A change for good
When attending grad school for social work between 2012 and 2014, I was introduced to a number of concepts promoted as lenses through which I could view the world. The proposed objective of my education was to “change the world.”
Admittedly, I didn’t perform a deep dive into the various theories to which I was exposed. Likewise, I naïvely accepted the indoctrination at face value.
In my mind, I wanted to be a “good” person and I reasoned that educators who knew more than I did could sculpt me into a higher version of myself. The result of my unsophisticated approach was an activist perspective.
There were two readily identifiable flaws in my logic at the time:
False premise #1 –
Premise 1: To achieve growth, good people seek education.
Premise 2: I wanted growth.
Conclusion: Therefore, I sought education.
False premise #2 –
Premise 1: Educated social workers must change the world.
Premise 2: I am an educated social worker.
Conclusion: Consequently, I must change the world.
With the first false premise, I didn’t think critically about other methods of achieving growth. I could’ve grown by working in a career for a couple decades after obtaining my first master’s degree in counseling rather than having gone for a second graduate degree.
As well, I failed to challenge my subjective impression regarding what a morally “good” person was. Was it possible that there were many good people around the world who hadn’t sought education?
Concerning the second flawed premise, I uncritically accepted a should, must, or ought-type prescriptive narrative. While it may be that some astute social workers prefer to change the world, was it true that they must do so?
Moreover, I ignorantly accepted a “change the world” narrative, as though all change is good. For instance, I suspect a number of people would disagree with climate change as a moral good for humanity.
All the same, I was responsible and accountable for my shortsightedness. After all, no one held me at gunpoint and made me affirm the lessons I was taught.
At my current stage in life, I’ve abandoned activism and shed the conditioned principles in which I once irrationally believed. Still, I maintain a unique overview for understanding narratives which drive much of the change I see taking place within society—supposedly for good causes.
The academic theories addressed herein serve as little more than descriptors. To properly elaborate on these abstractions would require a significant amount of foundational discussion for which I simply do not have the time nor desire to entertain.
If you are interested to know more about the following ideas, perhaps taking a deep dive into the YouTube channel “New Discourses” will better inform you about the nuances of these topics.
One concept to which I was introduced while learning about social work was postmodernism. In essence, I was taught there is no such thing as objective beauty and that artistic significance was predicated on hierarchies of dominance.
For instance, when looking at the Mona Lisa, one could reject the painting as representative of beauty due to a number of dismissive arguments. One could protest the piece of art by declaring it boring, emotionally unmoving, and regard it as a work made famous by the bourgeoisie (wealthy).
Another concept I was taught related to literary deconstruction. The reader is likely familiar with this notion by having heard about how gender is constructed rather than an objective reality. The same rhetoric is now allegedly applicable to sex differences, too.
Evaluating the relationship between text and meaning, deconstructionists may demonstrate how the word “cup” in English isn’t the same as “copo” in Portuguese. Since words for the same item are different, though the meaning is the same, reality is supposedly created rather than objectively established.
Similar to the concept of deconstruction was poststructuralism. Keeping with the cup example, since there is no concrete structure by which a person in the United States (U.S.), Brasil, Uganda, or Mongolia may communicate without knowing one another’s language, existing structures are little more than abstractions.
Apply this method of deconstruction and critical analysis to the perception of beauty within art, and nothing can be inherently good, bad, beautiful, ugly, right, or wrong. Therefore, people can apparently create their own reality.
I further learned the concept of social conflict theory, positing that groups interact on the basis on conflict rather than consensus. Groups with power were said to exploit and oppress groups with less power or privilege.
The reader has likely heard of how billionaires are bad, because they supposedly take advantage of others to attain their status. Changing the status quo, whereby anyone is allowed to accumulate such wealth, requires conflict that reveals contradictions.
For instance, the proletariat (wager-earners) may argue that the bourgeoisie would never have excelled, be it not for exploited labor. Therefore, the dominant class has a moral and ethical obligation (the good and right thing to do) to relinquish wealth—living within means of the proletariat.
Another concept I learned, and with which I imagine the average informed U.S. citizen is familiar, was critical theory. Though many of the theories discussed herein overlap and have subcategories, critical theory essentially challenges power structures.
As an example, established values and norms (oughts) within society are said to serve a limited number of people. At the time this post is drafted, the U.S. Census reports that people identifying as white alone constitute 75.8% of the U.S. population while black alone represents 13.6%.
One may surmise that because whites comprise the majority of the U.S. population, personal bandages are likely to reflect a beige skin tone. However, a critical theorist may argue that the color palate excludes, marginalizes, and offends people of darker complexion.
Yet another concept I learned was feminist theory, which aims to evaluate the proposed nature of sex and gender inequality. I once foolishly fell for the introduction to feminism by agreeing to believe in and advocate the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.
However, there is far more to feminist theory than the trappings of simplicity. Revisiting the Mona Lisa, a feminist theorist may argue that Leonardo da Vinci’s painting perpetuates harm by affording men an opportunity to practice the male gaze through normalized artistic examination.
Add to this theory the concept of intersectionality—the framing of sociopolitical identities and assessment of advantage and disadvantage—and the search for oppression may virtually never end. During my social work education, not a single person articulated an end goal for intersectionality.
Highlighting that whites outnumbered blacks wasn’t enough to address a case. Triple oppression (e.g., poor, immigrant, and woman of color) could be used to progressively stack identities against one another.
Though I was taught many other academic theories, the aforementioned concepts are enough to serve as the lens through which I will appraise a sunset. I took this photo in 2009, on the edge of town in Bomb City.
Dear reader, determine for yourself as to whether or not my evaluation matches your assessment and whether or not the theoretical lenses I use are a change for what you consider to be good, beautiful, or appealing. Will a pessimistic perspective work for you?
Photo of a sunset
The photo depicts a scene of open, unpopulated land. Wealthy landowners hoard precious resources that could better be used by marginalized groups.
There aren’t any persons of color captured in the scene. Therefore, it doesn’t adequately represent the diverse ethnic population of Amarillo, Texas.
The setting sun and juxtaposed cloud formation is eerily similar to the scene of an atomic blast. What type of social worker would be insensitive to the people of Japan by daring to post such an image online?
Nowhere in the image is there a person with a disability on display. This perpetuates the invisibility perceived by people who are differently abled.
Women, tans, and binary people aren’t displayed in the pseudo-artistic picture. However, the reinforcement of a dominant social class participant as having the luxury and privilege not to think of oppressed groups is on full display.
This so-called art features a windmill. The cruel reminder that the U.S. hasn’t adopted a 100% green energy infrastructure causes harm to the viewer and serves as an unnecessary element that is indicative of taunting people with what they so desperately need though may never receive.
There is nothing inherently beautiful about this photo. Real photographers must capture the struggle of the people, not illustrate something any of us can see when the sun sets.
Where are the immigrants in the likeness? Members of the Latinx community are said to represent 40.2% of Texas’ population, as persons emigrating from the southern region of North America should be depicted in this picture.
A self-identified male who doesn’t support feminism took this photo. It is therefore a product of patriarchal domination and ought not to be given any attention.
This snapshot is utterly boring. The purpose of true art is to reveal some deeper meaning about the contradiction of class conflict.
This image is said to represent a “sunset.” Labeling it with the language of a colonizer, rather than the Hmong term “hnub poob,” is predictable, lazy, dismissive, and offensive to the Hmong residents of Amarillo.
There is noticeably less cloud coverage on one side of the photograph. The Pollyannaish absence of cloud cover serves to vilify the darker clouds on the opposite side of the picture, clearly representative of perceived nefariousness of darker-skin people of the world.
And so on and so forth.
Dear reader, did my armature attempt at applying the practice of academic theory enrich your perception of the photo? Is my gloomy attitude something you would like to use in your daily life?
Was I able to change your mind about the photo? If so, was the change for the betterment of your life? How did you feel (body sensation and emotion) when initially viewing the photograph versus after you read my critique?
Do you recall what thoughts entered your mind after reading the way in which I condemned the picture? Perhaps more important than what you felt or thought, is your worldview well-served by the application of academic theories such as those I’ve highlighted herein?
When undergoing my social work education, I learned to bitterly castigate artistic endeavors (i.e., streaming shows, films, books, photos, etc.) in the manner I used in this post. Undoubtedly, I wasn’t as proficient at ripping apart perceived reality as well as many of my peers.
There simply wasn’t a persuasive argument for me to continue praxis of theory outside the halls of academe. I like photos and I like sunsets. Not everything has to be deconstructed beyond uncomplicated appreciation.
Depending on one’s perspective, I wasn’t a very good social work student. Similarly, I’m probably considered a subpar social worker, because not only haven’t I changed the world—I have no interest in focusing my efforts on spheres beyond my control.
Equally, I now understand that it isn’t important for me to achieve the title of “good person.” I unconditionally accept that I’m a flawed individual who strives to help as many people as possible with the second half of my life rather than exhibiting behavior I demonstrated for the first half.
If those practicing theories cited herein also seek to aid others, even though I disagree with their methods, I can appreciate desiring to be of service to others. In that regard, the theorists and I are aligned by our desire to assist.
To be fair, my attempt at providing a pessimistic perspective for a photo I took years ago was lackluster. One wonders what this indicates about my outlook.
How about you, dear reader; do you find value in a melancholic outlook? If not, would you like to know how changing your attitude can lead to an improved life?
If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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