In the latest instance of what feels increasingly like a genre, Sheffield University social work student Felix Ngole has been removed from his course for airing his views about gay marriage on Facebook. Reports here and here.
It seems that a fellow student complained to the University authorities about a post in which Ngole voiced support for Kim Davis, the US county clerk who was briefly jailed after refusing to issue marriage licenses following the U.S. Supreme Court Obergefell decision. After being summoned to speak to a Fitness to Practice Committee, he was told that his actions breached social work guidelines on ‘personal conduct’ and ‘bringing the profession into disrepute’, and was expelled from his Masters course. He is appealing the ruling.
According to the University, it was not the fact that Ngole held these views that was problematic. That he shared them was: “The committee were clear to point out that their decision is not based on your views but on your act of publicly posting those views such that it will have an effect on your ability to carry out a role as a social worker… Members were in agreement that this action was an extremely poor judgement on your part and had transgressed boundaries which are not deemed appropriate for someone entering the social work profession… It was their belief that this may have caused offence to some individuals.”
As with other cases of this kind, there will inevitably be more heat than light. Not all the facts here are clear. Social work is rightly a profession with a tight and demanding code of practice, and some quasi–judicial elements. The airing of views like these are naturally more problemtic in the case of this profession than in others. However, the case does raise some serious questions.
First, how sustainable is the distinction between Mr Ngobe’s views and the fact that he made them public? Had he been posting strong views about the quality of local restaurants, the weather, his tastes in music, his views on post–structuralism, or pictures of kittens then he would not be in the situation he is. If this is a view that a social worker shouldn’t publicise, is there an implication that this is a view a social worker shouldn’t hold? Is it possible to think some political position is wrong or problematic yet not let that belief affect the way you treat people? There are, it seems, beliefs of some kinds that are seen as especially likely to interfere with a person’s ability to do the job they signed up for. Understandable, but then an obvious question: who determines which beliefs merit censure and how? See point three.
Second, this case demonstrates the patchiness and fragility of the social contract that people of faith had thought they made with a liberal and plural society: believe what you like – and do what you like – as long as it stays at home. Social work, if this ruling is anything to go by, is one of the professions where that is not the case.
To be fair, social work authorities have been felt to be too interfering; concerns in other spheres have been raised before now, and perhaps again they have been overeager in their application of the code. But clearly, lives are never neatly sub–divided into private and professional capacities. As we are rightly reminded, social media is no more a private space than is a public meeting. In fact, if it has not created a window into our souls, then it is a window through which more of us can be seen than ever before. Here our personal lives, actions and views are now invigilated to an even greater degree.
Which leads us to our third, more arguable, point. How is the application of these codes to be determined? And here, if the reports are correct, the answer seems to be on the grounds of ‘offence’.
Issues like same sex marriage are highly charged with the energy of identity politics. Here, the public has become personal. To fail to affirm same–sex marriage is perceived as an unwillingness to accept who people feel themselves fundamentally to be, to deny their love and relationship’s legitimacy. We would all – individuals and institutions, and particular professionals like social workers – do well to tread carefully in our public pronouncements. Of a lack of moderation or a lack of awareness of the effects of his words, Mr Ngobe is no doubt guilty.
But to treat something as subjective as ‘potentially causing offence’ as a determining factor is unstable and unsustainable – only a fool would will that to be applied in all cases. As Onora O’Neill pointed out in last year’s Theos annual lecture (audio here), there are many reasons not to offend, but there can be no right not to be offended.
Social work is clearly a profession which requires great sensitivity, discretion, integrity and moderation. Mr Ngobe clearly needs to learn that lesson, but has he been treated in like manner?
Kenny Primrose and Paul Bickley
Kenny Primrose is Head of Religion and Philosophy at Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen and Paul Bickley is Director of Political Programme at Theos.
Want to keep up to date with the latest news from Theos? Click here to join our monthly e–newsletter. We’ll let you know about our latest reports, blogs and events.
This blog was slightly amended at 18:10 3rd March 2016