Drugs and Other Intrusions: Ehrenreich’s Conundrum on Usage and Testing
Barbara Ehrenreich attempts to forgo her upper-middle class life in order to prove her argument for a higher minimum wage as she lives her life Nickel and Dimed. As she moves from Florida, to Maine, to Minnesota, Ehrenreich attempts to live her life as a minimum wage worker, including the lifestyle, subordination, and apparently the supposed drug habit of this lower class. Ehrenreich fails to give up her higher social status as she interacts with drugs and drug testing in a very hesitant and ashamed way, even avoiding the testing all together, which she does successfully only because of the privilege of her true background. However, her argument against drug testing stands out from this general failure regarding her personal stigma of drug usage and her call for the end of drug testing ultimately distinguishes itself from her personal experience. Though her personal experiences involving drugs reveal Ehrenreich incapable of shedding her upper class background, her argument regarding the illegality of drug testing breaks through her failure as she strongly calls those affected by the intrusion, the lower class, to action through empathy.
In Florida, Ehrenreich begins her discussion of drugs by immediately empowering the literal drug and stereotyping the poor that use them. Ehrenreich initiates her argument by calling out the enumerated “sloth, theft, and drug abuse” (18). By placing drug use/abuse alongside those deadly sins, she sets them equal to each other, forcing the low-wage addict to compare himself to the serial burglar. Expanding on this proclamation of the evils of drugs, Ehrenreich reveals her own personal bias as she “[blushes] as hard as if [she] had been caught toking up” (19). Her use of the subjunctive demonstrates how distant she sees herself from this problem of drugs, it is not real to her, only some distant possibility. She demonstrates her own very personal fear of the stigma which surrounds drug usage. Ironically, she invalidates the argument she is trying to make because she is unable to let go of the stereotypes she is calling all other upper and middle class people to end. Further stereotyping and confusing of the “drug culprit” pushes any drug user farther and farther into the rhetoric of criminalization. By naming a human being, someone with a possibly dangerous addiction, with a simple noun and adjective, both of which carry a negative tone, Ehrenreich simplifies this complex human. That human is a criminal. And that human is a criminal because of drugs. While in Florida Ehrenreich unfortunately begins to reveal her personal bias and her apparent inability to follow the solution which she presents to everyone else.
Ehrenreich sets the employees against the corporations while arguing for the end of intrusive drug tests; however, she ironically is incapable of understanding the employees truly because of her inescapable bias. Through the manipulation of employer requirements, Ehrenreich successfully vilifies corporations as entities that smugly proclaim: “You will have no secrets from us” (37). Not only does this paint the companies very poorly, the antithetical “you” versus “us” sets the employer and employed directly opposite each other. She implicitly ridicules the act of drug tests as she proclaims large corporations message of ”We don’t just want your muscles and that portion of your brain that is directly connected to them, we want your innermost self”, and of course, we want your urine (37). However, Ehrenreich never has to face these companies in such a disadvantaged way as truly lower class workers do. She always has the privilege of leaving a job. She never faces the pressure of having “something to prove” when her job and life are on the line like the poor working class, the only thing she has to prove is the inequity in the practices of the companies (83). Ehrenreich attempts to play the role of “the person who has precious labor to sell”, however, she fails to realize that her use of the infinitive verb cuts her out of that role; she has no precious and infinite labor “to sell” (84). Ehrenreich only has her very measured labor of her assumed identity. She assumes that because “the person” who can possesses this precious labor, the unspecified antecedent allows for her to assume this role as well. However, she has already proved through her refusal to go through the drug-testing process in the same way as the poor, she cannot truly fit the role of “the person”. Ehrenreich employs sarcastic tone to comment on “what you get when you weed out all the rebels with drug tests and personality ‘surveys’” (98). Implicitly stating that the “rebels” are those few who are unwilling to subject themselves to an improper and unprofessional intrusion into their personal lives and even their literal bodies. She allows for her tone to suggest the absurdity of the request for urine. Ehrenreich fails to completely assume her poor identity yet she successfully incites the motion of her argument.
As an outsider, Ehrenreich continues her successful argument against drug testing. Even though she unmindfully fails to assume her role as a low-wage worker completely, she successfully recognizes the dehumanization and objectification that drug testing implies as she claims she can prove herself adept “in plumbing at $8.50” but only as long as she passes a drug test (72). Her skill and literal monetary value apparently reveal themselves through her ability to subject herself to an invasion of privacy. Ehrenreich eventually begins to view drugs tests as unnecessarily rude and extreme invasions of privacy. As she describes “apps and the interviews and the drug tests”, polysyndeton reveals how she sees these drugs tests: as judges of a person’s aptitude that in no real way can determine how well they could perform the job (99). She argues that of course a person’s readiness for a job can be found in a conversation or questions, however in no way can a person’s readiness be found in their urine.Yet, she still maintains the stereotypical view of these lower class people, who while even when she lives with them seems surprised that they are not “drug addicts or prostitutes” (89). Ultimately, she cannot place herself into the place of these poor workers because her bias presents itself too often; her argument regarding the use of drug tests however, remains relevant only regards the company and its workers, mostly leaving her out of the equation.
In the evaluation, Ehrenreich finally sums up her argument, the fact that it is unconstitutional and unjust to force any employee to “strip to her/[his] underwear and pee into a cup” (114). Her low diction allows this call to action to be widely appealing, and this low diction provides for the appeal to ethos as every low-wage worker that has ever felt incredible shame and unbearable embarrassment at this requirement. She inspires those who understand this low diction, the employees, to action. This allows her to speak to those who can make a difference. Continuing this final rally cry, she continues her appeal to ethos, relating to these people who have felt “less trust worthy” to themselves, uncomfortable in their own skin (115). Ehrenreich works to ensure that her audience of the lower class feels as if she completely understands their position. Ironically, while her diction and ethos speaks to the class, in her own skin, she feels uncomfortable for other reasons, such as her alienation in this foreign lower class world. Ehrenreich only understands how these poor people feel because she already lives her life as an outsider. Finally, placing a final emphasis on the gravity of this issue with a numerical value, Ehrenreich reminds her audience, an audience already very conscious of cost, that drug tests cost “$100 a pop” (116). Not only does the use of numbers provide a more visceral and expensive example of the negative effects of drug testing, the mix of cost with the continuity of her lower diction provides the ultimate persuasion for these workers.
Ehrenreich literally calls for the end of intrusion while simultaneously intruding on the lives of these lower class workers. As she effectively argues that a company does not have the right to interfere with such personal matters such as what employees do in the bathroom, she fails to realize the irony in the fact that she is interfering with these people’s lives as she purposefully degrades herself to insert herself into their lives. Incapable of fully integrating herself into the working class due to her stigmatization of drugs, her personal narrative in this specific argument serves little purpose but to cloud the lense through which she perceives drug usage in this societal group. Logically, Ehrenreich presents an exceedingly persuasive argument for the end of drug testing. Personally, however, her own interference with the lives of minimum wage workers ultimately asks the same question as a drug test request: What do you do with your life, and how do you do it?
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Barbara Ehrenreich attempts to forgo her upper-middle class life in order to prove her argument for a higher minimum wage as she lives her life Nickel and Dimed. As she […]