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Innocence Lost and Suspicion Found

Innocence Lost and Suspicion Found

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Published by Kim Murphy-Stewart
This paper concerns directions for education in critical social work. I have to confess at the outset that the topic unnerves me. I find that the more I teach, the more perplexed I become at the responsibility for social work education from a critical perspective.
This paper concerns directions for education in critical social work. I have to confess at the outset that the topic unnerves me. I find that the more I teach, the more perplexed I become at the responsibility for social work education from a critical perspective.

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Published by: Kim Murphy-Stewart on Jun 09, 2013
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09/30/2013

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Innocence Lost and Suspicion Found: Do we Educate for or Against socialWork?
 
By Amy RossiterSchool of Social Work  York UniversityToronto, OntarioCanada
This paper concerns directions for education in critical social work. I have toconfess at the outset that the topic unnerves me. I find that the more I teach,the more perplexed I become at the responsibility for social work educationfrom a critical perspective. I think this is because my thoughts about socialwork seem to be taking me farther and farther away from what is possible toteach and still call it social work. I would love the simplicity of teaching
students to “do” social work. But I am deeply
suspicious of the innocence of 
 “doing social work.” So on my worst days, I believe that I am hiding my
deepest suspicions about the project of social work from my dewy-eyed
students who “just want to help” while I try tactfully to get them to be a little
more suspicious of impulses that seem quite pure to them. On my best days, Isometimes think that chronic suspicion might be a form of action which canfuel some kind of radical democracy that resists the dire consequences forpeople of the current global order. The project of this paper is to trace myrelation to the concepts of suspicion and innocence in social work and thenraise questions about what this means for directions in social work education.I want to start by sharing a little moment of revelation which occurred duringa series of conversations I had with two Cuban psychologists with whom Iwas participating in a research project last year. During the course of ourconversations, I realized that these two people had a peaceful and energizedrelationship to their work. This was a novelty for me because I'm used toencountering human service professionals who are burned out by a deepambivalence about what they do. The reason for these psychologists' sense of peace was simply that they believed that the goal of their work was to furtherthe values of the Cuban revolution - values they believed in. They understoodthat their job was to further the cause of liberation. They felt that theirpersonal values, professional values, and the values of the state weresynergistic. These were people who were thriving in their jobs. They had anenergy and devotion to their version of psychology that was profoundlymoving.
 
When asked what word best described professional ethics in Cuba, one
participant said “solidarity.” And at that moment, I realized how exhaustedand beleaguered I am by a lifetime of being positioned as a “professionalhelper” by a state that organizes the people's problems as individual
pathologies that are best administered by professionals who are trained not tonotice the state. The Cuban psychologists thrive because they are part of astate that, in theory, embodies their aspirations. I don't thrive because myvery identity is in jeopardy when I am called a professional within a state thatuses the terms and definitions of professionals to hide its oppressivefoundations; where the most innocent position we can take is chronicsuspicion of who we are and what we are doing. As I get older, I wonder if one can thrive intellectually and spiritually by being a chronically suspiciousperson. This is not a question I dare ask in front of my students.
Let me outline my suspicions that I so politely euphemize as “critical socialwork.” One of the learnings that emerged from talks with the Cuban
psychologists was my recognition that for years, I've been on a search for asite of innocence in social work -
a kind of “thing” that I could teach as “theright direction” for social work. In retrospect, I also think I have hoped that
finding a site of innocence could take away the pain of my contradictoryrelationship to the state. I think I've been on the lookout for a theory, apractice, that would make doing social work a fine thing to do by magicallydoing away with social work and myself as a history which is marked byoppressive relations and ideologies which conceal these relations.Our profession has a history of this belief in a place of innocence. How many
times have we heard the phrase “being an agent of social control or socialchange?” The myth her
e is that you can choose to be either one - someonewho does control or someone who does change with the latter being theinnocent one. Typically, schools have been split between casework as theagents of social control and community work as social change people. Thisfiction did a great deal to disseminate the notion that there is a space that isnot one of social control - but one of social innocence. I have really wanted tofind that space in order to teach it, because my sense of competence as aprofessor of social work seemed to depend on achieving some innocent spaceI could impart to my students. Could it be radical social work? Structural socialwork? Feminist postmodernism? Isn't there some fancy combination thatwould teleport us out of the contradictory and messy place made for us byhistory?I have to admit that only recently I have I begun to question my search forinnocence in social work. Barbara Heron, in her work on development in Africa, raises questions about the impulse to help the vulnerable Other(Heron, 1999). Heron locates this impulse in the history of white, bourgeois
 
women's identity formation within colonial relations, where “goodness” and “helpfulness” are central aspects of civilizing missions. Civilizing missionsproduce the “Other” in need of help, thereby sustaining the identity of the
helper as good, innocent, and helpful. Such relations obscure the problem of power and privilege in relations between helper and helped. In social work,two identity's are sustained through helping - helper and helped, one whohas, one who needs, one less vulnerable, one more vulnerable. Vast realms of identities fall outside such relations - are they not real in social work? Isn't theterrain of helping awfully small for both helper and helped? But I feel happywhen I am helping. My identity is momentarily complete in the small momentsof help. It is clear that my own completion depends on the helplessness of others. I am no exception to history in the history of white bourgeois women.In a critical social work, is there any innocence in helping?I've been brought to this question by a growing understanding that there isno such thing as knowledge that doesn't exclude at the same time that itincludes. For some time, poststructuralists have told us that there is noinnocent knowledge. But Melissa Orlie (1997) takes this a bit further by callingwhat is excluded at the very moment any knowledge is deployed a potentialtrespass. In Orlie's view, trespass is the inevitable outcome of the process of creating culture. Orlie says:Trespasses originate not in a recalcitrant will, but in the pursuit of living.The fact that trespasses are not always intended does not lessen theirweight and efficacy. Trespasses are the harm brought to others by ourparticipation in the governing ways of envisioning and making the world.
The trespasser is the “lawful citizen” who, because well
-disposed towardthe law, daily becomes the agent of injustice. Trespassers are not theactive hands-on instruments of wrongdoing, but th
e “responsible”, well
-behaved predictable subjects of social order who reinforce and extend itspattern of rule. From the perspective of trespass, evil is not a mysteriousforce without nor an obstinate element deep within us. In its mostcommon modern forms, evil is rarely intended and seldom the product of malice but is an effect of living our locations and pursuing our felicity.Everyday evil does not originate in sin, and in its most usual forms it isnot pathological, though it may be manifested in practices thatpathologize others. Ordinary evil arises from and rests upon the surfaceof beings and things (Orlie, 1997, p.23).The important piece of Orlie's work for me is the implication that once wehave accepted that the potential for some kind of trespass occurs wheneverknowledge is deployed, we can understand the futility of the search for aspace of innocence for social work. Given social work's central space within

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