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Wednesday, September 8, 2021

America Runs on ‘Dirty Work’ and Moral Inequality

Eyal Press
The New York Times
Originally posted 13 Aug 21

Here is an excerpt:

“Dirty work” can refer to any unpleasant job, but among social scientists, the term has a more pointed meaning. In 1962, Everett Hughes, an American sociologist, published an essay titled “Good People and Dirty Work” that drew on conversations he’d had in postwar Germany about the mass atrocities of the Nazi era. Mr. Hughes argued that the persecution of Jews proceeded with the unspoken assent of many supposedly enlightened Germans, who refrained from asking too many questions because, on some level, they were not entirely displeased.

This was the nature of dirty work as Mr. Hughes conceived of it: unethical activity that was delegated to certain agents and then disavowed by society, even though the perpetrators had an “unconscious mandate” from their fellow citizens. As extreme as the Nazi example was, this dynamic existed in every society, Mr. Hughes wrote, enabling respectable citizens to distance themselves from the morally troubling things being done in their name. The dirty workers were not rogue actors but “agents” of “good people” who passively stood by.

Contemporary America runs on dirty work. Some of the people who do this work are our agents by virtue of the fact that they perform public functions, such as running the world’s largest penal system. Others qualify as such by catering to our consumption habits — the food we eat, the fossil fuels we burn, which are drilled and fracked by dirty workers in places like the Gulf of Mexico. The high-tech gadgets in our pockets rely on yet another form of dirty work — the mining of cobalt — that has been outsourced to workers in Africa and to foreign subcontractors that often brutally exploit them.

Like the essential jobs performed by grocery clerks and other low-wage workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, this work sustains our lifestyles and undergirds the prevailing social order, but privileged people are generally spared from having to think about it. One reason is that the dirty work occurs far away from them, in isolated institutions — prisons, slaughterhouses — that are closed to the public. Another reason is that the privileged rarely have to do it. Although there is no shortage of it to go around, dirty work in America is not randomly distributed.