praise of mud" — all about overcoming our fear of dirt and grime and learning to engage with it in healthy ways, instead of always trying to avoid it in these pristine, plastic environments that leave us disconnected and vulnerable. For her, this relationship with mud ties into the Christian concepts of humility and service, and I suppose there are still echoes of that in my post, about the way in which cleaning can restore our relationship with the space and objects of our everyday lives.

    Without such attention and attendance manifested in physical, practical ways, I don't see how any amount of meditation or "spiritual" ado can compensate. To me, it's the same kind of top-down organization you seem to be talking about, with the government stepping in and trying to impose and enforce a set of values that are no longer lived values by those in the healthcare profession.

  49. Alyss, you wrote, I think there are times that it is appropriate to use your talents to do one thing and your money to hire someone to do something else... but it should be a very thoughtful decision...

    I completely agree! The reason I find this issue to be so interesting (and so important) is precisely because we are limited beings with only so much time and energy to go around, and we happen to live in a culture that demands a huge amount from us in terms of overtime and multi-tasking at work as well as at home and in our social lives. For me, the very fact that cleaning is so often slow and simple is a kind of protest against the assertion that we should value the work of the brain over the work of the body, and work for pay over service freely given to those things which we hold to be deeply valuable and meaningful. From my perspective, I think we should be very thoughtful if we find ourselves with a job that pays well enough for us to hire a housekeeper but affords no time to attend to matters of personal responsibility... I would even go so far as to say we should re-evaluate (or at least proceed with caution) if we discover this to be the case.