in the workplace
We bicycled four miles through the strange weather of a Portland spring (snow, hail, rain, and sunshine, all in the span of two or three blocks) to see a movie about torture.1 As a movie, I don’t have much to say about it; if the topic interests you, or if the current state of America interests you, then I suggest you see it, if you haven’t already, which you probably have. The most interesting part of the movie to me were the interviews with the servicemen who had been tried for misconduct and, mostly, convicted; these interviews interested me because these men work in my office.
Well. Not actually, of course, but it’s easy to recognize them, their frustration with lack of standards, the senseless things they are asked to do for too many hours in a row, the lack of opportunity to stand up to authority, and their ability to muddle through anyhow, trying to do their job without having much of an idea about what their job is beyond its irritations.2 If grand moral choices are made in such circumstances, the person who makes it will be out of a job before he or she is even aware that their choice has been made.
A modest example: I remember sitting in a meeting and listening to the manager say that ‘everyone was responsible for’ such and such a thing, which nobody liked to do and nobody, with the possible exception of the manager, cared about. When the manager asked if there were any questions, I asked how everyone could be responsible for the task: either everyone would run to do it (unlikely) or everyone would try to avoid it (the current behavior). I asked if some sort of hierarchy (arbitrary or not) of responsibility be drawn up, so it was clear who needed to do what when. The manager repeated that it was everyone’s responsibility that this thing be done, and there were no excuses. I rephrased my question, the manager evaded, and I got a talking to after the meeting about questioning his decisions.3
Please note, I do not think I was necessarily correct to question – in fact, I think it demonstrated my lack of understanding of corporate rituals; however, I do note that as a result of the incident, it was very difficult for me to care about the work I was doing or the ‘customers’ I was supposed to be helping – it cut the connection between the thoughtful, caring part of myself that had been showing up to work (foolishly, perhaps), and the mechanical part, which was really all that was wanted by my superiors. I was not paid to think, I was not encouraged to think and, ultimately, I decided not to think, not at that job, anyhow.
This is so far from being uncommon that you probably think it ridiculous to mention. I agree, I think it very common. I think it common where people are required to work in a system they do not understand, for goals they cannot achieve, in conditions they do not enjoy, for people they cannot respect. Of course I am not saying that actions of the soldiers interviewed in the documentary were correct or even defensible; but I think they were understandable, given the circumstances. It is a shame such circumstances exist, anywhere and everywhere.
Riding home on the bus from the beach, two men and a boy were talking about the army and the Iraq war. The men were Vietnam vets, weary, somewhat broken, and supporting the war because they saw there was a problem and felt that the military should be able to fix it. The boy was also a supporter of the war; he had just dropped out of the army (‘I ate free for a couple of months, so that’s good, right?’) to go back to school, join a frat, and spend the summer working for the forest service at $20/hour instead of $1000/month (and ‘you can’t drink in the army, and that sucks’). The veterans mumbled how military taught discipline and respect and that was good; the boy grunted, and said, ‘well, if you get money from it, that’s where I’m going to go.’
- There is some interesting audio on the web about this topic, e.g.: a philosophical look at torture and several episodes of This American Life, most notably: Audacity of Government & Habeas Schmabeas. [↩]
- Cf. the dehumanizing process of working in a slaughterhouse described at length in Gail Eisnitz’s Slaugherhouse, or more briefly in the rather more widely read Omnivore’s Dilemma:
After a while the rhythm of the work took over my misgivings, and I could kill without a thought to anything but my technique. I wasn’t at it long enough for slaughtering chickens to become routine, but the work did begin to feel mechanical, and that feeling, perhaps more than any other, was disconcerting: how quickly you can get used to anything, especially with people around you think nothing of it. In a way, the most morally troubling thing about killing chickens is that after a while it is no longer morally troubling (232f.).[↩]
- Except of course that he hadn’t actually made a decision, but that’s another matter. [↩]