Someone tweeted a link to a Youtube video the other day that really touched a nerve. The video shows a rant by a comedian/activist named Lee Camp. His delivery is engaging and funny, but behind it is a serious message about what society is becoming. In a previous post, I touched on Camp’s idea: the idea that our workplaces are always being monitored for “efficiency”. Camp’s rant proposes that this model works to the detriment of common decency, as we see in airlines’ policies that cash in on people’s desire for conveniences – inefficient conveniences like pre-boarding for the elderly, allowing families to sit together, and of course, olives on salads.
Camp’s rant got me to thinking. How far have we bought in to the corporate model of efficiency that commodifies things that should be standard fare? We used to have strong support for unions, understanding that what they do is noble – that a group of people putting aside some of their money in order to create a cooperative fund to militate against employers’ desire to take advantage of the workers, is a good thing. In this regard, there has been a huge change of attitude by people, as reflected in their choice of government. Unions are now seen as inefficient. In providing access to human rights – in insisting that an employer show just cause for firing an employee, in insisting that seniority be a consideration in job mobility, unions have become the enemy of profitable venture.
I am a teacher. Our negotiating power has been denied us by legislation. The same can be said about health care workers, Air Canada employees and most recently CP employees. In the U.S., state laws are being passed that render unionism illegal. Companies and governments are trying to cut down expenditures at the expense of benefits to their employees. When you really step back and think about this, it’s absurd. Employees are people, and people are nations, but nations are mandating lower standards of living for their people. In none of the above mentioned disputes are the workers in job action looking to get rich. But someone is.
We seem to have come to accept this efficiency model as common sense. (Of course a company will relocate to another country if it can find cheaper labour there. What do the workers expect? What they want is “unsustainable.”) But what’s perhaps more troubling is the way the model seeps into other things. When I teach school, I sometimes deviate from the lesson plan. I’m just waiting for the day that the “teachable moment” doesn’t fit in with the model of efficiency that says we must fill each moment with content, and each classroom with as many students as it can possibly hold. We’re halfway there. I still have some autonomy, but for how long? How long before the efficiency masters start legislating content and pacing in all classrooms? There are already precedents for this in some U.S. school districts.
I remember a poetry class I took in my second undergrad year. It was taught by the legendary Warren Tallman. At the time, he was a hopeless alcoholic, and his classes were a bit off the cuff. I’m quite sure he didn’t prepare lessons, but chose rather to just talk about something that interested him about poetry. What saved his hide was that he could recite hundreds of poems from memory, and he had a detailed recollection of the biographies of all of the greats. In one lesson he challenged us to name a classic poet and from memory he would recite an entire poem from that poet. I remember being in awe of that. One day Warren walked into the room late. Had I known his credentials as one of the foremost poetry critics of his time, I might have shown him a little more respect, but instead, I playfully cajoled him: “Hmm, decided to join us?”.
He was unruffled, but quite serious and sober (which was not always a guarantee). He started a mild rant. “What is wrong with us?” he asked, “that we are in such a hurry to get to somewhere, that we can’t help a lost elderly woman find a place she’s looking for?” (I’m paraphrasing). He proceeded to tell us how he was on his way to class when he encountered a person needing help and decided to walk her to where she was trying to go. He knew we’d be okay to wait five or ten minutes. His reward, he told us, was that he got to meet a fascinating, beautiful person. What ensued was a passionate discussion. A class in which few of the students knew anything about anyone else, became an open discussion which digressed into a beautiful confessional for personal experiences, and passionate world views. All we needed was permission. And lest harumphing commerce majors poo-poo this experience as fun-cum-wasted-resources, let me just say that once our passion was aroused in this forum, we all became more passionate students of English. The subject became personal for us. Efficiency be damned! We were now true students of Warren Tallman, the literary genius.
You may be thinking, “Yeah, yeah, but that’s an arts course.” But I’ve attended many other lessons that began with inefficient humanism, to wit, a grade 9 math lesson. For the life of me I can’t remember the content of any math lesson given by my genteel teacher, Mr. Sandhu, except one. It was a geometry lesson and we were to learn about the circle. Mr. Sandhu spoke poetically about the beauty of the circle – how nature tends toward a circle: a stone in a stream, a drop of water, the fetus in-utero. I was gobsmacked, even in Grade 9. This wasn’t in the text book! Efficiency be damned. He suggested to me a whole new way to appreciate mathematics. Mathematics is a way we can relate to each other. It’s a way to translate the laws of nature into predictable theory. Who knew that it was something more than a means to count money and hedge bets?
We seem to have forgotten about what’s important. Music classes are terribly inefficient. There are very few jobs in which your skills as a saxophonist will come in handy. But what would our world be without music, without art, without the elderly, without families? Why this constant pressure to streamline, to reduce service? Why all this focus on “the bottom line?” Who benefits? Not me. Not most people.
There is a solution. It lies in deciding what we think is important in our society, and pressuring our politicians to protect it. We need to wake up, and take part in our democracy. We need set minimum standards of human decency, and distribute wealth fairly so that these standards can be met. And if another power pressures us to abandon our standards for their sake, we need to protect ourselves from them with policies that insulate us from their pressure. In the mean time, we can follow Lee Camp’s suggestion to refuse to accept the lowered standards of decency. We can refuse to board the plane until the elderly are allowed to go first.