tv Eyal Press Dirty Work CSPAN October 11, 2021 4:30pm-5:32pm EDT
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>> eyal press is a journalist who writes for the new yorker and other publications. since this past spring, he's also association also with a ph.d. he's the author of two previous books, absolute convictions about the abortion wars that engulfed his home down of buffalo, new york and beautiful souls, a book about individuals who displayed moral courage in dangerous circumstances. he is received numerous fellowships and awards including an andrew carnegie fellowship and the james aaronson award for social justice journal. dr. kim phillips fine, a historian and professor of history at new york university, she's the author of several books also including the recent "fear city." and her essays have appeared in a range of journals and
newspapers. we'll welcome eyal and kim in just a moment. but first a greeting from cabe lynx currious. thank you. >> i'm so grateful that we're able to host this author talk tonight. well dirty work touches upon themes such as morality, complicit and corruption, what struck me while reading was learning how communities and corporations and our government have failed essential workers that are profiled. workers who find themselves morally questionable circumstances but who have limited options due to a system that is often having a financial incentive to keep them underpaid and undereducated. at the ppl, for example, patrons ro take apart in esl language krofgs groups we helped bridge
the digital divide and hearing kirsten, patrons could book our lab, use a cam corder or capture or tell one's story. we offer career building workshops, webinars and offer access to macs for building prototypes with our 3-d printer. know that you could book time with a librarian or practice interview questions. for budding entrepreneurs we offer mentoring services and access to a suite of electronic resources so that we could help build a business plan, research market data or find new customers. we also host and connect patrons to outside organizations or financial empowerment and this is our motto. options and the possibility offed horizons is what libraries are all about. it is our hope that we could play an integral role in helping guide the essential workers further down the track to find
success, whatever that may be. with that i'm turn it over to kim phillips fine and a.l. press. thank you. >> so -- >> well it is great to be here tonight. i thought we would start out with you telling us about the book and the book. >> sure. thank you. thank you, kim and just want to first thank the boston public library for hosting this conversation. i really wish we were having it in person. books come to life in the hands of readers and there is nothing more gratifying than see the readers come out to talk and field questions from them. it is the highlight of my book publishing career. this time we're going to have to do it a little differently. and i hope nevertheless we have
a really rich conversation because books come to life through dialogue in the public sphere. i also really want to thank kim, a brilliant historian and someone who has taken time to -- from her very busy schedule to be an interlocker tonight bringing enormous knowledge of american history and unions and working conditions. so, as has been mentioned, my book is called "dirty work" and it is subtitled essential jobs and the hidden toll of inequality in america. and i want to just fix ate a little on that phrase, essential jobs. because it is a term that we all recognize now. that has come into currency during the pandemic. and it was really fascinating for me to watch that happen. to suddenly see a national conversation unfold about essential jobs, essential
workers, the workers who during the pandemic were bagging groceries, driving long haul trucks, warehouse handlers, would were putting items being ordered by people who were sheltered in place and staying at home. that whole conversation unfolded over the last 18 months and it became a conversation not just about work, but of course about class. because it quickly came to light that the people we were calling essential workers were predominantly in jobs that paid less, that often had arduous conditions, and that exposed them to all kinds of risks. even before the pandemic. but of course during the pandemic itself, that was sort of -- that came to the fore through exposure to a potentially deadly virus. and so you had this kind of
collective gratitude in society. but you also had a sense of, in a sense all of us questioning ourselves. these workers do these jobs and they're hidden. and i spent the last three or four years before the pandemic talking to workers that are arguably even more hidden. and who are doing jobs that are done out of the way and on the margins. but that i suggest are also essential to our society,al be in it in a slightly different way. and the essential jobs i'm talking about are jobs that have a morally troubling aspect to them. so if we think of the slaughter of animals in industrial slaughterhouses, and packing which has both environmental impacts and impacts on the animals and impacts on the workers. if we think of the jobs of
running america's prisons and in particular i focus on the mental health wards of our prisons, which, by the way, are our largest mental health institutions at this point. we warehouse more people with severe mental health in jails and prisons than we did in public hospitals. if we think of the job of conducting targeted assassinations with drones. all of these are jobs and forms of work that carry profound moral questions. and that many people find morally discomforting. and yet that are kind of delegated off and out of the margins so that we don't have to think about them that much. and that is in a sense the premise of my book. and i came to kind of think about these jobs by going back
to annes way i came across and it was written shortly after world war ii and published in 1962 by an american sociologists named everett hughes and it was titled "good people and dirty work" and it was based on the time that hughes spent, he spent a semester teaching in frankfort in post war germany after world war ii which one could imagine is a very freighted place to be at that time. and hughes was a provauk tour. he didn't shy away from what happened in germany. but the people he brought this up with were the folks that he had known before the war. they were intellectuals, and white-collar professionals and architects an educated people who were not members of the nazi party and who he wanted to know, how would they talk about, how would they -- what would they have to say about what had just
taken place, namely the genocide of the jews and the horrific crimes of the nazi party. and he begins the essay but recounting this evening he spent at this architects house and he has tea and he's among thes could metropolitan and some someone i'm ashamed of my people which is exactly what expect someone to say. but then further on in the evening, he said, but you know the jews, they really were a problem. they were taking all of the good jobs. they were living in these filthy ghettos. he sort of goes on to describe them as an -- what hughes call an out and then he backtracks and said i'm not saying what the nazis did was justified. but something had to be done to settle this problem. and out of this conversation and similar conversations that hughes has, he writes this essay
in which he said, you know, it would be very comforting for us to think of dirty work, of unethical things that happen in society as the responsibility of rogue actors who are just kind of acting on their own and that have nothing to do with us. but in fact, the people doing society's dirty work are agents of society. they have what hughes call an unconscious mandate from society which is not to say that people he met and spoke to openly said this was a good thing, it is more that they didn't want to hear too much about it. they didn't want to ask questions about it. and through that kind of facility and apathy, dirty work could happen in the shadows and in the margins. and to me the most provocative thing about the essay is not what it says about nazi germany, which hughes was not an expert about. but what he goes on to say, which is that this dynamic exists in every society.
and in fact, hughes made is very explicit he was writing the essay to his fellow north americans. and thinking about the more subtle forms of dirty work. that take place in democratic societies where many people he called passive democrats sort of stand by and let this continue, let it go on without asking too many questions about what is being done in their name. and if you think about it, the questions he's raising, what kind of dirty work do we have in this society, what kind of mandate does it have from the rest of us? those questions are actually much more relevant in a country like the united states than they are in nazi germany. because in a dictatorship like the nazi dictatorship or any country, con tem porry north korea, it doesn't matter what the good people think. the regime is going to do what it is going to do. and there is no real role for
society to shape that. but in a democracy, that is quite different. and of course we could talk about how much our democracy actually represents the will of the people. but at least in theory, we have a say over what these things are and how they're done and the conditions in which they're done. so that is the point of departure from my book and i could get into more specific examples and stories as we continue having a conversation. >> yeah, i think that gives a very excellent sense of the fuss of the buck. and i never heard of this hughes essay myself and was very struck by it. i love to look it up now. i think that -- i think there are a couple of things about the book that are remarkable and there is a way that it raises two question that's are not usually posed and the first is, as you point out, the question of the relationship between
these occupations and the rest of the society. and you speak about this partly in terms of inequality, but also how that the sense that there -- that the people who are doing this work are at once kind of prescribed and made to seem outside of the rest of the social order but at the same time are doing things that actually need to be done for the society to exist and which for our kind of society to exist. and i think that double relationship is very -- is very powerfulfully brought out in the book as a whole and i would like you to talk a little more about that. and second is there is very little -- on books that focus on the subjects of the book, and we could talk more in a minute about what the actual work is, what is the dirty work we're talking about, but they usually focus on the victims somehow and
i think focussing on the perpetrator, or the people who carry out these jobs and the impact of that work on them is also quite original and really different than a lot of the -- a lot of what we see in this type of book and i wonder if you could talk a little bit about how -- what led you to write this book? how did you arrive at the topic and how do you see it coming out of your sort of long-standing intellectual project? how do you see it connecting to your other work which has partly been about resisters, people who in one way or another dissent from what they're supposed to do but also very much about conviction and people who act in a a cordance with a set of deeply held moral beliefs. this book in a way is about people who are not acting in accord with their moral beliefs
or i suppose people for whom whatever their inco hate sense of morality comes up against what they are doing. so how did you come to write the book and arrive at the topic and it also seems like it must have been an agonizing book to report, what was it like to work on it? >> well, your absolutely right that it grew out of previous books and a long standing interest. all of the books i've written are about individuals who are thrust into morally treacherous situations and they have to decide, make very difficult choices about whether to heed the voice of conscience and do what they think is right or to do what their ordered to do or expected to do or have to do. my last book "beautiful souls" was a study of moral courage and i look at that -- people in
various situations, some in the united states, others in places like the balkans when ethic cleansing and genocide was happening. who risked sometimes their careers and sometimes their lives to stand by their principals. and in a sense, to keep their hands clean. right. not to do what they felt might stain or dirty them. and in the course of writing that book and researching that book, i kept talking to people and meeting people and researching and reading about people who didn't have that strength. who went along in these situations. who did dirty their hands. and so it got me really interested in their stories. and i was really compelled in part because one impulse i felt when i met these people, as i recall very vividly one night in the balkans talking to people who are participated in
attacking their neighbors and in a war that became neighbor versus neighbor over ethnic identity. on one level i felt horrified and an impulse to judge them. on another level, i wondered how different would i have acted? how different would any of us have acted in such situations? and that gave me pause. a lot of these stories i heard were from people who were 18 or 19 years old when they were con scripted into an army to do things they were told had to be done for the nation to survive. and so i got interested in the stories of those who go along and in the price not only society pays for that conformity, but people who get swept up in these situations. and as i thought about the united states, because i want this to be a book about america and i thought about who is
allotted the most morally difficult and morally troubling tasks in our society. it kept occurring to me that it is not society's elite, it is not the powerful, it is people with fewer choices and opportunities. and let plea just give a little example. the book opens with a story of harriet kristoffski and she's a mental health aid who gets a job at a prison in florida called the dade correctional institution. and harriet has no prior experience in corrections. this is after 2008, the great recession. the market crash. and the crash was very hard in florida. and she couldn't find other jobs and had a couple of kids and her husband was unemployed and she started working in a prison. and she doesn't really know what she's getting into. but she quickly comes to discover and hears stories from the patients in the mental health ward of the prison that
they're being mistreated. she hears guys tell her, they're skipping my meals an not bringing my food and she hears this more than once so she goes to our supervise yore and said i'm hearing risoners to a lot of false stories and they don't necessarily believe that. by the way our job is to get along with security and this message and he doesn't need to be told that because she knows when she's doing her work part of the reason she feels safe there is a guard where she is the people in the mental health unit. at a certain point she gets frustrated and she says something how she doesn't like the conditions and specifically about letting the prisoners and their not it's specifically about letting the prisoners out into the rec
yard. they're not let out a couple of sundays in the row. she gets frustrated. she writes a email about it, and suddenly she finds herself retaliated against. she is left alone in the backyard. she is left alone in the group sessions. it dawns on her. she is sending me a message. they run this place, i don't. that sounds like one specific story. but in fact, as i point out in the chapter, it's not specific to date. as mentioned, jails and prisons are the largest mental health institutions in this country. the people who are entrusted to provide the care, on the one hand, are supposed to, you know, not violate basic medical ethics. if they see abuse, they should stand up for their patients. on the other hand, they're beholden to security. they're beholden to the guards. they're doing their work in a violent and dangerous environment. and what that caused in harriet's case was silence.
and she remained silent even as she subsequently learned of far more horrific abuse that was happening at dade, including what was called the shower treatment. guards were taking prisoners into a shower whose water temperature was controlled from the outside. and essentially burning them. the water was 180 degrees, which is hot enough to brew a cup of tea. and harriet goes to work one day, and she learns that a prisoner named darrin rainey was locked in that shower, and he died there. and he we now know from autopsy photos, he sustained burns on about 90% of his body. she learns this. the other mental health staffers learn this. they don't say anything. and, again, on one level, one can say, well, that's reprehensible. you have to come forward.
you are a mental health professional. you must say something here. on another level, how many people actually would? you know, knowing the risks that come with that? and so what ends up happening is that harriet and a lot of the other people at the mental health staff at the prison just silenced themselves and lived with their guilt, lived with the idea that they're allowing this to happen. and just to circle back, kim, to your first point about inequality and why i sort of got interested in how this reflects and mirrors the inequality in our society, at least psychiatrists don't work in places like the dade correctional institution. it's people like harriet. and the psychiatric profession is aware so many of the sickest people in our society are getting their treatment in jails and prisons. because of that kind of division
of labor which is replicated over and over in our society, the moral conflict gets delegated and sort of left to the people at the bottom. and the profession itself can pay less attention because it's not a central concern to people who are rounding the conferences a the american psychiatric conference and so forth. that's sort of an example of how inequality shapes dirty work in america and plays a role in the stories i tell. >> the kind of work that you write about, work in prisons, meat packing plant, drone base, all oil rigs, all of these, one thing that unites them is they're very different kind of workplaces, but all of them are secretive, inaccessible to the public and reporters, kept
really out of public view, as you say. soy wonder how do you write about it? can you tell us about your process, how you found people like harriet, how you went about doing the work of the book, and also maybe some of the conflicts that came up for you. you write about this a little bit near the end of the book, writing about fossil fuels in particular, something that implicates all of us in different ways. so i'm curious also if you found yourself facing any moral quandaries while you were working on the book. >> well, i should say from the beginning that the book is kind of about the workers, but as the one review that has been published thus far said, it's also about us. and when i say us, i mean myself as well. i'm not sort of standing above and saying, you know, so many of us are implicated by through our lifestyles, through the politics and the social policies that
have happened in this country. i'm not excluding myself to any degree. so writing the book was linked with all of this. in terms of the process, so you're so right. all of the forms of work in "dirty work" that i look at are hidden. they take place in sort of physically and geographically remote institutions, slaughterhouses, prisons, drone bases. these are not places you just wander into. you have to actually seek them out. and if you do seek them out and you don't have authorization to go there, you will not be allowed inside. so i had to think really hard about how i was going to sort of illuminate what goes on inside these worlds. and it was pretty early on that i felt it was actually while doing the story about harriet and the dade correctional institution that i came to the conclusion that going in through the front door wasn't going to show me much. what i was going to get, if i
toured facilities, and i do some of that in this book. but what i get when i do that is a stage managed reality, right. it's -- they know i'm coming, and so, you know, when reporters or outsiders or public advocate, politicians, anyone go into these sites, there is a filtered reality that folks see. so i felt like i couldn't write the book based on that. another way to do it would have been to go undercover, as some people indeed have done. there are books written about prisons. ted conover's wonderful book in which he actually works as a corrections officer to try to get that. but i decided not to do that as well because i wanted to look at multiple, and i felt i'm going get multiple sites, how am i going to get inside?
i ultimately decided i have to find people who work in these worlds. and i think that again drew me as a writer, because i'm most fascinated i think by not just the choices that people make in these difficult situations, but what stories they tell themselves about what they've gone through and what they've experienced. i just -- i feel like as a writer, i'm interested in that and to the extent i can contribute something significant is by touching these really sensitive things like shame and stigma and the psychic toll that i think is a big part of inequality in this country, but is hidden. it's not easy to measure it. you can't sort of quantify it in a chart. but through the stories of these workers and the very personal -- in harriet's case, just to go back to her for one second, she falls into a depression.
she loses her hair. she is later diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. and when i first met her, she was wearing a wig tied to hair balls. and rather than talk what she had gone through, she handed me an account she had written of what she had gone through, and she called it her trauma net. and i was so struck by that, by what it contained and by what i subsequently saw. and in a way that replicates throughout the book, that people are really talking in very personal ways about what they went through. and that can only be gleaned across. >> i think -- and just to interest people who haven't read the book yet, most books about -- what is really interesting about this, different from the undercover supporting strategy is that in a way the book isn't just about the conditions in prisons or
meat packing plants, or in afghanistan. and actually the events of the past week must have made the position of the drone operators and the people who have been involved in the conflict and part of what's happened the past week is many people hadn't thought about afghanistan and what was happening there at all for years are suddenly brought face-to-face with some measure of the reality of what has been going on all this time. and so i think it's interesting while the book is not an expo -- it's not just an expo day, but an exploration of what it's actually like to have the burden of working within these institutions and carrying out the work itself. and so just to underscore that, there are many books that are about sort of exposing terrible things that are happening. but rarely do you see them with this other level of reflection about what it means internally
for the people involved in actually making the institutions come to life. another wonderful point in the book is the role of arts and of writing and many of the people who you write about seemed to have written about their own experiences and engaged or painted and done other things, efforts to try to mediate and understand for themselves what happened. one very powerful part of the book, maybe we can come back to this at the end are the role of sort of seeing the people like harriet or flor, who is a chicken processing worker, just the effort that they go to make sense of their own lives and to articulate their sense of what's happened to them and their complicated relationships to it is really interesting. you see them as, you know, it
really is a story -- the book is about agency and what people try to do to understand the world they live in and the role they play within it. >> can i jump in -- >> i just to kind of go back to the question you were raising about inequality and virtue, which is another major theme of the book. and as you spoke about it, i was thinking we think so much about morality as something that belongs to the individual, having a conscience, doing the right thing or the wrong thing. i think one question your book puts forward is this really the right way or the only way to see it at all? some people are put in positions where they have to make this decision. they have to have the weight of making moral decisions that many people never really have to face in the same way. so that there is something that morality and the capacity to act
ethically in part is a function of your role, your place in this society as a whole. and i think that's just a very different way of seeing what it means to have an ethical life, what it means to have a moral life. and i just wondered if you wanted to say anything about that, about how we think about. there is a lot obviously written about economic inequality, but your book is also about how one of the ways that is justified or understood is that some people are better than others. and some people are able to have the luxury of a clean conscience, of not seeing themselves in this as people who carry out this type of work. your thoughts on that. >> let me get to very specific examples of that that come to mind. you mentioned flor martinez, who worked in a poultry slaughterhouse. and i tell her story, it's an extraordinary story, of what she went through.
but there is a point very early in her story where she actually sees that although a lot of the killing of the chickens -- one of the first jobs she gets at the slaughterhouse is hoisting these chickens off of the conveyor belts, and then they sort of pass through an area where their throats are slit and they're defeathered without any workers there, and they just come out the other side, and at that point they're going to be dismembered and cleaned and all of that. but some of the birds don't make -- make it through that, even through the throat-slitting, the electrocution. this is all very graphic, i'm sorry. the birds make it out, and they're still alive. there is a person whose job is at that point to kill the bird if it makes it through, and to literally slash its throat with a knife, just as in beef slaughterhouses, there is a person who operates the knocking
gun, the bolt gun that kills the cow. and the first time flor sees this, she cries. and she says to herself, i'm never going to eat chicken again. that concern quickly goes away as she has to do the job, and she is an undocumented immigrant, and she is trying to make ends meet. and like so many of the workers that i met in that plant, she does not have the luxury to foreground that concern in a way that, you know, a consumer who will never set foot in an industrial slaughterhouse can go to a shopping -- can go to whole foods and pick the poultry that has the nicest label, that makes them feel most virtuous, humanely raised, no antibiotics. it doesn't say anything by the way about the treatment of workers which is not unknown to those workers, because they often say consumers seem to care
more about the treatment of the animals than the treatment of us. but that's an example of moral inequality right there. like who has the luxury to foreground those concerns and who doesn't. in a very similar way, there is a drone operator i write about who comes from a small town and is poor, and there aren't a lot of jobs. and she ends up enlisting in the air force to get out. and to travel and to hopefully get some opportunity, which let's face it, is a big reason why a lot of people join the military, particularly since we've eliminated the draft and made it a kind of it's voluntary, but it's voluntary under what i refer to as borrowing from the philosopher michael sandell, it's a choice made under the umbrella of economic necessity, both in her case and many other cases. she goes in and eventually becomes an imagery analyst in the drone program.
and at first is fine with it. and then starts to not be fine with it, and starts to really doubt who are these -- who is being killed in these strikes? what is the point of them? she's watching areas of afghanistan where soldiers are dying and no progress seems to be made. she is very much what we just learned in the news. and she comes out of the base and there actually some protesters there. and there saying don't join -- don't be involved in this killing. some of them are with these graphic signs and images, and it infuriates her. and what infuriates her is i think not just that she's having these doubts herself and it stirs such difficult feelings, but the feeling she has that they don't know -- i wish i had
the luxury to be in their shoes. they don't know what it's like to be in mine. they don't have a clue what led the people in my unit to serve in this program. and this sort of sense of condescension. i'm not saying -- i don't want to make a blanket criticism of those protesters, and i don't. and i also don't want to suggest that -- you very nicely said the people in the book are at once perpetrators and victims. i think in different passages and in different parts of the book, i'm trying to get to that complexity and to let leaders decide for themselves what to make of this. but i do want -- i wrote the book from the perspective of these frontline workers, because i think it's so easy to judge them from afar, and much easy to do that when you hear about their lives and when the stories are grounded in the social
context that unfolds and in a society where, as i said, you know, if you're -- the more privileged and powerful you are, the easier it is to never have anything to do with this. not only to not to do it, but to never see it. >> well, i think i'll ask one more question, and then we can open it up for the audience to send questions in. but this one question that i thought of that troubled me reading the book, all of the areas you write about are ones that have as you point out with the code pink protesters, there is significant disagreement within the society about all of these undertakings. it may be different measures of critique and different types of resistance or different forms of disagreement. so i wondered, how do you think
about there are people who want to abolish prison and reform the criminal system in many different ways. there are obviously many critics of the war in afghanistan, let alone the drone program in particular. there are different types of critiques of the meat packing industry. so these are all areas that have significant social division. they aren't just things that everybody equally agrees about. nor are they things that everybody benefits from equally either. i wonder how do you think about accountability in that framework? are there divisions, distinctions, in who's name is the dirty work being done, really? you think about the tensions around that. >> it's a great question. and just to go back to the protesters at that base, because i talked to one and i sort of profile her. and to her credit, i would say she is the opposite of whatever
used to be called a passive democrat. she is thinking very much about these acts are done in my name, i'm responsible. and therefore i have to come out and act according to my beliefs and my conscience. so it's not simply a blanket dismissal by any means of the folks that are doing that. and you're right that there are divisions. and i should also say one of the premises of the book is that "dirty work" is not etched in stone. it can change. you mentioned prisons. we talked about drones. we talk a little less about fossil fuels and the consumer products that are so central to the american way of life behind which so much dirty work lies. in all of these areas, public awareness, public consciousness has shifted quite significantly over i would say the past decade or so. and i acknowledge that and sort of hope that the reader keeps that in mind so that this isn't
just a sort of canvas of hopelessness. it's not. having said that, i just would say i think it is -- i think there are -- there certainly are gradations of accountability, and so when talk about the abuses of that mental health word of the prison, right at the top in my view are the private companies that were profiting from running florida's mental health services along with the politicians who entrusted the entire mental health and health care systems of florida's prison system, the third largest in the country, by the way, to private companies. so in other words, don't just do this, turn a profit. and there has been a recording since about just what that led, the kind of abuse and corruption that led to. they're more accountable. they're more responsible. their hands are dirtier than the rest of society's, but i also think it's too easy to just end
the story there and not to look at what began, what hughes called good people. and what i mean is people who on the one hand feel very discomforted when they -- told about the kinds of abuses i write about, or if told about the environmental consequences of our industrial meat system. it's discomforting. it may make them say i'm ashamed of this system, and i certainly don't ascent to it. but on the other hand, don't want to think too much about it, and kind of put it aside. and i think that putting it aside is what, again, i question. i think that the dirty workers i write about, they are agents of society. they are not just rogue actors who have been hoodwinked by a few companies doing marginal
activities. they're doing things that have a sanction. >> and on some level that society has decided that it wants. we have a number of questions that have come in already. so i will -- let me just -- i may join some of these together, because they go together nicely. but jesse asks, and i'm delighted that he asked this because it gets to another part of the book i also was really struck by. have you come to any further authorities since writing the wounds of the drone warrior in 2018? maybe you can talk what that article and about the part about drones in the book. . >> yeah. thank you for the question, jeff. so that article, which is a version of what appears in the book and is sort of expanded upon really unpacks this idea of moral injury which is a real theme in the book. and what that refers to is the kind of injury that's sustained by a person who in the course of
doing their job or doing their duty witnesses or participates in an act that goes against their core values. and then has the live with it. and that term "moral injury" is known to some of the public at this point because there has been a conversation about it in the context of war. but i suggest in the book that it's not limited to the military, that moral injuries can be sustained in any number of jobs and any number of sector, where people, again, witness or participate in things that go against their core values and that they then have to make sense of somehow. and actually, during the pandemic, that turmoil injury was in the newspapers quite a bit, because we were reading about emergency workers and doctors and nurses who had to make excruciating decisions
about who gets the last ventilator at the peak of the pandemic, and who should get it. should it go to a younger woman who is pregnant? should it go to an elderly man who without it might not survive? and you started seeing that term circulate more outside of the context of the military. part of the contribution i hope of my book is to get us thinking about moral injury as something that pervades probably every profession. and i certainly think it is something that permeates the sectors i wrote about. >> two questions from david and sharon. and they're sort of linked. so i'll put them together. what are your thoughts on how societies can protect people from morally and psychologically adverse work conditions? and from sharon, how do we get agencies that go through struggles to pay bills from day
to day and often cannot speak up for themselves? >> i mean, i haven't really -- i should say that i'm an author and an analyst of these conditions, not a policy expert. so i don't have a set of simple solutions, but i do think that it begins with awareness. i think that so much of how dirty work unfolds and how it is organized is premised on both secrecy and apathy. and i think those two things actually work together. it's not just that it's hidden from us. it's also that it becomes very easy for us not to pay attention to it. so i think that, you know, it begins with awareness and conversation and dialogue. and without that, you know, it can just sort of be perpetuated
without questions asked. >> yeah, it brings up another question for me. maybe i'll ask it at the end if the audience questions out. genesis asks do you have any thoughts about the rhetoric of essential workers that the nation used during the pandemic and that's connected a bit to someone else asked, let's see, as you point out, the pandemic made -- there is a lot of attention given to health care workers who were forced to make very difficult decisions. are they -- are they dirty workers in the same way? or how do we think about the relationship of that group of people to the kinds of issues that you're talking about? >> right. so on the point of essential workers, i would say there is a real -- i think you have to almost put quotes around those terms, because essential, yes. society can't run without them. but in terms of how we treat
them, we -- in meat packing, in prisons and other place, what we see is that their lives are often expendable, and we don't actually want to hear too much about them. and i wonder how much attention will continue to be paid to the essential workers once the pandemic fades. will they just fade book is the background? so that would be a real shame. in terms of -- there was another question that you just raised that now slipped my mind. >> well, the question of how -- well, the -- >> oh, i know. i know what it is. the question about health care workers. i'm sorry. yes. the question about health care worker, such a good question. and do i see them as dirty workers? no, i don't, actually. and i actually say very early in
the book that it was very moving, and it is very powerful and moving to hear about physicians and, you know, from responders who were placed in these very morally difficult situations. but one very key difference certainly in new york where i live, and i think across the country is that society treated those who were doing this work and who were in these dilemmas as heroes. and very quickly, newspapers, usa today and cbs evening news, i would walk -- and "the new york times" magazine, i was watching an enormous amount of attention and space given to the discussion of these dilemmas because precisely because this work was seen as heroic. was seen as admirable. but what if you're placed in
those situations and you have these incredibly difficult questions to work through and you're doing a job that is looked don on that, is stigmatized, that is kind of seen as a stain on you? that i think carries a very different psychic weight and a kind of social -- it's much more difficult to hold on to one's dignity, to hold on to one's self-respect, to hold on to one's place in the community when you're not only feeling, god, i'm making these incredible difficult moral decisions, but nobody wants to hear about what i do. in fact, i don't want to hear you about what i do, because there is shame associated. >> i think you answer your point in another theme or question in the book which is also raised by some of our questioners here that in a way, it's not so much -- in a way, people generically know, they know that prisons are terrible places. they know that animals are
killed in terrible ways in slaughterhouses, and that the workers are not treated well. those things, the details perhaps, they don't know about people being scalded to death in showers, but they know in some general way what is happening. and so the question is why is it that it does happen? just what is the knowing and not knowing that goes into the whole -- that surrounds the whole society? and we have a question here from lou who says the stories seem to point to an absence in many institutions, or to put it more starkly, this is not my concern. i know there is not a simple answer, but where, how do you think pressure can be applied to reset a collective moral compass? earlier it was asked what can be done to create a kinder united states. and i guess i was going to throw on to that also.
how do you think -- many of these jobs, can you make peace with them? would it be better if there weren't people who experienced, i don't know, can these jobs be -- how can they be transformed? how can they be redeemed? is the purpose to psychologically adjust people who carry out this burden, or is it somehow to make it so that they don't have to carry it out or change the nature of the work in such a way that it is no longer -- i don't know, some of these things, you can change the conditions of the work, but the end purpose of it may remain profoundly troubling. how to grapple with that, what can be done? >> i think that if we have, you know, more public dialogue about this, and more exposure, you know, it may be the case that people say, well, yeah, i know
that what takes place in industrial slaughterhouses is pretty awful, but it's worth it. it's worth it to me. and i'll own that. we should all own that. i know that it's pretty awful to warehouse people with severe mental illnesses in jails and prisons, but i'm not willing to have my taxes raised so that there is a more adequate public health system and less inequality in care. so that's fine for me. or, okay, there is something troubling about drones. it's not a pleasant thing, but i don't want us sending our boys overseas. i don't want the united states sacrificing its own soldiers' lives and putting them at risk, so i'm fine with fighting this way. if we had open conversations about all of that and just decided this is the way we are, this is we're all kind of in this. and we all share responsibility for it to some extent, i --
maybe that's the way things would end up. >> right. >> but it is my -- it's striking to me that we don't, actually, and that part of the organization of dirty work, it enables us as a society to in a sense not think about any of those things. we don't have to feel that we're making these compromised choices, or that we're implicated in any way because they happen out of sight, out of mind. and to me there is a fundamental lack of integrity in that as a society, that we're somehow not actually facing and acknowledging these are the choices we're willing to make. and my hope certainly would be that through those conversations, we decide some of these things we don't want. we really don't want to have the world's largest prison system. i think we have decided that in the last decade or so, both on the left and the right. for different reasons. but i think there is a sort of
real push back against mass incarceration. well, do we want to have a society that just has severly mentally ill people cycling through these violent abusive places that are both dehumanizing to them and dehumanizing to the staff. do we really want that? this is a country that shut down asylums because of the horrors that were going on in asylums. so let's think about the horrors going on now that are even worse in many ways. are we okay with that? so i think that, you know, again, it's not etched in stone. these are sort of collective conversations we have to have. and i just wrote the book because i don't think we're having them. i think that what so often happen, and just to good back again to why i wrote from the perspective of these people, i don't think it's just inequality and who does the dirty work, i also think there is inequality in who gets blamed for the dirty
work. and who gets blamed so often are the frontline people who dirtied their hands, you know, the low-ranking guards at the dade correctional institution who, you know, did all of this. it's their fault. well, okay. it's their fault. they're certainly culpable. they should be held accountable. those were horrific, horrific crimes. but i was struck by what harriet said about that. she said, you know, a lot of the guards i knew were also just trying to do their best in awful situations. and i don't really blame them, because the people in that prison are what she called throwaway people. this was the conclusion she came to after kind of thinking about the larger stuff. i think we have to think about the larger structure and not just the easy way to cast judgment on the people who dirtied their hands. >> yeah, in a way they're in the prison too.
i wonder actually -- i think we're just about at time. but did you want to speak briefly about the v.a. hospital exercise or to be that quote, i have it here if you want. >> sure. i will happily speak about that, because, again, i think that, you know, i think that no less than in my book beautiful souls, there are moments of real grace and dignity in stories that i came across, even as so much was upsetting and so much was painful to kind of hear about and nowhere more so than at this public ceremony i attended at a v.a. medical center in philadelphia. and i was trying to think about, you know, moral injury is something that's experienced personally and privately. is there any way that as a society we might kind of talk about it in a different way?
and i went to this chapel in the v.a. center where a group of veterans of america's recent wars spoke about their moral injuries, and spoke about things that they had done, that society had sent them to do. and one soldier in particular at that ceremony came forward, and he spoke about a missile strike that he had called in, thinking there was enemy fire coming from the second floor of this building. and when the smoke cleared, he saw that there was no enemy there, and there were the bodies of civilians. and i believe several dozen civilians. and it's an extraordinary moment in this chapel is totally silent. and the veteran who tells the story, his name is andy, he is sobbing. and the ceremony could have ended there, and everybody could have walked away. but instead, the next step was
for the people in the audience to be called forward. and the minister running the ceremony asked them to circle the veterans and to link hands and then to chant in unison this quote, and i'll just read it as we close, and i say at the end of the book i think it's a message every dirty worker in america deserves to hear. "we sent you into harm's way. we put you into situations where atrocities were possible. we share responsibility with you for all that you have seen, for all that you have done, for all that you have failed to do clothe. i find that incredibly powerful and in a way very hopeful. and by the way, i heard recently from the minister who ran that ceremony that andy is doing
pretty well. and i think that speaks to something, which is if we can communalize some of this, it takes it out of that sort of private suffering into a public conversation in which we all acknowledge responsibility. so that's my hope with this book. >> thank you. >> thank you so much. >> c-span is your unfiltered view of government. we're funded by these television companies and more, including charter communications. broad band is a force for empowerment. that's why charter has invested billions, building infrastructure, upgrading technology, empowering opportunity in communities big and small. charter is connecting us. >> charter communications supports c-span as a public service, along with these other television provider, giving you a front row seat to democracy.