Like most people of his time and those before him, 17th century English philosopher John Locke valued the dignity of a hard day’s work over indolence. In his “Second Treatise of Government,” Locke wrote that God bequeathed the world to mankind for “the use of the industrious and rational (and labor was to be his title to it); not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious.”
The “industrious” Locke wrote of were the farmers, mercers, and grocers who labored arduously in anonymity. The hills of Europe, like those of our republic, are filled with the graves of countless humble men and women who were as integral to their societies as any renowned author, politician, or artist.
America’s founding is rooted in Lockean principles. Too often, though, the workers of our time go unnoticed, or even worse, are the target of ridicule. Perhaps one of the most shameful examples of their public humiliation is the treatment of “Cosby Show” alum Geoffrey Owens.
On Thursday night, in a fallen-from-grace-style exposé, the British tabloid Daily Mail revealed that Owens now works as a cashier at a Trader Joe’s making $11 an hour. “From learning lines to serving the long line!” read the headline, noting that the actor was spotted by customers who unsuspectingly photographed him wearing “an ID badge bearing his name.” The article even noted the actor “wore a t-shirt with stain marks on the front as he weighed a bag of potatoes.” Similar articles have since been published in U.S. outlets.
It’s Not Ignoble to Do an Honest Day’s Work
Such derision might be appropriate for a disgraced celebrity like Harvey Weinstein, but in Owens’ case, it amounts to schadenfreude. His only “crime” is that, like 59 percent of Americans, he earns an hourly wage and now has a normal job. For this, elitists have deemed him a loser, a cautionary tale, and someone deserving of pity. Not only are such attitudes morally reprehensible, it undermines our culture.
Rather than assuming Owens has fallen on hard times, he should be admired for his job at Trader Joe’s. Owens could have easily gone the way of “Celebrity Apprentice,” “Dancing with the Stars,” or a tell-all book of life on the “Cosby” set. Instead, like the millions who clean our offices, fold the clothes we buy, and attend to us from call centers, he is making an honest living.
We should not presume to know why Owens is pursuing this new role, but it takes courage and humility to go from strutting down Hollywood’s red carpets to bagging meat and produce in Jersey. Few people are more visible in local communities than grocery store workers. Having starred in what was arguably the most successful sitcom in modern history, Owens is easily recognizable, but he isn’t hiding. He’s holding his head up high. This is commendable.
It isn’t difficult to imagine how others, if faced with declining royalties from shows that networks no longer air, would take a different, albeit lower, road back to fame and fortune, and even be rewarded for it. Owens chose a nobler course.
So we should ask ourselves: Why is he being subjected to scorn and shame? What part of our culture led some to believe that photographing him without permission, as if he were a zoo animal, would be socially acceptable? Most importantly, how did several teams of reporters and editors deem this appropriate for publication?
Snobbery Discourages a Strong Work Ethic
Their brazen snobbery is especially counterproductive during a growing crisis of meaning. Not everyone is meant for, or interested in, working in an office setting. Moreover, not every job is personally fulfilling or Instagram-worthy. By depicting working at a grocery store as a sign of failure, or warning our children against “flipping burgers,” we stigmatize these and other perfectly respectable professions that are fine on their own or can be on-ramps to other opportunities.
We’ve all been guilty of such highbrow. Therefore, it’s worth examining how our own attitudes—like the dastardly “outing” of Owens—create social penalties for desirable behaviors like having a strong work ethic.
The dangers of these stigmas was evident to me while I mentored public high school kids earlier this year as part of a charity initiative. When I asked a group of students if they intended to work over the summer, an African-American junior said she had a part-time job lined up at a Publix supermarket. Her vacation plans elicited “eww” and laughter from some classmates.
My colleagues and I were there to praise the young lady’s decision and extol the virtues of work. But think of how many youths lack support or put off similar entry-level jobs to avoid disparagement. We need to do better.
As John Paul Rollert, a friend and mentor of mine who teaches business ethics at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, told me, “We live in a culture where we so value wealth and celebrity that we not only think taking the low road to achieving them is a self-evident choice if it means getting there faster than by the high one, we scoff at those who would prefer an honest day’s work to the kind of shortcuts that should be a genuine source of embarrassment.”
Blessed Are the Meek
Indeed, if we are to renew our sense of purpose and unite around shared values, a good starting point is to afford today’s farmers, mercers, and grocers the respect they deserve. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called people like them “the salt of the earth” because their lives enhance and add meanings to our own.
We know them as our friends, family, and neighbors. They’re the men and women who keep our country running by simply getting up at five each morning, preparing their children for school, making sure the task at hand gets done correctly, and working that extra shift.
“Maybe if we spent more time admiring those who discharge their responsibilities as family members and full members of society in relative anonymity, consistently and without complaint, and less time exalting others who, without scruple or an abiding sense of shame, would heedlessly get ahead, we would see instances like this an affirmation of something decent and good about this world of ours, rather than further evidence that something is rotten and astray,” Rollert added.
He’s right. These are the Americans that books are never written about. There are no Emmy Awards or Video Music Awards to recognize their sacrifices. The closest thing to a tribute to their efforts is Labor Day. Let’s use it as an opportunity to affirm the inherent dignity, worth, and honor of work and people like Geoffrey Owens.