The great social work debate – conservative or liberal?

Back in January I did read Justin Nutt’s post on Social worker doesn’t mean liberal. I felt he was balancing precariously on a rather wobbly fence.  Today, I was heartened to read Deona Hooper’s response.

Can a social worker hold conservative views? Well I suppose they can but I think the question should be can a social worker continue to do so if they are practising social work well? I don’t necessarily mean empathy with the people we see every day– essential but not the point. I mean the practising of social work. I am talking about critical reflection – real critical reflection. Fook and Gardner describe it well in their book   – it is not simply about understanding our clients’ internal struggles and the interpersonal interactions between ourselves and our clients. Critical reflection also demands attention to structural factors that affect individuals and communities and brutal self-examination. If we really practise critical reflection well, we constantly challenge our own beliefs so they don’t interfere with our work by imposing our prejudices on others. If we are honest with ourselves things change – for us and our clients. The down side is we can be uncomfortable a lot of the time.

Let’s assume for a moment that I truly believe that unemployed people don’t work because they are lazy. If they took personal responsibility and got off their butts they would get a jobin chains – a belief shared by my family and my community. Ok let’s take it a step further. Imagine I approach my unemployed clients with this belief (consciously or unconsciously). I guarantee you no change will happen and I would more than likely do harm by cementing fixed notions of privilege and disadvantage. If I acknowledge and challenge my beliefs and recognise any assumptions in those beliefs or indeed my own position in society, I might be open to hearing (and I mean hearing) about intergenerational poverty, social exclusion, marginalisation, lack of education, caring for a child with a disability or even dyslexia or depression (the list goes on)…and their interaction together. If I truly hear I would be forced to acknowledge that these stories do not quite fit with concepts of laziness as the root cause or potential cure. Recognising this mismatch could be very uncomfortable for me and perhaps challenge the core of my own socialisation and dearest held beliefs. Only then can the real work can begin – with my client and on myself.

Our practice frameworks encompass knowledge and draw on theory and research (and I don’t mean the products of think tanks). It is often difficult to distinguish between independent information and ideologically driven beliefs (see the Point of Inquiry podcast with Gabriel Sherman for an interesting example). By practising social work, we are constantly challenged to consider alternative perspectives especially when the realities of what we see and hear do not fit with current approaches, beliefs, ideologies or politics. We live with uncertainty in a world that is far from black and white. As Hooper pointed out, all people do not start out on an equal footing. Inequality and social problems are disturbing realities in the OECD countries where political environments are conservative and pay homage to the cult of individual responsibility as the sole cause and solution to all complex problems. This approach leaves a whole lot out and has little hope in alleviating the problems people face.

Wilkinson and Pickett’s research shows that these approaches contribute to inequality and make things worse for everyoneMarston, McDonald and Bryson point out who really benefits from the ways welfare is delivered – or not. Interestingly it is not the people that first come to mind. When it comes to politics is there any robust research that shows a sole focus on individualism contributes positively to all people rather than simply the privileged minority at the top of the class ladder? We are constantly told it does but where is the evidence that supports the claim? Sure we have a value-based profession but so do all professions – just look at anybody’s codes of ethics. But we do not blindly accept values whether they are professional or personal. We challenge and deconstruct these too. Social work values moisten the soil so we can dig into people’s lives without doing harm and critical reflection sharply spotlights our own assumptions. Knowledge and evidence works hand in hand with values and self-knowledge to ensure we practise social work well.

Perhaps we should abandon the words conservative or liberal when it comes to social work – too many assumptions come with such categorisations. When we debate categories we end up debating what we think these words mean and we assume a shared meaning. Let’s talk about values, critical reflection and knowledge instead and free ourselves. As social workers, our mandate is to understand the tensions in our practice and most of all challenge ourselves particularly when it is about beliefs we consciously or unconsciously hold sacred…and yes it might hurt – but hey isn’t that what we do?

Listen to Jan Fook on Podsocs

Listen to Richard Wilkinson on Podsocs

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Footsore on Valentines Day

Last week, I went to see a movie with a new Date. We’d had dinner together the previous heartweek and he understood that I am deaf.  The movie was great (as befits its title “The Great Beauty”) . . . the date not so much.

I am fifty-nine years old. I was born deaf and belong to the 1950s generation of “oral deaf” children. This means that although I am deaf (“moderate-severe, sloping to profound” according to my most recent audiology assessment), I have sufficient residual hearing that allows me to speak rather well. Not perfectly, but not bad: the missed sibilants and the occasional monotonous tone in my speech patterns reveal my deafness. I work hard to keep my speech patterns rhythmically inflected.

I also work hard to listen, read people’s lips, stay focused on their faces and body language, and follow the flight of their words. I do all this listening and attending work because I want to be connected to what they are saying. Connection begets connection; it is the origin of understanding others, which in turn evolves into empathy, compassion, and a reciprocal sharing of our humanity.

Which brings me back to my Date. He mumbled. Not once; not twice; but thrice. Three times I asked him to speak more clearly; three times he continued to channel Marlon Brando’s performance as “The Godfather” as if he owned that role. Remember: we’d already had that dinner the week before. I’d already exhausted myself over a glass of wine (just the one glass; I was trying to do “Dry February”) by peering at his clenched lips and trying to find meaning in his stiff, expressionless face.

It was late; I was tired; I spat the dummy. In the foyer of the cinema. In public, and in full hearing view of all and sundry. “Look”, I cried out, “if we are going to get along, you really must speak up and speak clearly. Why can’t you do this one simple thing for me?” The Date looked stunned. He mumbled, “I’m sorry.” And then (you’re going to love this!), he said, “I don’t know much about deaf people. I don’t know how to talk to them.” I snapped back, “I am not going to do Deaf Studies 101 for you now. Just speak clearly. That’s all.”

We’ll draw a veil over the next couple of hours. Suffice to say, there will be no third outing. However, my anger and frustration with the Date is not the point of my story. Stay with me.

A couple of nights later, I recounted my story to a life-long and close friend. We have known each other since we were teenagers, and we have shared much with each other. The good, bad and ugly.  My friend is kind and wise; I anticipated that she would sympathise with me. I thought she might say something like, “What a boorish man!” Actually, I would have settled for a simple “oh dear” sigh of empathy.

Instead, what I got was a reminder of how the hearing world persistently walks out of step with me. And I am deliberate in my syntax here.

I have spent the better part of my 59 years learning how to walk in step with the hearing world; how to speak clearly, avoid being too expressive, keep my hands still, don’t look wounded when others laugh because I’ve misunderstood what they have said, remain stoic in the face of others’ criticism when I ask them to repeat what they’ve just said—“Oh for God’s sake, I’m not going to say it again. Why can’t you just listen properly? It doesn’t matter anyway; it wasn’t that important.” (Why say it in the first place then? Why indulge in drivel?)

And yet, when I voiced a complaint to my friend, her first and immediate response was to say “Don’t be offended, but you need to see the situation from his point of view.”

Really? From his point of view? What happened to the authority and legitimacy of my point of view? If I was a Jew complaining to my friend about anti-Semitic behavior, would my friend have admonished me, “You need to see it from the Gentile’s point of view”. Or if I were an Aboriginal Australian complaining about being excluded from a job opportunity, would my friend have said “You need to see it from the white employer’s point of view.” Or what about if I was a young woman who had been raped by her uncle? Would my friend have clucked at me and said “Oh, but you need to understand your uncle’s needs.” Of course not.

So why is my perspective as a deaf woman, holding my own in a dominant (and dominating) hearing world of so little value? First with the obtuse Date, and second with my life long friend. Where is their effort to connect with me in these exchanges? To walk in my shoes? Because let me tell you, I am damned footsore from walking in the shoes of hearing people.

I don’t know the answer. Do you?

 By Donna McDonald, Guest Blogger on socialworksocialwork

Listen to Donna on Life Matters  on The Art of Being Deaf

Read Donna’s bookThe art of being deaf: A memoir

Watch Donna on writing her memoir