Framing research has found that it is common for campaigners, in their communications, the media in their reporting, and the public in their thinking and understanding to omit the human-designed systemic factors shaping people’s life experiences and opportunities. As a result, we can too often attribute people’s life situation, such as poverty, homelessness, or obesity, to bad luck, poor choices, or individual moral failure. This in turn undermines our ability to build an understanding of the potential for change, or the injustices of designing systems in particular ways or of not taking steps to change them. Bringing systems into view, showing how they shape life opportunities, and making clear that as humans designed them, so they can be redesigned, puts us in a far stronger position to call for systemic change.
Some of this is about big broad public narratives. Take for example the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s work on reframing poverty, which uses the metaphor of ‘economic currents’ that can ‘pull people down’ and frames social security as offering an ‘anchor’ or a way to stay afloat while struggling, rooted in values of compassion and justice. This is designed to work against the idea that poverty is just bad luck or a result of poor choices or lack of effort, or that the social security system is rewarding idleness.
Sometimes though it’s in the weeds of language that grow up around a particular field and which become embedded in professional or practice discourse. Bryony Shannon’s brilliant new blogpost on the language of blame expertly points to and unpicks this within the field of social work and social care. Bryony points to examples such as ‘Hard to reach’. ‘Refuses to engage’. ‘Frequent flyers’. ‘Carer breakdown’. ‘Bed blockers’. ‘Challenging behaviour’. ‘Non-compliant’. ‘Complex’. ‘Difficult’. Vulnerable’. All of these words and phrases divert from systemic causes or failings, locating them instead in the circumstances, character, or behaviours of those of us who public bodies have a duty to support. Those of us who consider ourselves system change campaigners clearly need to be alert to the power of language and how it either reveals or conceals cause and effect and how it locates power and responsibility for change. We also have to be alive to the misappropriation and perversion of the language we have developed to articulate the change we wish to bring about. Take ‘independent living’ for example, which the disabled people’s independent living movement has defined as self-governance with support, yet which some councils and policymakers have recast as self-sufficiency.
But I also want to issue a note of caution. Perhaps the most deep-rooted systemic barrier to older and disabled people enjoying their human rights on an equal basis with others is paternalism. Put simply, society’s prejudice that people who require some financial or practical support cannot safely take responsibility for their own lives is codified into our laws, institutions, professional qualifications, culture, practice, and public discourse. Despite years of rhetorical progress in policy circles, the fact is that political, public and media discourse, and the fundraising drives of some charities, still paint the overriding duty of society, and by extension the local state, as being to ‘look after the vulnerable’. While some of the words and ideas Bryony charts might exemplify paternalistic belief systems, one might also wonder if they sometimes represent a defence response among professionals to the sense of liability and potential for blame that such thinking and politics generates. The social work profession is hardly without reason to feel this way. As a result though, a culture of liability simultaneously denies people with cause to draw on support the freedom to take responsibility, but can also sometimes involve employing defensive language that implicitly blames the same people when things don’t work out or go wrong.
So I don’t believe blaming ‘the system’ instead of the individual is the answer. Rather, blame itself is the problem. If we are genuinely committed to restoring power to people and communities, and sharing power through ‘co-production’, then we need also to find new ways to share responsibilities and risks, and think about distributed accountability. This is still about system change, but it is towards a changed system that recognises, respects, and includes people as responsible agents in their own lives, not one which sees the system as something ‘over there’ that is uniquely responsible for success or failure. Such a system will continue to deny the people it has the power to control the dignity of risk in order to protect itself, with all the perversities we know that generates.
If we keep avoiding this conversation, we will only have ourselves to blame.