The day prior to beginning graduate studies in social work at CWRU (1988), my incoming class was required to attend an 3-4 hour seminar. The first 90 minutes were taken up with teaching us how to speak and write in ‘gender neutral language.‘ I remember thinking at the time that the exercise smacked of an arrogant effort to make sure we social worker students would be politically correct in our verbiage. Nowadays, I have no regrets about having sat through those 90 minutes 24 years ago. “Man” is not the same word as “people” or “humanity.”
The second part of our prep seminar had us watching the 1957 classic movie, 12 Angry Men, starring Henry Fonda with an all-star cast to back him up. Why did the faculty of the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences (CWRU) deem this movie worthy of viewing by 40 or so green social work students?
12 Angry Men is about a jury that must decide the guilt or innocence of a young man accused of murder. At the outset of their deliberations, 11 of the 12 are quite sure that the accused is guilty. One man, known only to us as juror #8, played by Henry Fonda, isn’t so sure. (SPOILER ALERT! IF YOU HAVEN’T YET SEEN THE MOVIE, DON’T READ THE NEXT SENTENCE THAT GIVES AWAY THE ENDING.) Over the amazing hour and half of the film’s duration, we watch juror #8 slowly, methodically, patiently and with courage, raise enough doubts about the accused man’s guilt to win him an acquittal.
So what the heck did the movie 12 Angry Men have to do with becoming a social worker? If I had define social work in one sentence it would be:
A social worker has the responsibility of empowering people to make informed, appropriate decisions that are of benefit to them personally or the community in which they live.
No doubt, many if not most of you reading this blog have either heard about or saw the now viral video of Pastor Charles Worley of Providence Road Baptist Church in North Carolina tell his congregation that “gays, lesbians, queers and homosexuals” should all be gathered up and fenced in somewhere until we all die off. If you missed it, here’s the video below.
Last week, I watched CNN anchor, Anderson Cooper interview a member of Worley’s Church. I think the interview was amazing and enlightening on many levels:
1. The woman being interviewed is obviously neither very educated or sophisticated. That said, while Cooper did gently push her to think a bit more in-depth about the logic and consequences of her Pastor’s remarks, she couldn’t. In the video, you see and hear her struggle with cognitive dissonance: I know you are making valid points, but as those facts or ideas challenge the values and ideas that I need to believe in and that give my life meaning and stability, I just can’t entertain those thoughts even though I can’t contradict them.
2. In her own way, the woman being interviewed knows that her faith, culture and lifestyle are on the line with this controversy. Her pastor has unintentionally thrown open a big window into a very provincial, simple world of an intellectually and culturally isolated community of which she is a member. You can almost feel her distress. But she’s not going to cave. She is proud of who she is and will not turn on her spiritual leader.
3. While the woman clearly does not share Cooper’s knowledge and intellect, Cooper, who you can tell just from this one interview is a decent person and a first class professional, treats her with respect and dignity. A lot of pundits would not have missed the opportunity to go for the jugular with someone unable to respond to their questions; Cooper wouldn’t go there.
Frankly, I think that this 8 minute, 25 second video should be seen by graduate students of social work and journalism. Social work students need to see this to understand the importance of faith, culture and values to people of all levels of education, emotional maturity and cultural sophistication. This brief video also provides human service professionals with some very essential guidelines for showing respect to every person regardless of their of views.
Students studying journalism need to see this video to learn how to conduct an interview that is informative and engaging for both for all 3 parties: the viewer, the interviewer and the interviewee. No, Anderson Cooper may not have changed this woman’s mind, but that was not the intent or purpose of the interview. But he respectfully and politely got this woman thinking about the logic and implications of the ideas she was trying so hard to defend. Cooper was never condescending, patronizing or disrespectful.
So what did we ultimately learn? Someone from Pastor Worley’s ‘world’ waved to us through that window he unintentionally threw open and told us that yes, what he said makes sense to her, even if doesn’t to the rest of us. This loyal parishioner told us that she share’s her Pastor’s thinking which is never on some highfalutin plane beyond the understanding of his flock.
We can sit judgment of this woman and her pastor till the cows come home. But if we don’t recognize where Worley and the people who pay his salary are coming from, is there any hope for dialogue?
As a gay man and the son of Holocaust survivor, I have little patience for bigotry, discrimination and the expression of ideas that dehumanize people. Frankly, if I had been in the pews of Worley’s church the morning he gave that mean-spirited sermon about locking up all the queers behind a fence, I probably would have lost my temper, stood up and called him every nasty, insulting, demeaning name that came to mind. That’s how I as person would have reacted; I hope though that when on the job, the social worker in me could manage the kind of professionalism of class act like Anderson Cooper.