The Racist, Exploitative History of ‘Laziness’

Historically, the people who are most oppressed are also the most likely to be branded ‘lazy’

“The Rewarding of Work and the Punishment of Laziness,” an engraving by Robert Boissard. Image: Wikimedia Commons

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 about to become very popular — and politically useful.

Colonial America relied on the labor of enslaved people and indentured servants. It was very important to the colonies’ wealthy and enslaving class that they find a way to motivate enslaved people to work hard, despite the fact that enslaved people had absolutely nothing to gain from it. They also needed to find ways to ideologically justify the existence of slavery because many people of the period recognized (as we do today) that it was a morally abhorrent institution.

One powerful way the country’s enslaving class attempted to justify enslavement and coerce enslaved people into working hard was through religious teachings and indoctrination. A productivity-obsessed form of Christianity evolved from the older, more Puritanical idea that work improved moral character, and it was pushed on enslaved people. This form of Christianity taught that suffering was morally righteous and that slaves would be rewarded in heaven for being docile, agreeable, and, most important, diligent.

On the flip side, if an enslaved person was slothful, resistant, or “lazy,” this belief system taught there was something fundamentally corrupt and wrong with them. Enslavers made it a point to keep enslaved people as busy and exhausted as possible out of fear that idle time would give them the means to revolt or riot. Even more disturbing, enslaved people who tried to run away from bondage were seen as mentally ill and suffering from “runaway slave disorder.” By not accepting their proper role in society, they were demonstrating that they were broken and disturbed.

This worldview became the foundation for American capitalism.

The Laziness Lie had been born. It would quickly be pushed onto other marginalized people, including indentured servants, poor White laborers, and Native Americans who had been forced into government boarding schools. These exploited groups were also taught that working hard without complaint was virtuous and that desiring free time was morally suspect. Wealthy aristocrats adopted a belief that idle time was only suitable for the rich and “cultured,” a sign of their superior minds and more restrained passions. This ideology remained highly popular in England as well.

After the abolition of slavery in the United States, political cartoons and racist propaganda of the period continued to portray Black Americans as lazy, unreliable, and taking advantage of any benefits offered to them. See for example this 1866 political cartoon claiming that the United States Freedman’s Bureau existed to keep Black people “in idleness at the expense of the white man.” This rhetoric stoked the fires of American racism and helped ensure that poor and working-class Whites would refuse to join forces and build solidarity with their Black peers for decades to come.

As the Industrial Revolution changed the landscape of the country, with more and more Americans working long hours in manufacturing plants, the Laziness Lie was pushed even further. The wealthy and highly educated began to claim that poor Whites also couldn’t be trusted with “idle” time. In fact, too many breaks could make a person antisocial. Propaganda from that time often claimed that if the working poor weren’t kept busy, they would resort to crime and drug use, and society would run amok. Laziness had officially become not only a personal failing but a social ill to be defeated — and it has remained that way ever since.

We can see the dogma of the Laziness Lie in popular media from that period as well. In the late 1800s, the writer Horatio Alger published numerous stories in which struggling, impoverished characters were able to rise into the upper classes through hard work (and with a bit of support from wealthy benefactors).

Baron Munchausen pulls himself and his horse out of a swamp by his pigtail. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The popularity of these books fed to the idea that poor people simply needed to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” if they wanted to live a comfortable life. In the 1950s and beyond, Evangelical preachers promoted a similar idea with the Prosperity Doctrine, which claimed that if a person devoted their life to serving Jesus, they would be rewarded with bountiful job opportunities, wealth, and success. Just as the Puritans once believed, Evangelical Christians came to believe that those who suffered and were excluded deserved it for having not tried hard enough.

In the decades that followed, the Laziness Lie found its way into countless films, plays, and TV shows. From the national myths of Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed to the strong, independent cowboys on the silver screen to the memoirs of entrepreneurs like Conrad Hilton, one of the most prevalent legends in American culture became the tale of the single-minded, hardworking man who had created his own success and changed society through sheer force of will.

In these stories, the hero is always a strong White man who doesn’t need the support of anyone else; he’s usually a bit of a social island, with no close connections to other people and a disregard for society’s rules in general. In every way, he’s the picture of independence, and it’s through his strong personality and doggedness that he succeeds. These myths, though inspiring and appealing to many, carried with them a dark implication: If a person didn’t succeed, it was because they weren’t doing enough.

Conversely, racist media and political imagery continued to portray Black people as lazy, uncultured, and deserving of moral condemnation. The 1980s imagery of Black women as grasping, lazy “welfare queens” barely differs at all from the anti-Black imagery used in the anti-Freedman’s Bureau political cartoons of the 1860s. Other systematically oppressed groups continued to be portrayed as hopelessly, disgustingly lazy as well: Poor Appalachians without access to infrastructure or education were lazy, ignorant hillbillies; fat people were excluded from health care and then told they were responsible for the negative health effects of that exclusion.

For people who believe in the Laziness Lie, things like economic reform, legal protections for workers, universal health care, and welfare programs seem unnecessary. Those who want to succeed just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, after all. Research from the past three decades consistently shows that a majority of Americans do, in fact, think this way. For many of us, our first instinct is generally to blame a person for their own misfortune, especially if we can pin that misfortune on laziness. Research also shows that when we believe the world is fair and people get what they deserve, we’re less likely to support social welfare programs and have less sympathy for poor people and their needs.

Much like the parents I’ve seen discouraging their children from giving money to homeless people, many Americans believe that generosity, compassion, and mutual aid are “wasted” on the lazy. Furthermore, if we believe the world was created solely by independent people, we may come to think that there’s no need for us to be interdependent and compassionate. We may even come to see relying on other people as a threat to progress.

Decades of exposure to the Laziness Lie has had a massive effect on our public consciousness. It’s made many of us critical of other people and quick to blame the victims of economic inequality for their own deprivation. It’s made us hate our own limitations, to see our tiredness or desire for a break as signs of failure. And it has created an intense internal pressure to keep working harder and harder, with no limits and no boundaries. This ideology was created to dehumanize those whom society had failed to care for, and with each passing year, the number of people who are excluded in these ways seems to only grow.

The above is an edited and expanded excerpt of my book, Laziness Does Not Exist. It is available as a hardcover, e-book, or audiobook everywhere books are sold and is in most libraries.

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