Social interventionists and people who work with people must have a command of language. How else can they be effective? There is no question that social workers use the language every day in a profound and meaningful way. Think about it. Despite all the metaphors and seemingly trite platitudes offering a semblance of hope in a sea of darkness, these people move words to make people work for themselves and produce changing results.
There is no question, that the language of the social work profession is limitless as an agent of change and transformation. Let’s look at how and why this happens. The social work ‘speak’ or lexicon is miraculously positive in its composition. In terms of composition, this language can connect across differences. This is huge, especially today when we live in a climate of division and alarming dissatisfaction with the level of diversity used in conversation in the news, water cooler, and among friendly circles just chatting about how things are going in COVID-19 America and the larger scope of the impact of the pandemic.
So, back to how this happens. The process is congruent with intervention and the social worker if he or she is savvy will select or identify composite wording or rhetoric to make his point as visible as possible to his clients. Thus, illuminating to the client what the gravity of the issue is and signalling the relative urgency at stake and the scale or even possible impact of what’s happening in the lives of their clients. These messages are powerful because they aren’t as thrown together as people may think. They can all be broken down into the same DNA and reassembled at any time to reflect the original intent and purpose of the social interventionist when he or she created the language. This is exactly why social work rhetoric is so powerful. Its strength goes deep into the very wellspring of its architecture and composition.
The social work language however continues to be grossly misunderstood, underutilised, and undervalued by allied fields. Even more so by people who can even be benefiting by having more equal access to a social worker and his or her services. In a world where disparities are more rampant than not, we need to ask why words, language, and how rhetoric is studied is so hidden away and not made more available to the public. Perhaps this is not an issue of the haves and have-nots. Language and the rhetorical sciences have not been studied closely enough in the academy.
This is truly distressing when we have serious social issues that need to be resolved and the process expedited. If we can force-feed this process by speeding up our education system and enhancing the way we do things there why not? The social work language which continues to intersect, profoundly, so many intersections of power, privilege, and oppression should be the priority of the day in higher education because!
This great overstep by English and Rhetoric departments of major universities and by language experts across the globe studying and mobilising the discourse need to be held accountable and their feet held to the fire when it comes to questions surrounding what we know and we don’t and the gaps in knowledge in between. I highly suspect these gaps in meaning are just another example of the oppressive ivory tower hierarchy and the establishment in higher education refusing to budge and modernise. Until these language elitists in English departments, schools with an enriched Rhetoric specialisation, in turn, represent the intentions and needs of the people we must fight against them.
The power of social work and its language to destabilise is strong enough to do battle with the humanities. I am suggesting the very library floor these English departments and language are built on a foundation that must be subsumed and its hubris collapsed before we see the social results and justice we are looking for in modern social justice movements needing to experience the fruits of their labor. Language experts, so-called rhetoricians, and chairs of English departments persist in the same critical inquiry we social workers do. I say its high time we dislodge the metaphor from the equation and take our social justice ques from the human services and divisions of higher education which produce the results we demand.
These are results from the same critical thinking skills except mobilised for an inquiry into the very souls of our patients. Our clinical savvy is instead mobilised through a medium of finely tuned, sequenced, prescribed, and sometimes, conversely, totally spontaneous language. The fundamental difference between these departments? Unlike the rhetoric specialist and English studies professional in higher ed, our reading of the text, the corpus, is the body itself of the patients we serve. We social workers are the metaphysical signifier of the helper, and we instead take the ethical high ground.
For social work, everything is at stake, and yet, we social workers have no enemies in academe. Our discipline, our craft, does not need to ‘other’ those great are different, make little our known and unknown enemies, or even disparage those that are critical of us. Our language is wholly heterogeneous and yet, totally equalising in its power to be the all leveller in what is unjust, uncertain, and misrepresentative of what is, and what is not something to be feared. With the social workers that speak of concern, categorise it, and identify and mark the very strengths to focus on to minimise risk, and the likelihood and success of our clients are visible and clear as day to anyone that uses our language.
This is a language that is nuanced and enmeshed into the very physics of speech and the words social workers do sublimely choose when intervening in the world of those who continue to put limits to its system of signification.
These systems, the very composition we social workers pass through and disempower is the same lens rhetoric language experts use in their halls of study in academy, the arts, sciences, and other fields of so-called critical inquiry. These people that can do and succeed despite the department chairs of English departments, and any person who uses language for evil and sadistic purposes, and the prodigies of today’s social work and its advancement among the professions. There is no question our ethical code sits at the very apex of justice, hope, and goodwill with the many disciplines we work alongside in our professional pursuits.
And yet, our contribution to the world of rhetoric, and the rhetorical sciences goes unrecognised and minimised by others who use language for much less urgent, and critical inquiries.
We social workers are the true masters of metaphor. The same artfully spontaneous and yet mechanically predictability social work researchers strive for in their pursuits academics, linguists, and language experts also hope to capture in their writing. This writing, the case studies, patient records, and assessments we social workers aim to master in our clinical language, academics, and another field with a highly specialised language claim is the very proof in their credence and right to be called its discipline. As social workers, our language communicates its justification and supremacy in any specialisation we practitioners choose to work or study.
Indeed, any rhetorical device is within our grasp during social work interventions, and skills that reach beyond the classroom, a podium, and your neighbourhood or mine. These are skills that have a deep breadth of understanding of all the rules of the so-called higher language. It cannot be more clear where the metaphysical origin of praxis and its truth live if not for the pages of social work research, and our further inquiry into justice, and all higher education, which seeks to disrupt oppression, power and those which serve the purposes of rhetoric without bounds.
Our discipline knows only the bounds and the limits of rhetoric, the gatekeepers which continue to make good intentions bad, and heroism into something evil with even worse intentions.
This is research based on the platonic ideals that there is no good use but instead, the only misuse of biases, judgements, and truly critical inquiry. This is the other side, face, of critical theory when rhetoric has no reigns. This is why the social work language must fully be subsumed if rhetoric and rhetorical studies are to ever be checked. Until then, fear, lawless ethical stances, and valueless beliefs will never cripple the aspirations of social work, its people, or those that call themselves helpers in a world where helping is obsolete and justice is turned on its head.
For social work research, the pursuit of the highest ground in academic, moral, and ethical belief in the chronicles of higher education and academic affairs must be nurtured, praised, and celebrated among the disciplines. Alas, the professional schools of universities, media, and the social apparatuses which can continue to benefit from forwarding idealism and other schools of forward-thinking which are beginning to understand what is becoming clear among leaders in the English world. That, above all, these trends emerging in most effective uses of rhetoric and those which operate language at its deepest, most insidious level, chiefly, at the vast reaches and pits which continue to intersect language and it’s rhetorically written and spoken companion.
Now, is there any question left about why there is growing respect for social workers and the language we use?
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Max E. Guttman, LCSW is a psychotherapist and owner of Recovery Now, a mental health private practice in New York City.