Another day, another Twitter row.
Today I found myself embroiled in an argument about towels that, as often happens online, got way out of hand very, very quickly. It began (prepare for the least dramatic story of all time) when a woman named Holly tweeted a company called Handy, complaining that her cleaner (a contractor employed by Handy), had ruined her towels by using raw bleach on them. According to Holly the cleaner had then hidden the towels, so that she found them bleach stained and ruined in her bathroom. She did not name the cleaner, and posted a picture of the damaged towels to evidence her complaint. It was an unremarkable exchange of the type I have seen many times (and indeed engaged in myself) online. Increasingly, customers, who are often disempowered in exchanges with commercial companies, make their complaints in public to ensure they will be taken seriously.
It’s understandable — when one can spend hours, over months, (as I have) on the phone to internet providers trying to sort out the broadband connection at one’s elderly grandmothers’ house, to no avail — that people increasingly use public means to resolve consumer disputes. It was only when I threatened to publish an article about how paying for non-existent broadband for eight months had caused my isolated grandmother distress leading to health problems that the issue was finally and swiftly resolved (with an apology call from the P.A to the CEO of a multinational corporation).
Very quickly, Holly’s tweet attracted vitriolic replies from swathes of Twitter users whose profile description read ‘Marxist-Leninist’ or otherwise marked their hard-line leftist positionality. They objected to her tweet on several grounds: that tweeting the company would lead the to cleaner’s dismissal; that Handy is a terrible company that no ethical person would consider using; that hiring a cleaner is immoral in its own right; that we can’t expect high standards from people earning low wages; that a towel can still be used once it has been stained with bleach, so what the fuck is this bitches’ problem anyway?
I was really disturbed by the level of anger towards Holly. It was another example of what Jon Ronson calls ‘public shaming’, in his excellent book So You’ve Been Publically Shamed. Public shaming, as Ronson points out, is a phenomena that has intensified with the advent of the internet and through which individuals are hounded, harassed and humiliated on the basis of single acts, often taken out of context or wilfully misunderstood. As Jonson forensically details, the repercussions of this shaming can have life-ruining consequences — leading to the breakdown of relationships, loss of employment and prolonged low self-esteem. The culture of public shaming, which often serves to bolster the self-esteem of the shamers, who signal their own virtue by condemning someone else, is extremely disturbing to me. It serves to shut down sensible, nuanced debate, acts as a smokescreen that bullies use to justify their behaviour, and stops us from listening with respect to those whose views or behaviours might jar with our own sense of right and wrong. Also disturbing is the extent to which males from both sides of the political spectrum take delight in shaming women.
So that was the first reason I disliked the tone of responses to Holly.
However, I also felt they were entirely unjustified and critically naive. There is no evidence that I have seen that the cleaner Holly used was fired, or received any disciplinary action. We do not know his name, or anything about him other than he is employed by Handy and that he is male — so there is no justification to the claim that Holly making a complaint publically made things worse for the cleaner. To say that you object to a tweet on the basis of a hypothetical firing is bizarre, pedantic and needlessly argumentative in the extreme. Until any firing can be conclusively evidenced, it is simply a straw man. And even if the cleaner were fired, this, surely, would be the decision and responsibility of the company — and if this were the only infraction, dismissal would be an overreaction bordering on illegal, assuming the employee is contracted with Handy on a permanent basis and not self-employed; assuming that the bleach got on the towels by accident and he panicked and hid them.
Presuming Handy does use self-employed staff instead of contracted employees, as is common in the gig economy (it enables companies to operate poor employment practices, acts as a loophole to escape employment rights, and should, in my view, be illegal), is it reasonable to berate Holly for using their services? Only if you believe that structural inequality will be overcome through boycotting, and only if you can also evidence that every single commercial exchange you personally are engaged with does not exploit or oppress workers (good luck with that if you own any products mass produced in the developing world, shop in high street stores, buy your food produce from supermarkets or have ever eaten in a fast food restaurant). By all means, point out the company’s poor practices (if they have them), so that she can make an informed decision. But how does abuse help here? What productive change does directing anger about employment practices at an individual who does not work for the company make?
I also take issue with the idea that employing paid domestic staff is somehow equivalent to slave labour, immoral in its own right. Almost everybody with any disposable income, to one degree or another, employs people to do things they could do themselves — whether that be taxis to drive us, someone to cut our hair, paint our house, proof read our work, make us our burger or rub the callouses off our feet. The idea that employing someone in the domestic realm is somehow shameful seems to me deeply sexist. Cleaners, nannies and home chefs (jobs which are often subject to the ‘do it yourself’ clarion call) are most likely carrying out work traditionally undertaken by women (how many of those shouting ‘do your own cleaning’, would be as quick to cry that everybody should ‘clean their own gutter’, ‘mend their own shoes’, or ‘fix their own roof’?). So long as the person undertaking the domestic work is being paid a fair wage and is not otherwise exploited, there is no inherent immorality to employing them. Unless you see employing anybody as morally suspect — or unless you think that domestic work is so menial it does not deserve a wage. Indeed, in many developing countries where unemployment is rife it is seen as a duty to employ staff once one has the means to do so, and an act of deep selfishness to carry out jobs for yourself when you might give someone a livelihood by paying them to work for you.
As I pointed out in my tweets, it is patronising bordering on offensive to suggest that low-paid workers should be expected to deliver a poor service. It is one thing if poor service or no service is delivered in protest of low wages (there is no evidence Holly’s cleaner was doing this), it is quite another to suggest that low-wages per se result in poor work. I don’t know what Holly’s cleaner earned, but I worked on minimum wage for more than ten years, and in salaried jobs have been employed on lower than minimum wage (if you work out salary on a per-hour basis) several times. I regularly give my labour for free in writing projects and volunteer work. The quality of my output has nothing to do with how much I am getting paid and everything to do with how fulfilling I find the work, how far I feel supported by my managers, how much other stressors compete for my time. I fully believe in decent wages for everybody (in fact, if it were up to me we would all be given the same base salary regardless of occupation), however, I don’t think that the only reason to do a job well is for money. I don’t think because someone is earning less than me it entitles them to do their job poorly. And I fully stand by my belief that if someone wilfully or accidently damages someone else’s property in the course of his or her work, it is not the responsibility of the person whose property has been damaged to withhold a complaint in case the employing company overreacts. This is why we have employment laws!
Nor do I believe any of the outraged tweeters would have resisted complaining had it been their property ruined during a paid-for service. Are these people telling me they don’t complain when half their meal is missing from a delivery, when a waiter spills wine on their shirt and doesn’t apologise, when a shop worker gives them the wrong change, when they bring home a new pair of jeans to find the zip is broken, or discover a scuff on their box fresh white trainers? No, a towel is not rendered useless by bleach, but nor is a t-shirt rendered useless by a permanent coffee-stain: that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t mind if a barista spilled an ice-latte over my clothes and then lied about it.
We are all disempowered (though not of course to the same degree) by the neoliberal system. Those of us employed by corporations and institutions that erode our rights, and those of us who use the services of companies focussed mercilessly on profit. As I pointed out (to much outrage) in my tweet, the appalling tragedy at Grenfell Tower, a result of the wider housing crisis, deregulation, managed decline and systemic devaluing of the poor, is a smoking monument to a system that puts profit over quality, safety and lives. The erosion of ‘consumer rights’, which include the right to expect decent services and respect from companies you have paid to carry out work for you (as well as the right to not be poisoned by cosmetics, not to be lied to about the ingredients in your food products etc.), is related to the erosion of the rights of tenants to live in safe housing. It is also related to the erosion of workers’ rights. Concern with profit is the driving motive behind the erosion of rights at all levels. Like other rights, consumer rights were hard won — our current consumer rights are a testament to the progressive turn that happened in the UK in the mid-to-late 20th Century (a turn that saw the provision of social housing, the NHS, and the introduction of many workers’ rights). When companies of any size know they can get away with poor, shoddy, unsafe work, with treating their customers badly, with employing people on exploitative contracts to shore up the bottom line, with using hazardous materials, they will usually do it. The neoliberal model that places economic value as the only value is deeply troubling and contributes to insecurity, anxiety and powerless in small as well as large ways.
Does this mean I think, as some of the outraged tweeters have suggested, that having your towel damaged is in any way equivalent to losing your life or your home in a fire? No. Categorically and absolutely not. And anyone suggesting that I don’t know or care about the housing crisis on the basis of one tweet is woefully misinformed. This is not about equivalency. My whole academic career has involved thinking about how the micro and the macro are related. I am interested in how the seemingly mundane and the spectacular intertwine. For years I have been writing about the ways in which quotidian newspaper, television and stage depictions of council estate residents creates a culture that justifies violence towards the poor. (And how many people listened before the systematic devaluing of council estate residents became painfully clear?) I care about how small instances of disrespect and feelings of disempowerment in our lives are connected to larger structures of power through which systemic violence is enacted.
I have no idea what Holly-with-the-ruined-towel’s salary is, but I can tell you that the basic costs of living leave me with less than £20 in the last week of almost every month (and I am employed in a relatively high-paying profession). People using the services of companies who exploit workers are not uniformly rich, right wing or uncaring. Often they are stuck within a system that leaves them with no other option but the least expensive. Sometimes, the affordable option is the exploitative option. On her timeline, Holly explains that she hired a cleaner as a one-off treat to make her home nice for a visit from her mother. Just as we don’t know whether the cleaner was fired, we don’t know whether Holly or her mother are ill, whether this was a birthday celebration, whether Holly has been working long hours to afford basic expenses and has had to sacrifice a meal to afford a cleaner. We don’t know important contextual information and so we are not in a position to act as judge and jury. It is not the world’s biggest crime that her towel was ruined. It should (this should go without saying) not result in a cleaner losing their livelihood.
But it is not ‘entitled’ to complain about poor service. Indeed, it is one of the only avenues we have to power, one of the only ways we can still enact our hard-won rights — threatening the bottom line is often the only way profit-driven corporations will listen. When you publically shame someone for complaining about poor service, you are not the hero in the story. You are a bully, diverting attention away from the issues you purport to care deeply about, signalling your own virtue instead of actually making a difference; you are showing your own lack of knowledge about the history of struggle for basic rights. If your issue is that someone might get fired for a minor infraction, make a fuss about employment rights. Structural change will not be brought about by attacking individuals every time their actions do not appear to match your politics; listening to others, considering their points of view with respect and care and without abuse (as I hope I have done here), does not mean agreeing with them. You can contest objectionable behaviour without resorting to insults. If what you want is a better, fairer society; less pain and more kindness, then you don’t get it by piling vitriol on someone you don’t know for a single action, taken out of context.