Tolerance from Tragedy?

December is a month when we are bombarded from all corners about the joys of the festive season. It is also a month when we look back on the past year and we reflect on our achievements and remember loved ones who have died or are ill.

If I look back on the last year, two words keep cropping up – one is intolerance and the other is superiority. From politicians to media commentators; from religion to religion; from religious sect to religious sect; from one ethnic group to another, and from heterosexuals to gays. I can go on but the common theme is the language of intolerance, language which breeds hatred. Implicit in so much of the rhetoric is superiority in which one individual, group or country thinks it is better than another.

Part of the problem is that so much of this intolerance and hatred is based on a lack of understanding and prejudice. It is also based on lumping people under one label. In turn, part of the problem is that we are quick to place people in groups such as teenagers, looked after children or the unemployed. If we then amplify this between nations we dismiss people because by some quirk of geography they happen to live in a particularly location. In areas such as sport, this may be understandable but in other areas it can be dangerous and lead to mistrust.

In terms of children, categorising them under a particular heading may be helpful to statisticians but it does not help. Seeing looked after children as one homogeneous group often fails to take account of individual need. Mike Stein writing in The Guardian about research being undertaken by York University eloquently makes the point when he says,

“The simplistic view of care as failing 60,000 young people should be confined to the dustbin. Until we introduce a more sophisticated measure of progress we do not know how successful care is – although the indications from research findings in relation to young people who spend longer in care (and therefore care can be said to have some impact on their lives) are far more positive than generally recognised. But care could be better. Just to ‘survive’ or ‘struggle’ with complex needs is not good enough”. 1

The point is that we cannot lump all this group together. We need to look at the length of time spent in care, the age they are leaving and perhaps the most significantly the impact of their pre-care experience.

In last month’s edition I was talking about the importance of a community approach to working with young people. Gordon Jack writing in Children and Society expresses concern about the individualised nature of child welfare services:

“The existing, individually oriented, culture of mainstream child welfare agencies is of particular concern in the face of the wide range of evidence that is now available, which highlights the importance of area and community influences on parents and children and the way that interactions between individual and area characteristics influence children’s well-being and future life chances”2

This ecological approach is not advocating ignoring individual need; it is recognising that need must be placed in a context. If we understand that context, we begin to make sense of people’s lives. Understanding this allows us to begin to make sense and ultimately challenge oppression and inequalities in society. As a social worker I need to continually reflect on my values, because anti-oppressive practice is all about an interaction between the personal biographies of the worker and ”the service user and should “…be expressed in the power relationships that arise from their membership of differing social divisions”3.

How can we assess a child’s needs if we don’t understand their lives and their lived experience? Equally, how can Governments condemn others when they have not a clue about the history, levels of poverty, class structure etc. in another country. Perhaps it could all be summed up in the fact that we are all too quick to judge others.

All too often we merely condemn people without understanding where they are coming from. At this time of good will one thing that has heartened me in the tragedy of the deaths of five women in Ipswich is that people have begun to think about the language used. There has been a change and a recognition that they were people first and people who lived tragic lives. What is encouraging is that most people have not just reached for the ammunition of condemnation but have recognised the women’s humanity. It is to be hoped that out of the tragedy a greater degree of tolerance will emerge.

1Mike Stein ‘Wrong Turn’,,1964541,00.html
6/12/2006 (accessed 22/12/2006)
2Jack G (2006) The Area and Community Components of Children’s Well-being
3See: Beverley Burke and Philomena Harrison ANTI-OPPRESSIVE PRACTICE (accessed 22/12/2006)

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