22 June 2009

Ideological themes in social work

In an earlier post I discussed the recent case of a mother deemed ‘too stupid’ to look after her own child, and expressed surprise that even conservative journalists no longer find it shocking that children should be removed on such grounds.

This case, discussed at greater length in another recent Daily Mail article, presents a number of interesting issues.

A) The first is the way that reacting emotionally to a stressful situation seems to be taboo, since it is interpreted as implying that your viewpoint is irrational.

Her confrontational, argumentative nature - (she likens herself to a lioness trying to protect her cub ) - must have done her no favours with social workers. In truth, she is not the most sympathetic of characters, her voice steadily rising as she angrily dismisses the 'mad' social workers and lawyers involved in her case as the real 'idiots' or 'bimbos'. She just sounds very, very angry, frustrated and upset - convinced, in her humiliation, that social workers acted out of their intense dislike of her rather than the welfare of the child. [1]

I have referred previously to the idea that anger at the way one has been treated is taken as weakening one’s case. Also taken as weakening one’s case is the expression of criticisms of social workers or other agents of the collective. A similar phenomenon can be observed in another recent case, in which a woman’s twin babies were taken away from her after she joked that their caesarean birth had ‘ruined her body’, which allegedly showed that she felt ‘bitter’ towards her children.

And when the desperate mother lost her temper at social workers who had taken her babies, officials said she had ‘anger problems’ and could pose a threat to her twins. [2]

B) A second issue raised by the article about the 'stupid mother' case relates to the concept of property.

... Rachel has been fighting to get back the child she claims was 'stolen' from her ... She has a one-track mind: the child belongs to her, no matter what. [1]

It is well known that left-wing ideology has tended to be hostile to the idea of property. But this scepticism about its moral defensibility has now become more or less universal, and is no longer confined to people who think of themselves as left-wing. Even people as ostensibly pro-property as libertarians now seem uncertain about defending it. The recently established British Libertarian Party has avoided the word ‘property’, dropping it from the more traditional libertarian slogan of ‘life, liberty, property’ in favour of ‘life, liberty, prosperity’. The concept of prosperity is ill-defined and does not, without qualification, imply an individual territory of decision.

The mother says her child has been ‘stolen’: this is supposed to show she has a ‘one-track mind’, i.e. she is (allegedly) wrong to think in terms of the child belonging to her, or being part of her territory of control.

C) The third issue raised by the 'stupid mother' case is unrealism about human psychology, and ignorance (actual or feigned) about the underlying power relations of a social interaction, particularly between an individual and an agent of the collective.

... as with many such cases, nothing relating to Rachel's story is entirely clear-cut. Listening to her, it is impossible not to feel sympathy for her distress. And yet who would envy the social workers charged with making these difficult decisions? [1]

‘It is impossible not to feel sympathy for her distress.’ But evidently possible to the extent of acquiescing in the outcome. Analogously, outside observers may think they experience some reservations about such cases when encountering face-to-face the suffering caused, but it is clearly possible for most people to allow such suffering to continue nonetheless, presumably on the basis that a decision by an authorised agent of the collective legitimates the outcome, however gruesome.

‘Who would envy the social workers?’ Lots of people, I should think. Many people find power enjoyable, and quickly become desensitised about the suffering their decisions cause. ‘Mmm, lots of difficult decisions to make about whose lives to destroy and in what way. What fun!’

[1] How dare they say I'm too dumb to be a mum: defiant mother speaks out after courts rule she's 'too stupid' to care for her child, Daily Mail, 4 June 2009
[2] 'Social workers took away my twins after I'd joked that birth spoilt my body', Daily Mail, 20 June 2009