domestic violenceIdentityWriting

Domestic violence, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse: the ugly baby and claims for social change and empowerment in stories

It never ceases to astound me when I hear about someone making money out of disadvantage under the ‘sales hook’ of empowerment.

There seem to be two scenarios here. The first is someone trying to make a quick buck. Someone who is focused solely on making money for themselves at any cost to others. Using ‘soft’ words like ‘service, empowerment, help, social, voice’, they pedal their business, making a profit from those who are already vulnerable and promote themselves to the edge of acceptability and beyond for a fee, oblivious to what other people think. They know what they are doing and they don’t care. This is pure exploitation.

The second scenario is more complex. Ten years ago I wrote a book about domestic violence and sent it off to a publisher. Their reply, in retrospect, was absolutely correct. They told me that whilst I had the personal experience to write the book I lacked the qualifications. At the time I didn’t think it mattered, but my resolve over ten years took me through further education and at the end of it I have a very different book. Here’s the comparison:

The first book was almost a list of experiences which, on reflection, read like a gratuitous attempt to highlight social disadvantage. The finale of ‘bad girl turns good’ merely highlighted my ignorance about what empowerment actually means. In my ignorance I had assumed that pointing out all the bad things happening around me and my responses to them would be enough to ‘show people that it can be done’. In fact, anyone who read the book outside my immediate family remembered the sexual references and the swearing; in other words the titillating entertainment. If I had intended it as a trashy novel, this would have been fantastic. To claim it would effect social change, however, was far fetched and, frankly, ignorant.

The book I have just published is based on academic theory mixed with actual women’s experiences and ends with a new model of identity construction in order to study social disadvantage towards social change. The book is based on scientific study and has been rigorously peer reviewed. The focus is not based on gratuitous sex and violence but on an attempt to understand how women’s lives really work through carefully empowering them by giving them a voice, including all aspects of health, and addressing a need for collaboration to effect social change, particularly in the case of social vulnerability.

My brother introduced me to the business term ‘ugly baby’ the other day; it means a product that you, your friends and your family are all mad about, yet anyone outside your circle of trust, including anyone who will profit as well as you, can see the transparency and limitations of the product. It’s a bit like the X-Factor failures who’s family and friends have told them they sound like Robbie William but really they sound like Lassie. Or indeed, the ugly baby, who you and your family love dearly, but passers-by wince at. Spinning the person who’s product it is this line isn’t empowering, it’s facilitating some one’s vanity.

My first book was an ugly baby. My mum and my best friends loved it. But it didn’t empower anyone. Rather, it repeated the experiences that I was trying to advise people to avoid. Rather than ‘teach’ anyone anything, it normalised and laughed at a social deprivation and abuse in order to make sales. My manager at the time pushed and pushed for me to send it to a publisher, and, when I decided to take the scenic route and do it properly, deserted me because there was no percentage for him. Of course, he was invested in scenario one, above.

My point is this. My first book wouldn’t have helped or empowered anyone. Even though I thought in would, I didn’t have enough knowledge about feminist theory or standpoint theory or even literary ‘point of view’ to make it good enough to help people. Instead, I had written an instruction manual on teenage pregnancy, domestic violence and addiction, based on those around me. It was a completely subjective account with no real solution, just a vague notion of something good happening at the end. Social change it was not – just an account of some one’s life with the names changed.

Real social change comes not through self-promotion, or egotistical marketing or shallow ‘hooks’. Not through delusions of grandeur or lust for fame or seeking financial gain. It comes through continual hard work and determination, often behind the scenes, often unpaid. Too many products and services are jumping on the bandwagon of claiming social change and empowerment, either intentionally as in scenario one above, or through delusion or ignorance as in scenario two. It’s a dangerous game, because, mostly unknown to you, enlightened people are pointing at your ugly baby and gasping.

Of course, mentioning teenage pregnancy, domestic violence and drug abuse in literature or business isn’t always claiming empowerment or social change; often it’s the backdrop to a story in context and valuable is placing the characters on the plot landscape. This in itself is valuable; good writing or practice that doesn’t poke fun at vulnerable people, it helps others to resonate. But to claim it is empowering and effecting social change is a tall order without empirical evidence.

The difference between those who claim to effect social change but only really show people how to be disadvantaged (and make it look funny and glamorous), and those who recognise that vulnerable people do not need to be exploited, and work to effect social change through peer review, is the profit margin.

Oh, and the ability to sleep at night when the conscience finally kicks in.

I’m proud of my own efforts, not in a fame-seeking context but in the hope that someone, somewhere, who has been subject to intolerable abuse, will benefit from my work. I know how it feels to be socially disadvantaged and to read or hear about someone in a similar situation in a comedy context; not funny. Not that I need to defend myself because I have the approval of the academy through my doctorate, but my reasons for publishing are to contribute to other intelligent writings on social deprivation and hopefully of contribute to social change, give others a voice and empower through providing a route to change. I’m not even trying to be superior, I just want to disassociate my work form those who profit from disadvantage, knowingly or unknowingly.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you can’t live on love and buns, but I’d rather be poor than sell my soul.