2015 has been quite a year. It probably started off for most of us in Aotearoa New Zealand in much the same way as the year before: enjoyment of some down time, gratitude for family and friends and some half-baked thoughts about how to work less but more efficiently in 2015. Some commitments were made about completing big projects or starting new ones. For most academics there is a tiny window in which to write before the mosquito like buzz of administration nags us back to course preparation and the endless demands of information systems.Then a world event knocked that somnolent Kiwi complacency that sets in around December 27th when the days are long and warm and for many there are still a few more days of snoozing and reading before work starts again in earnest.
The attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January raised many debates about free speech. What does free speech mean beyond its purest and unassailable principle that we cannot be free if we are unable to express our thoughts? But, and it is a problematic but, there is a fine line between the rational expression of belief, the necessary rhetoric of political action and slippage into the cruelty and offensiveness of lazy generalisations. And then there is a cruder line between lazy stereotypes or clichés and hate speech. The Charlie Hebdo attacks made many ask the question is free speech a justification for crude offensive cartoons that aim to vilify parts of our communities? And yet we risk so much if we suppress speech. For me the discussion of freedom of expression has come to characterise much of 2015.
Newspaper columns, blogs or cartoons vilifying people or systems of belief have consequences. We do not achieve enlightenment, or progressive social transformation, by caricaturing people’s religious beliefs. Nor do we benefit from denigrating atheists, or feminists. In 2015 we have seen many attacks on feminism from the tiresome keyboard violence of internet trolls to the murder of health professionals in their workplace where legal abortions are provided. In the US the impact of racist stereotypes and racial profiling gained major prominence in the outpouring of action about police shootings of African Americans in Ferguson and elsewhere culminated in the ongoing activism of Black Lives Matter . We end 2015 with regular doses of Donald Trump’s particular brand of ‘free’ speech.
Hate speech has been present in our own placid little Kiwi back yard. Most politicians are masters of spin but some are also clever in allowing (encouraging even?) others to set up a reactionary idea, so they can say “oh no, too far” and appear moderate. Anne Tolley’s response to the suggestion that CYF social workers should police parents’ contraceptive practice and family size was exactly that . The public discourse around child poverty underneath the line is dominated by eugenicist hate speech. Full of the ancient moralist tropes about poverty and sin. Add a dollop of local racism. And hate speech is activated. And we have seen so much of that this year. In Aotearoa and elsewhere. The Al Nisbet cartoons in 2013 about providing food in school for children who are suffering from growing poverty gave voice to those who don’t believe in the value of the social contract of a welfare safety net. The cartoons brought to the fore all the racialised stereotypes that arise again and again in New Zealand about poverty- the feral families discourse. Take a look at the range of opinions in the comments section on this story about grandparents caring for grandchildren (GRG) being forced to face work tests. Sadly many readers stopped seeing the children’s needs in their fury about the GRG advocacy group seeking rights and support for grandparents.
For me these discourses are significant social work issues. Part of my research focus over the last three years has been on the responses to poverty that appear in mass media – above and below the line. I have been surprised in 2015 by how diverse opinions are among social workers. I have been shocked at times to see evidence of false consciousness as some social workers identify with the binary of the virtuous working poor versus the lazy, morally deficient adherents to the ‘benefits lifestyle’.
I have also been shocked at how quickly some discussions in the social work on line community have become dominated by labels that can only be intended to silence other views. And how effective this labelling can be if the moderate voices in our profession are muted to avoid criticism or challenges meet a knock down. I have seen personal attacks happen and must admit I didn’t expect this. But start a chat on the bridge about an international progressive critique of the neoliberal intensification of class inequality and certain tactics emerge. Such denial of an international impact of neoliberalism suggests a very limited perspective. I ask readers for a moment to imagine what a New Zealand version of Benefits Street would look like. And to ask themselves why was this poverty porn screened on TV in Aotearoa? “Being poor is not entertainment” (Imogen Tyler, 2014).
These are matters we should be commenting on, and loudly and with confidence as we have in the Reimagining Social Work blog and elsewhere. Social work in Aotearoa needs international allies- we are after all part of an international community that has a progressive agenda.
I have suggested in local social media that it is trolling to single out some writers in social networks again and again with the same criticism – blatantly, shamelessly, cut and paste into each new thread- regardless of what the original post was about. This is not debate or intellectual critique – it is just a pernicious form of the broken record technique. We understand the passion and the pain but is it really the way to make change? Follow some feminist writers on Twitter and we see the same tactics by the so called men’s rights activists in their sustained misogynist attack. Is this what we want to encourage in our students’ use of social media?
Isn’t this a waste of our energy and intellect? Isn’t it self-defeating to render important debates into a competition to have the last say. What a waste of the progressive potential of social workers to have a strong collective voice to counter the ongoing attack on income maintenance, social housing, strong public services, humanist responses to the international refugee crisis and so forth. And yes the ongoing shame that is our national failure to protect Maori children and families from the cruel impact of poverty. And the health inequalities and violence statistics that tell a shameful story about the ongoing impact of colonisation and racism. There are many battles ahead on many fronts- a diversity of views and approaches means we can be everywhere, talking to a broader audience.
Let’s not make shouting slogans at each other prevent us from making room to listen. Let’s not diminish the potential of the united front we have come more close to achieving than I have ever seen in my three decades in social work. Let’s make 2016 a year in which we aim to do less shouting and more listening in our own professional platforms. Save our shouting for the Tories and their bankrupt social policy.