Social Work and Public Discourse

Monday, November 5th, 2018 @ 8:47AM

If we don’t stop shouting at each other, no one will hear what the other person is saying. Americans are yelling and screaming at each other to gain the upper hand in our political discourse. Led by the quintessential loudmouth, President Donald J. Trump, Republicans are hurling nonstop epithets and false accusations at Democrats and “the left” to rile up Trump’s base supporters as the midterm elections rapidly approaches. Former President Barack Obama felt it necessary to go on the campaign trail to raise his voice against the lies and innuendo spewing from the lips of Trump and his surrogates. At a recent rally, Obama appeared to be losing his voice trying to make a point with hecklers in the crowd.

What we have here is a failure to communicate for a number of reasons. For Trump, it appears to be a deliberate strategy to wear down his opponents until they lose their will to fight back. Former GOP strategist Steve Schmidt has alleged this on numerous occasions. Former Trump White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, making the media rounds promoting his new book, says Trump is playing the media and progressives with his outrageous comments because he knows it will upset them. The media and Democrats believe they have no choice but to call out Trump for his incessant lying and reprehensible efforts to foment hatred and divide the country along racial and ideological lines.

A report, “Hidden Tribes,” recently published by More in Common concludes that what is happening with the American public is more complex than the notion that we are polarized along a 50-50 split. The extreme polarization is occurring among segments at both extremes who are shouting the loudest at each other. Caught in the middle are those they deem the Exhausted Majority who are fed-up with tribalism and are open to dialogue that would result in a more cohesive democracy. About three out of four Americans believe our differences are not so great we cannot begin to work them out—that we have more in common than we do differences.

Can the social work profession help to usher in a new period of public discourse? That will be one idea on the agenda this week when the National Association of Deans and Directors (NAAD) gather for their annual meeting Wednesday, leading into the Council on Social Work Education’s Annual Program Meeting in Orlando Florida. I will be moderating a panel for NADD addressing the question: “Can Social Work Help Save Democracy?” These are our nation’s education leaders who lead schools and departments of social work across the country, overseeing the education and preparation of future generations of social workers.

I teach two courses in the Doctor of Social Work (DSW) program at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at the University of Southern California. One course, “Leading Public Discourse,” trains social workers with knowledge and skills to be effective leaders in organizing and administering effect public discourse. The other course, “Communication and Influence for Social Good,” provides students with knowledge and techniques for developing and using persuasive messages. Combined with the values, skills, and knowledge gained in social work education—particularly active listening skills—we have the potential to be potent forces in the public sphere. I am sure there are other schools doing this.

The American Psychological Association recently convened a discussion with the National Institute for Civic Discourse to address the decline in civility in the public sphere. Social media has complicated, if not perverted, public discourse and many young people have become discouraged about the future of democracy. In a survey by the Democracy Project, while 60 percent or respondents believed it “absolutely important” to live in a democracy (a rating of 10 on a 1-10 scale), just 39 percent of young participants said it was absolutely necessary.

CRISP will be convening a panel of social work students and recent graduates on Social Work Day on the Hill on March 20, 2019 to address the question, “Can Social Work Help Save Democracy.” The event will be held at 1:00 p.m. at New York University’s Abramson Family Auditorium, 1307 L Street, NW in Washington, DC. We hope that comparable conversations are occurring on campuses and among social workers generally.

Tuesday is a critical day for the future of the United States, however, restoring civil society and preserving democracy is a long-term project. Regardless of the outcome of the midterm elections, we must believe there are more people of good will in this country than there are people who would divide and prevent efforts to unify.

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