Shame is a heck of a tool.
People have been using shame to demean and dehumanize people since the dawn of time. We shame others because of their physical appearance, or because of their family situations. We shame people because they don’t have as much in terms of physical possessions as we might, and we shame people because of how they make a living.
I have to believe that the act of shaming another is solely to make one feel better about his or her own life, as opposed to any constructive benefits that could possibly come from debasing another human being. If we weren’t trying to simply impress others by emotionally annihilating another person, we would keep our thoughts and comments to ourselves.
You know, like decent people would do.
But we don’t. We share images of people who are dressed poorly to our social media accounts in order to make fun of them, or we gleefully point out that someone we went to grade school with decades ago is struggling through tough times. We dance in the shame of others so we might feel better about our own perceived shortcomings.
One of the methods of shame that drives me the most bonkers is ridiculing someone over how that individual keeps the lights on at home. I’m not going to get into philosophical and righteousness debates over people earning income through criminal enterprises — no, I’m talking about people making an honest living through hard, reputable work. And, in turn, I’m talking about people who shame and ridicule those people because they are working jobs that they feel are “beneath them” for some reason.
Consider the story of Geoffrey Owens. The 57-year-old actor, who hit his global popularity apex while playing the role of Elvin Tibideaux on “The Cosby Show” from 1985 to 1992, was photographed last week bagging groceries at a Trader Joe’s in New Jersey.
The Daily Mail ran the photos of Owens at work with the headline, “From learning lines to serving the long line!” and comments focused on Owens working a job with a name tag or having stains on his shirt.
You know, like someone who is working hard might have.
Owens, who said he had been working that job for about 15 months, was so upset over the attention he received that he quit his job. He went on “Good Morning America” (GMA) on Tuesday morning, and said he initially took the position to help pay the bills and because the flexible hours helped him keep alive his dream of auditioning for acting jobs.
He was working hard, like so many of us do or have, and people had to jump on him, delighting in what they perceived as “a fall from grace.” That worldwide derision humiliated Owens — until the tides began to change a little.
Owens told GMA that he and his wife started seeing messages of support from around the world, from every-day people to Hollywood heavyweights.
“It hurt,” said Owens. “But then, it’s amazing.”
Tyler Perry tweeted at Owens that he was about to start shooting a drama on the Oprah Winfrey Network next week, and that he wanted Owens to join the team. Conservative commentator Laura Ingraham wrote, “There is pride in every job. Good for him.” Justine Bateman, formerly of “Family Ties,” wrote that “The people taking his picture and passing judgement are trash.” Blair Underwood tweeted “#NoShame in good, honest, hard work. He’s being a man in doing what he needs to do to provide for himself and his family. Much respect to you sir!”
Those messages of support meant a lot to Owens. He said on GMA that he hopes his experience will change the way people view “what it means to work, the honor of the working person, the dignity of work.
“I hope that this period that we’re in now, where we have a heightened sensititivity about that, and a reevaluation of what it means to work and the idea that some jobs are better than others — that’s not actually true,” he continued. “There is no job that’s better than another job. It might pay better, it might have better benefits, it might look better on a résumé and on paper. But actually, it’s not better. Every job is worthwhile and valuable.”
He’s right, obviously. People have jobs largely because of two reasons: individuals need paychecks to pay their bills and feed their families; and people have jobs that need to be filled. Like products and services, jobs are supply-and-demand entities.
If my daughter has heard it once, she’s heard it a thousand times — the same way I heard it from my father growing up: You don’t mess with someone’s job.
I try to impress upon her that knocking over something at a store, or spilling a drink at a restaurant, means someone has to pick it up, and that keeps that person from doing something else he or she is trying to do. I try to explain that I don’t leave every morning to punish her, but because I have to keep food on the table and do my part in the community. I tell her to thank the person who empties our trash can or delivers the mail or heals us when we’re sick, because that person is helping us.
Our jobs are a big part of our lives, just as they are a big part of other people’s lives. Instead of belittling or shaming someone for their work, how about we appreciate that they are indeed working and contributing to the world, while they’re handling their business?
We’re all trying to get by, one way or another.
By Darin J. McCann