Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America
By Eyal Press
“Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America,” a disturbing and necessary new book by Eyal Press, describes with great empathy the lives of workers who do jobs that they themselves find morally horrifying. Press acquaints us intimately with the trauma suffered by a participant in a drone strike who watches a child slowly reassemble his father’s exploded remains into human shape; by a worker in a slaughterhouse who is nuzzled affectionately by pigs only to have to kill them moments later; and by a psychologist who is supposed to provide therapy to psychiatric patients in one of the correctional facilities where America often confines the severely mentally ill, but instead witnesses daily brutality including a homicide so gruesome it will be seared in any reader’s memory.
But the book isn’t entirely about those workers. It’s about us. Press’s thesis is that our society confers on these workers an “unconscious mandate” to do jobs that are morally objectionable and at the same time wants those jobs to remain invisible. He takes the term “dirty work” from the American sociologist Everett Hughes, who taught for a semester in Frankfurt in 1948, socializing with the kind of cosmopolitan liberal intellectuals he felt he might find anywhere. When he asked one about Germany’s war guilt and the Holocaust, the man responded by saying German citizens hadn’t known what was going on, they’d had to join the party, they were under tremendous pressure. He added that the Holocaust “was no way to solve the Jewish problem. But there was a problem and it had to be settled some way.” To Hughes, such comments revealed the “unconscious mandate” for unethical actions, the “dirty work” that could be delegated and disavowed.
Of course, there are questions about the moral culpability of the workers Press describes, about how they can continue to do the jobs they do. He is fascinated by Hannah Arendt’s thesis from “Eichmann in Jerusalem” (1963) about the banality of evil, the horrors committed thoughtlessly by those “just following orders.” Her view was supported by the results of Stanley Milgram’s “shock experiments,” published during the same period, in which subjects were instructed to deliver dangerous electrical shocks to a person (in fact an actor screaming on a tape recorder) in an adjacent room. At least in the version of the results Milgram publicized widely, most subjects complied. The New York Times framed a 1963 report on the experiments by asking, “What sort of people, slavishly doing what they are told, would send millions of fellow humans into gas chambers or commit other such atrocities?” The answer was that conditions could quite easily be created in which people acted with blind obedience. Milgram himself frequently compared his subjects to Eichmann.
Press gently pushes back against this reductive account of human behavior. In his previous book, “Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times,” he recounted the stories of ordinary people who refused to follow immoral orders, regardless of the consequences. He was explicitly disputing the popular view, derived from Arendt and Milgram, that there are circumstances under which people become incapable of moral choice. In both books he ushers us into a world of moral nuance and psychological complexity that behavioral science rarely captures.
In “Dirty Work,” Press shows us many different forms of complicity with the business of harm. Most of the people who do our “dirty work,” he stresses, are marginalized and invisible because they are poor. Their opportunities are extremely limited; the extra $2 an hour they can earn working in the slaughterhouse over the $9 an hour they might make at Chick-fil-A are desperately needed. The prison psychologists who stand by while mentally ill patients suffer grotesque abuse at the hands of guards may risk reprisals if they protest.
As for drone warriors, toward whom the most vitriolic disapprobation has often been directed, Press reminds us that joining the military is often a way to escape poverty and the many traps it entails. Within the military, cyberwarfare is often considered dishonorable compared with in-person operations, because the dangers are not at all commensurate with the capacity to harm. But Press reports that some of those working in secretive drone warfare programs were offered little explanation of what they would be doing, and as they came to comprehend their missions they spiraled psychologically, from disappointment to disgust or suicidal despair.
In Press’s moral worldview, there are not only guilt and innocence, but rather fine-grained degrees of culpability and exculpation that fit uneasily with the sensibilities of a sound-bite-driven social media culture. Many of the workers he encountered blamed themselves for the harms they had done. They were victims of “moral injury,” meaning they had violated their own core values and were suffering profoundly for it. Press often reveals this suffering in descriptions of physical symptoms; Harriet, a prison psychologist, finds that her hair is falling out in clumps.
This section of the book, on the incarceration of the mentally ill, is the most disturbing, powerfully evoking our hypocrisy as a society. Harriet’s anguish is juxtaposed on the one hand with the terrifying plight of her incarcerated patients and on the other with the psychopathic cruelty of the guards responsible for them. Since the closure of many state psychiatric hospitals beginning in the 1970s, mentally ill people have often been held in prisons. Their psychological torment is not incomprehensible to educated Americans: Our literary culture is powerfully rooted in experiences of depression, mania and psychosis — conditions taken to have quasi-religious significance in the work of Emily Dickinson, Robert Lowell, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath and others.
But this attitude isn’t necessarily extended to Black and brown people, who make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population. They are often regarded simply as dangerous, particularly if they are homeless. In a recent mayoral debate in New York City, for example, where the overwhelming majority of the homeless are Black or Latinx, Andrew Yang suggested that citizens had the right to be protected from mentally ill people on the streets — remarks that prompted a backlash. Press’s visceral descriptions of the treatment of mentally ill prisoners are agonizing to read. One correctional officer told him that the behavior he often saw by other guards was “real cruelty, just intentional cruelty. It’s like husbands who beat their wives.” The moral culpability sanctioned by our silence is deeper than most of us might imagine.
So where does this leave “us,” the society that tacitly condones this dirty work? That collective “we” is of course in some sense a fiction. There’s no homogeneous entity to which we can ascribe praise or blame. It would be consoling to think that if everyone were aware of the work Press describes, “we” would no longer condone it. Democracy in fact requires of us the constant hope that this potential “we” exists — that there is a sense of collective responsibility that comes with being part of a shared moral community. This is the very basis of the democratic ideal of accountability.
But when Press makes us feel the casual sadism of the prison officers, he also introduces a doubt, one that has been creeping into the national consciousness since the election of Donald Trump: There are those who enjoy spectacles of cruelty. “We” are not all “decent people” who will absorb the correct moral lesson. Sadism is a perpetual subterranean force that the politics of hate can unleash. This was shown most devastatingly in the cruelty exhibited by many Germans and their allies during the Holocaust. After the war, Arendt and Milgram inadvertently encouraged a mischaracterization of the Nazis’ motives. Much of the killing of Jews was not done in an orderly fashion at concentration camps (which in any case constituted, as Abram de Swaan put it in his 2015 book “The Killing Compartments,” scenes of “obscene savagery and gory barbarity”) but rather at killing sites where local conscripts engaged in a wild collective frenzy, with victims being humiliated and tortured before they were killed. But what Milgram and his generation did was to create the illusion that science could comprehend human behavior and therefore control it. Irrational delight in cruelty was written out of the story.
Press exhorts us not to look away from our dirty secrets but rather to take responsibility for the “dirty work” being done to meet the sicker needs of our society. At the same time, perhaps unwittingly, he leaves some doubt as to whether a humane “us” who will take such responsibility is attainable. Such doubt would go against the spirit of his book: Doubt is a corrosive force; skepticism about the moral capacities of human beings is self-fulfilling. Press would presumably accept that there are times when our faith in one another doesn’t come naturally; it must be willed. It’s a testament to his insight and vision that in spite of the ugliness to which he exposes us on almost every page, he still makes us want to set aside cynicism and pessimism and join him in finding ways to strengthen the moral bonds between us, however flawed we might be.