Thursday, June 04, 2009

"Their heads were full of Durkheim"

At the LRB, Hilary Mantel has a merciless piece on her time as a social work trainee in the early 1970s:
I was getting a crash course in what age can do to the body and brain. Through writing them down repeatedly, I became familiar with some of the worst phrases in the English language: you can’t beat ‘terminal’, but a close second is ‘immobile, disorientated and doubly incontinent’.
And this:
Who’d be a social worker, anyway? The problem was the same then as now. Communal expectation was riven by contradiction. You were a busybody and a do-gooder, interfering in private life; or you were a useless, gormless, uncaring drain on the public purse. Whichever role you were cast in you had to get on with the job. My next stop was the community worker: Ruby’s estate was such a trouble spot that it needed its own staff. He was a jaunty young man, and he balled his fists in his pockets as he told me he knew the stepfather: ‘Nah, he’s all right.’ Shrugging, he made it clear that he intended to do precisely nothing. And there was nothing more I could do. I’d liaised with the ‘appropriate agencies’. I’d told my seniors. Ruby’s allegations were not so particular that I could go to the police, and she was in no state to be badgered for specifics. She complained of a climate of violence, not one discrete incident. Even if they were willing to investigate, a police visit with no follow-through might make things worse. Certainly, I’d never get into the house again.

What sort of judgment was the community social worker making when he swore the stepfather was a nice feller? Was he frightened of the man? That was possible; but more likely he wanted to be his mate. The young social workers of the time, coming up through university courses – postgraduate training after a sociology degree – thought it a sin to be judgmental. In fact they were making judgments all the time. Uneasy about their own middle-class backgrounds, and always feeling vaguely uncool, they believed they should not ‘label’ clients or assess ‘working-class’ people by their own middle-class criteria; so they treated them as if they were dogs and cats, not responsible for their actions. They had a whole set of interesting beliefs about the uneducated and the poor. They didn’t see that they were being grossly condescending, while pretending to be the opposite. Aspiration was a middle-class trait, they thought; the working classes preferred to muddle along. The privileged had their ethical standards, but it was unfair to universalise them. The workers had their own amusements, bless them, and should be allowed their vices. Their houses were dirty, but it was petty bourgeois to worry about grime. And if they were drunken or semi-criminal, and beat each other, wasn’t that their culture? These young graduates took as typical the malfunctioning families with whom their case files brought them into contact. Worse, they wanted their clients to like them. They dressed in recidivist chic and roughed up their accents. Their heads were full of Durkheim, their mouths full of glottal stops. They were occupied in creating a moral vacuum; theirs was a world safe for theory but profoundly unsafe for any child who needed them to shape up and go to work.

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