Lessons from Social Work on Politics

Another election year has arrived, and judging by the media coverage, it appears the nation is as divided as ever. With that in mind, let’s see what lessons can be learned from principles of social work—a profession that is known for bringing people together and combining resources for the common good.  As a social worker, these principles guide my political beliefs and civic choices.

1. Identify and eliminate biases– The earliest phase of my social work education focused on eliminating biases so that I could look at situations objectively and without judgement. This was a critical moment in my development that I worry not enough people spend time on. Our understanding of the world around us is influenced by our family, environment, socio-economic status, race, religion and myriad of other things that we take for granted. Yet, until we make a conscious effort to step outside of those influences and view things from another perspective, we may never recognize the factors that skew our perceptions.

Beyond that, we also need to be aware of biases that are held against us. Personally I try to avoid labelling myself with terms such as Republican/Democrat, conservative/liberal, and etc. By using such labels, we invite inaccurate assumptions upon ourselves. I understand the temptation; those labels help us simplify much broader views. However, they also restrict us and kill conversation. There are a myriad of stances you can take on any given issue, and two general party platforms just don’t cover it. Such labels are doomed to fall short of actually explaining our more nuanced positions. However, if you do choose to utilize such labels, just make sure the conversation doesn’t stop there. Take the time to explain some of your more nuanced views.

As far as killing conversations goes, many people shut their ears to the first inclination that someone may be from the opposite side of the political spectrum, even if it’s only on one issue. Let’s be honest, we have such a red team vs. blue team mentality in our modern political climate that many of us struggle to relate to the other side at all. We approach politics like we do sports fandom. If our side takes a position, we support it; if the other side takes the same position, we’re all opposed. Our political discourse should be much more open and calm. Discussion should be encouraged and, as Gandhi taught, we should be wary of viewing anyone as our enemy or opponent, especially when doing so can lead to the kind of gridlock which makes our political system so ineffective.

2. Evidence-Based Practices– As I mentioned before, it seems we often align more with a party than the policies they say they represent. The social work principle of evidence-based practice dictates that social workers have to test a solution for efficacy before putting it into widespread practice. Good intentions don’t always translate into effective practices, so we test to make sure the approaches we think will help actually do. I’m always amazed that political debates don’t focus more on such breakdowns of policy efficacy.

In American politics, American exceptionalism is so accepted as the norm that politicians would be shamed for bringing up what works in other countries. Yet, there is no better way to evaluate policies than examining how they have worked or failed in other places amongst similar populations. Can we all agree to simply put our pride aside, accept that acknowledging other countries’ successes doesn’t mean denying our own patriotism, and open up our system to learn from others?

3. Value Diversity– Again, to cross the seemingly great divides amongst us, we need to learn from others who are different and begin to acknowledge and value such differences. Beyond that, we need to seek out policy solutions that work for everyone, not just the privileged majority. It seems to be a strong-held misconception that empowering others somehow subtracts from ourselves. To borrow from Dr. King, a true social work philosopher, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When one amongst us is empowered, this benefits us all.

4. Value Community– Along the thinking of the “think global, act local” slogan, what we do to improve our community improves our city, improves our state, and so on. Awareness of national issues is great but not if it leads to us ignoring local issues. It seems this point has become cliché as I see it brought up regularly in online debates, yet people have a hard time envisioning how to put this into action.

As a recovery court treatment provider, I teach my clients lessons on citizenship and community because there is so much evidence that shows improving one’s pride and sense of responsibility to their community (or any cause greater than themselves) improves their own self-worth and decreases their likelihood of breaking the law. This concept needs to be accepted and nurtured by the leaders of our political system. Yet, the narrative most politicians seem to prefer is one of paranoia, fear, separation and the need to selfishly guard our own against the constant threat of our neighbors. Social work as a profession should challenge these notions and encourage a return to that sense of neighborly care.

5. Social Justice- If there were two words that could sum up the majority of my social work education and discussion, this would be it. By the time we graduate from a social work program, the phrase “social justice” seems like a requirement for all discussions. But once again, this concept is so absent from political debates and discussions. Social justice needs to be a primary factor in all public policy discussions. The environmental, economical, community, and population impacts on policies need to be weighed very carefully

6. Dignity and Worth of the Person- So many modern political narratives focus on dividing people into well-defined groups in a way that undermines the dignity and worth of whole populations. This should be unacceptable from any candidate for public office, yet it has become the norm. There is a way to discuss the downsides of a population without resorting to slander and mockery. This principle again underlines the need for kind, respectful political discourse between people from varying platforms.

7. Importance of Human Relationships– Our society seems to value candidates with unhealthy levels of ego which we would not value in our personal lives. If our employers were as boastful and self-aggrandizing as our presidential front-runners, they would drive us crazy. Our political climate has come to shame people who admit faults or previous mistakes, yet these are healthy character traits. Similarly, we should respect when someone is willing to step aside and let someone else take credit for a victory. We should seek leaders who exhibit these abilities of building others up and valuing teamwork. Beyond this, a lack of value in human relationships is such a glaring personality defect that will without a doubt impede someone’s abilities to practice diplomacy. If someone cannot maintain their composure with the media or in a debate, we cannot reasonably expect them to when challenged by other leaders.

My professional and educational background in social work reminds me to focus on politics over personalities, to seek evidence-based solutions, to value my relationships with other people and acknowledge their roles in my successes, to always remain open to other opinions, and to promote calm discussions on hard topics. These are just a few principles of social work which influence my political considerations. What are some that you would add?

Written by Sandon Bull
Guest Writter

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One Response

  1. Mar Kar K August 4, 2016

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