THE POTENTIAL ROLE OF ADVOCACY IN ‘IMAGINING BETTER’: COMPLAINTS OR DISGUISED PROSPECTS?

The fundamental active ingredient and energising basis of positive advocacy is the ability of people to see past the grimness of much of everyday life, to a sense of human potential that has yet to be realised. Advocates are convinced that ‘better’ best arrive sooner rather than later. This concept is explored by Michael Kendrick, who was guest speaker at the APT/Midlands Health Board Seminar ‘Imagining Better’, held in Tullamore on 22 April 2002.

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Pursuing the complaints and interests of disadvantages people is the common role of advocates. This ‘processing of grievances’ role occupies the attention of many people in the advocacy role—whether they are people advocating for themselves, peer advocates, family advocacy, legal advocacy, informal advocacy, professional advocates at the individual and systems level, citizen advocates and many others. In their role as complainant, even when it is grudgingly seen by others as legitimate, advocates are often characterised as chronically dissatisfied and unappreciative people or organisations. This is unfortunate because it masks the true significance and value of advocates.

Advocates, whether formal or informal, rarely become critical of governments, communities, services and practices simply out of some neurotic and vindictive animus towards our social institutions. On the contrary, most advocates would relish the prospect of these entities attaining even a portion of the potential of which they are capable. Advocates often see the net impact on vulnerable and powerless people of what it means when things do not work as they should. Such effects can be irreparably damaging and tragic in their consequences, and may well cause a measure of embitterment, anger and even rage. Nonetheless, were this the only motive and intent of advocates, we could expect even greater animosity than we actually see.

Advocates are frequently people who have become persuaded that the world can be ‘better’ than it is, and that it is incumbent upon them to struggle to help bring about this improved world. In this, advocates share the same intuition with many other ‘change agents’—that both the victims of injustice and mistreatment, as well as our society, would have considerably more uplifting prospects if things were to change. So, what often lies beneath the complaints of advocates is the recognition of ‘better’, often well before ‘better’ is under general consideration by the mass of society.

Being educated about the need for ‘better’

Advocates are often convinced well in advance of others about the depth, gravity and urgency of many shortcomings of society, and long before those in official roles are prepared to admit to the toxicity of elements in the status quo. Official denial, dissembling, and even cover-ups, may well precede the eventual admission that something is in urgent need of change. Those who personally witness the sad outcomes for people of failed doctrines, regimes, and orthodoxies are often denuded rather unceremoniously of their illusions about the social or political order when this starts to produce a toll in human lives, sufferings and injustices. Seeing this toll clearly and admitting to its ultimate meaning can change individuals from a position of simple inquiry, to one of resolved and committed advocacy. They have become convinced that ‘better’ must arrive sooner rather than later.

Witnessing harm to people and their interests creates an appetite for answers to what ought to have been pursued to avoid the original injury—a search for answers that may possibly serve as a ‘remedy’. ‘Remedies’ are often not straightforward in matters involving social and institutional change’; the evils to be confronted are rarely simply the discrete actions of a few people, but rather a set of broad and interlinked changes involving very many. Nevertheless, the formation of a raw sense of what is right and better may well emerge, initially, as tentative assertions both that something is wrong and that actions of various kinds are needed to repair the harm. Not infrequently, the advocate may be steeped for months and even years in a stew of disquiet and angst, as they cast about for answers.

Imagining ‘better’

A deeply challenging internal process takes place in people who are provoked by the offending aspects of life and community; this process may betermed envisioning or imagining ‘better’. What is often called ‘dreaming’ may seem to many people to be misguided indulgence in pointless fantasy. Nonetheless, the ‘imaginal’ process is an essential characteristic of how people come to shift their sense of what is actually real, or come to perceive new realities. This ‘imagining’ takes place in the various realms of the human mind, often involving intuitive aspects of the subconscious mind. As humans, we create and test mental pictures or images that gradually become organised into the visions and ideologies that guide our sense of what form ‘better’ might take. Naturally, such image construction is quite tentative and flawed, yet it may still provide us with a sense of practical possibility.

Values, human well-being and the making of ‘better’

The formation of a vision of ‘better’, while containing many elements of imagination, is also deeply guided by what we come to believe as necessary for the preservation and advancement of our ultimate well-being as people. Often, for the establishment of our personal foundations of hope and belief, we turn to our culture, religion and other cornerstones of what we believe to be truth and faith. This quest for the ‘good’ in life has a special poignancy when we are forced to confront the injustices and degradations of life and society. Disturbing manifestations of what some may call the ‘human condition’ can stimulate us to identify and affirm the values, morality and ethics that uplift human beings, rather than devalue them.

Social movements and advocacy as symbols of ‘values-based imagining better’

When personal and collective imaginings are powered by sufficient resolution to seek and pursue values that are (hopefully) edifying for both individuals and society, we see both their advocacy and the coming together of adherents in common cause. These movements, often provoked by human calamities but inspired by a vision of a greater good, can bring about much needed change in society. Arousing human concern alone may not lead to change, unless there is also an image of practical solutions to be pursued. These hopes of ‘better’ are often bound up in ideologies that attempt to express both the motivation for change and the form(s) to be taken.

The impotence of advocacy denuded of moral hope and practical visions

Stated rather bluntly, advocacy would not occur if people lacked a sense of hope that life ought to, and can, be improved for disadvantaged people. Thus, what may initially appear to be unproductive criticism, dissatisfaction or even destructive dissent may, in its own imperfect way, be a statement of underlying idealism, constructiveness and longing for a better world. Without such an impulse among individuals and society, we would be deprived of both hope and practical visions for social progress. Put another way, the fundamental active ingredient and energising basis of positive advocacy rests in the ability of people to see past the grimness of much of everyday life, to a sense of human potential that has yet to be realised. Believing in such possibilities must inevitably precede any practical progress on the ground. It is no wonder that most brands of ‘realism’ help entrench, rather than confront, the evils institutionalised in our way of life.

Taking values and ‘responsible and sensible unreality’ seriously

Unless we have people willing to stand by, affirm and uphold positive values as they relate to mistreated people, we will not have advocacy, nor will we have the eventual realisation of practical visions for a better world. It is essential that people are not talked out of their dreams for a better world—cutting off this moral and practical impulse condemns society to abide with existing injustices, indignities and shameful conditions. A measure of ‘sensible unreality’ may be just what is needed when our actual reality is so deficient. From such imaginings may come the practical breakthroughs needed to make our declared values manifest in how we actually live.

Despite the richness of its potential contribution, advocacy is no panacea. Advocates are necessarily beset by all of the forms of human imperfection. They too may sometimes pursue perverse aims, visions and interests. But while we must be careful not to place too much hope in what they can do, it is vital that we remain open to what advocacy can occasionally mean in improving the lives of disadvantaged and demoralised people. Without advocacy, we would be deprived of much that is best in people. We must not dismiss the questioning, or even attacking, dissent of advocates—there can be more in it than meets the eye.