The crucial question concerning the good people is their relation to the people who did the dirty work.
"I did your dirty work." You've likely heard the phrase; maybe you’ve said it. But author and journalist Eyal Press argues “dirty work” is more than just an individual phenomenon.
In his new book, Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America, Press writes there are entire areas of life we've delegated to "dirty workers"—functions we've decided are necessary, but that we want to keep hidden, apart from us.
Take the people—generally underpaid, often undocumented—working on the kill floors in slaughterhouses. If you're a meat-eater, their work is essential. But holding the shrink-wrapped final product of their work, you likely don't think too much about how it was produced.
That, Press argues, is by design—slaughterhouses are kept out of the public eye; too much transparency would threaten our status as “good people.” And that's really the question of dirty work: what is its relationship to the "good people" who rely upon it?
In all societies, we have to think about what 'good people' are willing to countenance to have done in their name.
Or, to take an example discussed in detail in this episode of New Thinking, consider our collective response to people with mental illness. We've decided—tacitly—to turn prisons and jails into the largest mental health institutions in the country. We also then underfund treatment and make it subservient to the perceived security needs of these institutions.
This makes the people trying to offer that treatment "dirty workers": not because their work isn't noble, but because we've put them in a situation—again, largely hidden from view—where it's impossible to practice ethical care.
That's the other defining feature of dirty work: it causes harm, not only to the people it's practiced on, but—morally—to the people doing the work, acting in our name.
The following is an annotated transcript of the podcast:
Matt WATKINS: Welcome to New Thinking from the Center for Court Innovation. I'm Matt Watkins.
"I did your dirty work." You've likely heard the phrase; maybe you've even said it.
But my guest today argues that “dirty work” isn't just an individual phenomenon. In his new book, Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America, Eyal Press writes there are entire areas of life we've delegated to "dirty workers"—functions we've decided are necessary, but that we want to keep hidden, apart from us.
Take the people—generally underpaid, often undocumented—working on the kill floors in slaughterhouses. If you're a meat-eater, their work is essential. But holding the shrink-wrapped final product of that work, you likely don't think too much about how it came to be.
And that, says Eyal Press, is by design: slaughterhouses are kept out of the public eye, too much transparency would threaten our status as “good people.” And that's really the question of dirty work: what's the relationship of that work to the "good people" who rely upon it?
To take an example Press explores that's more relevant to this show, consider our collective response to people with mental illness. We've decided—tacitly—to turn prisons and jails into the largest mental health institutions in the country. And we then underfund treatment and make it subservient to the perceived security needs of these institutions.
This makes the people trying to offer that treatment "dirty workers": not because their work isn't noble, but because we've put them in a situation—again, largely hidden from view—where it's impossible to practice ethical care.
And that's the other defining feature of dirty work: it causes harm, not only to the people it's practiced on, but—morally—to the people doing the work, acting in our name.
On that note, a warning there are in here a couple of pretty intense descriptions of violence, so please take care listening.
Eyal Press is an author and journalist. You can see his byline in places like The New Yorker and The New York Times. And I started the conversation by asking him about the origin of his particular use of "dirty work."
Eyal PRESS: Dirty work, I think when people see the book or hear about it, they probably think of the colloquial expression, and think of an unpleasant job or task.
But my definition in the book—which, as you noted, is drawing on a sociological literature about dirty work—really emphasizes activities that are morally troubling, and crucially, morally troubling but that society depends on and tacitly condones.
But just to flesh out what that sociological literature is, the central figure—my book opens with a figure named Everett Hughes. He was a very influential sociologist at the University of Chicago. And shortly after World War Two, Hughes goes to Germany and he's very curious to bring up with people he'd met before the war, what they would say when he brought up the Nazi regime.
And generally, what he found was that no one wanted to talk about it at all. I found his diaries and he was struck by people not wanting to talk about it. But when he would bring it up, and especially with the people he knew who were more cosmopolitan, liberal people, these were not avid supporters of the Nazi Party.
WATKINS: Right, these were the "good people."
PRESS: Yes, and he dubs them in his diary, and then later in an essay, "good people," sort of in air quotes there. But so, he's at the house of an architect one night and he says, “What do you make of the comportment of German soldiers during the war?" And this conversation unfolds about the crimes of the Nazis, and the architect who's hosting this tea says exactly what you'd expect, which is, "I'm ashamed for my people whenever someone brings this up. It was a terrible pressure. Of course, we had no choice. We had to go along with what the Nazis said, but I'm ashamed of it."
But then he proceeds to say, "You know, the Jews, they were a problem. They were taking all the good jobs. They were gathering in these filthy ghettos.”
And Hughes keeps hearing this “on the one hand, on the other hand” kind of reply from these people he knew, these cosmopolitan residents of Frankfurt, and he publishes an essay called, ‘Good People and Dirty Work.’ And what he posits in that essay is that the dirty work under the Nazi regime was not a rogue operation that took place without the knowledge or consent of these "good people."
The people who carried it out were agents of the good people; they were agents of society, acting with some sort of, what he called an "unconscious mandate." It's important to stress, he's not saying they supported the Nazi program. He's saying a lot of people didn't ask many questions, because they were, at some level, not displeased: "Oh, the Jews are being rounded up and taken away? So be it."
And to me, the most interesting thing about this essay is that Hughes then proceeds to say that it's not just Germany. Dirty work exists in all societies. And in all societies, we have to think about what good people are willing to countenance to have done in their name, to grant a kind of tacit mandate, and to just ignore and push into the shadows.
And the more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that this concept, this framework, is actually more applicable to a society like ours, to the United States today, than it is to a place like Nazi Germany, or for that matter, contemporary North Korea, because in North Korea today, or under the Nazis, it kind of didn't matter what the "good people" thought, right?
The regime seized power. They eliminated their opponents. They made it clear they would jail you if you criticize the state. But in a democracy, what the good people, what the rest of society thinks and tolerates and condones matters a lot.
In fact, Everett Hughes made that clear himself. He was someone who was very attuned to racism in America. He had a father who had been targeted by the Ku Klux Klan. And so, he says, "What about all the violence we tolerate? What about the racists we tolerate? What about the lynchings and the police torture we tolerate?"
This was all in the 1960s, by the way, but it just jumped off the page when I read it and thought, "Well, look at the society we have today, and let's look at some of the dirty work that gets tolerated here." And that's the point of departure for the book.
WATKINS: So, we're going to talk about prisons and jails in a minute, but if we look, say, at meat processing plants, I mean, really instantiates your argument that dirty work is work that causes substantial harm to people, to animals, and/or the environment. But dirty work is also work that is morally injurious to the people who are doing it themselves, that the good people, we are insulated from, right?
PRESS: If you think about slaughterhouses in America, it's a great example of, let's say your position is, "Well, people eat meat. As a society, I'm fine with that. I'm fine being a consumer of–"
WATKINS: Of this cleanly packaged product, right?
PRESS: Exactly. Let's say your position is, "This is fine: to eat meat, to raise animals to slaughter and so forth." Well, even if that's your position, it's notable that slaughterhouses are among the most remote, secretive, and invisible institutions in American society. We don't see them on the nightly news. We don't see them on television.
In fact, I cite at one point, an attempt by someone to expose what happened in the slaughterhouse to 20/20, and they told this person, "It's too violent. We can't show that kind of gore."
But why is it not seen? Well, it's not seen because consumers might find it disturbing, and I think that's true even of people who have no problem with the idea of eating meat. It's the scale of the system. It's the speed and the level of cruelty to the animals, the level of exploitation of the workforce of these plants.
I go to considerable lengths to detail that, at a poultry slaughterhouse in Texas, where the workers are not just suffering physical injuries because the line speeds are so fast that they are experiencing these repetitive strain injuries, but they're also suffering these blows to their dignity.
The female workers at the plant are not allowed to go to the bathroom, because this will slow down production. And as a consequence of this, I interviewed women who worked at that plant, and would go to work with a sanitary napkin or with an extra pair of pants to continue working and go to the bathroom while they were working.
And just thinking about that as something that's happening in 21st Century America tells you something about... I think it is an example of dirty work, and I think it is an example of, as you said, something that causes harm both to the people who do it, and then of course, to others, to external—in this case, the animals, the environment; all kinds of ways we can measure that harm.
WATKINS: So then, how does this injurious dirty work get parceled out? "Inequality" is right there in the subtitle of your book. Who is doing this dirty work with the tacit consent of the rest of us?
PRESS: We can't talk about and understand how dirty work in America is organized, and actually how it continues to be tolerated, without talking about class, without talking about race, without talking about inequality, because this work is delegated to people with relatively little power in our society, with fewer choices and opportunities.
If we think of where slaughterhouses are located, and then think about who works in them. This had been a job in mid-twentieth-century America, where the average wage was actually higher than the typical factory, and that was because unions fought very hard to improve conditions and raise wages.
Well, in the late '60s, early '70s, there's a new model that arises, and it's the low wage strategy, and the industry starts intentionally recruiting immigrants to work in slaughterhouses. They locate these slaughterhouses in more remote, rural areas—nearer to the farms, but also away from urban centers, away from the media, and really just create these silos that very few people who consume meat ever go near or see.
And so, the people that I interviewed at that poultry plant I just mentioned, a lot of them were undocumented. And of course, one of the advantages for the industry in this is that they don't speak back about these conditions as often, because they are afraid.
They may not have the language skills. They certainly don't, from my experience in interviewing them, have a detailed knowledge of what their labor rights are, or even if they have rights. They do, by the way; but they often don't know it. And then, of course, there's the fear not just of getting fired and being replaced, but also of being deported, which happened quite a bit during the Trump era.
So, there's an example, it's a very vivid example, but it's true of all the sectors I look at, that it's not society's elites that are doing this work. It's society's elites that are benefiting from it, but the work itself gets delegated out to people at the bottom of the social ladder.
And so, in this way, there is both income and wealth inequality in our country, but there is also, I argue, moral inequality. There are the people who are pushed into these low status professions, where they are effectively dirtying their hands, while others get to sit back, be distant, not think about it.
WATKINS: So, if we turn to look to the focus you have in the book that opens the book, on jails and prisons: I think even more than meat processing plants, jails and prisons are just famously and deliberately inaccessible and paramilitary settings, that have an abhorrence of transparency.
But you don't focus on the system as a whole. You really zero in on the effects of the criminalization of mental health, and the way that that plays itself out in the boom in incarceration of people with mental health challenges, but then the dirty work that goes on of trying to work with them in these settings. What made you decide to focus specifically on the mental health aspect?
PRESS: That's a really important point, and the reason I focused on it, if we just go back very briefly to Everett Hughes, he heard that architect say, "The Jews, they were a problem, and it had to be settled somehow," right? So, if you would think of that phrase, "Well, the people with severe mental illnesses in the United States, this is a problem that–"
WATKINS: Untreated mental illnesses, right? That we're not treating out in society.
PRESS: Correct. This is a social problem. In the '60s, there was a very broad and impassioned movement to shut down a lot of asylums in this country and state mental health hospitals that were said to be, and clearly were, providing inadequate treatment, sometimes perpetuating abuse and humiliation and indignities for the mentally ill.
So, there was this movement that arose, and John F. Kennedy gets behind the idea of really creating community mental health centers that can offer more humane services in a more humane setting. But as I note, the funding for that never came through.
In fact, by the time the de-institutionalization movement has really gathered force and succeeded, we’re in the Reagan era, and we have an era of tax revolts and cutbacks on social spending.
And as a consequence, we have seen a new set of institutions serve as the places where so many people with severe mental illnesses end up, and that's jails and prisons. And so, again, to think of that framework that Hughes posits, I think jails and prisons are solving a problem for society that people implicitly don't want to be taxed to solve in other ways.
And so, we end up having this population of people like Darren Rainey, who I write about in the first section of the book, who end up going most of their lives without treatment and cycling in and out of the criminal justice system, because they're poor, because they have mental health issues, and because there's nowhere else for them to go.
WATKINS: If we talk a bit about the really terrible story of what happened to Darren Rainey… Do you want to talk a little bit about the woman that you profile at some length in the book, who was working as a mental health practitioner? Though I think you say she was making $12 an hour and working for, I think we could say, an infamous private prison corporation. But do you want to talk a little bit about her experience and then the intersection with this terrible story of Darren Rainey?
PRESS: I profile a woman named Harriet Krzykowski, and Harriet gets a job at the Dade Correctional Institution, which is located south of Miami. And she works in the mental health ward, as a mental health aide. And she's never worked in a prison before. She's a little bit afraid, and she's a woman working in an all-male prison.
She doesn't know what to expect, but she assumes that the guards are the good guys, and the inmates are people she needs to be wary of, but at the same time, she is very serious about treatment and trying to help the guys in the mental health ward.
But what she quickly comes to learn is that the mental health ward at this prison is not helping people, that guys are being locked in cells, single-person cells, left there. She's finding people who are deteriorating just dramatically, being left in their own feces.
Unfortunately, these are not rare occurrences in America's jails and prisons. And worse than this, she starts hearing from some of them that they're being denied meals, that they're being mistreated.
And when she reports this to her supervisor, her supervisor tells her, "Well, you know, our job is to get along with security." And she sort of gets a lesson in something called "dual loyalty," which is a concept I believe you've talked about on this program.
WATKINS: Sure, yeah.
PRESS: But in a sense, she's not sure at that point who she's working for: Is she working for the guards and doing what they tell her to do? Or is she there to treat the patients entrusted to her care?
WATKINS: Right, are they patients or are they inmates?
PRESS: Correct. And what she comes to realize, she actually writes an email complaining about some of the conditions in this mental health ward, and shortly thereafter, the guards start retaliating against her: they leave her alone in the rec yard, she's nearly assaulted on one occasion. And she gets this message: "Don't defy us. This is our house. We run this place."
And she needs her job. She needs the paycheck. She's also physically vulnerable in this setting, and so she comes to, in a sense, avert her eyes. As she put it to me, "The lesson we got was: don't be a witness, don't say anything if you see something that's really disturbing."
Well, unfortunately, she sees something. She doesn't see it directly, but she learns—she comes to work one day, and she learns that a prisoner named Darren Rainey has been taken to a shower the night before, and that he collapsed and died in that shower.
When she first hears this story, she tells the nurse, "Oh, so he had a heart attack? Or he slipped?" And the nurse says, "No. He was locked in this shower and left there in a shower where the water was 160 degrees." This is the temperature of tea water, the water used to steep tea. Essentially, left in a scalding shower, and we don't know if he fell because of the steam, or because of the excruciating pain of the water itself, but he falls and he dies a gruesome death, suffering burns on much of his body.
And Harriet is in shock when she learns this. She's horrified. But she does not report this incident, because she's afraid, because she has learned a lesson about what happens to people who do report. And nobody reports it, actually. No one on the mental health staff.
And this is why I think it's an example of dirty work. Of course, offering to work in the mental health ward of a prison, you could argue is anything but dirty. It's a noble thing. It's a very difficult job, and we should laud those who do it. But the conditions under which it happens ends up putting people in morally compromising situations.
This is an extreme example of that, but there are a lot of more mundane examples of people who maybe see someone being put in solitary confinement who really shouldn't be there, but are they going to challenge the guard who did that? Are they going to step in and say something?
Or they hear language that they think is going to trigger someone who's in the throes of a mental health crisis. Again, are they going to challenge that, when it's this very difficult environment to navigate?
WATKINS: And so, I think it's your argument, I mean, what happened to Darren Rainey was an extreme example of the kind of violence that can happen, but it's not an aberration, right? In some ways, it is a product of this tacit societal decision to criminalize mental illness and then underfund even any services you're offering behind bars.
PRESS: Absolutely. I think that if we really want to reckon with what happened to Rainey, we have to look at funding levels for mental health services. We have to look at mass incarceration and how a system was erected that effectively turned jails and prisons into these places where people with severe mental health issues are being concentrated.
And of course, in many of these cases, you do have guards who are prone to being violent, but you also have a lot of guards who are overworked and underpaid and outnumbered. Many of the people who work as guards quit within a year. And so, the system has these conditions that are increasingly violent, and what the guards who do stay in it do is, they rely on force to enforce order.
And so, the abuses absolutely are systemic. They cannot simply be addressed by blaming a few rogue guards. And that's, I think, the convenient... If we think again about the dirty work thesis, these are not rogue actors. Even if they did something unspeakable, as they did at Dade, I talk about how eight years later, 2020, use of force incidents in the Florida prison system had gone dramatically up. And this was eight years after what happened to Rainey took place.
And so, that's systemic. That's telling you something is going on that doesn't have to do with just a few rogue actors but has to do with the conditions and the culture of these institutions. And that is, unfortunately, a reflection of what society tolerates.
WATKINS: And then, in terms of the moral injury that this inflicts on people doing the dirty work, I mean, there's this really terrible moment in the book when you say that Harriet, even after leaving this working behind bars, when she'd be drawing a bath for her children and put her hand in the water to check the temperature of it, would find herself thinking of Darren Rainey.
PRESS: I want listeners to just think about, or get a picture of, what Harriet was like when I first met her. And as you say, she had left Dade. She was no longer working there. But when I first met her, she could barely speak about the experience of working there.
And the other striking thing, to me, was that she was wearing a wig. And the reason she was wearing a wig is that the distress of working at Dade was so extreme that her hair fell out and took years to grow back.
She experienced depression. She feels she experienced a form of PTSD. And the way she initially communicated to me what working there was like, was by handing me this long, detailed narrative account of her experience that she'd written, and she called it her trauma narrative.
And that's how I got this sense that, "Oh, it's not just the Darren Raineys and the incarcerated people who are suffering and who are injured. It's also the workforce, the staff. People who go in with good intentions, and wind up morally injured because they feel complicit in a system that is cruel."
WATKINS: You mentioned that we've talked about dual loyalty on this podcast before, and we did that in an interview with Homer Venters, who I know you know, and who's the former chief medical officer for New York City Jails, and a lot of the people that he mentored are working there now, and are in fact, speaking out, I think, quite bravely about the conditions at Rikers Island—and those are conditions that are present in jails across the country; it's not just a story about Rikers Island.
But I woke up this morning to a profile of Rachael Bedard in The New York Times, who is one of those correctional health doctors on Rikers, talking about the challenges of working there—she works with the oldest and sickest people at Rikers—and talking about the challenge of trying to turn oppression into care, this paradox.
I'm wondering, do you think that... I mean, there's more exposure on this right now, because of things being so bad, this intensification of things at Rikers. But is this exposure of some of the strains of dirty work, it coming out into the open, is that helpful or hopeful in some ways, do you think?
PRESS: I think it could be. I wonder how sustained our attention will be. Rikers is actually a really important story to think about, in relationship to the whole idea of dirty work, because one of the things it shows is that steps can be taken to mitigate how demeaning, dirtying, violent, injurious this kind of work is.
Rikers was in crisis years ago. I talk about the report that was done, about the culture of violence at Rikers, and a lot of people with really good intentions went into this, after the horrors there were exposed, and did improve things. The number of deaths at Rikers went down quite dramatically. I think that there was a concerted effort to try to improve things.
And yet, things have now gone back to a crisis point; I don't think anyone would deny that. And so, on one level, that shows that dirty work is not something that's fixed in stone. It is subject to change: from society, from government actors, from citizens, from doctors, and others who speak out.
On the other hand, I think Rikers is also a cautionary tale in the sense that we have a structural situation that is a problem, and the structural situation is the one I referred to: overcrowded prisons and jails, an inadequate mental health system, using these carceral institutions to warehouse a population that doesn't belong there.
And if you combine all of that, in spite of whatever good intentions there may be from individuals here and there, you're going to continue to have problems. You're going to continue to have harm done to incarcerated people, and harm done to the people who work in these institutions in a secondary way.
WATKINS: It strikes me that Rikers is the ultimate dirty work location. I mean, in terms of saying that dirty work is best done out of sight, out of mind. Rikers is a literal island; there's only one bridge to access it—I think it's close to a mile long. Dermot Shea, the New York police commissioner, recently in an interview said, "We have the envy of what every city in the United States wants: an island where our jail is."
PRESS: That very aptly fits into the paradigm of dirty work that I try to lay out. And of course, in other parts of the country, they may not have an island, but they have a lot of rural towns, and areas that few people pass through. And lo and behold, jails and prisons tend to be concentrated in more remote rural areas, often impoverished areas, as the Dade Correctional Institution is, and draws a workforce from those same communities, and is effectively rendered invisible.
WATKINS: In terms of understanding the distancing of dirty work, and the way things need to be kept away from the good people, you write about this, perversely in a way, as a kind of civilizing process that takes place with the creation of dirty work, and I just wanted to explore that concept of civilizing and dirty work with you for a moment.
PRESS: Absolutely. So, I take that idea from a sociologist named Norbert Elias. He wrote this two-volume study called The Civilizing Process, and it's an enormous book and it's actually mostly about table manners. He's got these detailed descriptions of how, as society becomes civilized, things like blowing your nose are done in a different way. It's done more discreetly. Going to the bathroom, it has to be with a closed door, in private, no one hears, no one sees. And he-
WATKINS: And this is in the Middle Ages, right?
PRESS: This is from the Middle Ages to the modern age. And what he's saying is, and he has this wonderful phrase, he says, "The civilizing process is about hiding disturbing events behind the scenes of social life." And what he means by "disturbing events" are, again, sneezing, coughing, spitting, going to the bathroom.
He also talks about the slaughter of animals, that in the Middle Ages, the slaughtered carcass would be brought to the table. But by the time societies become civilized, it's done in the butcher's shop or in the kitchen behind closed doors and brought out so that you don't see the blood and the reminder that this was a living thing.
He says that as societies become more civilized the threshold of repugnance rises.
Now, let's think about the criminal justice system, because what's really interesting is that, although Elias does not mention jails and prisons once in this book, he has become an important theorist in contemporary criminology and in the study of the sociology of punishment, because David Garland and other scholars have said, "Well, wait a minute. Look at the way we organize punishment today."
We don't flog people. We don't have these crude spectacles of punishment that existed in the Middle Ages, but we put them in administrative segregation, behind the doors of a closed institution, in a solitary cell that's completely hidden from view, and we seem to tolerate that even though it's arguably no less cruel.
The idea here is, as long as violence and cruelty is hidden, privatized, made more discreet, it can go on in a civilized society. In many ways, it's even more likely to continue and go on, because it's been hidden.
WATKINS: And just to be clear, for Elias, "civilizing, civilization," tends to have a very positive connotation. That's not necessarily the way that Elias is using it. He's not arguing this is some positive, inevitable development.
PRESS: Not at all, and indeed, he was a student of Sigmund Freud, and what he's talking about is repression, and the repression of what's disturbing and pushing it away. But he's talking about it not just at an individual level, but at a social level, and if we think about the impulse to hide and repress, we can see why civilization does not equate to progress, to moral progress in this formulation.
Even though I think some people do read Elias that way, I think they misread him as saying, "Oh, things are just getting better." He's not saying that. In fact, he's warning us, I think, that they may well get, in some ways, more barbaric, but we won't see it that way.
WATKINS: You write in the book that the idea of dirty work—and that's work that, by definition, causes substantial harm—the idea that dirty work might be necessary is disturbing. Not to put you on the spot, but have you thought about what a world without dirty work would look like? And is it even possible?
PRESS: What I mean by "necessary" is necessary to the existing social order. There's nothing necessary about the way we have organized and structured industrial slaughterhouses in factory farms. In fact, in much of Europe, there are things we do in this country that Europeans don't do.
They don't, for example, spray chicken with chemicals to prevent infections and unsafe chicken being sold in supermarkets, because in Europe, the line speeds are slower and there's more government regulation to inspect the meat in other ways, because people don't want to eat meat that has been sprayed with chemicals—chlorine and other things they're not sure are safe.
But the line speeds being what they are, denying people bathroom breaks, none of that is really necessary. But it's necessary to the system as it exists today: cheap meat that comes in those shrink-wrapped packages that look very clean, but that is produced under socially invisible conditions. That's the system we have.
In a similar way with the prisons, there's nothing necessary about using jails and prisons as… turning them into the largest mental health institutions in our society, which they are. This doesn't have to be the case; it was not always the case. So, we can change it.
Maybe we shouldn't allow the meat and poultry in our country to be hidden from view in the same way. I mean, Michael Pollan, the great chronicler of the American food system, in one of his books, he talks about turning all the slaughterhouses… building them with glass rather than with brick, so that people could see what went on inside, and speculates that, if that was done, everything would change.
Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn't, but I think at the very least, there is, for me, a problem with hiding all of this, with concealing it, because our integrity is damaged as citizens if we don't ever see the things, the harm, that is being done in our name. I think that there's something fundamentally askew about that.
WATKINS: The beginnings of a solution might be simply exposure, and trying to mitigate some of the hypocrisy that surrounds and sustains dirty work, which it seems to me is part of what your book is trying to do.
PRESS: Absolutely, and I think that the other thing I'm trying to do is to have people think a little bit about the folks who dirty their hands as something other than people they can easily judge. If you hear Harriet's story and you don't know the details, and you don't know the structural conditions, you just hear that this mental health aide heard about a man being, in a sense, boiled alive and murdered.
“She didn't report it? That's outrageous! Medical ethics requires that you do report it.” But then, if we look at what the actual conditions there were, and what the constraints were, it becomes more complicated, it becomes grayer.
I think that the inequality of who does the dirty work is compounded by an inequality of blame, so the blame always falls on these bad apples within the system who did these awful things, and very rarely on the folks at the top who designed the system.
They have power. The people on the bottom rungs don't have a lot of power. I would hope that people would think about the way that we too often, in a sense, allow the bad apple theory to substitute for deeper reflection about who is really accountable for this.
WATKINS: Well, I think your book goes a long way towards doing that kind of refocusing effort. I found that, after reading it, it's a little bit like someone has adjusted your prescription on your glasses a little bit, and you just start to see things out there in the world a little bit differently, and enough, I think, to make a difference.
So, I want to congratulate you on the work that you've done, and I want to thank you so much for being here today. It's been a really illuminating conversation.
PRESS: Thank you so much, and I have to say, that's one of the nicest things someone has said about the book. If I can think of ... I have pretty bad vision, and I just actually got my glasses updated, but that's why the work needs to be done, from my point of view, to try to hopefully open people's eyes.
Because I do think that, as divided as this country has become, I think when people are actually confronted with some of the details of what is in this book, very few are just going to say, "Oh, I'm fine with that."
To me, there is just a job to be done of getting us to see a little more clearly, because I think that's where conversation can begin, and conversation has to happen before we can change anything.
WATKINS: Well, here's to the power of conversation.
That was my conversation with author and journalist Eyal Press. His new book is Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America. For more information about Eyal and today's episode, click the link in your show notes or go to courtinnovation.org/newthinking.
For help with the episode, my thanks to Kelly Crichton. The episode was produced and edited by me. Samiha Amin Meah is our director of design. Emma Dayton is our V.P. of outreach. Our music is by Michael Aharon at quivernyc.com. And our show's founder is Rob Wolf. This has been New Thinking from the Center for Court Innovation. I'm Matt Watkins. Thanks for listening.