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When I was a teenager, I was lazy.

When I was at home during the summer, I didn’t do my chores; instead, I read books all day. My parents were deeply frustrated. They tried everything they could think of to deal with my laziness. They explained in great detail that I needed to contribute to the household. They yelled at me. They punished me for not doing chores. They rewarded me for doing chores.

Eventually, my mom happened to write down the chores she wanted me to do on a list. When she came home that night all the chores were done.

Turns out I can’t process auditory information very well.

Whoops.

I once had a partner who was lazy. I told him “it’s only fair that we both contribute fifty percent to the household,” and he agreed, and we decided that he would sweep the floor when it was dirty. However, the floor just got dirtier and dirtier. Even when I nagged him to sweep the floor, he’d say “it looks clean enough to me” or– even more frustrating– he’d sweep half the floor and leave the other equally dirty half undone.

Goddamn male-privileged assholes who expect other people to do all the chores while they laze around in their underwear and play video games, this is the 21st century, we believe in equality!

One day I took him and pointed to a pile of dirt and said “do you see this dirt?” He responded with “holy shit! Our floor is extremely dirty!” and immediately got a broom and swept it.

It turns out that while I am constantly low-level stressed by mess, my partner literally just did not see it unless it was explicitly pointed out to him.

Whoops.

For most of my life, I’ve been lazy.

I’ve flunked classes and lost jobs and let dishes pile up in the sink until they make towers. My resume has so many holes it looks like it’s made out of Swiss cheese. When I was in college, I was so lazy I flunked a class it was supposed to be literally impossible to flunk, and the only reason I didn’t have to repeat the year was that my adviser pulled strings to get me to graduate because she didn’t want to deal with me anymore. I spent a lot of time hating myself about how lazy I was. My inner monologue usually resembled the following comic:


[Source: Allie Brosh’s book Hyperbole and a Half.]

I talked a good game about knowing I had depression, but secretly I was pretty suspicious that this was all a coverup for my innate lack of moral fiber.

Then I took Zoloft.

Magically, the pill caused my moral fiber to grow in.

Whoops.

Last week, I was lazy.

I had been lazy for more than a month. I was too lazy to take my infant son to the library, or to play with him, or to sing to him, or to do anything other than the bare minimum to keep him alive and not crying. I was too lazy to write. I was too lazy to read books. I was certainly too lazy to do work for my job. I spent all my time thinking about how much I wanted to sleep, which was pretty much the laziest thing I could imagine. I spent a lot of time breaking into tears about how miserable being so lazy made me and how I wished I could just willpower myself into wanting to do more things.

Then, I extremely lazily took a nap for three hours last weekend, instead of doing work that I absolutely needed to do because there was a deadline and I had procrastinated on it. I think we can all agree that was the absolute laziest thing I have done in this entire anecdote so far.

I woke up, wrapped up the thing I needed to do in a couple hours, and have been astonishingly productive for the past few days, a fact that is no doubt related to the fact that since then I’ve been making sure to stay in bed for at least eleven hours a day.

It turns out that what I was calling “laziness” was, in fact, chronic sleep deprivation.

Whoops.

Scott Alexander recently wrote a post called The Whole City is Center, which has a very extended bit about laziness in it:

Simplicio: I think we’re treating the word “laziness” differently. I’m thinking of “lazy” as a way to communicate a true fact about the world. You agree that the true fact should be communicated by some word, but you’re interpreting “lazy” to mean some sort of awful concept like “a person who avoids responsibilities in a way not caused by anything whatsoever except being bad, and so we should hurt them and make them suffer”. Are you sure this isn’t kind of dumb? Given that we need a word for the first thing, and everyone currently uses “lazy” for it, and we don’t need a word for the second thing because it’s awful, and most people would deny that “lazy” means that, why don’t we just use “lazy” for the very useful purpose it’s served thus far?

Here is my thought. I agree that “a person who avoids responsibilities in a way not caused by anything whatsoever except being bad, and so we should hurt them and make them suffer” is a terrible concept. “Lazy” is how I personally express that concept (well, actually my concept replaces the “and so we should hurt them and make them suffer” with “and so we should be resentful about them forever,” but close enough). That is why I am trying to avoid using the word “lazy”.

Look, if you personally use the word “lazy,” and it doesn’t come along with the connotation of “this person is bad and horrible and I should spend lots of time and energy feeling resentful and bitter about how bad and horrible they are,” and it doesn’t impair your ability to think thoughts like “maybe the reason that I, the person who does all of the nighttime parenting for a six-month-old, can’t do anything and keep fantasizing about sleep is because I am sleep-deprived,” then please keep using the word “lazy.” I encourage you to do so. My one caution is that you should take care about calling other people “lazy” unless you’re really certain that they won’t interpret you as meaning the “bad and horrible” meaning, because it is good to make sure that when you insult people it is deliberate.

Maybe you’re able to voluntarily shift the definitions of words that you use as soon as someone points out to you that the word definition is kind of stupid, no matter how many emotions you have wrapped up in the definition of the word you were originally using. That’s a useful skill. Unfortunately, like many useful skills, such as obstetrics or car repair or leaving the house promptly, I don’t have it. My brain just keeps using the word definition it’s always had.

I fully admit that I am a deeply unreasonable person in this way as in many other ways. However, I observe that when I don’t use the word “lazy,” I am more likely to notice the actual causes of someone avoiding responsibilities, and I am less likely to spend lots of emotional energy seething about how they or I are/am a bad horrible person who deserves to be hated forever. No doubt this is an unreasonable coping mechanism. As an unreasonable person, I often use unreasonable coping mechanisms. But you reasonable people, with your reasonable-person privilege, should not go around saying I shouldn’t use my coping mechanism which I was using just because reasonable people don’t need it.

Now, it might be that I’m totally unique in my unreasonableness here (or perhaps that it’s genetic, because my parents share it). However, I think a similar unreasonableness is actually quite common. Exhibit A: people keep writing blog posts about it.

Scott Alexander later writes:

Simplicio: If you’re right, I worry you’re going up against the euphemism treadmill. If we invent another word to communicate the true fact, like “work-rarely-doer”, then anyone who believes that people who play video games instead of working deserve to suffer will quickly conclude that work-rarely-doers deserve to suffer.

Sophisticus: Then let’s not invent something like “work-rarely-doer”. Let’s just say things like “You shouldn’t have Larry as a dog-sitter, because due to some social or psychological issue he usually plays video games instead of doing difficult tasks.”

Simplicio: I think people are naturally going to try to compress that concept. You can try to stop them, but I think you’ll fail. And I think insofar as you can communicate the concept at all, people are going to think less of Larry because of it. It’s possible you can slightly decrease the degree to which people think less of Larry, but only by slightly decreasing their ability to communicate useful information.

This is true. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis doesn’t really work. I can prevent myself from using the concept “a person who avoids responsibilities in a way not caused by anything whatsoever except being bad” by not letting myself use the word “lazy” and– if I observe the concept attaching itself to another word– adding that word to the blacklist too. I can’t prevent everyone else from using that concept by blacklisting the word: anyone who doubts it should see the snarl some people can put on the word “transgender.” Nevertheless, I have two objections to Scott’s argument.

First, most people do not have a particularly sophisticated ontology of language, so when they say “laziness doesn’t exist” they mean “the concept we unreasonable people use the word ‘laziness’ to describe doesn’t exist”. Scott Alexander actually agrees with their point.

Second, even if it wouldn’t work that well if everyone adopted it, if I personally adopt it, then I am less likely to be chronically sleep deprived for several weeks because I think taking a nap would be Extremely Lazy and that if I am going to be lazy I should at least have the grace to be conscious so I can hate myself about it. This is a win. Since I am not a Kantian, I do not have to go “hmm, well, this works for me, but if I check it against the categorical imperative it probably wouldn’t work for everyone, guess I’m going to have to be sleep-deprived until I have a failure of willpower and take a nap anyway.”

Scott Alexander has talked a lot about the typical mind fallacy and how it’s a mistake to assume that everyone is the same as we are. Unfortunately, awareness of a fallacy doesn’t necessarily stop you from falling victim to it. (As I know very well, because as I said above I am a deeply unreasonable person.) Scott is a very reasonable person, with reasonable coping mechanisms; he should not in this way generalize to those of us who behave in stupid and counterproductive ways constantly and are desperately trying to figure out how not to.

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