Society vs. Individual Choice

The Last of the Mohicans has a couple of standard tropes; one in particular is the Female Who Proves Herself As Brave As A Man. (Sorry, can’t find the official TV Tropes name for this.) It brought up an issue for me that I’ve thought about a little before: if in our modern society we try to make things gender-neutral, opening traditionally-female jobs to men and traditionally-male jobs to women, why were they ever gender-specific in the first place?

Unfortunately, I can think of a good answer. Pretty much every society has jobs people would rather not be doing, whether it’s unclogging toilets, collecting garbage, or taking care of a screaming two-year-old. There are a couple of ways to “carrot-and-stick” people into doing these jobs (they do need to happen, after all).

The carrot could come in the form of honor, but usually doesn’t…rather than being seen as someone putting in effort to do a “dirty job”, they’re looked down upon for not rising past it. No one would choose to be a garbageperson, right? Instead, the carrot comes in the form of money…and even then, not very much of it. So the people doing the essential-but-unliked job are usually those who can’t afford to move to something better, not those who chose to be there for the money.

This makes a little bit of (depressing) sense, because a large society usually has more dirty jobs than clean ones.

The stick is limiting options. “If you’re a women, you’re only allowed to be a nurse, a teacher, or a housewife.” If you don’t want to be any of those, tough luck, although you might be able to find a dirtier job (housecleaner?) if you want. (If you’re “unlucky”, you’ll have to.)

This doesn’t just apply to gender-divided societies. It’s also shown up historically with caste-based (or strict feudal) systems, and all the way up to the present with ethnic discrimination. While we are (ostensibly) trying to eliminate this, it’s much harder, possibly impossible, to eliminate class distinctions altogether. Even if we have no genetic-based discrimination, the dirty jobs still have to get done, and we don’t give them enough honor or money to make everyone’s standard of living equal.

(Things start to get a little more murky with disability and language proficiency discrimination—it really might be harder for you to be a good worker if you have a disability or can’t speak the native language very well. The problem with all of these is that they’re examples of “prejudice”, from its etymological roots in “pre-judging”. Thus we have laws that prevent this kind of discrimination up front—you’re supposed to try the employee out and make accomodations. You can only fire them if then they’re not up to snuff. But this does make things harder for business owners, who have to fear lawsuits if they rightly fire an employee who happens to have a disability or be in an ethnic minority.)

So society really appreciates having a group that’s designated for the dirty jobs. We don’t think that’s right anymore, in a moral sense. Why not?

Because we don’t want Gattaca and Brave New World to happen. Because even if it were true that “Peruvians are genetically disposed to be better at math”, that general trend doesn’t say much about individual Peruvians or about non-Peruvians. I’m guessing that even in this hypothetical world, you’d get better results from picking the top mathematicians from every ethnic group, rather than making all Peruvians mathematicians.

(And part of that is based on the fact that a person doing something they like to do will generally put more effort into it, usually surpassing someone who has only put in effort to fill a quota, and sometimes surpassing those with some kind of “innate talent”.)

By assuming that generalizations hold across entire groups, we are shutting off potential contributions from sources we consider unlikely. Not to mention that new perspectives are a good thing in many fields—if people’s brains really are wired differently, that’s great!

What we end up with, though, is the entitlement generation—my generation. We were raised to believe we can become anything we want, but it’s turned out that for a lot of people, that’s not true.1 Someone still has to do the dirty jobs and the underpaid jobs.

What’s the solution? Unfortunately, I don’t have one. In Star Trek, it seems that all the really low-level dirty jobs have been mechanized: cleaning, manufacturing, and such. They haven’t eliminated boring jobs, but it’s an improvement, and there seems to be enough leisure time for most people to have hobbies, at least. (One hopes that Keiko O’Brien was paid more than teachers today.) In a college-campus coöp, everyone is supposed to donate some of their time to cooking, cleaning, whatever. The advantage of this is that people can still trade for the work they prefer. I’m not sure how well it would scale to a neighborhood, community, city, county, though.

It’s certainly not right to earmark people for dirty jobs, but have we made things worse for those stuck at the bottom? I don’t think so. People aren’t worse off than they were before, when their lack of choice was institutionalized. A class system still exists, and I won’t pretend that people stuck in the lower class and in crappy jobs chose to be there, but the assumption that that is their place is being eroded, and there’s a chance for the next generation to get out of that class. That’s something to keep working on.

It’s a hard problem, though, and in the long run I think the solution is to eliminate/automate the dirty jobs…and then figure out how to give back life to the people working those jobs.

TLDR: Society likes having scapegoats for the dirty jobs, but trying to justify it morally doesn’t work, because most generalizations suck (joke intended). Unfortunately the dirty jobs don’t go away even when gender roles are abolished and the lower class has the same ethnic makeup as the upper class.

But, stay tuned for the next blog post on this: how gender discrimination is different from ethnic discrimination. (Hint: biology!)2

  1. I consider myself blessed to have grown up without wanting anything, to have gone to a good college with the freedom to take courses outside of my major, to have been able to choose my own major and profession, to be good at it as well as liking it, and for it to be a profession that’s still hiring even in our current economic state. Most people do not have my privilege. (I say “blessed” despite being atheist because “lucky” doesn’t seem to cover it. This is Teela Brown levels of lucky.) ↩︎

  2. For those who are pre-emptively offended, I’ll also talk about how it’s the same as ethnic discrimination, i.e. we shouldn’t do it. ↩︎