Dirty Work and the Meaning of Life

However, what do we exactly mean by “dirty work”? Housecleaning, or cleaning toilets only? Changing diapers of frail elders rather than changing diapers of babies, or both? Mucking out stables, or agriculture as such? Dental hygiene? Autopsy? Waste collection? Gardening?

What makes an activity dirty? Is it that I have to wash my hands (or my whole body) after I have done it? Or rather that I am not well paid for it? That I have bodily contact with real shit? – A coroner, for example, does have physical contact with real shit quite often. However, as she is a well-paid and highly specialized academic working in a clinical atmosphere, people tend to forget this aspect of her profession whereas most of them agree that the unskilled job of a toilet attendant or a farm servant is dirty. So, is “dirty work” a mixture of work that has to do with real “dirt”, and merely traditional attributions of low value?

Our slavery past

Our western societies (and other societies, too) are deeply rooted in slavery systems, and so are still many of our present attitudes. Sure, for the last two or three hundred years there have been strong movements that have implemented values such as “unalienable human dignity” and “equal rights” into many constitutions and bodies of law. In principle we agree that every human person has the same sacred value no matter which work he or she does.

However, if this conviction were truly the base of our judgments and actions, would we accept that young Africans dig out minerals from the ground under extremely dangerous conditions and for poverty wages, just in order to produce and buy cheap mobile phones? Would we agree that about fifty percent of all necessary work is done for free and in largely invisible privacies by housewives and mothers while, on the other hand, we identify “proper work” with “employment”?

On may 1st, 2012, shortly after the Swiss initiative for an unconditional basic income was launched, Yves Rossier, the former chief of the Swiss pension funds, commented it as follows:

“Sorry, but this initiative is simply irresponsible. It is a joke – nothing more. Look: I have five children. Following the ideas of the founders I would obviously get about 10,000 francs a month, without lifting a finger. So, why should I work? Why would anyone ever work? …”

What about the person who cares for the children? What about the fact that the money is not given to him?

Yves Rossier’s  comment shows clearly: the belief that all the money earned by a family belongs automatically to the husband, that proper jobs are paid jobs and that family work is not only poor work but no work at all is still quite alive. Despite all the commitments to free and equal human dignity presumably nobody has totally ceased to distinguish between higher important proper valuable “male” and lower unimportant dirty worthless “female” spheres and activities. Most people still strive to rise above the “dirt” of their born bodily needy mortal existence to the higher clean realms of spirit, theory and “proper” well-paid work, preferably in an air-conditioned clean office high above the ground. Socrates already did this when he, shortly before his death, first sent his wife and little son home and then praised the infinite eternal spaces he was going to enter after he left behind all the limits, impurities and sufferings of real born human life down on earth.

So, the distinction between dirty work and proper work can be understood as one expression of the deeply entrenched belief that the world we live in contains higher spiritual and lower bodily spheres and activities. Those who do the dirty work are still thought to belong to the inferior part of the human species – slaves, migrants and females – who are not born to be free but to work in order to produce the “independence” of their masters by dealing with the embarrassing, yet unavoidable physical realities of their human existence: birth, shit, sweat, vulnerability, illness, sleep, hunger etc. In order to keep these realities as invisible as possible they are labeled as “dirt” that should not be touched by free individuals.

Ora et labora

There has always been non-dualistic wisdom in the world. Many nuns and monks, for example, in their unisexual communities did not attribute freedom and rule to superior exemplars of the human species, service and dirt to inferior ones, but led their lives by the principle “ora et labora”. This means that everybody dedicates a portion of his or her lifetime to the maintenance of the physical existence of a given community, another portion to contemplation and theory. No matter if this holistic lifestyle has ever been practiced ideally or not it can serve as a model for the post-dualistic order that will soon come into existence again.

Many family farms and pre- or postpatriarchal households in fact follow non-dualistic rules insofar as nobody is forced to do dirty work all the time, but everybody switches between different activities: No smallholder will muck out stables all day but has to do different things during a day, week or year: sowing, harvesting, fertilizing, watering, praying, threshing, feeding, calculating, selling, repairing things … And I myself, as a freelance postpatriarchal housewife and writer, do not clean toilets all day as does a lavatory attendant. I also prepare meals, go shopping, wash, iron, listen to family members, eat, sleep, read, write, earn money, pray, sing, travel and so on. The so-called “dirty work” could be re-perceived and re-organized as a real necessary part of real human life among others that will not be delegated to “lower” members of the human species any more.

What is the meaning of life? Certainly not that one part of humanity thinks to be superior to the other passing all the tasks of fulfilling physical needs to slaves while the other is excluded from control, freedom, contemplation and enjoyment. Rather the meaning and joy of life could be rediscovered in a society in which all humans accept that they are equally free and dependent, creative, cultural as well as needy  and born naked into this world.

So, will the notion and the fear of “dirty work” eventually dissolve in a human society which abandons the worldview of Socrates, Platon and Aritoteles, following the rules of a newly conceived “ora et labora”?

(June 2012)

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