Friday, May 11, 2007

Of Mustard and Milgram

I hate mayonnaise. I hate it as much as the sound of packing styrofoam and that is a lot. This is just one of the many reasons why I support accommodations in the workplace. I want mustard on my sandwich. It's not too much to ask. For years, I've gone to the same Wendy's, and it's been dependable. Only not so much in the past year. The people who work there can't seem to remember which is the name of the yellow condiment. This is not their fault. English is not their first language.

This has nothing to do with the politics of citizenship, "official" languages, fences or any other xenophobic nonsense (and any comments to that effect will be deleted). It's a simple matter of economics. If a business cannot meet the customer's need for any reason, the customer will go elsewhere.

The solution to the problem is so simple it's laughable. I'm sure it's been used for years in other areas of the country where ESL workers have been in the majority for longer than they have in this region. It would cost almost nothing to program the restaurant's computers to display and print bilingual tickets. This would help the employee, the company and the customer, and in the area where I live, it is long overdue.

What is the barrier to this simple and logical accommodation? Surely, it can't be that no one has thought of it before...I am just not that brilliant or innovative. Why the resistance? Could it be...prejudice?

The need to define "the other", to draw the "not me" line is so pervasive and ingrained it escapes the notice of even the most enlightened among us from time to time. I see it in myself every time the subject of the Milgram experiments comes up. Yes, a large percentage of people would torture someone nearly to death under the guise of science, under the urging of perceived authority and given assurance that they would not in the final analysis be held responsible. Shockingly, this has been shown to be true in these and other experiments. But not me. I would never do that.

Right? I wonder how many of Milgram's subjects would have said the same, had they been asked hypothetically how they would behave in such a situation. I'm betting every last one of them, though of course I can't prove it. All I know is that "not me" gets a lot of mileage. A heated discussion has been going on at another blog regarding Cho's crimes and the questions of individual vs societal responsibility. There is a lot of "not me" being traded.

I wish I could look at Cho or the Milgram subjects and say "not me" with that kind of certainty. I can name times when I've chosen not to do wrong and times when I haven't. I think I have a pretty good idea what I would and wouldn't do in most situations, given my own personal history and current mental health status, but even then I've surprised myself at times. No one has died because of my bad choices. That's not something to be really proud of.

Some problems are as easy to fix as adding a second language to a restaurant ticket. Others, like seeing the parts of ourselves we are so determined to disown, require a lifetime of effort and mindfulness.

I have heard the remarks some of the less evolved customers at the neighborhood Wendy's are making. It appears that their hatred of Hispanics increases with every wrongly sized order of Frosty or fries. If they can't do the job right, I've heard, they don't deserve to have the job. Meanwhile, others are saying the same about people with disabilities. Who is responsible for these displays of hatred and ignorance?

Partly the business owners who have not provided the simple, inexpensive tools that would make the jobs feasible. But it goes beyond that. The artificial lines we draw between not only ourselves and others but between concepts like individual and societal responsibilities are to blame as well. I am very guilty of "other-izing" the construct of Government. Not Me is waging a pointless and immoral war in Iraq. Not me has convinced the citizens of my country that civil rights are something we can do without so many of for a while at least. I am so angry at this not me, this "government" that I want to disown it. Because as an individual, I would not ever do these things.

I vote, which is the minimal level of participation a person can take and still be considered a participant. I decline, most of the time, to engage in political discussions. They upset me terribly; some days I won't even look at the news. There is so much more I could be doing, like helping to register voters and taking part in online political discussions. I don't want to be associated in any way with many actions my government is taking. Instead of working to change the course of history, I become overwhelmed with despair at the thought of these actions and the people, those people who have allowed this to happen. Denying that those people and I are one and the same, and not just in some grand metaphysical way, but in the concrete sense of uncounted numbers of silent and overwhelmed would be dissidents.

I shake my head at those who don't understand why people of varying races and abilities deserve to be seen and treated as equals. Sometimes I forget to check for my own blind spots, of which there are many. Sometimes it can be as simple as looking at persons with obvious prejudices, failings more apparent perhaps than my own, as though they were less than human. After all, I would never ever--in their position, with their upbringing, education, life experience, neurology and other circumstance ad infinitum--ever act that way, would I? No, not ever, not a chance. Not me.


  1. Bilingual tickets is a very sensible idea; I'm not sure if it's because of prejudice that many restaurants don't have them, or just because management is unaware of the mustard mixups.

    Have you written to Wendy's regional management suggesting bilingual tickets? They may be willing to reprogram the computers, once they're aware of the issue; as you say, it wouldn't cost much, and Wendy's may already have such a program in use at other franchises.

    Fixing problems, as you point out, is the easy part; what's often the hardest is becoming aware of them in the first place.

  2. We even discriminate in our prejudices - when is the last time you could read the writing on a ticket at a Chinese or Thai restaurant? We don't discriminate there because we see that as an acceptable place for "those people" to be.

  3. abfh:
    I took your advice and wrote them today. I'll let you know if I get a reply. Thanks for the input, very much to the point as always.

    Yes, unfortunately there is still a tendency to view Asian people through a lens of "exotica" and mystery. They are somewhat in a club with autistics in that. So unlike "us", the majority, they can be excused from some rules, even the expectation of using "proper" English. Not at all sure that's a better place to be than those from Mexico or other Spanish speaking countries, close enough geographically that "we" have gotten used to them and think they should "know better".

  4. weird, cos mustard kinda sounds like mostaza and mayonnaise sounds sort of like mayonesa (although not as much as they look alike)... this is not a confusion that i would have expected in hispanic learners of english (although perhaps i am not accounting for the other factors of the workplace such as noise and stress)...

    but the idea of bilingual ordering system is good, and not just for the workers. i'm pretty sure that many spanish-speakers also eat at wendy's...

  5. The wages are so low that these immigrants are doing the jobs that non-immigrants are not willing to do.

  6. The issue at hand is: if they don't do their job right, there is nobody else willing to step up to the plate to do it, let alone right, for the wage that's being paid. You get what you pay for.

  7. Bev, you never wrote back, so is it safe to assume that Wendy's through your suggestion into the trash? For the same reason as Wendy's wages being so low that only recent immigrants are willing to accept jobs there I feel that Wendy's would not invest in a bilingual ticketing system. Cost-cutting abounds and one ends up with the lowest common denominators. They won't even pay benefits, instead, they point their employees towards the government for them to get their benefits there. As such, fast food chains such as Wendy's are parasitical to our economy because we as taxpayers end up footing the bill for their cheapness. I don't think this is particularly fair because I don't eat at these cheap fast-food chains. But even those who eat there who feel they may be benefitting from the cheapness, end up paying elsewhere by way of higher taxes due to the benefits that these chains _don't_ give their employees, or wages for that matter, many times having them fall under the poverty line and making them eligible for all kinds of government subsidies.


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