The Racist, Exploitative History of ‘Laziness’
Historically, the people who are most oppressed are also the most likely to be branded ‘lazy’
The hatred of laziness is deeply embedded in the history of the United States. The value of hard work and the evils of sloth are baked into our national myths and our shared value system. Thanks to the legacies of imperialism and slavery, as well as the ongoing influence that the United States exerts on the rest of the world both in media and in military force, the Laziness Lie has managed to spread its tendrils into almost every country and culture on the planet.
The word “lazy” first appeared in English around 1540; even back then, it was used in a judgmental way to refer to someone who supposedly didn’t like work or effort. Many etymologists believe it came from either the Middle Low German lasich, which meant “feeble” or “weak,” or from the Old English lesu, which meant “false” or “evil.”
These two origins illustrate the odd doublespeak at work whenever we call someone lazy. When we say someone is lazy, we’re saying they’re incapable of completing a task due to (physical or mental) weakness, but we’re also claiming that their lack of ability somehow makes them morally corrupt. They’re at once incapacitated and somehow to blame for it. The idea that lazy people are evil fakers who deserve to suffer has been embedded in the word since the very start.
One of the major factors that caused the hatred of laziness and the moralization of work to spread throughout the United States was the arrival of the Puritans. The Puritans had long believed that if a person was a hard worker, it was a sign that God had chosen them for salvation. Conversely, if a person couldn’t focus on the task at hand or couldn’t self-motivate, that was a sign that they had already been damned. This meant, of course, that there was no need to feel sympathy for people who struggled or failed to meet their responsibilities. By lacking the drive to succeed, they were displaying to the world that God hadn’t chosen them for heaven. When the Puritans came to the colonized land that would become the United States, their ideas caught on and spread to other, less pious colonists. For many reasons, a belief system that judged and punished the “lazy” was…