Unfortunately I left, suddenly and unfinished, the post headed "Meaningfulness and its surrogates." I have also delayed returning to it until now, because its fuller development depended on my willingness to open up issues that I was hoping to leave to later, when I, rather than my readers, might be more adequately prepared to confront them.
Well, ready or not, I clearly have to confront them, so here goes . . . I'll start with the implications of the penultimate paragraph in that post. I referred there to the difficulty, indeed, the virtual impossibility, of fully understanding how the vagaries of circumstance affect the kind of sense we make. I intended in that paragraph to draw our attention to the difficulty we have in understanding others, rather than to the similar but even thornier issue of understanding ourselves. Those tasks are of course closely related, but the point I want to develop here is that none of us is free from the tendency to believe that if we make good progress in relation to either one, we can with impunity neglect the other. I have certainly myself been guilty of that error. I'll document in due course the manner in which some significant others have been similarly misguided, but here I'm going to begin with myself.
I'll try to be brief. As indicated in the acknowledgements section in MSOU, I and my brother are of the first generation that was enabled to transcend our "working class" roots by the opportunities afforded by the 1944 Education Act in Britain, and thus by our subsequent admission to university. That we were able to use those opportunities is directly attributable to the enlightenment of our remarkable parents. Both their open-mindedness and its vulnerability undoubtedly influenced my brother's decision to enter politics, and mine to become a social worker. Both of us in our own ways were determined to try to do something about social inequality.
Readers of this blog who are familiar with my anniversary post will already know that my own moment of true enlightenment was to occur only belatedly in the late nineteen seventies, when I realized that my assumptions about society had caused me unknowingly to classify the unfortunates in our society as in some way "pathological" and in need of "therapy" rather than human beings like me, struggling as best they knew how to live meaningful lives. I am still undecided as to whether that stance itself can be attributed to the very class assumptions of which I was myself so critical, and which had profoundly affected the circumstances of my childhood.
I get no satisfaction, I assure you, from the realization that such a dysfunctional attitude is widely characteristic of our elected representatives. For example, in Britain in 2011, in the aftermath of the August riots, we witnessed a prime minister only too eager to yield to the attraction of attributing those terrible events to irresponsible parenting, rather than to his government's withdrawal of funding from the very social services which had been devised to strengthen family life. It is particularly ironic, then, that In the aftermath of the riots and looting, not a few children surrendered to the police because their parents had persuaded them to do so.
You will also remember, I hope, that in my very first post I drew your attention to the work of Zygmunt Bauman. His commentary on both the riots and the government's response to them is most easily accessed by googling Zygmunt Bauman, and clicking on the connection to the account of his 2011/08 interview featured in Social Europe. I believe this is probably still the best account of the significance of those riots available to us.
It is a virtual cliché of sociological thinking that the relationship between any society and its individual members can be described as constituting a kind of virtual "contact space." Since I happen to belong to a profession whose very reason for being is to negotiate the manner in which both parties meeting in that space affect one another, I am particularly concerned when a thinker of international renown known for his insight on these matters can apparently be seen to characterize the function of social workers and their activity as
"getting rid of unemployed, handicapped, invalid and other indolent people who for one reason or another cannot eke out their own living, and depend on social help and care for their survival." (Zygmunt Bauman. "Am I My Brother's Keeper?" , European Journal of Social Work, 3 (1): 5-11.)
My source for this quotation is the excellent Bauman Beyond Postmodernity, edited by Michael Hviid Jacobsen, Sophia Marshman and Keith Tester, Aarlborg University Press, 2007.
In their "annotation" of the above-quoted article, those editors comment aptly that the statement by Bauman is "asserted rather than established", but it is unclear whether this is Bauman's interpretation of the mandate assigned to the profession by governments, or whether he sees it as a mandate that the profession itself endorses. The rest of the annotation clarifies how Bauman's major argument as to the logic of defining such "indolents" as dependent and flawed consumers necessarily thus also defines them as useless.
The commentary on Bauman's article deserves very careful reading, since it illustrates how easily groups can be placed into categories, both self- and other-determined. It also ilustrates how Bauman's own thinking at times comes to resembling a mirror image of that which is worthy of condemnation, for example, in the statements made by Prime Minister Cameron.
Indeed, Bauman has himself been criticized for his apparent inability to break free from the polarizing character of Marxist doctrine––and this in spite of his own recognition of the dangers of any utopian prescription for an ideal society. In fact, Bauman is likely more aware than even his most severe critics of the ease with which any innovative thinker can be type-cast according to existing prejudices, even when, as in his case, he rigorously avoids prescriptive statements.
This is not only a problem for Bauman; it is a problem for all of us. Indeed, it is noteworthy that Bauman's conscious eschewing of prescriptive formulations is exasperating for all who are urgently seeking for something beyond descriptive accounts, however insightful. In the case of Bauman's formulations on consumerism, for example, the question remains: "What are we going to do about it?" (Be assured; I'll return to that issue in a later post.)
I apologize; I'm still dithering. I'll try to state the major point as bluntly as I can. . . Any formulation can quickly become formulaic––that is, it can itself become the source of subsequent closed-mindedness. Bauman continues to struggle valiantly to help all of us, as he does himself, (and, like me, and like you, not always successfully) to transcend the formulas and assumptions that distort the kind of sense we are able to make. Breaking free of them and the polarities they encourage is no easy task. Replacing them with something wiser is even harder . . . I'd like to think that MSOU is not a bad place to start.
(The following is an appended postscript, written on September 11th, 2012. I had considered making it simply a response to one part of the above post, but perhaps it is better that it be included as part of the post itself, since a significant part of what I say above is invalidated by what I have now discovered.)
After a long delay, I have now been able to gain access to the original text of the article of Bauman's upon which I commented in the post. (It appears in the collection of papers published together in Zygmunt Bauman's The Individualized Society.) I now find I have egg on my face––I mis-interpreted Bauman's message and intent. Possibly the easiest way to correct my error is to quote in its entirety the text of the paragraph in Bauman's article of which I was critical . . .
The proper task of social work ought to be, we are told, getting rid of the unemployed, the handicapped, invalids and other indolent people who for one reason or another cannot eke out their own living and so depend on social help and care for their survival; and this is evidently not happening. As social work, we are told, ought to be judged like any other action by its cost-and-effects balance sheet –– it does not, in its present form,'make economic sense'. It could only justify its continued existence if it made dependent people independent and made lame people walk on their own feet. The tacit, rarely spelled-out assumption is that for not-independent people, such people as do not join in the game of selling and buying, there is no room in the society of players. 'Dependence' has become a dirty word: it refers to something which decent people should be ashamed of. [The emphases are mine.]
Obviously I cannot attribute my error to Bauman, nor, indeed, to the editors whose commentary on the article was my earlier source. It is true that those editors did not ascribe the opinions described by Bauman to a specific source, but the full quotation makes it pretty obvious that Bauman did not present it as a view that social workers themselves would justify.
More on this still to come: there is a larger message to attend to in this . . .
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