Having leveled my palace, don’t erect a hovel and complacently admire your own charity in giving me that for a home. – Emily Bronte
How I stifled a revolution
The first time I heard someone say that social work played a distinct role in maintaining social inequality on oppressive political systems I got really angry. I felt personally insulted by the suggestion that social work could be seen as a form of control – as part of the force that keeps those who suffer worst from social injustice in check. “Why don’t you go piss someone off who deserves it?” I thought. “We’re only trying to help.”
That night I had a shift in the homeless shelter I worked. I worked with homeless men with drug abuse issues. People who are often considered the ‘underbelly of society’. As I settled down in my office one of the residents came in. He was obviously upset and angry about a visit to the local Job Centre that day. He had had an appointment with his caseworker and felt he had been treated disrespectfully. ”She treated me like scum.” He said. “If she talks to me like that again I will take her fucking computer screen and bash it in her face”. I talked to him for a while. I told him I understood how he felt. That I knew how unfair it was. But that this was just the way it was. And that he would just have to suck up to her and smile and nod, or he would be even worse off. He seemed calmer after we talked and went to bed after assuring me that he was not going to physically attack anyone. As I watched him walk away it dawned on me that I had just successfully stifled someone’s plan to resist being a victim of oppression.
This experience is not untypical. By sticking band aids onto the gaping wounds of social injustice we alleviate some of the most obvious symptoms of a systemic violence in our society. We become part of the problem while trying to be part of the solution. This conflict is made all the more difficult by the fact that we can’t just choose not to do what we do. I can’t pretend I believe I should have not tried to dissuade that young man from acting out his frustration by physically harming someone who was just as stuck in the system as he was. I can’t claim that I think homeless shelters shouldn’t exist because people who are at the bottom of the social ladder should be made to feel even worse than they already do so that they will start fighting back. But this episode does keeps bothering me.