“Inequality for All” – a film worth seeing

In this film, Robert Reich, professor, author and member of the Clinton cabinet explores widening inequality in the US and whether it is indeed a problem. This is an important film and one which not only north Americans should be watching but also voters in countries whose governments are keen to emulate the US model. He challenges us to question our assumptions. Many of the arguments against Reich’s analysis will sound very familiar…a film worth seeing.

Trailer – Inequality for All


Politics, zombies and society

I am unashamedly addicted to The Walking Dead and do love a good zombie flick. The shuffling and, I presume smelly, bitten are not restricted to film and television. Every year, our cities are overrun by the faux dead on zombie walks. In tourist attractions designed to scare the bejesus out of you, they hiss and shuffle, following you… slowly in complete and utter darkness.  The lure of the genre got me thinking about the contagion that is zombie fandom (pardon the pun). Does our affair with zombies say something about our world?

The sociological imagination has delved into the psycho-socio-political, post-war meanings of cultural phenomena such as Godzilla Walking-Dead-Zombieand superheroes like Superman and Wonder Woman but have we explored the world of zombies? The Walking Dead aroused my curiosity about zombies and what they say about society – if indeed they represent anything deeper than a good adrenalin rush. I have my own ideas and wondered how these might stack up against serious, academic investigation.  One article used a zombie invasion to explore infectious disease modelling. According to the authors’ calculations, unless we find a cure humans will not survive the apocalypse. Zombies will win.

Issues such as illegal aliens and the state, and educational inequality and social class  have been compared to zombieism. Beck poses interesting arguments about zombie or living dead categories in society like risk, manufactured uncertainties and individualisation. Other authors talk about how zombies do reflect social anxieties and how zombies are depicted changes as society changes. I do think today’s politics – an increasing aversion to risk, the manufacturing of fear, racism and xenophobia, growing inequality and the trend towards individual responsibility (to the exclusion of all else) are strongly reflected in zombie worlds where the enemy is clear, you must kill or be killed in an out of control world – in other words look after yourself and your own. Then of course we have the parallels to climate change and the reality of new and deadly viruses over which we seem helpless. Perhaps the zombie can shine a light on what we need to avoid – the dehumanisation of others and the destruction of our environment.

 I suppose at the end of the day it is important to remember that the rise of the zombie is fictional – although sometimes I am not too sure when I listen to debates on certain issues such as gun control, asylum seekers, racism and bigotry, welfare, nationalism, and beliefs that science should be subjected to a popularity vote. One day I might turn some serious attention to zombies – fascinating isn’t it.

Social work on film

Researchers, blog writers and media have all tackled the image of social workers in film filmand on television. Depictions of social workers and what they do on screen can be cringe material. Sometimes there’s a little grain of truth in the character but often there’s not. With a few exceptions, fictional social workers frequently do what we would never, ever do in real life. For me, 4 distinct social work types stand out.

  1. The Do Gooder – the social worker with a good dose of righteous anger who fights for right and might no matter what. She (usually she) has flaws and struggles with personal problems but is decidedly human. Mostly she is an independent humanist who on a disturbingly regular basis crosses boundaries in client/ professional relationships in very messy ways. Somehow this all works out in the end – she doesn’t get fired, isn’t taken to task by her professional association nor does she actually do any harm. It all works out in the end just like Maxine in Judging Amy.
  2. The Evil Social Worker – this social worker is incompetent, rigid, and an obstacle to whoever they happen to be assessing, usually on the topic of children. Sometimes the image battle is between the evil social worker and the bleeding heart. Then of course we have those named as social workers who are not social workers at all like Raye Colby in Go Back to Where You Came From, a documentary on the transformation of Australian racists.
  3. The Straight Man – here the social worker plays the Abbott to someone’s Costello (the comedians not the politicians). A prime example is the social worker who visited Vicki Pollard in Little Britain.
  4. The Amazon who single handedly cracks a social issue. Linda Carter (Wonder Woman) played a social worker who, in 1981, took on a baby trafficking ring and won in Born to be Solc. Some like social worker, Margaret Humphreys, in Oranges and Sunshine and Irena Sendler  who is called a nurse and social worker (I suspect she was a nurse) are real people who showed leadership in action. The real Margaret Humphreys and Irena Sendler speak here.

Another version of social work was depicted in Precious. The social workers doing this complex work did seem very tired, over-worked and drowning in paperwork, the reality for many social workers. Of course, it’s not just social workers who sometimes act differently in film than they do in real life – psychiatrists, psychologists and lawyers have exciting on-screen lives too. Well, it is just the movies and hopefully the public knows the difference but I would like to see more of the real stuff – perhaps we need more social worker-film makers.

Will we still need social workers in 2050?

It’s hard to imagine what 2050 is going to look like. When you think about it, film and the science fiction literature have made a fair attempt at predicting our future. In a 1949 comedy, Ma and Pa Kettle won a futuristic house in a competition. The technology created havoc for this family of fifteen children – but in the end the human element beat the technology. In the 1960s, Hanna-Barbera brought us The Jetsons’ futuristic lifestyle. Skipping a few decades, A Hand Maiden’s Tale and Surrogates brought dire messages about human fertility and robot technology. More recently the Swedish production Real Humans (which I loved by the way) brought issues of social justice, discrimination, inclusion and robot rights for us to think about – interesting when you think about the way we treat people today. One social work scholar, Antonio Lopez Palaez, has written about social work, society and how our future lives will be so entwined with those of robots we won’t be able to live without them.

Working with robots

Scientists tell us there will be no accidents with driverless cars, no organ and food shortages because we’ll grow what we need in Petri dishes. Maybe even babies will be made in artificial wombs according to our specifications. Disabling conditions and diseases will be genetically engineered out of existence (more movies come to mind). So there goes a few social work roles but maybe some new ones as well. Chips in the paintwork on our cars and houses will repair themselves. Care of older people will no longer worry governments as robots will do all the physical care as well as be our social companions. We won’t be naked because our computers will be in our clothes and jewellery. Our clothes and accessories will tell us what to eat, when to eat, monitor our health and remind us to take our medication. Of course we will all be on medication because every negative human emotion will be in the DSM psychiatric diagnostic manual and supposedly be treatable (1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley come to mind). ‘Feeling’ our partners from a distance will become a reality because our clothes will have sensors. We’ll probably only need to give the homeless one set of clothes because clothes will be self-cleaning.

That brings us to the disenfranchised of the world. We will still have ‘the poor’ because it is highly unlikely all people will have equal access to technology when they already lag behind. Inequality in the world is increasing (check out Richard Wilkinson on the See & Hear page]. It remains to be seen if only a few people in a few countries will hold all the power or whether pockets of resistance and innovation will do better in a world where monopolies, climate change and weather events are destined to get worse.  I’m betting on resistance and surprises.  Climate will be different and animal species extinct. More poverty, more refugees and greater extremes in politics and government as well as the weather are likely. Will we really be free of disease given the rise of anti-vaccination enthusiasts, the return of diseases once eradicated, the evolution of viruses, bacteria and other microscopic things? Perhaps we will also evolve. Our butts will get bigger from sitting on them (mine already has!) and we might look quite different because of our environment and interaction with technology…and of course there’s plastic surgery.

So what about social work? No world is perfect and humans have never been good at learning from past mistakes. People will still suffer, grieve and experience difficulties and more than likely new problems will arise. Structural barriers and inequalities are not showing any signs of going away. In some countries we seem to be returning to the 1800s with charity models and concepts of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ making a come-back in a big way.  Individualism and consumerism seem to determine who is rewarded or punished. In most societies, the treatment of the marginalised and those seeking refuge leave a lot to be desired. As long as there are humans, social work will be needed. We might have to work with robots as well as people but as long as we stay in touch with our values of human rights and social justice and stay innovative, social work will continue to exist. Social workers have a voice and a lot to say and most importantly do great work. We need to adapt and ensure future social workers continue to be educated at a high standard to practice what we do best. Check back with me in 2050 if I’m still here and let me know how we got on.

Listen to Antonio López Peláez on social work and robots on Podsocs

Also check out Michael Reisch talking about the future of social work on Podsocs