© steven kane

In Dirty Work (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Aug.), journalist Press shines a light on the work Americans rely on but don’t want to know about.

What is “dirty work”?

In the social sciences, it has a meaning that can be traced back to University of Chicago sociologist Everett Hughes. In a classic essay that is now strangely forgotten, he suggested that in every society, you have work that has unethical activity that is delegated to some people and then sort of conveniently disavowed by the rest of society. At the core of the essay is this idea that the good people are not disconnected from the dirty work, because they tacitly condone it even if they don’t want to hear about it or see it. Hughes’s example was Nazi Germany. It’s an extreme example, but he’s addressing his fellow Americans, saying, “Look, this dynamic exists everywhere.”

How can people accept accountability for their role in these harmful social structures?

The book is probably longer on diagnosis and illustration and analysis than it is on solutions. I readily acknowledge that. But I do suggest there are certain things we as a society owe to the people we delegate this troubling work to, like the injury analyst in a [military] drone program who is haunted by the horrifying things she’s seen over and over, bodies burned and buildings blown up. One of the most basic things is listening to them, seeing them, hearing about their roles and their shame and their moral injury. Because the injury belongs to all of us, even if we don’t want to see it or acknowledge it.

Why is it important to write about the people doing this work?

I’m careful to say in the beginning of the book that the primary victims of dirty work are not the people who do it, but rather the innocent civilians who die in an errant drone strike, or incarcerated people who are treated poorly. That’s important. But I kept being stuck by the fact that it’s not society’s elites who are doing these jobs. It’s people from depressed rural areas, which is where lots of prisons and slaughterhouses are. It’s women, it’s people of color, it’s people with fewer choices and opportunities. That seemed to me crucial because as a society we’re beginning to talk about inequality, both class inequality and racial inequality, arguably the most salient issue in America today. My book is about inequality viewed through a slightly different lens. We usually hear about inequality as material disparities: concentration of wealth, the gap in wages, income. I’m arguing that there’s something called moral inequality. There are moral and emotional burdens that fall disproportionately on these less advantaged groups in our society who are left to do the dirty work.