Challenging harmful political contexts through activism

Linda Briskman

We live in an age when humanity is at war with itself. Despite the rise of human rights as important expressions of human interests across diverse geographies and identities, our century has become one marked by war, terrorism, the refugee crisis, ecological damage and violence against millions of people

(Yirga Gelmv Woldeyes, 2017: 67)

In a post-Trump, post-Brexit era, many on the ‘left’ are contemplating with deep concern what it means for those advocating for human rights and social justice. In these ‘eras’ we see rising nationalism, increased ‘bordering’ and disturbing levels of racism, each constituting erosion of values that social workers hold but which are sometimes rendered invisible.

The chapter looks at hannful political contexts through a social work values lens and outlines some of the threats to human rights, peace and justice at local and global levels. The two interconnected areas discussed in this chapter are: asylum seeker rights and Islamophobia. Before discussing how each of these spheres constitute hannful political contexts, an outline is provided on what I term critical social movements and activism that opposes dominant discourses and practices. I first turn to neoliberal and managerial underpinnings that beset social work as they represent a back-drop for a malaise in social work that inhibits identification as a human rights champion.


Neoliberalism is a state-sanctioned ideology that is perilous for social work. It is a framework that moves beyond welfare state provision to one of competition, with emphasis on the free market, privatisation of services and where the user pays (Pease, 2009). The hegemony of neoliberalism presents a particularly difficult test for social work as it interferes with our ethical obligation to work toward social justice. The results of this virulent paradigm include cutbacks to services and less discretion for those with grounded knowledge. The problem of lack of discretion can move into the area of collusion and loss of capacity to challenge the state. In these ways, social work is at odds with neoliberalism and its exacerbation of social inequalities (Wilson, Calhoun and Whitmore, 2014).

Associated with neoliberalism is its bedfellow, managerialism, which social workers directly experience in their workplaces. As lie (2013: 48) states: ‘Managerialism has blossomed in the era of neoliberalism’ and embodies top down approaches whereby ‘expert managers are seen as having superior wisdom’. This effectively disempowers social workers, erodes social work values and practice wisdom and subordinates critical social work approaches enshrined in the education process.

Neoliberalism is emotionally neutral and social work ought not to be. Once we become immune to compassion, and are no longer unsettled by the injustices that we see in practice or even in the media, we are failing in our mission. An inspiration for invoking passion and compassion is Stephane Hessel and his slim volume, Time for Outrage, published in 2011 in the last stages of his life, a tome which is the centrepiece of my bookcase. A French diplomat, member of the French resistance and a concentration camp survivor, Hessel (2011: 29) implores us to: ‘Look around you and you will see things that vindicate your outrage. You will see concrete examples of what situations provoke you to act as a real citizen’. But to the contrary, in our impersonal race to professionalisation, we have lapsed in our purpose, values and ideals. As posited by Olson (2008), the social justice project and professionalisation are discourses in conflict. This is despite social workers being observant to the increased bureaucratisation of practice, with its emphasis on ‘risk’, and ‘positivist empirical epistemology under the label of evidencebased practice’ (Reisch and Jani, 2012: 1140).

The politics of activist social work

From my many years as an activist social work scholar, I argue that social work must be both political and activist. Although there are competing views of professional social work that arise through its variety of fields, theories and methods, it is indisputable that social work in its quest to remedy disadvantage, witnesses and unwittingly contributes to perpetuating such disadvantage. It is through the very nature of our work with groups on the margins of society, that social workers have a distinctive responsibility to understand the political macro-dimensions of their work. At the same time, there is a moral duty to engage in activities to overcome systemic institutionalised oppression. We cannot be bystanders. Such understanding and subsequent action does not arise in a vacuum, but is centred within the value base of social work and its emphasis on human rights, social justice and transformative practice that makes it essential for social workers to confront injustices which they discern.

It is somewhat puzzling why social workers do not robustly engage with the politics of professional practice and hence seek to become more activist, especially given the strong hold of critical social work perspectives in education programs. According to Reisch and Jani (2012), social workers are increasingly reluctant to confront political dimensions of practice or to openly defy forces whose values and goals are antithetical to the mission of social work. Some hesitation is bound by constraints imposed on social workers through government funded programs, where confidentiality norms dominate at the expense of transparency and transformative paradigms. This is particularly evident in contested spheres of practice where erosion of human rights has become nonnative, exemplified in a later section of this chapter on asylum seekers. When silencing takes hold, resistance can have consequences. In 2004 a paper documented the experiences of around 300 Australian non-government organisations (NGOs), which had their voices subdued when they spoke against government. They reported tactics of bullying, harassment, intimidation, public denigration and threatened withdrawal of funding (Hamilton and Maddison, 2007).

Reisch and Jani (2012) point out that social work political activity in the United States emerged once social workers became aware that micro-level interventions were insufficient to solve problems they observed daily. From this insight, political consciousness grew. This is no different today as social workers witness and participate in inequality' and discriminatory' practices in such mainstream spheres as child protection, juvenile justice, disability, housing access and health, that may contravene basic human rights provision and work against social work’s mission to overcome structural injustices. Associated with systemic unfairness, social workers may confuse questions of allegiance, frequently referred to as dual loyalty, which shapes the way in which social workers perceive their practice responsibilities — to vulnerable people — “clients’ — or as state agents. In a contradictory paradox, social workers are charged with working within existing social arrangements, while being ethically called upon to challenge injustices, many of which they bear witness to in their practice. At the same time, social work is expanding into new arenas of involvement that were not previously' within its remit, with one of the dangers being a move toward a new moral code of behaviour (McLaughlin, 2008), as examples below illustrate. Earlier radical movements are restricted as the main focus of social work remains with individual work, which can be readily de-politicised.

In advocating for critical reflection to facilitate emancipatory change, Morley (2014: 169) speaks of disempowering contexts that create a sense of powerlessness for critical practitioners in their pursuit of social justice and other emancipatory ideals. These she posits are located in increased bureaucratic control, reduced resources and technocratic professional discourses. She notes (2014: 182) that practitioners may acquiesce to more powerful actors for fear of disturbing the status quo, hence resulting in compliance with dominant power relations.

Most graduating students enter their first social work positions in service agencies where they work at individual or family levels. Critical approaches learned in the academy are unsettled by' agency policies, procedures and practices that may have little connection to the murky' political context in which social work is emplaced. It is increasingly' likely that social workers are indoctrinated into conventional ways of operating that do not challenge the status quo.

The constraints of neoliberalism and managerialism extend into the academic realm. Fraser and Taylor (2016) express concern about how neoliberalism is impacting academics’ research interests, autonomy, community' involvement and use of critical pedagogy. Furthermore, as they' claim, the neoliberal academy privileges metrics and rankings, acquisition of financial resources and competitive behaviour, all factors that detract from the work of activist scholars and even create tacit complicity' in dominant processes.

Despite the constraints, social work educators have an obligation to prepare students for political and activist practice, although professional guidelines do not reflect this and may instead privilege approaches that are conventional and even stagnant. At the educational level, there is continuing emphasis on micro-components of practice (Pawar and Thomas, 2017). An activist scholar needs to rebut some of the assumptions of the conventional even though this may' serve to banish them to a position on the margins of academia. Attempts to make the argument for activist scholarship falls into the trap of objections, which Hale (2008) sees as encapsulated in three words: positivism, objectivity' and rigour. Such terms serve to diminish the credibility of the activist scholar within the neoliberal environments under which academics are employed.

Social work activism, local and global: conundrums

Many of the social movements pertaining to social work are transnational in nature, including the realms of disability', women, LGBTQ1, Indigenous and refugees. Although this chapter focuses on the imperative for social workers to be activist when encountering wicked politics and wicked problems, there are ethical boundaries.

These are no better set out than by Ambrose, Hogle, Taneja and Yohannes (2015), drawing on the slogan that stemmed from the disability movement of the 1990s: ‘Nothing for us without us’, which expresses the view that people affected by injustice are those to play the leading role in advocacy movements. This proposition is surprisingly contentious, in the western world in particular, where there exists a prevailing position that people who are oppressed lack agency, especially in situations of war, conflict and state repression, and hence it is up to privileged westerners to act on their behalf. The question that needs to be posed before social action is undertaken is: what are the limits to responsible advocacy and how can we invoke what we might call a politics of critical activism? This is acutely important for social workers who may be captured by media reporting that for example exaggerates practices attributed to some cultural and religious groups seen as outside the ‘civilised’ value system of western societies. Ambrose et al. (2015: 4) pose the following:

The first question is about the legitimacy and accountability of Westerners advocating for geographically and culturally distant issues. If these advocates’ legitimacy is not derived from the people on whose behalf they are advocating, what gives them the right to propose solutions? To whom are advocates accountable, and how are advocates accountable when they do harm?

Too often, the information we receive in the international sphere is partial and filtered through a western lens. As Nigerian writer, Chimanda Ngozi Adichie tells us:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

(cited in Mancini, 2016)

Similarly, Ambrose et al. (2015) raise the question of singularity versus the multiplicity of narratives and the relationship to openness to new perspectives and voices, as inclusivity opens the door for multiple voices and complex debates. This discussion will be expanded in the section on Islamophobia.

Arguably however, transnational advocacy movements can be powerful and we have witnessed the fall of apartheid, the near-end to slavery and global action, sometimes successful and sometimes not, against environmental degradation. A distinguishing feature of such movements is that values are central to their existence and action. Transnational advocacy networks display capacity to ‘persuade, pressure, and gain leverage over much more powerful organizations and governments’ (Keck and Sikkink, 1998: 2). Such networks are strongest when they are driven by those identifying most closely with the concern. One example is the Indigenous people’s movement that garners transnational political leverage through powerful transnational affiliations and loyalties (Goodman, 2002). In contemplating social work and social activism, two examples of harmful political contexts are now explored: Asylum seekers and Islamophobia.

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