Social work practitioners have long known and even celebrated the “social construction of reality” – i.e. the understanding that to a significant extent our daily life worlds are constituted by commonly held ideas, beliefs, and values. Change those ideas, beliefs, and values, and “reality” itself changes. This understanding underlies social work’s deep appreciation of cultural diversity and motivates “strengths-based,” “solution-focused,” and “reframing” strategies – all essential elements in most practitioners’ conceptual and intervention toolkits.
At the same time, we must recognize and accept that social reality, let alone physical reality, is not fully plastic. We are not gods, and we cannot bend and twist the world into a more desirable shape simply by positing a solution-focused reframe of its currently undesirable condition. Our ability to alter reality is subject to an assortment of unyielding constraints. Regarding political reality in particular – a social realm that we ignore only at grievous policy peril – we face three especially daunting limitations.
Broad-based ignorance. A mountain of empirical evidence indicates an appallingly widespread ignorance of both facts (for example, the history of American slavery) and concepts (e.g., the contours and essential processes of constitutional democracy). The exercise of responsible (informed, thoughtful, engaged and “empowered”) citizenship is impossible in the face of mass ignorance; indeed, ignorance is the breeding ground for authoritarian “strongmen” and pseudo-democratic governance.
Avoidance and denial. A measure of determined avoidance of life’s “negatives” and embrace of “glass half full” philosophy is, arguably, an essential component of mental health. It is surely one key to imagining and subsequently realizing a better tomorrow. Yet the current proliferation of intersecting crises – health, economic, ecological, political – is spawning legions of truth avoiders (e.g., “I know that climate change is happening, but I simply can’t bear to think about it”) and outright reality deniers (e.g., “A limited nuclear war with another great power is survivable, and may be necessary”), constituting a virtually insuperable limitation on rational, evidence-based change-making.
Disinformation and propaganda. It’s now a commonplace that active “disinformation” floods social media and even a great many “mainstream” media spaces. Even those citizens who consider themselves well-informed are very likely to reside in one or another information “silo” wherein preferred sources all bear a substantial family resemblance, and “news” relies less on sound evidence of fact than on an emotionally-grounded and heavily reinforced interpretative schema hostile to alternative viewpoints. Such news deserves to be labeled not news, but propaganda. Propagandized citizens may indeed support movements for change, but the changes sought and achieved are unlikely to cohere well with fundamental social work beliefs, values and commitments.