“The Wire” as work primer

A few weeks after the standard wave of school Commencement ceremonies, philosophy professor Evan Selinger (Rochester Institute of Technology) took to the pages of the Boston Globe (link here) for the purpose of offering one piece of advice to recent graduates: 

It’s the 20th anniversary of “The Wire,” a television show widely regarded as the greatest series of the 21st century. Viewing it is one of the best gifts you can give yourself if you’re a recent high school or college graduate, because nothing else will prepare you so well for the workforce.

Hmm…”The Wire” as a sort of prep course for the world of work?

Yup, and here’s a good snippet of Dr. Selinger’s explanation:

“The Wire” takes a cynical look at how systems — a combination of policies, procedures, and norms — maintain the status quo and prevent reformers from sparking change. The show portrays police work as focused on generating statistics that give the appearance of crime decreasing rather than genuinely making communities safer. “The Wire” presents a broken educational system in which teachers are forced to focus their efforts on getting students to pass standardized tests rather than helping them learn information and skills that will improve their lives. It shows newspapers driven to win awards more than to cover stories that benefit the communities they serve. And it presents politicians as publicly proclaiming that they are devoted public servants while privately making shady deals and scheming to enrich themselves.

In sounding such a pessimistic tone, Selinger emphasizes that he’s doing so to offer some lessons about the real world of work. They include:

  • “First, you’ll gain a better understanding of why people in different jobs express similar grievances.”
  • “Second, you’ll develop a better appreciation of whistleblowers — of their bravery and commitment.”
  • “Third, you might give more thought to embracing the freedom, and risk, of working for yourself.”
  • “Fourth, you might approach work differently.”

Selinger explains his points in greater detail in the full piece, which I strongly recommend.

Systems, systems, and more systems

For all but the most independent of workers, dealing with systems is a regular part of our work lives. That includes wage and salary workers, independent contractors, and folks providing invaluable, often non-compensated work such as parenting and caregiving. We’re all navigating these systems, which may run the gamut between functional and dysfunctional.

I have written a lot about systems in articles posted to this blog. They include, among others:

  • Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week 2021: All the Pieces Matter (2021) (link here);
  • The Holocaust is a key to understanding interpersonal abuse and systems that enable it (2018) (link here);
  • Workplace bullying and mobbing: Toxic systems and the eliminationist mindset (2017) (link here);
  • Systems enable workplace bullying, so where are the systems to stop it? (2017) (link here).

The centrality of systems in our lives is why I, too, join with Dr. Selinger in recommending “The Wire” as a primer on the realities of work.

“The Wire,” speaking personally

For yours truly, “The Wire” has had an oddly therapeutic effect. I’m a reform-minded person by nature, and I can be somewhat impatient about the pace of change. “The Wire” has reminded me that positive change is often incremental and can be reversed in a second. It has taught me how organizations can be obdurate, i.e., stubbornly refusing to change. It also has illustrated how change can be foolish, negative, or yield unexpected consequences (good and bad).

In Jonathan Abrams’ All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire (2018), David Simon, the show’s brilliant creator, said this about the challenges of reforming systems:

The things that reform systems are trauma. Great trauma. Nobody gives up status quo without being pushed to the wall. I believe that politically. The great reformations of society are the result of undue excess and undue cruelty. The reason you have collective bargaining in America and it became powerful is that workers were pushed to the starvation point. The reason that you have the civil rights we do is that people were hanging from trees.

Simon doubts that systems can self-reform. Instead, he believes that systemic change requires outside pressure and awareness of trauma that cut through inhumanity or indifference.

It’s a realpolitik view from a long-time, deeply insightful observer of our condition. And while these realities haven’t softened my desire to be an agent for positive change, they have made me more committed towards prompting good results over the long haul.

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