by Allan Barsky, Ph.D., J.D., MSW, and Laura Groshong, LICSW
Respect is a core social work value, permeating all aspects of practice. The principle of demonstrating respect implies a moral duty to be friendly, deferential, accepting, tolerant, or civil. Respect can mean different things to different people, at different times, and in different contexts. Behaviors that may be viewed as respectful by one person or cultural group may be viewed as disrespectful by another.
For social workers, it is also important to consider respect in relation to the type of work they are doing. In this article, we explore the nature of respect in the context of social work advocacy. Advocacy refers to strategies used to influence others for the benefit of a particular client or cause. Whereas social workers demonstrate respect to individual clients by honoring their right to self-determination and avoid imposing their values and beliefs, advocacy often involves persuasion and trying to change the beliefs and behaviors of others.
In its statement of core ethical principles, the NASW Code of Ethics (2008) provides, “Social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person.” Other standards suggest social workers should use respectful language regarding clients and colleagues. Interestingly, Standard 6.04—the standard that describes social workers’ obligation to participate in social and political action—is silent on the issue of using respectful language. As we explore what respect means in the context of social work advocacy, we ask you to consider whether it is ever ethically justifiable to use disrespectful language and strategies to advocate for just causes. We also ask you to consider who gets to determine what constitutes respectful language—the advocate, the people intended to be persuaded, the general public, vulnerable minorities, or the social work profession?
On one hand, does it not seem obvious that social workers should be respectful in all their communications, whether for advocacy or otherwise? Deontologists such as Emmanuel Kant (1964) would argue that respect is a categorical imperative; that is, being respectful is always a good thing. In a civil society, demonstrating respect is rationally necessary. It fits with the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” According to Kant, respect is a principle that should be followed regardless of the situation and potential consequences.
Consider a social worker who is unhappy with a particular presidential candidate, believing this candidate is bigoted and, if elected, would impose racist policies on vulnerable minorities. Would it be ethical for this social worker to participate in an online smear campaign to ensure this candidate is not elected? Would it be disrespectful, for instance, to label the candidate’s supporters “a basket full of deplorables”? (See Blow, 2016.) If using disrespectful language is the best way to ensure a “positive outcome” in the election, does the end justify the means? Deontologists would say “no.” We should not use people as a means to an end, and we should therefore act with respect regardless of the outcome of the particular election. On the other hand, teleologists believe that consequences are important and the end does justify the means (Bentham, 1823). Although the use of disrespectful messaging in advocacy may lead to negative consequences for the candidate, the greater good is served by ensuring that the other candidate, who the social worker believes will promote social justice, is put into office. What good is it to be “nice and respectful,” if doing so does nothing to rectify poverty, discrimination, unemployment, violence, and other social problems?
Radical social advocates such as Saul Alinsky (1971) have long believed that being nice and respectful allows the status quo to continue. According to this view, for disempowered and disadvantaged groups to have their concerns heard and acted upon, social advocates may need to use insults, harassment, and ridicule, treating opponents of their causes as enemies to be defeated. If a White supremacist group is advocating racial profiling, why should social workers have an ethical responsibility to use respectful language to advocate against this group? Isn’t it more important to confront racism and promote social justice than to pander to bigotry and forego the most effective forms of advocacy, even if the messaging may be distasteful to some? Further, don’t social workers have a right to freedom of speech, including the right to advocate strongly?
In contrast to Alinsky’s radical approach, Mahatma Gandhi suggests, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” Gandhi and other advocates of nonviolence suggest that meaningful change cannot occur through the use of violence, including physical, emotional, or verbal violence. According to nonviolence principles (or “ahimsa”), advocates may be assertive and strong, but they should also be compassionate and respectful. They should not act out of anger or hate (Fernée, 2014).
In some instances, there is a fine line that separates being provocative out of anger from being provocative to make a point. What appears simply angry to some may be perceived as just and appropriate to others. Consider the march to Selma led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1965. Today, few people would contend that the march was based on anger, yet many people at the time perceived it that way. Consider Black Lives Matter (n.d.), a current social movement designed to confront systemic racism in the criminal justice system and to stop the indiscriminate killing of Black people by law enforcement. Critics of Black Lives Matter argue that the group’s name itself is exclusive and disrespectful. They ask: Why do only Black lives matter? Why don’t the lives of Whites and police also matter? Choosing the name “Black Lives Matter” was meant to stir emotions and to cause people some level of discomfort. It motivates people, inspiring them to join the cause and work for change. But is the term disrespectful or discriminatory? And who gets to decide what is discriminatory? If we let those in power decide what is respectful or not, aren’t we reinforcing the status quo of racism?
Social workers value respect, and they also value social justice and freedom of speech. In many situations, social workers can effectively advocate for social justice in a very respectful manner. Consider a social worker meeting with a senator to advocate for a particular change in mental health laws. In this context, the social worker may be more persuasive with the senator by demonstrating unconditional regard, genuineness, and empathic understanding, rather than by being disrespectful and uncaring.
In contrast, consider a protest of Texas’s campus carry laws allowing people to carry concealed handguns on college campuses. The campus is located in a politically conservative state where many people believe the constitutional right to bear arms is absolute and indisputable. A group calling itself Cocks Not Glocks (n.d.) decided to protest by distributing 5,000 dildos for students to carry around campus. The protest garnered local and national attention to the issue of campus safety. Openly carrying dildos made many people feel uncomfortable. Time will tell if this provocative action will lead to a productive discussion and resolution of the conflict between those who value the right to openly carry a weapon and those who believe this promotes an unsafe environment.
Ultimately, no professional social work association can prescribe exactly which words, which forms of protests, and which expressions of persuasion are ethical or unethical. As noted, expressions that are considered respectful and appropriate to some may be considered disrespectful and inappropriate to others. Still, social workers should consider the impact of their language—not just on whether it promotes their social causes, but also how it reflects on the profession and how it may have a broader impact on society.
The ideal may be to demonstrate respect and advocate effectively at the same time. In practice, however, social workers may decide to use language that may be perceived as offensive to some (or many) in order to pursue their just causes. Rather than having professional associations imposing their decisions, individual social workers, small groups of social workers, and social work organizations should think critically about their choices, using the ethical principles in the Code of Ethics as a guide. Questions to be considered include:
- What are my options for advocacy and advancing social justice?
- What are the long- and short-term impacts of these strategies?
- Which advocacy strategies and forms of expression are most likely to achieve my goals?
- How do these strategies reflect on me as a social work professional, and on my profession as a whole?
Professional associations should also do their part to support social workers, allowing them discretion to determine the best ways to advocate, while also promoting the ideals of the profession—including respect, honesty, and social justice.
Alinsky, S. (1971). Rules for radicals. New York, NY: Vintage Press.
Bentham, J. (1823). An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation. Retrieved from http://www.laits.utexas.edu/poltheory/bentham/ipml/ipml.c01.html
Black Lives Matter. (n.d.). The creation of a movement. Retrieved from http://blacklivesmatter.com/herstory
Blow, C. M. (2016, September 12). About the “basket of deplorables.” New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/12/opinion/about-the-basket-of-deplorables.html?_r=0
Cocks Not Glocks. (n.d.). Facebook profile. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/cocksnotglocks
Fernée, T. (2014). Gandhi and the heritage of enlightenment: Non-violence, secularism and conflict resolution. International Review of Sociology: Revue Internationale de Sociologie, 24(2), 309-324.
Kant, I. (1964). Groundwork of the metaphysic of morals. New York, NY: Harper-Collins. (Originally published 1785).
National Association of Social Workers (NASW). (2008). Code of Ethics. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.naswdc.org
Allan Barsky, Ph.D., J.D., MSW, is Professor of Social Work at Florida Atlantic University and author of Social Work Values and Ethics (Oxford University Press).
Laura Groshong, LICSW, is Director of Policy and Practice for the Clinical Social Work Association, a social worker in private practice, and a registered lobbyist in Washington state.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of any of the organizations to which the authors are affiliated, or the views of The New Social Worker magazine or White Hat Communications.