Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Date: 17th March 2015

On the Mountain – Roles or Relationships

Today the theme of second day of We Chose to Climb was clear and strong – not power – but relationships. The event itself was full of wonderful content – stimulating and moving – and again and again the presenters made the same point: what makes a positive difference is the reality of the relationship between two people.

And, after all – as Nick Andrews said: Who is helping who?

  • If I am Nadia’s personal assistant, am I helping her to get about and to communicate, or is she helping me to learn more and to earn a living?
  • If I am a social worker trying to establish a fair individual budget for Nadia, am I helping her or is she giving me an important paid job and the opportunity to develop?
  • If I am a senior manager organising disability services, am I helping her or is she giving me the means to have status and influence?

The answer is obvious – both are true – we help each other.

But actually that is not the critical question. The critical question is: Do we each behave as if we know that both are true?

I am afraid I have used this quote before – it is one of those observations I find so powerful:

He [Rebbe Shmelke] said: “The rich need the poor more than the poor need the rich. Unfortunately, neither is conscious of it.”

That is, interdependence is the only human reality. But if we don’t see our relationships as interdependent then we run the risk of creating a sense of worthless dependence on the one side and prideful disrespect on the other.

Of course good practitioners and professionals avoid this trap – everyday – they work with proper humility and respect – they understand the value of the other human being – in any circumstance.

What I think Self-Directed Support offers us is the opportunity to be more explicit about the true nature of that relationship. It does not aim to give the people who need assistance undue power over those who support them; instead it is as an effort to ensure that, when you need assistance, then you know that you are entitled to receive it and direct it. Receiving assistance should not feel like getting a charitable gift where the assistance is defined and controlled by someone else.

Rights are not at war with relationships – rights can restore us to proper relationship.

Self-directed support might be said to rebalance power relationships. Or perhaps better, self-directed support gives us the chance to build new forms of power together – in a relationship of equality.

But this is only the first step.

It is the human quality of that relationship that matters.

Sarah Taylor cited Martin Buber, one of the key thinkers of the twentieth century, who proposed that we can distinguish two radically different ways of relating ourselves to others:

The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude.
The attitude of man is twofold in accordance with the two basic words he can speak.
The basic words are not single words but word pairs.
One basic world is the word pair I-Thou.
The other basic word is the word pair I-It; but this basic word is not changed when He or She takes the place of It.
Thus the I of man is also twofold.
For the I of the basic word I-Thou is different from that in the basic word I-It.

What Buber argues, in his classic I and Thou, is that there is all the difference in the world between seeing another person as just an object (may be a clever, active or pleasant object) and seeing them as a true person. For Buber this is connected to a theology that sees an element of God in everyone. But, even the non-religious, might recognise that, when we really connect with another person, we must be open to the power – the light – that burns within them.

This may seem a long way from the day-to-day realities of self-directed support, social work or personal assistance. But, up on the mountain, is this not the critical factor:

  • Can we rely on each other?
  • Do we trust each other?
  • Can we listen to each other?
  • Will we look after each other?

As Jamie Andrew explained to us this morning – the mountain can be beautiful, but it can also be a very dangerous place. You can die on the mountain. So – we need each other. But our pre-defined roles and expectations, our processes and our regulations, may simply not hack it on the mountain.

The only true security lies in our relationship with each other.

Coming Down the Pyramid or How to Give up Power

Today I was part of the We Chose to Climb event, created by the Social Care Ideas Factory. It was a stimulating affair, and I really enjoyed being there – seeing familiar faces, catching up and meeting new people. I was also greatly encouraged by the presentations and the thinking I heard expressed. There is still a long way to go to make self-directed support a reality in Scotland – but there is a maturity and reality to the approach in Scotland which I found very encouraging.

The day was too full to do justice to everything I heard, but the image I was left with was that of Alison Petch: It may difficult to climb the pyramid; but it is even more difficult to climb down.

Added to this was Charlie Barker-Gavigan’s observation that more people died coming down the Matterhorn than going up it. Descending from a position of power is a dangerous business.

All of this tallies with a well-known historical fact: the risk of a revolution tends to increase, not decrease, when regimes start to show weakness and try to reform themselves. Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French political theorist put it this way:

“Revolutions are not always brought about by a gradual decline from bad to worse. Nations that have endured patiently and almost unconsciously the most overwhelming oppression, often burst into rebellion against the yoke the moment it begins to grow lighter. The regime which is destroyed by a revolution is almost always an improvement on its immediate predecessor, and experience teaches that the most critical moment for bad governments is the one which witnesses their first steps toward reform.”

So – indeed – nothing seems more dangerous than to give up power.

Yet, self-directed support does seem to depend on some kind of giving up of power. It is only real if there is some shift in authority – if people can make more decisions and exercise more freedom in their own life.

However, I think we must careful here. We must be careful in our thinking about power: power is not like a cake, which we can buy from the baker, and divide at our own choosing. Making power is not a zero-sum game – it is not a matter of winners and losers or the distribution a finite object.

Hannah Arendt, in her wonderful essay, On Violence, distinguishes true power from the violence that we often confuse with power:

“Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.”

For Arendt, power is made when we come together as free people and commit ourselves to create a world of collaborative action – in other words, true power is the expression of citizenship and community. We make power together and the sign of a decent society is that it is overflowing with power.

We become confused because sometimes the powerful can deploy violence, and this can lead ultimately to the corruption of power into terror or tyranny. But in a sense, such a world is a world without power – power has been replaced by violence.

What we can learn from this is that, we can make our descent down the pyramid safer if we start to release our capacity for the creation of new kinds of power – the powers that are released when we come together to create new and better ways of being together as equals.

Connected to this was an observation by Susan Eriksson, who was commenting on the slippery nature of the power shift in self-directed support in Finland. Susan noted that, while there were new and positive changes for people, it was also clear that professionals also used self-directed support as a way to reassert their role and to develop new accounts of their professional purpose.

Now this may sound rather suspect; but I actually think it is essential, if we are to achieve the shift to self-directed support. If we want people to descend the pyramid then we must try and make it safe for them to do so. This means working together to help that group to find new roles and develop more productive forms of power relationship.

Commissioners – for example – need to be welcomed into a new a more collaborative definition of their role.

At its worst this process can be corrupted and no real change takes place – but at its best – as my friend Suzie Fothergill sings: we will find that there is room for all of us in this world.

© 2017 Simon Duffy

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑