Amazon’s “Toxic Culture” Doesn’t Come from My Needs as a Customer

Oh Internet, I tire. I really, really tire of reading rapidly tossed off think pieces that want to make broadly declarative statements as if they were the first to ever encounter such an idea. For example, did you know “we like-we really, really like-to get things cheap”? Annalisa Merelli wasn’t sure you were aware of this, so she–along with too many other think pieces to name–decided that the New York Times’ article about Amazon’s toxic work culture was the perfect time to place the blame of that culture squarely where it belongs: on the consumer. Which is a bit of an interesting claim, since, as the Seattle Times noted–and they’re a good paper to note this, given their proximity to the tech industry in the last forever–pretending that Amazon’s “toxic culture” is something new and unique to Amazon is ignoring the history of the tech industry as a whole, which has long been noted for a toxic culture that grinds up and spits out contractors and employees as fast as it can hire them. The toxic culture at Amazon isn’t because of the people buying Method cleaner and cat food, Mr Clean Magic Erasers, razors, the occasional bed sheet set, or Dutch oven–it’s from the tech industry as a whole.

amazonprimeIt fascinates me that people want to jump on the Blame Prime Members bandwagon in their think pieces, rather than look at what it is Prime is offering people: dependable, rapid access to a wide variety of goods and services. I mean, I can’t imagine why a perfectly able-bodied society where everyone has a car and access and a well-paying job and plenty of time, and can buy completely ethical, fair-trade food and clothes and goods and whatever else they need or want whenever they want would find a service like Amazon Prime useful.

…was the sarcasm too thick there? It’s been a bit of a morning.

It’s not that it surprises me that a gaggle of able-bodied writers would overlook the ease and convenience and accessibility of Amazon Prime for those who have physical disabilities; I think those of us who are disabled are rather accustomed to society erasing us. It does, however, surprise me that they’re so quick to overlook other members of society: working parents, single parents, folks who live far away from shopping centers where they can find both clothes and hardware and home goods. Not everyone lives in a suburban landscape where Target is 15 minutes in one way and Home Depot 10 the other; even those who do often don’t have the time to run to every single individual store. Maybe their commute takes hours every day; maybe they have children and the sorts of schedules that are full of soccer practice and school and camp and who knows what else, because I’m not a parent but I certainly remember being a kid and having siblings and the “go go go okay everyone collapse and sleep” aspect of a full household. Some folks live an hour or more from services, either because they’re in the middle of a mega-city and these big boxes are on the outskirts and difficult to reach, or because they’re in the middle of a rural area and there isn’t enough population density to support many stores. Maybe they live in that perfect suburban area with a perfect suburban life and car and they’re foiled by working non-standard shifts.

Of course, all that presumes we’re talking about people with cars, and a lot of folks don’t have cars, for reasons as diverse as being unable to drive to being unable to afford the costs of owning a car. For these folks, public transit–not the best thing even in the best cities with public transit–limits their options even further. That’s extra time commuting, time on the weekends, time you could be spending doing laundry or working or being with family or resting or fill in this blank here. Relying on feet, bikes, and public transit is possible for many things, and people do it in cities around the world-and in those same cities around the world, the people who can afford it have their laundry taken out and their food brought in. Amazon merely offers an equalizing aspect to at least some of that (it’s not doing my laundry yet, anyhow).

And yes, for those of us with disabilities, Amazon, and Prime in particular, can be a life-saver. Or at least a life-enricher. There’s no fighting mobility issues in a store, no navigating canes and walkers and chairs around clueless people, no having to figure out how to get a disabled body to the store (especially if your disability doesn’t allow driving). There’s no worry about lifting things that are too heavy, no calculus around what you can carry and what you need and whether it’s worth it to hurt yourself in the short term so that you don’t have to go out again two days later.

For everyone, whether they’re a stay-at-home mother juggling triplets and exhaustion or a busy professional or a disabled lawyer or any other combination of Person you can hodgepodge together from the mass options available, Amazon offers convenience and dependability: you can order what you need and get a dependable timeframe for when you’ll get it.

All of this? Not the fault of Amazon. It’s the fault of a culture and society that isn’t set up to include the different, the ultra-busy, those on different shifts or without flexible schedules, or yes, the disabled. So by all means, yes, take Amazon and society to task for not taking care of people, be they employees or customers or citizens. But don’t take people to task for utilizing the services offered to them–services often available to folks in mega-cities with the income to support said secondary delivery services–so that they too can maximize their time and priorities. And key to this is letting the individual decide what’s important to them: for example, over at USA Today, Amazon Prime member Jefferson Graham decides that

after reading this piece, I can wait. I don’t care if a new lens for my camera takes two or three days, or even a week to get to me. I don’t need a drone to whisk out a package from a warehouse and get it to me pronto. I want the company I’m dealing with to treat the human beings who work there with respect, not force them into a climate of fear.

Cool beans. Immediacy doesn’t mean much to him, and from all accounts he is able-bodied and able to patronize other shops when he does have an immediate need, so he can decide that this is not a participatory system he’s okay with, so he’ll opt out. But you cannot hold everyone to a standard set by an able-bodied, well-employed white man. Ability-and responsibility to a broader ethos-is going to look different to different people; the priorities of an able-bodied driver who lives in a small city will be different than a disabled person living in a mega-city.

Folks want to dovetail this into arguments about conscious consumption and ethical purchasing, which is a good conversation to have: but also a brutal one, because as Emily Finke noted, this practice often takes free time, significant money, and mobility for accessibility–and we’re back to leaving a lot of people out with that equation. We’re also left with at the conundrum that many people simply do not want to face: if you’re living in America, your entire existence is pretty much predicated upon exploitation: your food, from produce to protein; clothing; electronics; oil. It is a culture built upon the exploitation of others.

Means&AbilitiesOnce you understand that, you can start taking steps that work within your life to minimize exploitation of others while meeting your basic needs: consume less, buy with mindful awareness, decide where your priority is. Do you want to focus on avoiding sweatshop-sourced clothing? Do you want to eat locally and ethically? Does something else float your boat? Okay then–go for it. But again, this is a matter of balance and individual preference, and the vast majority of us do not earn the money that would be necessary to make ALL the changes, from non-sweatshop-sourced clothes to perfectly ethical and humane and local food to renewable energy and more. So we look at our circumstances, and we decide.

I am disabled, and my mobility limited. I don’t drive because of this. And for me, I balance ethically sourcing my food with my desire to have a life that’s about more than trekking via transit and foot to different stores to procure what my cats, my husband, and I need to live a healthy life. Amazon, and Amazon Prime, thus suits a necessary need that no one else in society has met.

Rather than cast aspersions on the consumer within the culture, start looking to the culture itself for change–and demand those changes come from those most, rather than least, able.


Note: this post is based on a casual series of tweets this morning that blew up like whoa. You can read the thread and chaos starting here.

The Arrogance of Mitch McConnell and Friends– Or, Flaws in Assuming You Know God’s Will

Maybe it’s all part of a great big ineffable plan. All of it. You, me, him, everything. Some great big test to see if what you’ve built all works properly, eh? You start thinking: it can’t be a great cosmic game of chess, it has to be just very complicated Solitaire. And don’t bother to answer. If we could understand, we wouldn’t be us. Because it’s all — all — ”
INEFFABLE, said the figure feeding the ducks.

-Terry Pratchet and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens

 

As you probably know, I’m religious–Tibetan Buddhist, to be precise–so I do understand the idea of following religious moral rules even if that puts you sort of outside lockstep with modern society. I tend to view religion as a separate (complimentary) sphere to say, science. And while we do things differently across the international religious dateline, I know that a lot of Christian-variations feel the same way.

Part of the reason I know this is because I was raised Catholic.

And that’s why the arrogance of modern Christians is often breathtaking and baffling to me, that they think they know God’s will to the point they’re willing to legislate it. I mean, the last I looked, there were at least six different variations on what you could argue was God’s effort at the clearest commands, the 10 Commandments, which between Exodus and Deuteronomy actually come out to more like 17 Commandments.

But somehow they absolutely 100% know God’s word on fetal tissue used in research.

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When I was a kid, and Mom was still trying her best to raise me as a Good Catholic, I had a book called something like Why Does God Allow Bad Things to Happen. It was not, as I recall, Catholic-specific, but non-denominationally broad and probably bought as a form of self-defense.1

BankRobberThe book was full of examples of bad things God allowed to happen, and asked questions like “if God doesn’t want you to rob a bank, why doesn’t he just put a giant bag over the bank every night to keep everyone out?” and it was illustrated with something like a Ziploc dropped over a cartoon bank, and a cartoon robber trying to figure out how to get past it.

The answer was always a variation on a two themes: free will and the ineffable nature of God. In short, God wants us to have choices and for those choices to be made with the guidance of his wisdom for the circumstances of our lives, and we can’t actually know what God wants from us, or anyone else, because that Plan is ineffable–literally unable to be known by mortal minds–so we just do the best with the circumstances in front of us and trust that God will trust us, too.

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It seems to me the height of conceit and arrogance to assume a mortal human could understand the will of God, let alone be able to perfectly apply that will to modern life. If you believe, after all, that God can speak to you, where the N of you is Very Quite Large, then why couldn’t God simply reach into the mind of everyone and speak to all at once? Why are some people the special folks God speaks to–not really a question in Catholicism, which has its hierarchy of chatting, but a big, big issue in Protestantism, which holds that everyone has equal access to God.

The minute you start hearing God tell you things, you’re removing yourself from that equal access situation and insisting God has spoken to you and only you in mysterious ways.

What especially boggles me is this: say Marco Rubio continues his NO ABORTION EVER rhetoric, and continues to insist that this is because he knows God’s will. What’s to stop someone else from coming up and saying “sorry, but God spoke to me and said that abortion is okay, because it’s one of his tools for teaching–people learn different lessons from abortion, and hey, it’s also how he gets necessary donated tissues to researchers who will cure all kinds of diseases in His name!”

Now you have belief in God’s word being spoken to you in two separate people, with two separate belief systems, and…there’s no way to balance out who is right or not, short of God actually speaking to the entire world at once.

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Of course, none of this is really about religion. If it were, Mitch McConnell and his Republican cronies wouldn’t have voted to lift a moratorium on the use of donated fetal tissue from voluntary abortions in 1993. Yet many of the GOP members who voted for that medical research are now speaking out against Planned Parenthood, and it’s not because they’ve gotten more religious in the last 23 years. It’s because we’re gearing up to what is going to be a very contentious election cycle for the GOP, and as usual, politicians are pandering to the extreme members of their base–the ones who vote in primary elections–in an effort to secure money and, ultimately, nominations.

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DrinkThisMuchIn his sign-off from The Daily Show last night, Jon Stewart said “the best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.” You have to decide what your own olfactory tolerance is, but at least for me, when people begin talking about the voice telling them to control the actions of everyone around them, I think a lot less God, a lot more charm and kool-aid.2

If nothing else, ask yourself this: when the federal funds Planned Parenthood receives do not go towards abortion, what do Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and the rest of the GOP politicians gain from defunding Planned Parenthood?


Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings – A Joke or A Necessity, or Something Between Extremes?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about trigger warnings for college courses and safe spaces on campus, to the point that The Onion is mocking the idea of someone made uncomfortable by confronting beliefs that are not her own. One of the frequently held up examples is a op-ed that wants to merely facilitate discussion with professors on how to best support students who are triggered by potentially triggering materials–and already I’m sure people are rolling their eyes at the use/over-use of triggered (a compulsion I have, too).
Jessica
But then I remember Jessica.

Jessica was bubbly and sarcastic and bitchy and going through a bad divorce that made my divorce look like a Disney movie, but it was at the same time and like many things, the broad details of divorcing students trying to navigate the University of Washington was much more important than the finer details of her misery and my relative ease. She was a PhD student at UW; I was an undergrad. We got together for lunch all the time, or dinner, or to just watch the water at Drumheller Fountain. She teased me through my first post-divorce crush, made sure I went out, I took time for myself, I ate. She taught me self-care…

She overdosed in her bathtub and wasn’t found for several days.

The world I had so carefully constructed for myself, one of being a returning (older) student, of being post-divorce, of everything those first eight months of time at UW, crashed around me and shattered. There was the investigation, the funeral, the cleaning of her apartment of everything after her body had been removed.

And the last thing I was capable of, in those few weeks, was academic material on death and transformation.

Oh, I tried. It was a summer course, and I was on an accelerated schedule, and I had to do this. HAD. TO. And it wasn’t even the sort of thing that should have had a warning at all, it was so mild and so I was just going to do it and then didn’t. Then I was sitting on a stone bench in the quad trying to remember how I got outside with all my things because the last thing I remembered was sitting in the classroom.

Clearly it was a fluke. Just tired. Tomorrow would be better.

Except when tomorrow came, I found myself on that same stone bench before class even started, my feet and butt rooted in spot like I’d turned into a tree. There was just no making my body go inside. And my professor, who I’ll leave unnamed for his privacy, bless him. He saw me, and he got the class situated, and then he came to sit outside with me. We sat there and idly chatted about the cherry trees and the blue sky with fluffy clouds and the different shades of green all around us, the recapping of the dome of the building we were in and the irritation of the construction and the lack of air conditioning that summer, all as tears streamed down my face.

After a bit the tears stopped, he got up, patted my shoulder, and told me to come back to class starting the next week, because we’d be on a new chapter then, and I could finish the material I was going to miss later, when I felt capable.

It was a small gesture of kindness–not the first, not the last–from a professor at a major research university. I’m sure some people would think he was coddling me, or that the professor who nicely gave me another assignment so I wouldn’t have to read a book on divorce the week after my divorce papers had been filed was just letting me off easy.

I see it a little differently, though. I see professors who were willing to flex with the need of their students, and who recognized that the education in total was more important than a single individual component of a syllabus or class. I also see an older student (me) who, if hiccup-y and tear-stained, was capable of advocating for herself–sometimes, a “no fucks to give” attitude is useful.

But we’re doing students everywhere a disservice if we think they’re all going to be able to self-advocate over tough subjects. (And trust me, you professors really don’t want every student to be like me. I’m a nightmare as a student and I know it.) Beyond that, they’re college kids, you’re college profs. You have the experience to help people learn how to navigate through rough waters and tough subjects; giving students a heads up that those tough subjects will exist in the course isn’t pandering or softening, it’s creating the sort of space that tells students that you, professor, are aware–and approachable.

This was a lesson I remembered when I started teaching. While I didn’t place a trigger warning on my first syllabus, I did make sure to talk to my students and tell them that some of the things we were going to talk about would be rough. We were talking about torture, death, abortion, personhood, more death–all the fun topics in applied ethics. I had office hours and I had students in those office hours wrestling with the material and their lived experience. Giving them notice? That’s not coddling, that’s being nice.

The Columbia students aren’t asking professors to stop teaching material that will trigger students, or force people to confront awful memories, or however you want to phrase it. They’re just asking their professors have a bit of compassion about the diversity of lives that end up in a classroom, and not force everyone into the same mold, the same model, of approach to material and education. To understand that maybe a raped woman won’t find beauty in text describing rape. That someone who is dealing with divorce paperwork in the evening may not find a book where the main character is getting divorced funny. That someone who was knocking on the door of a dead woman may need to step away from material on death as transformation.

Somewhere along the line, people have swung away from compassion and towards mocking–if you request empathy, you must be weak. If you demand empathy? Hoo-boy! But I just have to wonder at the people who think an appropriate response to “hey, maybe you could be empathetic” is “suck it up, princess.” We’re trying to move away from that negative (and gendered!) response in the sciences-possibly it’s time for the humanities to make that move, too.

Snapshots in Chronic Pain

It’s been two hours. I hurt from sitting up straight without anything supporting my back. My face feels tired from smiling and forced cheer. The paper of the exam table feels like sandpaper against the back of my knees, and I lost feeling in my hands after they asked me to squeeze and press and push and squeeze again, for some indeterminate test of muscle strength, when the problem is my nerves.

My medication history is nil at the moment; it’s been years since I’ve had anything prescribed to control the pain, and they know this. They’ve explained that they also cannot and will not ever prescribe pain medication for me–I’ll have to find a willing primary care physician. That’s deflating; why am I here?

They hand me a cup to piss in on my way out the door. No pain medication, hours of going over my history, and I still have to prove that I’m not on any drugs, just for the pleasure of their company.

The bill, before insurance, is nearly $1000 for the piss test. I’ll have to pay nearly $100 out of pocket.

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The physical therapist wants to see me three times a week. My co-pay is $40 a visit. She talks of curing me in the next few months. I can’t decide what’s funnier: that I can afford $480 a month for physical therapy, that I can leave work early three times a week, or that I can be cured.

She cringes and recoils when she learns where my husband works. If he’s not with me, my physical therapy appointments only last 40 minutes. If he’s there, they always last over an hour.

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I am soaked in a downpour earlier this week, fast-moving thunderstorms that overtake me on the way home. I lose track of the number of times I change temperature environment, going in and out of air conditioned buses and building, first dry and then dripping wet. My skin is now on fire, like I’ve been severely sunburned. But there’s no proof, there’s just the flinching if I am touched, the desperate attempts to find the softest clothes to wear, the effort at hiding my body from any direct air.

It is the middle of summer, but I’m bundled for late fall, arms covered and gloves on. My T3 is so ineffective as to be laughable, and it’s my own fault; opting–no, arguing–for the weakest opioid possible after my experience with the pain management doctors. To reiterate that I’m not drug-seeking, I’m not a junkie, I should not be judged or stigmatized, I am strong and only want the minimal medication possible to stop the pain.

I only want the minimal medication possible to stop the pain.

The pain has not stopped.