by Addison Cooper, LCSW
In Zootopia, predatory and prey animals have learned to overcome their natural enmity, and they now live together in peace. There is some residual distrust—young rabbit Judy Hopps was bullied as a child by Gideon Grey, a red fox—but overall, there is a functional peace throughout the land. Most of the citizens are prey animals, and the naturally predatory animals are proud that they have become “civilized” in order to live together peacefully. The mayor of Zootopia is a lion; his vice-mayor Dawn Bellweather is a sheep.
Although the community is functioning well, Vice Mayor Bellweather is hungry for power. She taps into the residual distrust that the majority has for the predatory animals in their neighborhood, and secretly orchestrates an uprising. Predators will be controlled, and Bellweather will rise to power to ensure that everyone stays safe. She creates a sense of danger and panic to manipulate the masses and gain power. When well-meaning citizens start believing her words, they look at their neighbors and friends, notice the differences that have always existed, and begin to view those they have shared life with through lenses of fear and suspicion.
Imagine if the citizens of Zootopia had done some research before they bought into Bellweather’s propaganda.
This city of animated animals shares much with our culture. We live in an age of outrage, and social media overflows with shared posts about an unkind word someone said, poor service that was received at a drive-through window, or insensitive themes in media. Oh—and it’s also an election year, and it seems as though there are far more shouted exchanges than there are honest discussions. The climate feels heated, and the dialogue is divisive. There’s a whole lot of “us versus them,” and each side seems particularly disinclined to try to understand the other. At least, that’s how it seems on my social media feeds. Maybe yours are better.
We’re social workers, or we’re studying to become social workers. Social work has a strong history of advocacy. When we see something that strikes us as wrong, or unjust, or unfair, we speak out. We don’t limit our advocacy to our own self-interest, but we also advocate for others. Caring about other people is a big part of what drew us to social work in the first place.
When we are advocating, though, do we do it any better than social media? When I see something that I think needs to be changed, does my approach respect the intellect, feelings, and humanity of everyone involved? I want to respect the folks I’m advocating for, but it won’t be effective unless I’m also coming across as respectful and considerate of the people I’m advocating to.
Catharsis and advocacy are not the same thing, and cathartic venting of righteous frustration can work against the purposes we hope to achieve. I suspect that, if we’re given to cathartic venting without fully researching all sides of a story, we might be easily manipulated.
Here are a few unexpected things that might help us be strong advocates, rather than just feelers of emotion.
- Humility. On many issues, smart, studied, and well-meaning people deeply hold different opinions. We don’t have to believe that the people who oppose us are right about an issue, but we should acknowledge that they have reasons for the positions they hold. We also should acknowledge that we do not see all points of view. We need to understand the people on the other side of the table to work toward a collaborative solution. Otherwise, we’ll be reduced to yelling or shaming them, which tends to only result in more divisiveness.
- Humanity. Or, recognizing the humanness of the people on the other side of the table. Cathartic venting, and a lack of humility, lead us to view the people who hold a different position than we do as inferior in some way. Maybe they’re evil, or stupid, or arrogant. Most people aren’t evil, stupid, or arrogant, though, and the people who hold different positions than we do aren’t generally trying to harm anyone. If we approach them as though they are trying to be harmful, our advocacy has started off on the wrong foot, and it will likely devolve quickly.
- Hunger to learn. If we apply the same strong, reflective listening skills that we use with clients to the folks to whom we’re advocating, we’ll be more likely to see them as fellow people who are also generally trying to do good and do right. We might not agree, but we’ll understand where they’re coming from, and that can build a relationship within which they’ll be willing to hear us.
We’re social workers. We are trained to serve folks in need, and macro practice is part of that. We’re also trained, reflective listeners. We believe in the potential of everyone—not just our clients, and not just the folks who are in positions of disadvantage. We also believe in the potential of those in positions of advantage and power to be reasonable and to do right. Armed with those beliefs and skills, and with the humility to acknowledge that we ourselves have a limited point of view, we can achieve good.
Social Work > Social Media. Understanding > Outrage. Advocacy ≠ Catharsis.
Addison Cooper, LCSW, is the founder of Adoption at the Movies (http://www.adoptionlcsw.com), where he invites families to use film to engage each other in important conversations. Find him at http://www.facebook.com/AdoptionAtTheMovies or on Twitter @AddisonCooper.