How social work helped to undermine our sense of self

Once a way for radicals to feel they could do some good, social work now thrives parasitically on the notion that people are incapable of dealing with everyday problems.

Simon Knight

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During my 20-odd years working with children and young people in Scotland, I have never been so angry as the time I was headbutted in the face by a 15-year-old boy. Our group were staying in a bothy while on a sea kayaking trip. He was stealing crisps and I was trying to stop him when he hit me. It hurt. What made me mad though was his excuse. He told me that ‘It wasn’t me, it was my anger.’

‘It wasnae me!’ was our motto at school, but my 15-year-old had not come up with that all by himself. He was parroting what he’d been encouraged to think by his anger management counsellor. This had given him carte blanche to separate himself from his actions and take no responsibility for bursting my nose. I wanted to nut his counsellor and wasn’t far off it at the inquest after we returned home.

Back in the early 1990s, anger management was fairly new and seemed a common-sense way to work with kids who had difficulty controlling themselves. In reality though, the logical outcome of such an approach was staring me in the face and forms the basis of Ken McLaughlin’s book, Social Work, Politics and Society: From Radicalism to Orthodoxy, which charts the historical demise of the ‘self’ in social work. McLaughlin details how from progressive, if flawed, roots, the social work profession has come to regard humanity in such a degraded fashion. McLaughlin argues for a new, enlightened and progressive approach to dealing with the social fall-out from a society that has lost its sense of mission. He illustrates his thesis well with a wealth of material from his experience as a practitioner.

So what of the self? Today, the Scottish government’s aim is to start Getting It Right for Every Child. This policy outlook leads to inexorable calls for earlier and earlier intervention in behavioural cycles deemed to be beyond the control of those they affect. For example, in Scotland we have had the predictive category of NEET – not in education, employment or training – for some years now (though the current Scottish National Party government dislikes such labeling, preferring to emphasise giving young people ‘More Choices, More Chances’). Essentially, to label someone as a NEET (usually 16- to 18-year-olds) is to suggest that this person is likely to have problems engaging with society or getting into trouble in one way or another.

Even this intervention isn’t early enough for some workers, so we have the category of ‘pre-NEET’, too. Indeed, some have taken this concept of predictive categories to absurd lengths. As a healthcare professional told me: ‘We all really know that even this is too late and we should be focusing on parents before they have children.’ It’s never too early to start interfering in someone’s life or labeling them as potential troublemakers.

McLaughlin strives to deliver an all-embracing narrative that will show us. From the development of a social, not natural or supernatural, understanding of the human antecedents of poverty and crime through to the nineteenth-century social reformer Octavia Hill’s belief that even the most destitute could still improve their situation, we are shown how social issues became understood to have social solutions. I do recall that Hill was chased away from back street ‘playgrounds’ by angry children not wishing to have their space invaded and organised by adults. Was this an early expression of competence or would it now be reinterpreted as rage in need of therapy?

From the gradual politicisation of social work by those on the left to its eventual collapse and co-option by the state when the clash of ideologies ended, McLaughlin explains how the profession has become the carrier of the notion of the self as ‘essentially vulnerable and impotent’. This leaves the state as the only agent affecting change in society and the caring professional as the ideal conduit – or so you might think. In fact, so internalised has this outlook become in social work and the other ‘caring’ professions that they themselves crumple in the face of adversity.

Absence from work due to workplace stress, caused by aggressive clients, ‘bullying’ managers or just ‘the horror of it all’ has reached epidemic proportions. Today, almost all sense of vocation has disappeared from the profession that set out to go the extra mile in trying to resolve problems for people. It is fast becoming remarkable that any anger management gets carried out at all!

McLaughlin makes an interesting parallel between the way asylums break down problematic identities by denying patients privacy and the modern world. Society is fast becoming an asylum, a place without privacy, because private space away from scrutiny is where abuses occur. Here we have the final attack on the self. Without opportunities for honesty with one’s close friends, and family or space for internal reflection, you cannot work out who you are. Experimentation in thought and deed are precluded and the emerging self is shackled to the dominant narrative. From the Tranquility of Solitude afforded to Defoe’s Crusoe to the torture of Alex in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, the self is under attack.

‘If lewdies are good that’s because they like it, and I wouldn’t ever interfere with their pleasures, and so of the other shop’, muses Alex. ‘And I was patronizing the other shop. More, badness is of the self, the one, the you or me on our oddy knockies, and that self is made by old Bog or God and is his great pride and radosty. But the not-self cannot have the bad, meaning they of government and the judges and the schools cannot allow the bad because they cannot allow the self. And is not our modern history, my brothers, the story of brave malenky selves fighting these big machines? I am serious with you, brothers, over this. But what I do I do because I like to do.’

Back in Shakespeare’s time you had to be mad or at least pretend to be mad to get away with irrational actions. King Lear descends from senility into utter despair and Hamlet feigns madness to exact revenge. Today, no one is expected to have reason to guide them in the first place. Social Work, Politics and Society takes on the complex task of describing as well as explaining the postmodern condition through this contradictory prism. It suffers for it at times, jumping around to cover all the bases, but it worth the read for students, practitioners and Joe Public alike, as well as for former kayaking instructors with a beef about responsibility.

Simon Knight is a director of Generation Youth Issues and is researching the role of ‘free play’ in child development.

Social Work, Politics and Society: From Radicalism to Orthodoxy, by Ken McLaughlin is published by The Policy Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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