A fascination of false dichotomies in social care

Short post from me highlighting something that I think is growing more popular in our conversations online, and is to be blunt wildly unhelpful: the rise of a fascination of false dichotomies (I made up the collective noun). What is a dichotomy I hear (some of) you ask?

Screenshot 2014-07-18 08.09.25A dichotomy is a contrast or split, so what’s a false dichotomy? I’m sure you’re all familiar with it’s use, essentially its the suggestion that any situation must be a dichotomy e.g. black or white. This line of argument completely ignores the grey in between, or the full colour option of course. Painting something as one thing or another, explicitly or implicitly, completely misses the fact that in most situations there are more than two choices.

Rarely in life are there only two, completely contrasting options. When a task or situation feels overwhelming, it makes sense to try and simplify or reduce things down to manageable options, however, as tempting as they are to believe I think we need to be wary of false dichotomies. Very rarely is it simply a case that our choices are A or Z; that one political party is bad, a.n.other political party is good; that care is either exceptional or dire; that you only critique if you don’t care. Let’s turn to my friends on wikipedia to explain this further:

When two options are presented, they are often, though not always, two extreme points on some spectrum of possibilities; this can lend credence to the larger argument by giving the impression that the options are mutually exclusive, even though they need not be. Furthermore, the options in false dichotomies are typically presented as being collectively exhaustive, in which case the fallacy can be overcome, or at least weakened, by considering other possibilities, or perhaps by considering a whole spectrum of possibilities.

So why are false dichotomies on the rise? (This assertion is based on my twitter observations, complete anecdote, no fact involved). I think life is complex and simplifying helps people to become involved with your issue and understand complexity. I think sensational headlines sell media stories. I think we’re growing lazy in our inability to truly debate or consider multiple options, which leaves us in a race to the bottom.

There have been a couple of blogs this week focusing on the JusticeforLB campaign Divided we fall and Justice at the margins. These posts reflect on how the #107days campaign worked, why it managed to engage people and bring together a momentum around a loosely defined common cause, and the broader learning. It has been great to see other people’s interpretations and what struck me was the power of the diversity of actions in #107days. It was an antidote to dichotomy, there were 107 very different days, responding in a myriad of ways to the very open call for involvement. Everyone was welcome and everyone was accepted and there really wasn’t too much ego or sales or agenda pushing.

So why is JusticeforLB relevant to this, and why does any of this matter? Well, maybe it doesn’t, or maybe it does, or maybe it does sometimes for some people in some places. It really isn’t a black or white issue (see what I did there).

In a week when the learning disability world is yet again wondering whether they are taking part in some big endurance experiment in shite communication and appalling 1950s decision making, at the hands of Stephen Bubb via NHS England this time, I think it is important to remember that false dichotomies help no-one. The next time you read a blog post or a press release or a tweet from one of the ‘key players’ in this world, ask yourself what’s behind the words coming out of their mouth, and why they choose to construct messages as they do. In a nutshell I see a lot of people and ’causes’ using false dichotomies to try and, to be blunt, scare people into action or stupefy them into inertia.

People with a disability, their family and friends are expected to be grateful, to sit quiet, to not act, to accept that the options are: Fairly Rubbish Option One or Even More Rubbish Option Two. Occasionally an Even More Rubbish Option Three is offered. Of course people feel like they are backed into a corner, and of course the implicit alternative option is always nothing. You are left accepting rubbish in the belief that if you don’t, then you will get no support, no involvement or help. Crumbs from the table sort of thing.

There was a corker of a false dichotomy last night in a Mencap statement about their CEO’s involvement in Bubb’s breakfast:

I and Mencap have a choice about whether we want to influence and shape what happens or sit on the outside and critique activity….Currently, this is the only opportunity I see to transform the lives of people. As such I will be involved and do everything I can to make any group working towards this end a success.

Fairly Rubbish Option One: Whether we want to influence and shape what happens

Even More Rubbish Option Two: Sit on the outside and critique activity

Implication: Everyone should be grateful that Mencap (as stitched into the problem of learning disability provision as the next large charity that claims to represent people with learning disability, but is also a provider of services so has a MASSIVE vested interest) are involved.

There is also of course an appallingly passive aggressive inference at play in this wording too, that you join Bubb’s brekkie, become a Bubb’s babe (let’s not forget the indomitable Su Sayer from United Response), or you are an outsider (like it’s your own choice) and that critiquing activity is bad. Maybe if Mencap would care to look in at itself and critique it’s own activity they may not be so quick to dismiss alternative options.

Perhaps more importantly why, oh why, does the CEO of ‘the voice of learning disability’ see this as ‘the only opportunity to transform the lives of people’. Bloody hell, how uninspiring. Get out your office, ditch the breakfast meetings, work with your local groups, meet the people you’re the voice of, listen to what they have to say, listen again, and listen some more – then get on and do it. It is indefensible to me that an organisation that claims to be ‘the voice of learning disability’ claims its only option was to join that group, in that way (and of course waltz Bubb off to look at one of their own homes after breakfast to ensure he understands the complexity, and great work that they do).

Where are the values that should be threaded through the core. Where was the person saying no, I don’t think this is appropriate. Why wasn’t the voice of learning disability saying we should start by holding breakfast for 100 people with a learning disability, we will serve them breakfast and listen to what they have to say (yes feel free to take that idea and run with it, we can all look away while it’s hastily scribbled into The Plan). Why are we living in a world of false dichotomies?

I am of course aware that some may argue that my painting large charities as incapable of providing services and advocating for their ‘client’ group is a false dichotomy in itself. I’m not sure, I have no doubt that it should be possible to advocate and provide a good service, I just don’t see anyone doing it very well. What I did see in #107days was over a hundred different ways of addressing a situation, as personalised as you could make it, people with disabilities involved and at the heart of everything (can’t really comprehend why they wouldn’t be), no CEO on a large salary, no communications department issuing scary false dichotomy statements, no breakfasts provided, just a huge collective group of brilliance.

Please stop insisting on black or white, the answer is in the grey.

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