Costello: Welcome to Tiny Spark, a podcast of the Nonprofit Quarterly. We focus on what is required to build a more just society—in matters of race, health, the environment, and the economy. I’m Amy Costello. Today, we’re going to dig into moral inequality. And we’ll do that by looking at certain kinds of jobs that are sanctioned and championed by elected officials, government institutions, and private industry.
In order to get this work done, these institutions depend on a workforce that frequently toils behind locked doors, far from public view. Our guest today contends that the people doing this work on behalf of the powerful—are hidden by design.
Press: We’ve created all these mechanisms of concealment that enable the powerful and the privileged in society to distance themselves, to not feel in any way tainted, even as they do enjoy or tacitly condone what goes on in these places where dirty work is happening.
Costello: Dirty work. That’s the name journalist Eyal Press has given to certain jobs that titans of industry have created. And he’s focused on these questions:
Press: What is the dirty work that is done in our society? Who does it? And what kind of mandate does it in fact have from the rest of society?
Costello: In addition to his work as a journalist and author, Eyal is, as of this year, a sociologist with a PhD from New York University. His latest book is called Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America. In it, Eyal describes the emotional toll carried by drone operators, prison guards, and those who work on the kill floors of industrial slaughterhouses. Eyal contends there is moral inequality between those who do this work, and those who never have to see the work being done, never have to do it themselves, and yet benefit from it. Eyal challenges readers to consider moral inequality with a series of explicit questions.
Press: Who ends up dirtying their hands? Who gets blamed when scandalous abuses or say, a drone that misfires, where do we put the blame when that kind of thing happens? Who has a sense of culpability for doing this kind of work? And who, on the other hand, can sort of remain distant from it and not feel accountable and not feel that they’re in any way involved in it? And I think that it comes down to class, to race, and to inequality of opportunity.
Costello: Eyal says while researching his book, it was clear that this kind of work, case after case, falls disproportionately to people with fewer choices due to a lack of education, or because there’s a paucity of good jobs surrounding them. His book catalogs in intimate detail, the lives of some of these workers and the tough choices they face. Many live in places where the best jobs are with big industries making huge profits. These companies capitalize on low wage workers who take up jobs that have a slew of consequences, both economic and moral.
Press: They end up dominating things like working in slaughterhouses, working in prisons. And what comes of that is not just low pay and exhausting long hours and, you know, exploitative conditions. Those are the things I think we sort of know already. But a set of moral and emotional burdens that go along with this kind of work. You know, shattered dignity, feeling degraded, feeling ashamed, feeling or experiencing a sense of having to see or do something that goes against one’s own core values, but not having really the option to say no or to not go along. And that results in something called moral injury, which I write about at length. But these kinds of moral and emotional burdens, these wounds, they’re invisible. We don’t have charts that will show you how they are apportioned in our society. But these kinds of burdens are concentrated on the disadvantaged in our society, and they are every bit as important and unfortunately as pernicious as material deprivation. You know, not in every case, but certainly in the cases I write about and you know, I’ve come to really feel that we don’t fully understand inequality and we can’t really have a full picture without also talking about these kinds of hidden wounds.
Costello: And you talked about moral injury. And just briefly, for those of us who are less familiar with that idea, what is moral injury? And how do the workers that you profile experience moral injury in their day-to-day work?
Press: Yeah, so moral injury is a wound to the soul, to the character of someone who witnesses or does something that goes against their core values. And the term has really gained currency in the last decade or so within and among veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and who didn’t feel that PTSD really accurately captured the troubles they were having and the sort of wounds they had experienced in going to war. PTSD—certainly in the military context—is generally defined and described as a fear-based trauma that is connected, very often, to a brain injury and to a life-threatening event that a soldier has passed through, right? In other words, they’re patrolling a road and an explosion happens and the vehicle they’re in is shaken or someone in it even dies, and reliving that terrifying moment creates this panic, this fear, that results in PTSD. But there were a lot of soldiers coming back who felt really troubled but didn’t really connect to that experience. And in the conversations and the writings of some veterans, this term ‘moral injury’ started to be used more and more. And the idea there is it’s not that I was nearly killed or threatened by the enemy. It’s what I myself was involved in doing or seeing being done on our side that I have trouble sleeping with, right?
So, an encounter at a roadblock where there was a fire, an exchange of gunfire, because you couldn’t quite see who was in a car, and then it turns out there were civilians in that car. How do you live with that? What kind of story can you tell to overcome the pain of having seen something like that and being involved in it? But what’s really interesting to me is moral injury is starting to be discussed outside of the military context. And in my book, I make a strong case that pretty much anyone who’s involved in doing dirty work is vulnerable to experiencing this kind of injury. It doesn’t mean everyone will but if you think about prison guards—I’m thinking of one guard in particular that I interviewed—and he had a son who had, I think, done three tours of duty in Iraq. And he said to me not, only half joking, “You know, I’ve seen more live combat than my son has, in prison, working as a guard.” And there, too, it’s not just the fear that may create a kind of trauma. It’s also the act of doing something that you feel, Wow! How did that happen and should I have done that and was that right? And what does that say about me? What does it say about my character? So, these kinds of questions I think come up in the lives of the workers because they’re involved in crossing these moral lines.
Costello: And, my last point I want to touch on about this issue of moral injury and also moral inequality is how we, who are not engaged in dirty work, get to avoid these morally troubling situations. You know, we can benefit from having a nice chicken at dinner and feel okay about it because we don’t have to see all of this work that’s being done, basically in a very hidden way, that is incredibly morally taxing on those who perform it. But I want to hear a little bit more about where those of us who would consider ourselves privileged and who do not have to perform this dirty work, how we get to avoid the moral injury. Because I feel like that’s an important point you’re making. It’s not just about the moral injury of the workers, it’s about how we have the privilege of not experiencing all of this injury that they do.
Press: Absolutely. There’s a quote that opens my book. It’s from James Baldwin. “The powerless must do their own dirty work. The powerful have it done for them.” He wasn’t, of course, referring to the dirty work I’m talking about but I think it very much applies. We have organized the industrial food system, the prison system, the wars in our society so that they are, in a sense, done in the shadows, out of sight, out of mind. And out of sight, out of mind for those who have the privilege, not only never to have to do any of these things, but even to see these things, right? We don’t see what goes on inside an industrial slaughterhouse on the kill floors. And in fact, as I discovered in trying to report on what goes on inside, these slaughterhouses are more difficult to get into and to expose than prisons and military bases. I didn’t actually get access to the slaughterhouse I wrote about. And that tells you something about how much the people running them want, as you said, the person sitting down for a meal, eating chicken or eating beef, to have no idea of what actually goes on and to not see the ugliness of it, the morally troubling aspects of it—not just for the animals, but also in terms of the treatment of workers.
Costello: I want to talk to you about the way that the state kind of operates these facilities and these systems in which those who actually carry out the work on the front lines are required to engage in this really, you know, morally dubious, difficult, painful—traumatic at times—work. And you come back to this issue about economics and how we want to fund or not fund these industries in which dirty work is being done often and arguably, in our name. And you profile a prison guard, Bill Curtis, who worked at the Charlotte Correctional Institution in Punta Gorda, Florida. And I’d like you to please read what he told you about his experience working there.
Press: Sure. Curtis admitted he hadn’t always used force judiciously himself. One time, he quote, “got physical” with a prisoner, body slamming him hard into the ground, a slab of bare concrete that could easily have fractured his skull. Curtis lowered his eyes as he told me the story. “It was totally illegal,” he said. “I shouldn’t have done it.” But he relayed the story for a reason, in order to drive home the point that even decent officers did bad things in a system that skimped on training, salaries, staffing, rehabilitative programs. “It didn’t help that so many of the people inundating Florida’s prisons belonged in psychiatric hospitals,” Curtis added. At one point in his journal, he made note of the number of prisoners at CCI who were quote “not in their proper mind,” unquote, thanks to, quote, “the drastic reduction in the state-run mental health facilities.” Curtis had received no training on how to interact with mentally ill people.
Costello: That really seems to me a microcosm of so much of what you explore in the book, which is men and women who are not trained to adequately work with the people, and in this instance, those battling sometimes severe mental illness in a correctional facility. I mean, the fact that this guy says he received no training on how to interact with mentally ill people, who then himself abuses an inmate at one time, because we as a society are not willing to adequately fund our incarceration system—many of whom would argue should not really exist at all, and that’s a topic for another day. But the kind of carceral state as we know it, talk to me about how that lack of funding leads to those doing the dirty work.
Costello: Making, you know, abuses.
Press: Yeah, I mean, when a reader hears what Curtis describes himself doing, I think there’s an impulse to judge and that’s perfectly understandable. You know, he’s telling a very damning story about what he himself has done. But then he pulls back and asks a question about society. You know, what has society done? And let’s look at that. So, as you mentioned, this prison is in Florida, the one that Curtis worked at. Well, at the time that I was writing, Florida spent the second least of all 50 states on mental health services, and it had the third largest prison system in the country. If you combine those two things, it’s not surprising that you have jails and prisons in places like CCI, and another prison I write about in great detail, the Dade Correctional Institution, that are serving as de facto mental health asylums, but with little training or no training in some cases, in a violent environment, understaffed, few programs and low salaries, long hours. At the moment we’re talking, there’s actually a crisis in Florida’s prison guard system because 5,000 positions are open of, I think, seventeen or eighteen thousand total. And what does one expect will happen if you combine all of that? And this is effectively what Curtis told me. You know, he said, “Look, if you work as a guard under these conditions, you’re going to learn pretty quickly that the only way to enforce order is through force.” And that lesson ends up resulting in both abuses and harm to incarcerated people, and moral injury and a kind of hardening and dehumanization for the folks who are working in these facilities.
Costello: Another area that you look at as we’ve mentioned, is the military. You spend a brief time reminding us all of what happened at Abu Ghraib, a prison on the outskirts of Baghdad, and the turn that we took from interrogation to drone strikes. And I just want to walk through this a little bit with you because I think it’s really important once again to center the public and lawmakers and their role in these abuses. You talk about drone pilots; you spend a lot of time with them. Men and women who are carrying out targeted killings in other countries and the toll that this work takes on them. And you compare it to these interrogations and all the really disturbing imagery that came out of Abu Ghraib, with photos showing incredibly degrading scenes of prisoners there in Baghdad. And you note that one of the men who was there at Abu Ghraib was army veteran Eric Fair. And you note that he later wrote a book called Consequence, in which he wrote this: “I am a torturer. I have not turned a corner or found my way back. I have not been redeemed. I do not believe that I ever will be.” And that sentiment really came home to, I think, many Americans who were repulsed by these images and demanded change.
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And one of the changes that happened were a move toward drone strikes. And there was this idea, as you mention in your book, that drone pilots are more removed from brutality and therefore they would be perhaps less disturbed than Army veteran Eric Fair was after his experience at Abu Ghraib. They’re removed, they’re pushing buttons for strikes that take place in other countries. And you write this, you say, “Torturers like Fair dirtied their hands in ways that were visceral and tactile, which in turn made many Americans feel dirtied.” The pilots and sensor operators in the drone program by contrast, carried out quote “precision strikes” on video screens, an activity that seemed a lot cleaner. And in fact, you note that drone warfare has quote, “scarcely registered in the public discourse.” Why this lack of public engagement on drone warfare? And what did you find? Is it in fact cleaner for those who do it than perhaps the prison guards at Abu Ghraib?
Press: Why the difference? I think you captured it in your question. With Abu Ghraib, with Guantanamo, we had very disturbing images that shocked the conscience of the nation, particularly after these photographs that were released with U.S. reservists, you know, flashing a thumbs up sign alongside of detainees who were hooded, sometimes in dog leashes, standing on chairs. And it was shocking. And everybody who looked at those pictures felt implicated. Well, with drones, we don’t see it. We’re not shown it. It is classified. We rarely hear about it. The media, I don’t think, has done a very good job of really following the trail, and by the way, it’s hard to do. It’s not easy. But for all of these reasons, it’s concealed, and therefore it has faded into the background.
And I should also say that I think the visual difference is striking, but there’s also a difference in language. Precision strikes. Laser-guided missiles. When one thinks of drones, one thinks of high-tech warfare, clean warfare, pinprick strikes. This image doesn’t translate for the sensor operators and the imagery analysts in the program itself: the folks looking at the screens. Because they are exposed to graphic violence at a significantly higher rate than special force operators on the ground, right? So, they see more buildings blown up. They see more human carnage. They see very vividly and often intimately, people going about their lives who, at the press of a button are suddenly exposed to a lethal strike. And that experience is not clean. It is not morally untroubling for those who are seeing it. And I think that that paradox takes us back to this idea of moral inequality because you have a society where you know, 99 percent or even more, of people never see it, never feel troubled by it, and can kind of stop thinking about these drone strikes. And then you have the folks who are working eight-hour shifts looking at these screens and are involved in these kill chain decisions, and making decisions that have life and death consequences, both for sometimes innocent civilians and for US forces on the ground. That’s a really big moral gap we’ve kind of built into the ways we now fight our wars.
Costello: I don’t know, when you think about the time that you spent with those drone pilots and others who assist in targeted killings from afar, what stays with you right now as we’re talking about them?
Press: You know, the whole idea of killing from afar and killing with impunity is really troubling to a lot of very traditional people in the military, because it takes away this idea that war is in some sense a fair fight, right? That both sides, there’s some mutual risk involved in combat. And when you take that away, as one lieutenant colonel indeed told me, you turn the soldier into an assassin. And what he meant by that is, you’re letting a soldier decide who lives and who dies without their own life in any way being put at risk. And that’s exactly what, as a society, we de facto decided, is the way we want our wars to continue, right? We don’t want our boys at risk, but we also don’t really want to wind down the wars.
And I always think about this thing that Shira Maguen, who is a VA psychologist told me. And she’s spent years now counseling veterans about involvement in killing and studying what involvement in killing, the psychological and emotional effects that that has. And what she’s concluded is that it’s not the act of killing that determines how veterans make sense of what they’ve done. It’s, as she put it, how you conceptualize what you did. “How you conceptualize what you did and what happened makes such a big difference,” she said. It makes all the difference. Now, I think about that with relationship to folks in the drone program because they cannot say, as so many soldiers can say, “Well, I was in a situation where it was kill or be killed.” Right? “If we didn’t open fire, you know, my buddies were in danger or I myself would have been in danger.” People in the drone program don’t have the ability to say that because they’re removed, they’re distant. And again, this is exactly what as a society, we in a sense have asked of them and want from them. But then they’re going home. And what if the strike that was executed that day turned out to hit the wrong target? What if they saw that it had hit the wrong target on the screen? You know, they’re the ones who then live with that and who see it and who have to, as Shira said, conceptualize what happened and what they did. And I think that the distance and the removal from the battlefield really creates moral complications. And that’s why the wounds of drone warriors, I believe, are fundamentally about moral questions and about the morality of: can we be doing this? Should we be doing this? Or not?
Costello: It’s very, very powerful. I have to say, Eyal, that your book is really difficult to read. In fact, it’s one of the few books that I’ve had to continuously put down at times because I found it so deeply and kind of relentlessly disturbing. And in that sense, I can’t help but feel that your book is perhaps a microcosm of the sociology around dirty work itself. That I, as a privileged reader, who does my work by a keyboard, am so repulsed by the dirty work that you describe that I simply want to turn away. And that for me to become aware of the visceral realities of the work that some people are doing every day, often in my name, is almost too much to bear. And I want to ask you as a reporter and a writer, I imagine you’ve given thought to this very conundrum: how do you engage the reader and how do you not make them look away? And how do you walk that line between illuminating realities that we must become aware of, while also keeping readers engaged with your narrative? I’m just curious about that.
Press: Yeah, thank you for that. Although I’m not sure I should say thank you, because what you’re saying is, in some sense, the last thing a writer wants to hear, which is, you know, I had to put it down. I had to not read on. As a writer, what you’re hoping is that the reader is glued to the page, that there is a compulsion to continue reading, even something that is troubling. And I felt, and I very much hope, that what will keep the reader reading is the investment in the stories of the people in the book. And I do believe that as a society, what we owe the people who are involved in this dirty work, what we owe them is hearing their stories, listening to them and even if it’s discomforting. I think at the very least, we have a moral obligation to open our ears and to be willing to see what is being done in our name. And I do very much want to challenge readers, to make them uncomfortable, because I think discomfort is appropriate in this situation.
But my hope is that it’s turned towards awareness and openness and empathy, rather than tossing the book in a pile and deciding, I don’t want to think about this, leave it to someone else to read this. Because if it’s the latter, then I’ve failed in my mission and I’ve perpetuated the very thing I’m hoping to challenge, which is that we do look, that we do listen, rather than just closing and our eyes, or averting our eyes, from things that we don’t want to think about too much. And maybe I should add one other thought to that, which is that the reason I think it’s important for us not to avert our eyes is that dirty work is not etched in stone. I make this point very explicitly in the introduction of the book and also in the conclusion that, you know, in a society that, however flawed, is democratic in some ways and is open in some ways, good people—citizens of conscience—have some opportunities to shape what’s done in their name, right, by voting, by engaging in public dialogue, by writing letters to the editor, by protesting or organizing, by deciding who to elect to office. So, we have opportunities to act. And those actions, those collective choices that we make, very much will and can change whether this kind of activity goes on.
Costello: Absolutely. I know our time is up, but I wanted to give you a chance to say anything that you didn’t get a chance to say. Was there anything you wanted to say that you didn’t get a chance to say?
Press: I feel like we covered a lot of ground. You know, I guess I didn’t really address the issue of…People often ask me, how did writing this book affect me? Because so many of the people I write about are placed in morally difficult situations, and I hear about really painful things they’ve experienced, and they feel complicit in. And what did that do to me? And I will say that it’s a kind of mirror to your reading experience. It made me very uncomfortable. It was painful to hear these stories. And at the same time, I felt, I must hear the stories, and I must try my best to do justice to these stories because otherwise I’m averting my eyes from what’s uncomfortable for me and I’m not even the one who did it. I’m a step removed, you know. I have the privilege and the luxury to be able to just tell the story rather than having lived it directly. And so, overcoming that discomfort was really what propelled me, even when it was really uncomfortable.
Costello: Well, Eyal Press, I wanted to thank you for not averting your eyes, for getting close to incredible pain and suffering on so many levels. I think that is a public service and it’s vital work that so many people are afraid to do, and so I thank you for your brave work and your important work and for spending so much time with me today. Eyal Press, author and journalist. Your latest book is Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Press: Thank you for having me on, and I should say that, you know, what makes it worth it is having conversations like this, so really appreciate the opportunity.
Costello: Well, it was my pleasure and privilege. Thank you so much.
Eyal Press, “America Runs on ‘Dirty Work’ and Moral Inequality,” The New York Times, August 13, 2021.
Eyal Press, “The Wounds of the Drone Warrior” The New York Times, June 13, 2018.
Terry Gross, Eric Fair, “‘It Was Torture’: An Abu Ghraib Interrogator Acknowledges ‘Horrible Mistakes’,” NPR, April 4, 2016.
Andrew Gough, “The disturbing link between slaughterhouse workers and PTSD,” SURGE, January 24, 2021.
Eyal Press’ website
On Twitter: @EyalPress