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1 December 2021

How our lives depend on dirty work

We rely on some people doing unethical labour – fighting wars, killing animals, patrolling borders – and to absolve ourselves of any sense of personal responsibility, we look the other way.

By Sophie McBain

In 1948 the American sociologist Everett Hughes visited the home of a German architect in Frankfurt, where he was teaching for a semester. The architect expressed his shame over the Nazi atrocities. Then he said something disturbing – and revealing: “That was no way to settle the Jewish problem. But there was a problem and it had to be settled in some way.” The conversation inspired Hughes’ later writings on “dirty work”: work that is seen as unethical because of the harm it inflicts on others, but that is nonetheless tacitly supported by upstanding members of society. The Holocaust might be the “most colossal and dramatic piece of social dirty work the world has ever known”, Hughes argued, but the same dynamic repeats itself across all societies. We depend on some people doing unethical “dirty work” – fighting wars, killing animals, patrolling borders, working in dangerous, polluting industries – and to absolve ourselves of any sense of personal responsibility, we look the other way.

Those directly engaged in dirty work suffer more than other low-status workers for knowing that their job is ethically compromising and others judge them for it. Like nurses and supermarket staff, prison guards and slaughterhouse workers continued working through the pandemic and died in large numbers – but they were not celebrated as heroes. Dirty workers occupy a moral grey zone as both perpetrators and victims: an abattoir worker or drone operator has little power compared to the supervisors or military chiefs who maintain a sanitising distance from the blood and gore, or the consumers and voters who want cheap sausages and a world purged of terrorists without having to think about how these goals are achieved.

In his latest book, Dirty Work, the American journalist Eyal Press explores the morally injurious jobs that are mostly hidden from public view and invites readers to examine their own complicity in this work. He is scornful of “passive democrats”, those who have seemingly enlightened attitudes but are unwilling “ever to do anything about anything”, and disturbed by how rising inequality perpetuates the problem, widening the gulf between those privileged enough to distance themselves from dirty work and those disadvantaged enough to do it. Press speaks to staff at American prisons bordering on mental asylums where inmates are routinely abused; drone operators; slaughterhouse workers; border patrol officers; roustabouts on oil rigs. He tries, and fails, to speak to middlemen in the technology industry (they are all muzzled by NDAs) who form a link between the children working for 75 cents a day in deadly Congolese cobalt mines and the tech giants such as Apple, Microsoft and Dell that use the material for their sleek and shiny gadgets.

[See also: How Britain was built on coal]

Dirty Work (published in the US now) is deeply and sensitively reported and often hard to read. A drone operator describes how, after killing an alleged “terrorist facilitator”, he watched a small boy approach his father’s dismembered body and try to place the pieces back into a human shape. The language we use to describe drone warfare – “surgical strikes”, “pinpoint precision” – create the misleading impression of an advanced, virtually bloodless way to wage war. Operators are thought of as “joystick warriors”, who treat real-life killing as though it were a computer game. But in reality, many are deeply disturbed by their work. Having often spent weeks observing them remotely, drone operators are more intimately acquainted with their targets than the soldier who shoots an enemy combatant on a battlefield. One study found that three-quarters of intelligence analysts and officers involved in remote contact operations experienced grief, sadness and remorse related to killing. (What, I wondered, is going on with the remaining quarter?) Some experience intense emotional distress from being forced to do things that they believe are morally wrong.

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The muted public response to US-led drone operations is only partly a result of government secrecy. Journalists have been writing about these issues for years: the Bureau of Investigative Journalists estimated that between 2004 and 2020 the US drone programme killed between 8,858 and 16,901 people outside acknowledged war zones, including 2,200 civilians. Press argues that we have a moral duty to grapple with these uncomfortable facts. For now, drone operations are not an issue most voters appear to care about; successive US and UK governments have carried out remote strikes almost unchallenged. In this way, we are giving an “unconscious mandate” to the military.

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Many of the people Press speaks to became whistleblowers, or left their jobs because they felt too morally compromised. We can empathise relatively easily with, say, the psychologist who eventually left her job at a Florida prison where the guards killed a mentally ill inmate by locking him in a scalding-hot shower, and where prisoners were starved and beaten: she was too scared for her own safety to rat on her colleagues and she needed the work, but her conscience ultimately prevailed. But what about the abusive guards? Do we share any moral responsibility for their actions? Press suggests we do, because the cruelty within American prisons is a function of chronic underfunding that leaves underpaid, overstretched corrections officers struggling to control over-filled prisons, where many of the disruptive prisoners require extensive mental health care they will never receive.

There are some white-collar professionals whose jobs approximate dirty work, because of the harm they inflict on others, or because the work violates their own moral norms. Press speaks to tech engineers who blew the whistle on troubling mass surveillance projects and considers the case of bankers facing public opprobrium following the financial crash. These examples don’t really count as dirty work, he asserts, because they remain enviable jobs, and because having a high-paid, high-status role insulates you from social stigma. In this way, feeling morally undefiled by your work is an economic privilege. One of the most powerful, and consequential, observations in this book is how our moral judgements, of ourselves and others, are unconsciously shaped by social power.

[See also: Theory wars: how postmodernism became weaponised]

Heather Linebaugh, one of the drone operators interviewed by Press, submitted an article to the Guardian in 2013 describing the bloody reality of American (and UK) drone operations and the toll her work had taken on her. Far from encouraging greater public reflection, as she had hoped it would, her op-ed unleashed a torrent of hostile messages, with those on the right denouncing her as a traitor and those on the left accusing her of being a war criminal. Press wishes people would be more honest about their own complicity. He cites research demonstrating that the best way to help veterans heal from moral injury is to communalise it. He attends a ceremony in Philadelphia where veterans are invited to share their guilt with an audience, who then point out the role they have played: “We sent you into harm’s way,” some said, “We put you in positions where atrocities were possible. We share responsibility with you…”

It is our duty not only to acknowledge our shared responsibility, but also to interrogate the “unconscious mandate” we are giving to harmful practices. Shifting social norms and beliefs can change industries, Press observes, citing shifting attitudes towards mass incarceration in the US and the rising numbers of people cutting down on meat consumption and trying to eat locally. (There are limits to this progress: he notes too that consumers are much less curious about the conditions of farm workers than they are about whether their beef is organic and grass-fed.) Dirty Work is a thought-provoking, bracing read, and I wanted to share some measure of optimism with Press. But how could I, typing these words on a laptop – the final product of a supply chain so long and complicated I don’t understand it, and have never truly tried to? How many things have I bought that might have been products – somewhere down a murky, complex supply chain – of child labour and other exploitation? Most of us are worse than “passive democrats”, we’re mindless consumers. I wish I knew what could shock us into taking moral responsibility.

Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America
by Eyal Press
Head of Zeus, 320pp, published January 2022

This article appears in the 01 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The virus strikes back