Advancing Social Work Values in a Hostile Climate


Mississippi social workers are correct to complain, as one did to me recently, that “it’s hard to talk about social work values these days; we live in Trump country, you know.”  Hard, perhaps, but not impossible.

Fruitful discussion requires avoiding two traps in particular  – (1) the trap of defending specific flawed policies, and (2) the trap of wanting to walk away the “winner” of an argument.  I don’t try to defend Obamacare, for example; instead I say that we need a health care system that takes care of everyone at a cost that everyone can afford – my interlocutor included!  In the same vein, I do my best to avoid “arguments” to start with, and never, ever try to win one.  Far better to keep the relationship bridge open – “I appreciate your point of view.  You’ve given me a lot to think about.  Let’s talk again soon.”  With luck you’ve given them something to think about in the meantime too.

Values cut deeper than specific issues in any case.  Especially in hostile and perhaps heated contexts, focus on deeply ingrained cultural values such as the golden rule, shared responsibility for the common good, and compassionate response to the innocent.  Despite the stereotype, social workers are not “bleeding hearts.”  They know that people can be selfish, uncaring, even cruel.  But they also know that a mean spirit usually arises from circumstances of fear, insecurity, and ignorance.  Social work values are at bottom universal values, and universal values are at the heart of our deeper, better natures as human beings.  When speaking with our “tough” talking fellow citizens, appeal to that better nature.