How words work, gendered labor, the jackpot

A Letter

Talib Kweli responds to Piers Morgan’s asinine call to ban the word “nigger” with an essay that says as much about the complexities of that word as it does about language overall. He writes, “As someone who works with words, all words are on the table for me. To me, the discussion about the usage of the word nigga should never devolve into censorship or eradication.” In a similar vein, Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing earlier this year, notes: “This is how humans use language, and it is wholly consistent with how black humans use language. The effort to punish this use, like all respectability politics, is an effort to punish black humanity, is racism.” Both Kweli and Coates point out how words change with context, how the same word can be unacceptable in one context, and wholly banal in another. As creatures of language, humans are adept at navigating those contexts, even if we can’t always articulate the boundaries. Which means it’s unlikely that Morgan is simply misunderstanding how language works, and much more believable that he is knowingly committing racism while simultaneously trying to seem like he isn’t.

Robinson Meyer calls out Twitter’s new efforts to deal with gendered harassment: notably, that effort rests on the free labor of women. At a recent Eyebeam event, Sarah Jaffe noted that the biggest areas of job growth—home healthcare aids, retail, fast food—all depend upon the employee’s performance of emotional labor. Not coincidentally, those jobs also pay dismally, come with few or no benefits, and are dominated by women of color. This past June, the Harris Supreme Court decision carved out a special designation for home healthcare jobs which rests on the notion that those jobs are less “real” than others, its practitioners less worthy of protection. At the Facing Race conference, an attendee shares a speaker’s imperative: the question is not, “how do I not be racist?” but, “how am I working towards dismantling the system?” I asked myself that, and could only answer, not enough.

Uber has apparently partnered with GM in order to offer subprime auto loans to current and prospective Uber drivers; the loans are a terrible deal, and many drivers have seen right through them. The darling of the gig economy has also announced a program to recruit 50,000 vets into its driver pool, showing the lengths it will go to expand its coterie of cheap, unprotected labor. Meanwhile, an Uber driver was “permanently deactivated” for a single, mildly disparaging tweet; think on that the next time you ask your driver how they like Uber and they deliver an enthusiastic endorsement. And yet: alongside the exploitation and reframing of low wage perk-less labor as “entrepreneurship,” Uber’s hailing system is demonstrably less discriminatory than street hails. When I try to square that inconsistency in my head, I come around to one thing: the exploitation was likely Uber’s plan all along, the egalitarianism almost certainly unintended.

A NYT fashion piece about Goop notes “celebrities are increasingly moving from endorsing products to being the product” (emphasis mine). The piece also includes such extraordinary details as a comparison that equates using heroin to being a lifestyle guru, and the notion that when you buy a $500 Goop label longboard you are buying into a “set of values that are associated with Gwyneth.” In The Peripheral, William Gibson’s latest novel of the future, a period of time known as “the jackpot” results in the loss of 80% of the world’s population. The survivors, such as they are, experience a technological advancement that eliminates scarcity, making everyone, more or less, rich. In essence, the only labor left to them is celebrity. An artist explores this new world by serially tattooing her body, then flaying herself and replacing her skin so she can do it again; the skin is then displayed and sold, the originals claiming more than the miniature reproductions. Gwyneth would understand.

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Related books

The Peripheral

William Gibson

Drones, haptics, ocular implants, virtual reality, climate change, nanotechnology, celebrity: like all of Gibson’s novels, The Peripheral is a novel of the future that’s entirely about the present.