Was decision to expel social work student for Facebook posts draconian or deserved?
This was recently discussed by Community Care who summarise some of the key arguments surrounding Sheffield university’s controversial decision
In a nutshell, Ngole, a Christian social work student posted on his facebook page something that indicated he did not approve of gay marriage and said that homosexuality was against Biblical teaching. Another student complained to the university and Ngole was expelled from the course. The university said that anyone could have Googled his name and discovered his beliefs and that might mean that person would not feel that they could go to him for support. It doesn’t seem to have been considered that on discovering Ngole’s belief there might be someone who felt more able to go to him for support, but I’ll come back to that in a moment.
There are a number of problems with the university’s decision.
As a society we have absorbed many of the beliefs of Eastern religions without even realising it. Western psychology long ago adopted Mindfulness from Buddhism. What in the West we call ‘alternative’ health and fitness practices, such as acupuncture and the martial arts, and their various derivatives, have become so mainstream we tend to forget their origins in Eastern faiths. We live in a society awash with ‘spiritual’ messages, if only we open our eyes to recognise it. Many of these practices rooted in Eastern philosophies have found their way into the practice contact books of today’s social workers. Yet we don’t condemn them for promoting spiritual beliefs – because the profession is not as ‘secular’ as we like to think it is.
The argument about only having to Google Ngole’s name to discover his beliefs is weak. I only have to look at a traditionally dressed Muslim (male or female), Sikh (male or female) or Jew (male) to know the belief system they follow. Sure, I don’t know to what extent they adhere to their specific teachings, but I don’t even have to Google their name to start making some assumptions. We wouldn’t dream of discriminating against someone wanting to become a social worker because of belonging to one of these religions (and I know perfectly capable practicing social workers who do belong to these faith systems).
We live in a society with a wide range of beliefs, attitudes, expectations and opinions. The reality is that we work with people from that wide range of belief systems. That person who is Googling their social worker’s name might just be looking for reassurance that their social worker shares their own belief system. Or they might be reassured that their social worker has not tried to influence them with a different opinion.
What if the service users asks us if we are a Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist or whatever? What if they ask us if we are married or have children? Or where we live, or what kind of house we live in? There are a myriad of personal questions that can come up. How do we respond to them? In the same way – we generally avoid giving a direct answer.
Social workers, like the eclectic mix of people and beliefs they work with, are not an homogeneous bunch. Thinking of the diversity of the characters, lifestyles and beliefs of the people I have worked with over the years, it would be a great loss to the profession if we were to try and become homogeneous. We are all different, as are the service users. We all have deep rooted prejudices (try the online Implicit Association Test if you don’t think so). We have all been influenced by the cultural norms of our societies and families. Class, beliefs, values, experiences – good and bad – we bring them all into our professional role, and absorb new and changing experiences as we go through life into our beliefs and values. Some hold to easily recognisable religious belief systems. Others have a more eclectic mix of ‘spirituality’. Few are truly a-spiritual. The test should be: can we practice in a manner that adheres to the professional codes of conduct? Can we accept that others are also able to practice in a manner that adheres to the same codes of conduct? Can we accept diversity among ourselves? Because it is that diversity that enriches our profession, enables us to debate issues and pushes at the doors of the dangers of professional and systemic ‘wilful blindness‘.
Did his university give Ngole the opportunity to prove he is capable of becoming that social worker, able to practice in accordance with professional codes of conduct? How have the rest of his student group been enabled to come to terms with working with difference and diversity following the expulsion of one of their number for being different and diverse? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but surely social work training is about training to become, not evidencing that we already are. Has Ngole been denied that opportunity? He has made mistakes: firstly in believing that his private facebook page was truly private but secondly he may have thought he could trust his peers or educators to be open minded when it comes to diversity and trust. Ngole is not the first student to find out the hard way that that is not, sadly, always the case. To get the most benefit out of social work training students need to be able to feel safe enough to open up their vulnerabilities in order to challenge them. Fear of expulsion, such as cases like this can cause, do nothing to promote that important part of training. If social work is not the right profession for Ngole he needed to be able to come to that understanding for himself. Instead he is now to be embroiled in a legal challenge supported by the Christian Legal Centre, and his opportunity for personal reflection and development is at least on hold if not ended.
I have expressed here my opinion. I have made it public, as is everything I post on this blog. I am very conscious of what I post publicly here and on Facebook, and on comments on other people’s blogs. I am happy to be open to challenge and debate. I may change my mind. I may not. You may not know who I am in real life because this blog title is anonymised but available to employers – and those who already know me personally will have no difficulty recognising me; that is not the case for service users. Like many social workers, my facebook page is in a different name to my registered practice name. That is as much for personal security reasons as it is because I want to be able to express my opinions without fear of it influencing my work.
I have friends who are Christian, and many more who are not. I seem to have missed out on having any Muslim friends but I have, and have had, colleagues who are Muslim and Sikh. I have friends on different continents. I have friends and colleagues who are in gay marriages. I have friends and colleagues who are not. I have one friend who thinks Donald Trump is ‘on the button’ for his views on Muslims and immigration. I have many more friends who are seriously worried by the prospect of President Trump. I have friends who are members of the Labour Party and others who support the Tories. Although I work cross culturally most, but not all, my friends are ‘White’, but that’s because my birth family are ‘White’ and I live in a predominantly ‘White’ area. Should I be condemned for any of these things? Do they make me any less able to be a social worker and adhere to professional codes of conduct? I hope not. Just as I don’t condemn you for your beliefs, background, experiences, culture or lifestyle choices. We preach tolerance and diversity. Let us better practice it amongst ourselves. Otherwise we just become afraid of each other in an environment where we are unable to challenge ourselves in order to develop and grow.