A ‘larger us’ or ‘them and us’?

2 March 2021 · Categories: Opinions and responses, People Can

Neil Crowther, co-convener of the #socialcarefuture movement, offers a personal reflection on the recent ‘valuableandvulnerable’ campaign and suggests that from the perspective of strategic communications it would probably be best to stop using the ‘V’ word altogether.

‘to be alive is to be vulnerable’

Madeleine L’Engle

I didn’t correct him

Many of us were touched by the tweet by school nurse Viki back in the first lockdown of April 2020 that lies behind this ‘valuable not vulnerable’ initiative:

Met with a yr10 boy last week for socially distances walk and talk.  Wanted to make sure he wasn’t hungry.  He explained to me that he could go into school if he wanted as was on the ‘valuable list’.  My heart swelled.  I didn’t correct him

As a piece of communication, it’s near perfect. In less than the 280 characters Twitter permits, it manages to say so much, including through what is unsaid.  That this boy should be injured by hunger is bad enough. But insult would be added to that injury via the stigma of being labelled ‘vulnerable’. That he misheard and feels that the food the school provides is symbolic of the value it attaches to him… well, whose heart doesn’t swell at that?  I think I cried every time I saw it shared for months.

Peak vulnerable

So why has the word ‘vulnerable’ or the idea of being vulnerable, which as Madeleine L’Engle and others point out speaks to universal human experience, come to assume such a problematic place?   The answer is not in what it may once have meant, can mean or could mean in future, but in how it is overwhelmingly used today.

The first thing to say is that it didn’t before the pandemic appear to be a word in common use.  The graph above shows that between January 2004 and January 2020 it was not a word people used in searches on Google by people in the UK, with the onset of the pandemic being the only time interest peaked as the word was used to designate groups as needing to take extra precautions.   Hence it seems probable that it’s use has largely been – and will continue to be – confined to particular contexts or when talking about particular groups of people.

A trojan horse for prejudice and stereotypes

It is in common use when we begin to explore discourse and thinking around older and disabled people and social care.  Analysis for #socialcarefuture has found people who require or use social care are commonly described as ‘vulnerable’ while research by Equally Ours and Savanta ComRes for the Centre for Ageing Better found use of the word ‘vulnerable’ was commonplace in media and political discourse around ageing and older people.  Recently,  the DJ Jo Whiley, in making her undoubtedly successful case for people with learning disabilities to be a higher priority for Covid vaccination described people with learning disabilities such as her sister as ‘so precious, but so vulnerable’, adding that the wider public needed to stand up for people who ‘were unable to help themselves’.

What its use in this context reveals is highly paternalistic thinking, imagining older and disabled people to be weak, in harm’s way and without agency or productive potential. The suggests that society’s overriding obligation is to protect them and to look after them, not to respect their human rights by removing the barriers that stand in the way of their full participation. This echoes previous work characterising the nature of prejudice towards older and disabled people, that can be summarised as ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’.

Vulnerable person or vulnerable situation?

Crucially vulnerability is nearly always framed as a fixed personal characteristic, not a product of inequalities that can be minimise or eradicated through external action.  Again, Jo Whiley’s response to Andrew Marr asking why people with learning disabilities were more likely to have died from Covid-19 provides a powerful example: despite the Office of National Statistics having just published evidence attributing greater risk to the social and economic conditions faced by people with learning disabilities, including living in communal care settings, Whiley replied that it was a result of people like her sister being harder to treat as a result of their fear and distress in hospital.

As a result, the label ‘vulnerable’ conspires to focus attention away from the external factors which place people in a ‘vulnerable situation’ such as where the person lives, the adequacy of the support available to them, the discrimination they face, or the hostility of the wider community for example.  Rather, because vulnerability is depicted and understood to be an intrinsic personal characteristic it is instead deployed to justify limiting people’s own agency and freedom under the rubric of ‘safeguarding’ and underpins demands for a ‘custodian’ model of care, rather than support to live independently and to be included in the community.

A get out of jail free card

Furthermore, while the official or rhetorical designation of people as ‘vulnerable’ is worn as a badge of compassion and given to indicate extra concern and focused attention, it also serves to excuse failure when things go wrong.  When a vulnerable person is murdered, or abused, or dies from Covid in a care home or avoidably in hospital because of the failure of medical professionals, the term already implies that it was at least in part because it was harder to protect them.

Hence the term, as it’s presently used, is not about our collective vulnerability, but about ‘the vulnerable’, ‘the most vulnerable’, ‘vulnerable groups’ or ‘our most vulnerable citizens’.  Rather than invoking our common humanity and fostering a sense of a larger us, the word others people and triggers a sense of ‘them and us’.  This is why, at the outset of the pandemic, when the government classified everyone over the age of 70 as vulnerable, I saw countless examples of people in that age group responding ‘well, I’m not.’  As with the boy in the school, to be deemed vulnerable was regarded as offensive and stigmatising.

People first

In terms of changing this, there are I guess two courses of action:  to strive to reframe vulnerability or to avoid using the word altogether.

I’m going to argue for the latter.

As the US expert on framing Professor George Lakoff reminds us ‘negating a frame reinforces the frame.’ When we use a word that already triggers strong associations and underlying assumptions, it doesn’t matter if we are saying ‘it does not mean this’, we just generate the associations we don’t want to every time we use it.  This seems particularly likely to be the case if we are using it in the context of communication around older and disabled people or public services.  We will just deepen such associations and thinking and confirm the prejudices and stereotypes that we need to overcome.

But at the same time calling people ‘valuable’- as one council did in response to Viki’s tweet –  is clearly not the answer either.  It would just become another label with which people are othered, in the same we disabled children have in the past been referred to as ‘special’.

The challenge is to evoke a ‘larger us’, by speaking to our shared humanity and engendering empathy, while driving home the injustices faced by some of us as a result of the unequal risks we face.  The practice that #socialcarefuture has been following to change the story of social care gives us a way to do this.

Always start a message by addressing everyone, using words and phrases such as ‘we all’ ‘everyone’, ‘our’ and ‘us’ and by invoking the shared values that are most likely to serve our goals.  In the case of #socialcarefuture this is ‘we all want to live in the place we call home, with the people and things that we love, in communities where we look out for one another, doing what matters to us.’  This simple sentence shifts the frame from ‘other people’ to all of us, while invoking the idea of caring about one another, not ‘caring for the vulnerable’ and of being in control of our own lives. Having put social care (or any other issue) into a universal context and triggered common values, it is then much easier to convey the injustice of not being supported to enjoy these things than were we to start with ‘older and disabled people are not getting the care they need.’  It may even have the effect of causing people to reflect on their own vulnerabilities or of those of people close to them, which also helps foster a broader ‘us’.

Let’s bring people together, not push them apart

The #valuableandvulnerable campaign makes an important point.  Last September I felt valuable because I could support my mum and dad who were living with dementia, but my sense of powerless when my dad was admitted to hospital left me feeling deeply vulnerable.  Since he died, I have felt valuable when trying to draw lessons from what happened to help others, but vulnerable in charting my life without him here.  Vulnerability is just part of the human condition.

The irony from a tactical point of view though is that, in striving to create a world in which we recognise and celebrate our common humanity while being intolerant of the inequalities between us, talking about vulnerability seems more likely to push us further apart than to bring us together.

Back to news