A time for outrage

A guest post by Dr Patricia Fronek, Senior Lecturer in the School of Human Services and Social Work, Gold Coast Campus, Griffith University. Tricia is the creator and producer of Podsocs

It is indeed a time for outrage. The far right is exerting considerable political influence in most Western countries to the point where rhetoric and ideological approaches to welfare and society appear indistinguishable. Critical thinking seems to be absent in many school curricula: see for example creationism still taught in faith schools.

The average person has decreasing access to independent information in popular, monopolised media. “Balance” has been reinterpreted to ensure the right has a say no matter how bizarre allowing for homophobia, xenophobia and, let’s face it, just plain hate. Some of these doozies are that abortion causes breast cancer and educating children about difference and bullying will turn them gay: as reported, a few weeks ago, in an article from the Conversation Fear and loathing reigns in Safe Schools and same-sex marriage debates. By preying on fear, ignorance and prejudices, discourses are being shaped by distorted and extreme perspectives. How else has Donald Trump and others like him come so far?

Economic and social inequalities are rising alongside social problems and diminishing services. Neoliberalism marches towards privatisation and a globalised free market in everything but the movement of refugees, where nationalism prevails.  Economic prosperity is expected to cure everything.  Meanwhile we see the return of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ in the form of “strivers’ and ‘shrivers’ and ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’ while the most undeserving of all are refugees and asylum seekers and anyone who actually needs a safety net including those with disabilities and older people. Political conversations seem overly populated by false binaries: for example, the options offered to asylum seekers are either drown at sea or be imprisoned in concentration camp type conditions. These sources of outrage were the motivation for a recent article by Polly Chester and me called Moral Outrage: Social work in the Third Space (Fronek & Chester, 2016) published last week in Ethics and Social Welfare.

Outrage and despair are felt by social workers around the world as the numbers of those who are disadvantaged and oppressed grow, while at the same time the services they need are shaved, disappear altogether or like transformers morph into something else altogether.  In our article we examine a new form of social work protest: that of social workers in the Third Space – online and in social media – where social workers are refusing to be subsumed by neoliberal policies. They are finding new identities, practising resistance and attempting to exercise influence in three ways – across, outward and upward. Working across is about forming relationships and collaborative partnerships, upward is intended to influence politicians and policy makers and outward working presents an opportunity to engage the media and the general public. Refusing the unacceptable and seeking to be engaged in the Third Space requires social workers to be knowledgeable, skilled and acutely aware of the ethical dilemmas they might face and in that process bring the three Rs – risk, responsibility and reflection – to the fore.

It is a time for outrage. It is not a time for complacency and silence. As 93 year old Stéphane Hessel wrote “the worst attitude is indifference” (Hessel, 2010, p.11).

Read the full article here. 

References

Fronek, P., & Chester, P. (2016). Moral outrage: Social workers in the Third Space. Ethics and Social Welfare.  DOI: 10.1080/17496535.2016.1151908

Hessel. S. (2010). A time for outrage: Indignez-vous. New York: Twelve Hatchette Book Group.

FIRST PUBLISHED RSW Collective by RE-IMAGINING SOCIAL WORK IN AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND @RSWcollective 

Living to a 150

Some politicians are making big claims about longevity to justify their health and social policies. Are our politicians on the far right simply fantasizing about living longer? Is this why they tell us good health investment should be directed towards curative research alone while everything else to do with health is lying under a precariously balanced metaphorical bread knife. How would you like that sliced – thin or sandwich?  From a cynic’s point of view this claim might simply be about appealing to the core of individualism and what’s in it for me? An old tactic repackaged.

Sure many scientists are making claims about future generations reaching incredible ages but I am sure they will agree at this point in time these are theories not proven fact, possible, even likely, but still theoretical.  Certainly our average life expectancy has risen as health care and living conditions have improved. Hans Rosling is very entertaining on this issue.

It is a fact that better access to health services and better living and working conditions improve the overall health of a population. One day some people might live to 150 but these results depend on future discoveries and advancements in biological interventions such as gene therapy. Such projections are speculative and assume scientific progress will continue uninterrupted and treatments will be equally affordable and available to everyone. Living longer, if indeed we do, might be the privilege of some people and not others depending on the social policies we choose to adopt.

My argument goes like this. In my opinion, human beings have always been a pretty arrogant lot. We really do believe we are superior – to other animals, climate etc etc.  We particularly hang on to the belief that we can tame nature and we do – to a point. How many examples of nature doing what it does, do we need to show us that although we might be on top for a while it won’t necessarily last – at least not without some counter reaction. A prime example is antibiotic use and the development of antibiotic resistance . When we triumph over one disease, a new one seems to emerge to take its place – smallpox, AIDS, Ebola, take your pick.  According to one recent study, although average life expectancy is higher, this generation has a different set of health issues – more metabolic disease.   The effect of this shift in disease on our future life expectancy is unknown but can be hypothesised. We already know the long term impact of these diseases on our health but on the other hand we don’t know the influence of future medical treatments yet to be discovered and made available.

There are other factors to consider when contemplating our longevity. We have known for some time health is more than biological and that social factors and social policies impact on our health.  We only need to look at work on inequality and studies on the health of particular, improverished populations such as the people who live in the Gorbals, south of the river Clyde in Glasgow.

Alarmingly social policies and where governments choose to invest does influence longevity and health. We only need to look at health outcomes for Indigenous peoples in places like Australia and Canada and recent findings that life expectancy has reduced in some areas of the UK. This backward shift is being linked to the reduction of services that maintain health and well-being. Even if some people manage to live to 150 it may not happen for everyone equally. Assuming good genes and discoveries in curative and genetic medicine, all people will still need access to good healthcare. The seeming dominance of far right ideologies that promote policies of user pays, a sole focus on individual responsibilities, privatisation and purely biological approaches to health combined with a failure to address inequalities will continue to negatively impact on the health of many people. It will mean only those who can afford access to services will reap health benefits.

Sure average life expectancy has improved but has the end point actually changed? We have always had centenarians and a very few sparky souls that live to extraordinary ages, a rare few reported to be a 120 or slightly more.

This is not new and I doubt if modern medicine has had too much to do with it. Perhaps someone can answer this for me – have we actually extended our lives beyond the upper limit of our bodies’ use-by date? To put this simply, has the oldest age anybody has ever lived actually changed? Is there an upward trend at that upper limit? Difficult question as many long lives are unverifiable. I don’t think so – it may come but it will depend on more than biology and must include the social. Perhaps also there is a certain truth in that when we cure one thing, something else emerges – whether this is disease, the impact of climate change or even the stuff people are pumping into their bodies to at least appear younger. For the moment, future generations living to a 150 remains predictive and speculative. We all need a better approach to health than one based on profit or policies that make it harder for people to access healthcare or improve their lives. And so if it does come true and we manage one-day to live past our current use-by date, I hope it comes true for everyone not just a few.

“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

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