† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, and author of The School-to- Prison Pipeline: Education, Discipline and Racialized Double Standards, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice and Considering Hate, is co-founder of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
“Good” People and Dirty Work
by nancy a heitzeg
Editors’ Note: This piece first appeared not quite one year ago, as I considered the complicity of everyday people in the entrenched apparatus of policing and prison. The great machinery of oppression grinds on because some will do the dirty work of it on a daily basis, while many more “good” people are content to causally ignore it. The dirty work is made possible – in the prison, the sweatshop, the slaughterhouse – because “good” people carry on in a somnambulist state, pretending that there is nothing behind the walls, nothing behind the curtain, nothing to see here.
Much of Post WWII sociology has, in one way or another, grappled with the questions of obedience, conformity and willful blindness to daily atrocity. This work is always relevant for a society, a world, so rooted in relentless, often obscured domination and the concomitant pressure to comply. It is more immediately relevant — and urgent – today. It is one matter to be slowly lulled into a creeping fascism. It is another entirely to to stand frozen – as ancient insects in amber- as a white supremacist authoritarian regime is pre -announced with a bullhorn. Before the Electoral College has even voted, and despite a popular vote loss of more than 2 million.
This is not time for normalization, for hoping for the best, or pretending poltics as usual will just work this out.
No. No one can claim now they didn’t see it coming.
History is your Weapon. #Resist.
Towards the end of the semester in Introduction to Sociology, we turn to questions of social psychology, of identity and role compliance, group pressures and conformity. It is here that the subject of following orders is explored in the literature that emerged following World War II. Here scholars struggled to understand how so many “Good Germans” fell into fascism and followed along with the Nazi program, either by blithely ignoring the the most glaring signs of death camps or by active participation in the same. It is the question posed by Stanley Milgram in the infamous Obedience study, where sweaty, anxious experimental subjects continued to administer what they believed to be deadly levels of electric shocks to other subjects when ordered to do so by an “authority”figure, in this case, a research scientist in a lab coat.
This is evidenced too in the Stanford Prison Experiment, where college students so readily abused the power invested in the role of prison guards that the entire endeavor needed to be called to a halt, less than one week into the proposed two week study. Brutal places produce brutal people, and role expectations that emphasize power, authority, and control will find even the best seduced into compliance.
It is perhaps easy to view these studies and imagine how the participants were exhibiting personal tendencies toward aggression, or how we would individually resist. And even if were so, there is larger lesson here, one that implicates us all. In another piece provoked by the Nazi era, “Good People and Dirty Work”, Everett Hughes asks this:
“‘How could such dirty work be done among and, in a sense, by the millions of ordinary, civilized German people?’ Along with this came related questions. How could these millions of ordinary people live in the midst of such cruelty and murder without a general uprising against it and against the people who did it? How, once freed from the regime that did it, could they be so little concerned about it, so toughly silent about it, not only in talking with outsiders—which is easy to understand—but among themselves? How and where could there be found in a modern civilized country the several hundred thousand men and women capable of such work? How were there people so released from the inhibitions of civilized life as to be able to imagine, let alone perform, the ferocious, obscene and perverse actions which they did imagine and perform? How could they be kept at such a height of fury through years of having to see daily at close range the human wrecks they made and being often literally spattered with the filth produced and accumulated by their own actions?
You will see that there are here two orders of questions. One set concerns the good people who did not themselves do this work. The other concerns those who did do it. But the two sets are not really separate; for the crucial question concerning the good people is their relation to who did the dirty work, with a related one which asks under what circumstances good people let the others get away with such actions “(Hughes, 1971, 89).
The uncomfortable conclusion that Hughes arrives at is this: Dirty work is not an anomaly; it is done because it is demanded. It is performed as a regular social function by those who are paid to do so; it is tolerated by the rest of us because we want it done. We prefer not to witness its’ performance — not to see inside the prison or the factory farm – but we know they are there. We know — we have to know at least on some level — what happens in order for us to feel “protected” , in order for us to have a cheap lunch. When the abuses come to the light of day — in videotapes of police killings, in revelations of the dark secrets of the Homan Square — there is the tendency to express shock, to paint the story as an exception, as somehow excessive, as a deviation that can be addressed by firings, prosecutions, and resignations.
But this is the norm. It is, as Kay Whitlock notes in Torture, Lies and Denial — who we as a society are. And while there must be transparency, accountability and reparations in individual cases, there must be acknowledgement too of how deeply rooted the demand for dirty work is, how deeply rotted — perhaps beyond reform or redemption — our social institutions are. We run our late capitalist economy on a series of killing machines, and most notably the extensive dirty work required for maintenance of the military and prison industrial complexes. It difficult to imagine their undoing – particularly when, as in recent days, any calls for “reform” or scaling back instantly evaporate in the latest round of us v. them, in culture of fear appeals to, instead, their expansion.
But towards the end of the semester in Introduction to Sociology, it is my duty too, to remind students (and myself) that social facts and structures are created by humans, and can so too be undone. In replications of Milgrams’ study, obedience to authority decreased when others disobeyed the orders. The refusal of one can lead to the refusal of many. Dirty work is left undone, and authority, along with the systems that sustain it, collapses.