To many people, laziness is a moral failing. We use it to denote someone who doesn’t deserve things because they don’t try hard enough. It’s used to slam someone, to decrease their credibility, to insult them for not being good enough.
I don’t think that laziness is a moral failing.
Whoa whoa whoa, I’m sure someone out there is saying. Shouldn’t people be willing to work for what they want? Isn’t it bad to just sit back and make other people do work without putting in any effort yourself?
To this hypothetical naysayer I say hold your horses. Lazy is a huge term that refers to all kinds of behaviors. Let’s take a minute to pull apart all the different things it might be referring to and all the potential downsides of adding a moral judgment to calling someone lazy.
The first and largest problem I see with the term lazy is that it’s unclear (making it a somewhat lazy turn of phrase itself). Some people use lazy to mean that others aren’t working as hard as they do, or up to their expectations. Some people use it to mean people who are doing things in an easier or more effective way. Some people use it to mean entitled. Some people use it to mean selfish. Some people use it to mean they can’t see another person doing work.
Many people use lazy to point out behaviors that don’t make sense to them. People who are disabled, have mental illnesses, are chronically ill, or are in some other oppressed get labeled as lazy because their behavior doesn’t make sense to people with privilege. When I’m depressed it can take all of my energy just to get out of bed and make it in to work. I sleep a LOT and cannot get by on less than 10 hours of sleep a day. Many people would label that lazy, but I’m physically incapable of doing much different.
So first and foremost, I don’t necessarily know what someone is criticizing when they call something lazy. In many cases it is a fundamental misunderstanding of mental or physical illnesses that assumes everyone should be able to keep up with an able-bodied, healthy person. I don’t hold with that. It’s oppressive and is one of the ways people keep disabled and ill folks from having access to basic services.
Second, calling another person lazy often relies on a lot of assumptions. If you really do only mean it’s bad to be lazy if you’re choosing not to work when you could be working, then you better know someone’s situation quite intimately before you call them lazy. You need to know how hard they’ve tried, their health (both physical and mental), their abilities, their family situation, every other drain on their time and energy…so really unless you’re best friends or living with someone I don’t know how you can reasonably call them lazy and assume it’s justified.
But really what kills me about accusations of laziness is that more often than not they’re about someone getting some kind of payoff without trying hard. And I hate to break it to you all, but that’s not a bad thing. There’s no moral law that says you’re a bad person if you get nice things with some ease. What IS a problem is when your behavior affects others. If you aren’t willing to do work but you expect others to take care of you, you’re being selfish and entitled. Yes, also probably lazy, but that’s not the problem so much as your attitudes towards others are.
Every single human being has times when they don’t want to work. Probably lots of times. If that were a moral failing we’d all be screwed. All of us have some times when we choose not to work, despite technically being capable of doing it. That is actually incredibly healthy most of the time. The problem then isn’t “not working” it’s “not working and forcing someone else to do work for you.” Those are two very different things, and I’m not so sure we can even call the second one laziness.
Beyond all of the issues with what we’re actually referring to when we say laziness, I also see people calling others lazy when they ask for help or support. This is especially troubling to me because most of the people I see doling out accusations of laziness are relatively privileged people. People who already have basic support systems that help them out if they can’t make rent or if they need a new car or if they need help moving. All those things that they seem to think others should do on their own. It’s easy to look at someone asking for money to help raise their kid and say “they should have thought of that before they had a kid.” But most middle class people get the benefit of a baby shower and hand me downs and grandparents as baby sitters, and all kinds of other hidden benefits of having a supportive family.
I worry that the language of laziness is another way to berate people in oppressed groups for not having the same privileges that “normal” people do. I worry that it’s a way to shame fat people for not being able to exercise the same way as thin people, a way to shame queer people for not having family supports, to shame poor people for having poor families and neighborhoods, to shame atheists and non-religious folks for not having a church community to support them.
I am happy to see people asking for more. I am happy to see personal fundraisers, and people openly talking about their welfare or food stamps. I am happy because I like to see people asking for what they need. It cultivates a culture in which we can all speak up about our needs and wants and all take responsibility for how we respond. And I’m happy because I don’t know anyone’s situation, but I do know it takes a lot to get past the shame of feeling lazy and worthless.
I often think that due to our almost uniquely American work ethic, people mistake self care for laziness. Taking breaks, getting enough sleep, going on vacation, cultivating hobbies or avocations that nurture the spirit are not laziness. They are important elements of self care. This is a lesson I work on daily. Which proves I’m not lazy because I’m “working” on it. 🙂