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Working in America: Paychecks for Silence

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair


Let us begin with just a few recent and disturbing statistics about working in America. First,
most Americans (nearly 78%) live paycheck to paycheck, which makes them vulnerable to abuse and bullying by employers. Second, a 2018 Harris Poll found that “seven in ten employers (70 percent) use social networking sites to research job candidates during hiring process,” and another seven percent was planning to do so as of 2018. This means that on top of working under inhumanely precarious and insecure conditions, average American employees are also being watched online and offline by authoritarian employers to make sure they are conforming to their demands. Based on more than 12 years of work experience, observation, and collecting insights from many friends, colleagues, and total strangers, I find that most American workplaces operate in ways that makes it almost impossible for anyone to speak truth to power or challenge the status quo and be able to thrive or advance in their career. “If you dare to open your mouth, you basically ruin your career,” is one of the most common lines I hear from people when I ask them about what usually stops them from saying or doing what they see as the right thing to do. Here, we must ask, is there a dictatorship worse than this reality? Is there any difference between being ruled by authoritarian leaders and authoritarian employers? A bigger concern is that America goes around the world toppling “authoritarian” or “dictator” regimes, while most American corporations and institutions act as dictatorships squeezing life out of their employees/citizens. It is important at this time to start connecting between countries ruled by single dictators and others ruled by dictators who own and manipulate the job market.

With these questions in mind, the first problem we face in most work environments in America is denying most employees freedom of speech, presumably granted by the First Amendment. It’s no secret to any wretched American employee (a.k.a. average employees) that freedoms of speaking, writing, and being genuinely creative and innovative are only reserved for the privileged few—the few who govern our banks, government, media, corporations, and higher education with an iron fist. With their strong grip on the most vital aspects of our society, the American ruling elite only encourages and funds the type of creativity and innovation that are in total harmony with maintaining their strong grip on the American life. They equally support efforts that help extending the American elite’s iron fist to other countries through invasions, economic sanctions, and other types of direct or indirect psychological wars and torture. They do so while constantly distracting the American public with stories about dictators and oppressors in other countries, lest—God forbid—Americans notice that the things their elite claims happen only in so-called third world countries are in fact happening right here in America. Moreover, if someone is vigilant enough to make any connections, they are swiftly dismissed and silenced, or even accused with what has so far been the most effective weapon of silencing any critique and dissidence in Western countries in general: conspiracy theory!

Employers do not stop at punishing employees for freedom of speech, even when speech is solely related to advancing or improving the work they do (let’s not even get into political freedoms here). Now we know that most employers have been potentially breaking the First Amendment by using the internet to search for, spy on, and discriminate against prospective and existing employees under the pretext of evaluating employees for qualifications or job-related issues. The 2018 Harris Poll referenced earlier (conducted on behalf of CareerBuilder) found that “seven in ten employers (70 percent) use social networking sites to research job candidates during hiring process,” and another seven percent was planning to do so as of 2018. As if spying on employees’ private lives is not oppressive enough, even more disturbing is what is later stated in the poll: “Nearly half of employers (47 percent) say that if they can’t find a job candidate online, they are less likely to call that person in for an interview – 28 percent say that is because they like to gather more information before calling in a candidate for an interview; 20 percent say they expect candidates to have an online presence.” What is particularly shocking about this is the fact that not only could employers deny freedom of speech at work and online, but they could also exclude employees who choose to have no online presence! You read that right. Your online absence may equally make you a suspect who could be excluded from a hiring process! The same applies to your online presence, if deemed undesirable by any given employer. I do not see much freedom or options here, do you?

It is beyond dispute that citizens in today’s world are to be watched and governed online. Not having an online presence could mean—at least from the employers’ perspective—that you are potentially resisting the way they have decided to govern you, and in making yourself ungovernable, you are resisting those who want to make the internet as the easiest and more convenient way to effectively govern and discipline citizens. As far as I am concerned, things cannot get any more Big Brother than this! If this is not a global dictatorship ruling through the internet, which is predictably controlled by few global players, then what is a dictatorship?  Also predictably, as noted in the poll cited earlier, employers claim that they monitor potential employees’ online presence to check out the following:

“Information that supports their qualifications for the job: 58 percent

If the candidate has a professional online persona: 50 percent

What other people are posting about the candidate: 34 percent

A reason not to hire the candidate: 22 percent.”

Yet, we have no way of verifying if that is really what they are searching for. In fact, by all evidence of how oppressive work environments are for most Americans, the reasons cited above might be the least of their concerns. More likely, it is just a way to make sure that existing or potential employees are not in any way deemed a threat to the employer’s image, or to the overall apparatus of controlling citizens through wages and employment. What is even more concerning is the thought that if employers indeed exploit their power to monitor citizens’ online presence and exclude them from consideration from job posts, we do not have any mechanisms in place to prevent such abuses of power. Citizens have no ways to hold employers accountable if that is not what they are really doing. The story does not end here. The poll concludes by reminding the wretched American employees that the monitoring does not stop once they are hired. “Employers continue to monitor employees’ online presence even after they’re hired. Nearly half of employers (48 percent) say they use social networking sites to research current employees—10 percent do it daily.” This means that employees must know that Big Brother is constantly watching them; that they are permanently insecure in their already “at will” employments; and that their online absence could be punished just as much as their online presence. Particularly undesirable is the type of online presence that challenges the power and control of the American elite.

Lastly, there is plenty of evidence suggesting that this monitoring and spying is done with the full blessings of the establishment. As most Americans who have searched for tips on job hunting know, there is a plethora of career advising online from mediocre “career experts” urging them to be careful about their online presence, because nowadays almost every employer will check you online. What can we call this other than fear mongering and intimidation? What will happen if we allow this continue? Are we not digging our graves with our own hands with our silence?

Congratulations! You are hired!

Now that the wretched employee has successfully gone through these nightmarish Big Brother hoops, let us get a glimpse into what happens at most typical work environments in America. If you tour any workplace, you will see countless logos and banners paying lip service to freedom of speech, democracy, logos like “speak up, speak out”, creativity, innovation, and on and on goes the list of flashy words and adjectives that companies and corporations want their employees (and outsiders) to believe are part of their work ethics and culture. Yet, most employees learn at the earliest stages of their careers that these bogus adjectives will get them fired, if they are naïve enough to believe in – let alone act on – them.  In reality, in most American companies, only few handpicked—arguably appointed— individuals in powerful positions; positions like leadership, finance, treasury, advisory, and so on, have the last say in what matters. Their words, no matter how nonsensical, are treated as the ultimate wisdom. Their silences are emulated by everyone else working under them, regardless of any human, capital, or ethical costs resulting from such silences. These powerful individuals are often so emotionally and intellectually abusive that employees treat even their most absurd suggestions as roadmaps dictating the direction of any company or project at hand. Ironically, such powerful individuals found at almost every workplace usually go around spreading statements like: “I love what I do”, “I love my job because it allows me to travel and do new things every day”, “I love the freedom and flexibility in my job”, and so on. To most employees listening to such statements from the arrogant few, deep down, such words sound absurd and unrealistic. They listen to and swallow such statements, while dying a million times inside from their monotonous, inflexible, and hopeless work environments.

Most vigilant and intelligent employees at such companies and corporations are familiar with the feeling of being totally alienated from what they do, regardless of how much they love their work. Millions of Americans have quietly and hopelessly concluded that paychecks and the freedom to be creative at American workplaces rarely – if ever – coexist. They are equally familiar with the fact that they spend so much time in mediocre meetings listening to superficial ideas presented by the powerful few at every workplace. Their hearts and minds are constantly agonizing as they see the mediocrity of the powerful few being praised by circles of cheerleaders found in most workplaces. The cheerleaders are usually there for the paycheck, and they do a great job in making mediocrity be mistaken for creativity and innovation. In brief, every honest and talented American employee can easily find themselves facing a culture of work that is deeply anti-intellectual, which in turn causes tremendous mental and psychological pressure on conscientious employees. This makes the wretched employees feel crippled and hopeless about any possibility for change. Many mistakenly think that remaining silent until finding another job is the safest and least costly approach, only to find out once at a new job, that the same old game starts all over again. The reason for this is simple: there is no escape. The issue is not about a specific company or corporation, even though it is true that some of them are much more oppressive and unbearable than others.

The reason why changing employers never solves the problem is because the problem is systematic, structural, and indeed cultural. The fact that this reality of toxic workplaces has been tolerated for so long has turned it into a normalized and acceptable culture. It is very dangerous when anything becomes an accepted culture or norm. This point is crucial to ponder if we want to resist and change this unhealthy culture. The toxicity of many workplaces in America has been so normalized that people do not even question them anymore. Also, predictably, over time, things normalized become moralized. By moralized I mean that this toxicity is now considered as a moral way of earning one’s living, despite much evidence that it’s at once unhealthy and demoralizing. It is considered moral to work hard to earn your living, and it has become accepted that work is simply what it is and there is nothing you can do about it. No phrases are more commonly used in American English (and culture) than, “it is what it is,” and “do what you gotta do!” The first phrase indicates the acceptance of or resignation to a situation that cannot be changed. The second phrase is a way to say that you need to do what you need to do to take care of your problems. Yet, it is also well known in American culture that, no matter what, you must always “play it safe!” This is precisely the problem we are dealing with—the fact that most people are suffering but also are advised to play it safe. Yet, are we safe? If we consider the mental, intellectual, and cultural costs that come with “playing it safe”, is anyone ever safe?

Since 2006, I have worked in places like the nation’s top hospitals, taught at some of its respected universities, and obtained a doctorate degree from yet one of the nation’s top graduate schools. During these years, I saw. I learned. I suffered. I loved many things and many people, too. Yet, I learned that no words capture the reality of the work culture and ethics in America like those of Upton Sinclair’s in I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked. Sinclair writes, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it.” I found that a paycheck could easily become a way for silencing and forcing people to pretend as if they do not understand what is going on, lest they lose that paycheck. In what follows, I would like to share more stories, reflections, and analytical perspectives to show how the dire need of millions of Americans to get a biweekly paycheck (and the need of having to shut one’s mouth to be paid) significantly contributes to destroying America’s potential for healthier and more inclusive workplaces, and indeed for a healthier society overall. I strongly advocate for further research to find the connections between mental illnesses and the oppressive and insecure work environments in America. I believe that no genuine change can happen in America without revolutionizing the American workplace to be freer for American employees to release their full creative and innovative capacities. I see this as the most pressing issue of our time. We need an uprising to guarantee that the bullies with unchecked and unlimited power and money do not continue getting away with abusing employees in most workplaces. We need a #MeToo movement for bullied and silenced American employees!

Here it must be acknowledged that not all perspectives in this article are personal. Indeed, most are not. Many reflections are based on direct and indirect experiences either at places I have worked at, or conversations I had with many diverse American and foreign employees living and working in the U.S. It is equally important to note that, expectedly, many of the stories and reflections shared may not apply to a type of privileged Americans who are overpaid, underworked, and who have enough power to impose all the rules that they themselves secretly break whenever they please. Many reflections and perspectives captured are primarily from employees of foreign origins, refugees and immigrants, or ordinary overworked/underpaid American people from different walks of life. Furthermore, I wish to remind readers that writing about such a critical topic is not anti/un-American. What is truly anti-American is to keep quiet while this system of bullying keeps destroying the lives of millions of creative and hardworking Americans. What is anti-American and hypocritical is for us to keep talking about corruption and human abuses around the world without first looking at what we are dealing with here at home. I in no way claim to cover all the ills that exist in the American workplaces here, but it is my hope to touch upon as many as possible, and to raise as many questions as I can so that other writings on this critical issue become possible. I wish to ignite more future writings on this issue, especially from diverse voices. I wish to spark more writings from the perspective of refugee and immigrant populations who suffer so much just to reach America, and once they make it here, they suffer even more from being thrown into toxic workplaces, often working under slavery-like conditions, on top of enduring alienation, racism, and countless other forms of bigotry and macro/micro-aggressions.

America’s Workplaces for Newcomers

If you are a newcomer in America, escaping from horrendous economic or war conditions from another country (very likely caused by U.S. foreign policies), you usually start at the bottom. In many cases, the discriminatory system in place makes sure to keep you at the bottom for as long as possible.  To begin with, your previous work/life experiences and your education (no matter how advanced) from your former country, become irrelevant. Based on my observations and analysis, this is attributed to two reasons: first, there is a massive apparatus of for-profit educational institutions acting as certificate/degree evaluators and grantors, along with other agencies preying on poor people’s wallets. Acting as gatekeepers for evaluating qualifications/credentials, these agencies have made it their mission to block anyone from advancing in the American society, without first going through their exploitative gates and paying money to either evaluate existing degrees or pay to acquire new ones. It is a lucrative business. Many newcomers do not even have the resources to go through these gates, so they hopelessly stay at the bottom and attribute their failure to individual rather than structural and systematic reasons. For some newcomers, like those of Middle Eastern descent, we can add political, religious and ideological reasons for keeping them down and excluded within the American society. Newcomers often feel that they have only themselves to blame. Furthermore, there is an unwritten rule that education and qualifications acquired in other countries are inferior to those acquired in the U.S., even though one could find plenty of evidence proving otherwise. Many countries—even poor ones—have excellent educational systems, because thank heavens good education is primarily about good minds rather than the availability of flashy consumer goods or recreation buildings. Thus, the assumption that education elsewhere is inferior to U.S. education has created so much arrogance and misinformation on the side of the American employers. The ignorance and arrogance can go so far that newcomers could easily find themselves in some absurd situations, to put it mildly. The world is expected to take it for granted than an American expat who studied at any “reputable” American academic institution is smart, well trained, and competent to do a job anywhere around the globe, but the opposite is never true for newcomers in the U.S. Moreover, for most jobs that are not slavery conditions, American employers expect newcomers, if fortunate enough to be considered, to have a strong command of the English language. Yet, for Western expats in other countries, the colonially written job posts always make it clear that speaking the language of that country is “a plus, but not required.” In brief, American education and qualifications are treated as sacred, while those acquired elsewhere are untrustworthy and must be proven all over again.

Once again, all the issues above are signs of arrogant colonialism and imperialism. This is despite recent evidence exposing an age-old reality of a “rigged system” of wealthy Americans using their money to buy their children places at elite colleges and universities in the U.S. There is no doubt that this corruption is just the tip of the iceberg and that it has been going on for a very long time. After all, the elite academic institutions in America are fully controlled by fake legacies and greedy, unethical donors dictating how things work, how knowledge gets produced (or buried), and which researches get funded or shot down. In fact, I would not be surprised to learn that donors may even dictate which professors are hired behind closed doors. To put this into a concrete example, newcomers, refugees and immigrants (no matter how merited), will never get the treatment of, say, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who was accepted into Harvard shortly after his father donated $2.5m! In this sense, the corrupt wealthy Americans are the enemies of both the average American citizens and the newcomers par excellence. Academia deserves a special investigative article, because it produces all types of individuals and employees we see in the society. This is not to mention that its own hiring practices are in many cases even more disturbing than those in other companies and corporations. Overall, there are important correlations between the discrimination and the obstacles average Americans and newcomers face when job hunting or seeking academic advancement through admissions processes. In both cases individuals find themselves up against ambiguous, complicated and unfair processes with no transparency. You simply are expected to believe that you were not admitted into the school of your dreams because you are not good enough. You simply have to come to terms with the fact that you were not even considered for an interview for a job post that you know well you are extremely qualified for because they found other “more suitable candidates to pursue”. You have to accept these defeats over and over again, even though as you go around, you could randomly and easily come across some of the most mediocre people holding positions that they clearly don’t deserve or are qualified to perform. But wait, don’t forget, the worn-out wisdom most so-called “career experts” promote goes: it’s not what you know, it is who you know!

Second, the consistent (or perhaps intentional?) refusal to allow a newcomer to land a decent job that is commensurate with their past education and experience becomes a way to ensure that they remain at the bottom of the pay scale for as long as possible. This process is designed to be painfully slow and takes years as part of ensuring that the new foreign employee is “loyal”. Note that “loyal” in this context really means that the newcomers must prove their ability to play the game according to its American rules and ethics, which often has nothing to do with loyalty as a human and ethical concept. Instead, newcomers must show that they are willing and capable of compromising whatever it takes to fit in within the existing toxic work culture to succeed. In other words, they must behave themselves and never dare to rock the boat. Rocking the boat is the most un/anti-American trait one could bring to the table! Disturbing or challenging the status quo is disloyal. In this sense, ironically, success in most American workplaces often results in (or is at the expense of) human and intellectual failure. Lastly, keeping the newcomers at the bottom also means making sure that the best and highest paying jobs will always go to the privileged few. Privilege is preserved by circulating money and power among the privileged rather than sharing them with others based on merit, especially – God forbid – sharing it with “aliens”, as newcomers are legally called. I always joke with my friends about how the hierarchy of most workplaces in America looks very much like climbing high mountains—the higher you get, the whiter the scenery becomes. Yet, I we must remember that even White privilege is not distributed evenly among Whites. Many White people never get a piece of the pie. This fact, sadly, instead of making them unite with other marginalized and oppressed American employees, it makes them unload their rage and disappointment on the already suffering low-income, refugee, or poor ethnicities, accusing them of “stealing our jobs”, or “destroying our country and values”. In doing so, they miss the chance of working together with a significant number of allies for real change. Furthermore, they vote for and side with their oppressors thinking that voting for racist and supremacist candidates will change this ugly reality. What they fail to realize is that politics is literally a nasty business that is fed by the masses’ hatred and, once in power, that business never thrives by changing the way the business is done. If all these supposed problems are solved, where will future politicians get their fodder to feed hatred to masses who will bring them to power?

With the last point in mind, it is important to dedicate some space to discuss what one might call the hoax of diversity in the American workplaces, which entails putting “diverse” faces of often low-paid employees at the forefront of most businesses to project the false impression that workplaces are diverse. It is pure tokenism. For example, if you go to a doctor or a dentist’s office, the doctor or dentist is often White; whereas the registration person, the hygienist, or the dentist assistant are always Black, Latino, or from another ethnicity. This is all to give the uncritical viewer the impression that the space is diverse. That the system is inclusive. If you enter a hospital, the security guard is very likely to be Black or Latino, the information desk officer might very likely be a poor White person; the medical assistant or the cleaner are most likely “diverse” faces. However, the higher you go in ranks (and in salary structure), the less diversity you should expect to see. In many settings, the salaries of all diverse people combined may or may not equal the salary of one or two privileged individuals at any given department in most companies and corporations. There is no way for any honest observer or social scientist watching this pattern repeatedly (social scientists are supposed to take patterns seriously in their research) to not come with the conclusion that this reality is socially and politically engineered. It is anything but a coincidence. We do not even need to resort to theories here. It is clear as daylight.

 Employees that presumably represent “diversity” often work in hideously underpaid jobs, simply assisting those running the show behind the scene. The former always act as marketing faces to support the latter in the mission of exploiting the world, while at the same time giving the unobservant and unvigilant viewer the false impression of “diversity”. What we see in every corporate transaction is always a “diverse” face doing the dirty work on behalf of the almost exclusively homogenous highly paid executives constantly paying lip service to a shallow form of diversity and multiculturalism in trainings and workshops. In fact, those at the top are so homogeneous that one could draw a pattern just from the last names individuals at powerful positions have. Even within higher education, diversity is often promoted in a self-serving manner. For the most part, diverse faces on university pamphlets are Black, Latino and sometimes Native Americans to give us the impression that they are inclusive of all parts of the American society; or they are Indian or Asian, which is catering to the overwhelmingly huge number of paying students from these countries rather than a genuine interest in diversity. There is nothing wrong with representing the ethnicities above, but it is important to note that this representation is not done because of a genuine commitment to diversity, but rather for strategic and self-serving reasons. In brief, if we do not seriously problematize diversity as practiced currently in our society, we all lose. The diverse people should take this more seriously than anyone else, because putting them at the forefront of the battlefield with low-paid jobs while making them look like they are “stealing” someone else’s job opportunities is not worth the paychecks they are getting in the long run. It is no secret that this hoax of diversity has turned countless poor and marginalized White Americans into the biggest enemies of diversity in America. This negatively affects all diverse people who truly love and make important contributions to the American society. We need more diverse people to write about their experiences to expose the game and change this ugly reality. This game shall continue so long diverse people remain silent.

Mediocrity, Intimidation, & Stifling Creativity

When asked, every other White privileged American—especially males—will tell you that their dream is to have their own company and brew their own beer! Ironically, their dream springs out of the total misery and toxic work environments they experience. Yet, instead of challenging and changing this reality for all, they dream of walking away and having their own company to repeat the same old game again. What happens when their dream comes true? They – with rare exceptions – treat the employees in their newly formed companies as harshly as they were treated at the companies from which they escaped. This is because they learn or somehow they realize that you cannot succeed and make good money in your own business by being “too nice”. Therefore, they, too, continue oppressing their new wretched employees. Again, I insist, this proves that the problem we have is not individual, but rather systematic, structural, and cultural. Having one’s own company within the same system will not make any difference, except perhaps in the life of the new owner or CEO or a few higher ups who benefit from squeezing everyone else under them. Having one’s own business in a profoundly toxic work culture is hardly a solution. The solution takes dreams bigger than having one’s own business and deeper than the shallowness of glasses filled with one’s own brewed beer.

Those who cannot make this dream come true any time soon often choose a different route, which is doing everything in their power to play the game and get managerial positions to rule others.  The more people they manage, the better it will look on their CVs and for their path of attaining even more privilege. As a result, we now see a plethora of MBA-holders mushrooming in and infiltrating every sector, company and corporation, no matter how large or small. With rare exceptions, these MBA-holders hardly bring any creativity or depth to the table. For them, everything is about profits and building their own image and profile. They seldom care about the well-being and advancement of those who fall under the mercy of their business ideas. They are usually people who, like a herd of sheep, have been told that an MBA is the easiest and fastest route to prosperity and advancement, so they go to school, get that MBA, and from there wreak havoc in every place they set their foot on. With their mediocrity and strong desire to advance at any cost, their management styles often create a culture of fear and intimidation among employees. This culture is usually characterized by serious retaliation if anyone dares to open their mouth to challenge their authority or critique their ideas. In one of my previous workplaces, our work focused on helping people. It was all quite meaningful and rewarding, until the upper management decided to hire an MBA-holder to advance the team, ensure “resources are used efficiently,” and put the profile of the department at the forefront of the organization for everyone to notice the department’s amazing work. Everything changed within a week. Instead of getting busy doing our rewarding work helping people, we suddenly found ourselves wasting so much time and energy attending countless useless meetings in response to our MBA-holder’s ideas about how to manage calendars, how to record and track tasks, and how to account for countless absurd details. It is also known as extreme micromanagement. When completed, these unnecessary tasks end up wasting valuable and much-needed time to help people, which was the core of the department’s function. Such authoritarian business managers love calendars, meetings, and wasting time on tracking employees’ productivity and activity. After creating so many policies and procedures, our MBA-holder broke the news one morning letting us know that he had accepted a job offer at another more prestigious firm with double the salary. Of course, everyone thought “good riddance,” but I also thought to myself, our dear colleague is done making amazing achievements here and now it was time to take his brilliant ideas to another group of wretched employees at another company.

 In brief, anyone who has worked at one or two workplaces in America is familiar with that type of middle management or upper management individuals whose job is almost exclusively to create unnecessary tasks and procedures that turn the lives of employees under them into an absolute nightmare. What usually happens under such toxic circumstances? Nothing. A deafening silence from most employees. In fact, many employees not only remain silent out of fear of getting fired, they go as far as putting on fake smiles (or even loud laughter) to survive. Some walk around the office with the attitude of “I love my job!” “I love my life!” “I am living the dream!” to please middle and upper management. This type of employees will often shout or write “yay!” for any absurd team achievement or office event. On Fridays, they always make sure to declare in chats or emails in a celebratory mood: TGIF! So, let’s call them the “TGIF employees”.  Mind you, a healthy and truly well-treated employee who feels valued and committed to what they do will never thank God for Fridays, because their work is supposed to nourish their bodies and souls not be a prison from which they are granted a short parole on weekends. What we do is an essential part of who we are, whether during or after work hours. With this shallow culture, come shallow questions from the TGIF employees who, in trying to fake a genuine interest in you, will ask questions like, “Any plans for the weekend?” You, knowing all this absurd game far too well, simply mumble and share plans that are safe to share in such toxic cultures. Things like “Oh, yes, I am going to attend my nephew’s birthday”, “I will go kayaking with some friends”, “Going to the beach”, and maybe some would even say “Not much planned. Just binging on Netflix!” In brief, plans as shallow as the work culture, the questions, and the questioner combined. Once you finish sharing your plans with the TGIF employees, you should be ready to hear another “Yay!” I literally once heard a TGIF employee respond when asked by a manager how she was doing, “I am awesome! My cheeks are hurting from smiling this morning. I love my job!” The faces of the TGIF employees are usually delighted when they hear about any free bagels, pizza, or leftover food from upper management meetings in the office. They will fake a great joy if they run into anyone with any managerial power near the bathrooms, when passing by their cubicles, or in the kitchen while heating their prepackaged, heavily processed, frozen foods in the microwave. By noon or 1 pm, the microwaved meals fill the place with an incredibly sad and hopeless smell that is a mixture of frozen vegetables, heavily processed meats in gravy made of frightening ingredients, and shattered dreams. The plastic smell spreading from the plastic containers is mixed with all the other smells. It is a sad smell that reminds me of our profoundly unhealthy and plastic society. If, on any given occasion, while interacting with TGIF employees, you bring up to their attention any problems about how things are going in the team or at the company at large, they will immediately deny that such problems exist. If you somehow insinuate that following the boss’s absurd orders might not be the right thing to do, they will quickly dismiss any ethical concerns with statements like, “I am just doing my job.” If in any way you put them on the spot to confront the reality, they will quickly shut the conversation with their absurd weekend plans. They are taught to put a mask of fake “positivity”, while perhaps feverishly looking for another job if they feel that their pathetic paychecks are endangered. They never want to change things. Their first choice is always to either switch to another post within the same company or simply leave to another one. They do not seem to realize that they are simply leaving from one nightmare to another, from one prison cell to another. It never occurs to the TGIF employees, which constitute the majority of employees at American workplaces, that their silence and their attitude are part of the problem not the solution. That taking their silence and attitude from one company to another is just a prefect recipe for maintaining a culture of toxic and anti-creative workplaces nationwide.

Those in the upper management not only like the TGIF type of employees, but they manufacture, encourage, and ultimately normalize such work ethics. Their attitude, passivity, and fakeness become the norm and, if not emulated by everyone else, you might be called things like “weird”, “negative”, “eccentric”, “not a good team player”, “doesn’t really fit in”, “you don’t display a real team spirit”, and other such absurd adjectives and accusations. In fact, no two adjectives are more abused and devoid of any meaning in American workplaces than the opposite adjectives of “positive” and “negative”. The former forces most employees to be fake, never open their mouths with any meaningful and honest feedback, and remain as superficial as possible in dealing with everyone else in the company. It also means to never express difficult personal issues, feelings, or challenge the status quo. The latter adjective is almost like an accusation that is often used as a weapon to silence any useful critique, any whistleblowers, anyone who points out that things are going seriously wrong. This is not to say that there are no negative employees complaining all the time without trying to come up with creative solutions. But, based on my observation, I can confidently say that these two adjectives are often used to convey the exact opposite of what they are supposed to mean.  The issues above combined create an environment of employees operating almost like actors for eight hours (or more) every single day. Anyone who refuses to subscribe to these work ethics will have to either suffer in silence, never succeed in advancing or getting forward in their company, or perhaps even get fired for not being good “team players” or for being too “negative”.

So, one might ask, how did we end up creating a work culture in which most wretched employees get paychecks for silence? Why people are not resisting this reality? Some statistics can help answer this question. As noted earlier, most Americans (nearly 78%) live paycheck to paycheck. A 2016 federal survey shows that 119 million Americans use prescription drugs. That’s about 45 percent of the population! This means that most working Americans taking prescription drugs could potentially be enslaved by their employers simply to keep their medical insurance. A 2019 poll by CreditCards.comfound that 2 out of 3 Americans are in debt. Living in debt is the opposite of security and freedom, because it enchains people to oppressive systems that grant them credit and have the power to punish them in all ways possible if they fail to pay it back. A 2019 Gallup National Health and Well-Being Index reported that the percentage of adults without health insurance reached 13.7 percent by the close of 2018. In brief,

These statistics make most Americans vulnerable, because they deny them any sense of security to practice their freedoms not only at work, but also in society. It is no wonder why silence for paychecks has been working incredibly well in our nation. These conditions keep wretched employees stuck at certain employment situations, no matter how abusive; to make sure they can pay their bills and keep a roof over their heads. Yet, sadly, it still does not occur to millions of employees that silence for paychecks as a method of survival is in fact shooting oneself in the foot. Silence emboldens the bullies who hold money and power at every American work place, creating a culture that is extremely hostile to anyone who wants to change things. I strongly believe that the longer we remain silent, the harder it is going to be to combat oppressive workplaces in our country. Most of the above is applicable to jobs in the public and the private sectors alike. Yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what it takes to get many government jobs, especially in terms of investigating and invading individual freedoms and privacy, as well as surveilling employees’ lives even after they are hired. The latter is a topic beyond the scope of this article and therefore it deserves attention and public debates.

Implications

Besides all the implications and consequences employees suffer from, as outlined above, there are other more serious implications they endure so long as employees are working at such unhealthy work conditions. These consequences include finding ways to cope that are destructive for the body, the mind, and the soul. The inability to cope could cause all kinds of physical, mental, and psychological conditions that, in turn, require more compromise and submission to keep one’s health insurance to be able to afford treatments, therapy, and prescription drugs. To cope, people seek escape through destructive distractions, which cause further damage to their lives. It is a vicious cycle. Some of the primary daily coping methods include denial, coping through alcohol, drug use, seeking validation through phone and social media addictions, and other types of destructive distractions and coping methods like having an unhealthy relationship with the TV, the internet, or “binging on Netflix”. These methods are initially used as ways to relax and forget, but they end up creating numb and defeated citizens incapable of resistance or taking any meaningful actions in their own lives. I need not go into details with what alcohol and drugs do to individuals who are afflicted with them, but it is noteworthy that, except in the cases of known alcoholics, the alcohol culture is almost expected and is one of few ways to make and maintain friends, or to look cool. “Let’s grab a drink after work,” is the most common form of invitation one hears, especially nearer the weekend. If you declare that you do not drink, it is assumed that you are either a recovering alcoholic, or perhaps boring (a.k.a. party pooper).

Similarly, countless Americans cope with their ugly reality by “binging” on TV, social media, Netflix, and other types of media filled with superficial information, storylines, representations of the “other”, and propaganda. Indeed, to make things worse, these types of media make change even less possible by constantly glorifying the worst aspects of the American culture (from the perspective of the elites) and downplaying, misrepresenting, or dismissing the reality and the concerns of hundreds of millions of ordinary hardworking Americans. The misrepresentation is incredibly toxic and malicious when it comes to representing other cultures and countries. The Hollywood storylines almost always go something like: the Russians are dangerous spies planning to invade us, the Chinese are trying to pull the carpet from under our feet, the people of the Middle East are terrorists, and on and on goes the list of malicious and intentional misrepresentations. At the end of the storyline, the American heroes always win and save America and the world from “evil”. What is quite ironic – and often goes unnoticed by many – in these Hollywood storylines is that, while the American culture is engineered to dismiss valid and genuine critique of American life and foreign policies as being “conspiracy theories”, America’s relationships with the outside world is strongly based on threats, punishment, sanctioning, wars, and revenge, all done under pretexts like “they hate us”, “they hate our freedoms and values”, and other such nonsense. It never occurs to many Americans that representing the outside world as constantly “hating” us or wanting to destroy our nation and values (unless, of course, they do as we say), is in fact nothing short of conspiracy theory.

Overall, Hollywood’s storylines ensure keeping the myth of exceptionalism alive. In the context of this article, they continue to project the image that America is the best we have got, and that our complaining and whining is just a luxury that other people around the world cannot afford. Of course, this is far from true. Yet, it ensures that people remain silent, submissive, and too afraid to take any actions to change their reality. After all, as Hollywood want us to believe, the American system is the best thing we have! Many people live so isolated and insulated that they cannot even imagine that other ways, other lives, and other possibilities exist or are possible whether within the U.S. or outside. With this culture of coping through binging on media, you are expected to be up-to-date on all types of ridiculous shows, superficial actors, vain celebrities, and Hollywood movies with incredibly mediocre storylines. If not, once again, you are considered boring, uncool, and even uninformed! In brief, it is a disaster to realize that most American peoples’ coping mechanisms are worse than the disease itself. In fact, these coping mechanisms simply speed up the process of defeat and going downhill.

It is Time to Retire…

After all this, for many, comes the time to retire, after playing the games of complicity and putting up with the most unhealthy and toxic ways of working and getting paychecks in return for silence. Based on observation, I learned that retirement is difficult for most people in most countries around the world. Unless one spends their years enriching the self from within; to become complete humans, without the need to have other people, other things, or workplaces constantly fill the huge spaces and vacuums in the human soul. Retirement can be the loneliest period in life. It is a period in which one suddenly feels irrelevant and like an outcast. Many people only exist insofar as their connection to or validation through their work. Millions of Americans, for the sake of making living, they cannot even afford nurturing relationships with family and friends. Their work schedules keep them totally isolated and lonely. By the time they retire, it suddenly dawns on them that they almost have nobody left now that their coworkers are history. Many treat friendships and other human connections as if they are things they can store in a closet where they can come back one day and find them unaltered. Alas, human connections do not survive with this mentality.

In the case of American workplaces, retirement can be especially hard, because it is incredibly soul-crushing to spend one’s life complicit and pretending that everything is alright just to guarantee those paychecks, and then suddenly when the need to be complicit ceases to exist, all the silences of the past become too heavy to bear or to live with.

I have known and observed many retired Americans from different walks of life. I have, of course, seen many who are delighted to retire; to live and do things they never had the time and the money to do when working. I have met many who lived a life of resistance and honesty in which they did everything they wanted to do, they spoke up their minds and stood up for justice. They, expectedly, paid a high price for doing so. In most cases, however, I see retired people trying to deal with and compensate for a lifelong of silences for paychecks. The latter type is what I would like to focus on for the scope of this article, not only because they – in my view – are the majority, but also because their methods of coping and surviving retirement are part of the overall problem.

The latter type of retirees usually react to a lifelong of compromises and complicity in different ways. As such, I believe it is possible to divide them into three groups. The first group simply denies that they were complicit. They simply try to carry on living with the idea that they did well, they did the best they could, and that, no matter how flawed and unjust the system, they were just doing their jobs. Some try to tell themselves that they tried to make changes from within the system the best they could. Unfortunately, however, anyone who has had the chance of working inside brutal, unjust, and systematically racist and oppressive institutions knows that trying to make changes from within is not only a myth, but more likely than not, the huge, sophisticated and unjust institutions will change you to conform to their agenda rather than the other way around. At best, if one tries to make changes or challenges brutal workplaces, one would either lose their job, or – if lucky enough – would simply remain static and never advance in their job or pay. In other words, they will remain poor and powerless, which, by definition, significantly limits any possibility for challenging, let alone, changing such institutions or corporations from within.

The second group of retirees may have a fairly clear idea of the fact that their lives were wasted in silences and complicity. Yet, once they are secure, the mortgage is paid off, the retirement savings are guaranteed, their silences and complicity become too heavy to carry. Now that they have too much free time to look back, revisit, and actually pay a decent and honest visit to themselves, they feel extremely duped and unfulfilled as humans. The way this group copes with the situation is by denying that their lives could have been lived more courageously. Like the first group, they try to convince themselves that they did their best, but the difference is that they are slightly more critical of the system and their role in it. As such, they seek to compensate for what is gone by trying to get involved with small – and in many cases pathetic – charity or volunteering work in activities like helping refugees or feeding the poor and the homeless at soup kitchens. Some will maybe go to rallies in DC to convince themselves that in America we are free to express ourselves and object wars, injustice, racism, you name it. If you tell them that rallies and petitions almost never change anything, especially in case of America’s brutal foreign policies planned and paid for by lobbies, they will gently tell you that you are too pessimistic and perhaps even give you some insignificant examples of rallies and petitions that made a difference. They will also remind you in the most patronizing way that every little thing matters. This group may also attend lectures and forums about social justice and participate or voice their objection to issues—things they never dared to do when they needed to secure their paychecks before retirement. Over the years, I have come across some seriously ridiculous cases. Cases like a retired war veteran who volunteers to help refugees from war-torn countries running away from wars that he (or his current comrades) had bombed.

I once met a woman at a social justice forum who was speaking adamantly against racism against Black people, which is supposed to be admirable. After getting deeper into the conversation, however, I learned that her husband was in the air force and had bombed Iraq during the first Gulf war, where I was a child living and seeing the effects of every bullet and every missile dropped on Iraq’s innocent people. Over time, I had a chance to meet her husband who never expressed any regret or embarrassment to what he had done. Yet, he and his wife, continued to talk about and rally against the violence practiced against Black people. On many occasions during my early years in America, I had found myself in social justice events or meetings where I was the only one in my 20s (everyone else was retired). I often asked myself at that time, “where are America’s youth? Why aren’t they here objecting, discussing, and doing something about wars and violence?” Perhaps many young people who should have been there were busy having sex, getting drunk, binging on Netflix, or securing paychecks in return for their silences about what matters? Likewise, during all my university years in the U.S. (doing a master’s and a doctorate degrees), I often noticed that young people were totally quiet when issues like wars and crimes against humanity in the Middle East came up, but they were very active and vocal when issues like recycling, environment, or global warming came up.

While all these issues are important, the silences and complicity displayed on some issues rather than others; the selectivity of expressing resistance and rage are hypocritical, to say the least. I found that many choose to be active in what one could consider safe and convenient causes. How can I take seriously enraged rich and privileged students who want us to protect the environment by recycling a plastic bottle, yet it never occurs to them that all the bombs and weapons used in the Middle East are doing a serious damage to their beloved planet? Last time I checked we all live on one planet, unless these privileged students truly live on a different planet. Going back to the second group of retirees, those trying to get involved after retirement, I still believe that deep inside, they may have come to understand that life is not all about financial security or economic stability. There is much more to humanity and the art of living a rewarding life than having a secure retirement, especially if that security comes at the expense of silences, compromises, and complicity that cause an irreparable damage to the human soul.

The third group handles things with an extremely different approach. They become bitter, more hateful, and more racist after retirement. Fox news becomes their most treasured and trusted informer. They never miss an opportunity to express hate for immigrants, refugees, those who speak English with an accent, and so on. This is despite the fact that they themselves are usually not only monolingual, but their English skills are less than average in reading, writing, and even speaking their own native language. They make sure to vote for the most hateful politicians to keep America “pure” or “safe”. Of course, purity here means keeping wealth and control in the hands of people from their own heritage, skin color, and beliefs. They make sure to sign every nasty petition and attend every hateful rally designed to provoke or inflict harm upon other diverse Americans, U.S. residents, or immigrants whom they believe should not be here. If you confront them, their prepackaged excuse would be statements like, “I don’t hate immigrants. I hate illegal immigrants.” Yet, in daily life, they behave in hateful ways towards anyone who is not of their race, without even knowing their legal status. It seems that, from their perspective, anyone who does not look like them is automatically illegal. The list of the things this group of retirees hate is endless, but it always has to do with race and warmongering. It must be noted that many people behave this way before retirement as well. It is so depressing that to any observer, no matter how sympathetic, their case feels hopeless and without a cure. In following this approach, they seem to believe that they are keeping America pure, great, democratic, and free. In brief, this group does not even need to find a post-retirement coping mechanism. Their pre and post retirement coping mechanism is one and the same: hating the “other”. 

Now What?

Now what, you may ask me? How can we all resist, speak up, and make changes under such precarious and gloomy work conditions? Why should we be the ones who will get fired, or simply have to deal with the consequences of such a toxic system? The answer to all these questions is this: we are the ones to blame for enabling and even nourishing the toxic workplaces. In continuing to cooperate with a profoundly unhealthy and exploitative employment system, we become at once the dagger and the wound. Wounds never heal so long as they continue to cooperate with daggers. In a sense, the cure is in the disease itself. Our silence is the disease. Our serious commitment for change and for exposing power abuses and bullies is the cure. We have made things so difficult for ourselves by continuing to accept one abuse after another from employers. Just as most American employers give us “at will” employments, our entire existence has become subject to their will. We have arrived at a point where most of our stress is a result of not knowing whether we will get the next paycheck. Exploitative employers love it this way. So long as we are afraid, they are sure to get 100 percent submission from us. We cannot let our toxic way of working be accepted as the norm and as the typical American work ethics. We deserve and can do much, much better than this. If things continue the way they are, employment is sure to become synonymous with losing one’s dreams, hopes, and creativity. Let us not be afraid. Let us hold on to our dreams, imagination, and creativity. Let us truly believe that other ways of being, sensing, working, and doing are possible here and even elsewhere. I know that writing such a work in my 30s could easily be considered a career death sentence, but I also know that continuing to live under such oppressive work environments as we have in America is equally a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole. If speaking is a career death sentence, silence is even more so. Am I fool to publish this, you may wonder? If intellectual and spiritual death is inevitable, let us at least make our death meaningful by exposing the game, by charting ways for others to resist and change this ugly and sad reality. Let us earn the respect of future generations so they know that some of us cared and resisted. Finally yet importantly, the public often blames the intellectuals and question their role during crises. Many bold and brave intellectuals risk everything to raise the alarm. The public need to reverse the question and ask: what have they done in responding to brave calls from intellectuals worldwide to change this reality?

More articles by:

Louis Yako, PhD, is an independent Iraqi-American anthropologist, writer, poet, and journalist.

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