Renowned journalist and author Eyal Press visited the University of Connecticut on Sept. 26 to speak about his intense and informative book “Dirty Work,” which discusses how the ordinary, middle-class people of America are complicit in the immoral, yet essential jobs that infest our country.
Press shared with students how he believes that all journalists have one overarching question they’re always chasing. His own question is essentially this: How is mass evil able to occur?
Now, mass evil is a very general phrase that encompasses a lot. To give a sense of what mass evil is, an example that’s personal to Press is the Holocaust, which affected both his grandparents and parents first-hand. Trauma at this level changes not only an individual, but all those who come after them too. Mass evil occurs in the present day within America. The only difference is it operates under the mask of socially-acceptable jobs, which is the exact topic Press examines in “Dirty Work.”
Press opened with the disclaimer that his book is full of uncomfortable but necessary stories of real Americans who deserve to be heard by the public. It touches on a variety of occupations, from workers in prisons to slaughterhouses, and how these traumatic jobs are disproportionately held by BIPOC, immigrants and women.
In a projected slideshow, Press first showcased a clearly recognizable building: a prison. Marked by razor wire fences and plain looking exteriors, prisons don’t particularly stand out. This is exactly how the horrors inside of them are kept hidden. Press spoke about one woman he met with, Harriet Krzykowski, who was a mental health counselor at the Dade Correctional Institution in Florida.
Krzykowski witnessed numerous accounts of unimaginable abuse and injustices that the prison guards committed towards the prisoners, but was silenced by her own fear of what would happen if she spoke up, being one of the only women in an all-men prison. The trauma Krzykowski suffered throughout her time working at the prison was so extreme that she now suffers from PTSD, and the stress even caused her hair to fall out.
Another important point Press discussed was how we as a society not only allow these unethical jobs to continue, but on an unspoken level, we even benefit from them.
How often does the average person fill up their car with gas? As it turns out, this mildly annoying yet vital task is also part of a much larger systematic problem: the unsafe and harmful jobs within America.
No one really thinks about the people who are working on oil rigs or the dangers associated with the job. Oil rig explosions not only pollute our oceans, but deeply traumatize the survivors and families involved. Oil rigs are required for the production of the type of fuel we primarily use in America, but their increasingly damaging work conditions shouldn’t be swept under the rug.
One last question Press discussed that is crucial to this dilemma is whether or not we can be angry at the people who are directly complicit and working in these industries, such as Krzykowski, who knew about the horrors occurring in prisons and didn’t immediately take action.
This is what brings so much complexity into this, as a person who’s suffering insurmountable levels of trauma can’t be expected to just alert the media right away. The power dynamic in these situations plays a large role as well, which Press acknowledges in a powerful quote from writer James Baldwin in the beginning of “Dirty Work.”
“The powerless must do their own dirty work. The powerful have it done for them.”
All of these topics are spoken about more in depth in Press’s book, which is an eye-opening read, bound to leave a lasting impression on those who decide to further educate themselves on these horrors. While shocking, discourse on such issues is what opens up opportunities to change the status quo, and Press stated that he believes Gen-Z will be able to make that change.