In a recent video conference, I found myself gradually getting more and more uncomfortable when one of the participants continually referred to ‘vulnerable service users,’ ‘vulnerable old people’ and ‘vulnerable disabled people.’ I began to reflect on my discomfort and realised that in essence it has to do with the use of the term vulnerable. It is one which is increasingly being used by commentators in the media and in politics. In this brief blog I want to reflect on the way in which the word vulnerable can result in the ‘othering’ of a person or group and the damage which can arise from that, and secondly and not contradictorily why I believe we need to accentuate the positive in our understanding of vulnerability.
‘Vulnerable adult’ was a phrase that was much used in the context of adult protection and safeguarding and to a degree still is. However, when Scotland was developing its new Adult Support and Protection legislation – which came about in 2007- there was a lot of debate on the appropriateness or otherwise of the term ‘vulnerable’. Many self-advocacy groups from the disability and older people’s movements were rightly uncomfortable with the use of the term. The reason for the discomfort is that the term used as an adjective can have the effect of diminishing, limiting and categorising a group or individual. In adult protection terms, it can both lead to a situation where individuals are treated as a group -continually at risk – devoid of distinct identity and capacity, and at the same time can lead to situations where someone is not considered to be at risk of harm because they either do not see themselves, or other professionals do not define them, as ‘vulnerable.’ So it was that the Scottish legislation, not least after some robust judicial contribution, decided not to use the word ‘vulnerable, and in its accompanying Guidance and developments there has grown up an understanding that we are all of us vulnerable to harm from the malevolent actions of another. There is therefore nothing inherently ‘wrong’ about being vulnerable, rather it is an essential characteristic of our humanity. Being vulnerable is part and parcel of human relationship where we take of the masks of pretence and expose the nakedness of who we are to another. Harm can sometimes arise when someone uses our individual characteristics including our vulnerability to cause hurt to us, it is not inherent to vulnerability.
There is a related issue as to why the use of the term vulnerable is unhelpful and it is perhaps especially a development we have witnessed as the pandemic has advanced. There is a danger that the use of the word ‘vulnerable’ risks the ‘othering’ of a person or group. What do I mean by that? Othering treats a group as ‘them.’ To ‘other’ a group or person means to so categorise and distance them that they lose autonomy, individuality and control. They become the object of our concern or care, the centre of our action on their behalf – they lose their voice and agency – their ability to be autonomous and in control. We make the decisions and do so out of paternalistic regard. If we denote a group as being ‘vulnerable’ it seems to almost add justification to the way in which we diminish their autonomy and take actions ‘in their best interests.’ Thus, we have heard words such as ‘vulnerable old people’ throughout the pandemic – treating individuals as a collective with an increasingly diminished ability to see them as individuals and able to make decisions and exercise risk on their own terms.
I mentioned above that as well as a concern for the mis-use of the word vulnerable that I would also want us to embrace a positive dimension to vulnerability. Perhaps the person who has advanced this more than anyone else has been the researcher and speaker Brene Brown. She has in her writings and speeches cogently articulated the need to recognise vulnerability as intrinsic to our humanity.
Brene Brown argues that vulnerability is essential to enable us to live a life which is connected and authentic. She believes that it is those who live fully open to their vulnerability, who ‘spend their life showing up’, who are happiest in their own self and in relationship with others.
In our rush into situations of strength and protection, in our avoidance of risk and emotion, perhaps especially in pandemic times, we are in danger of on the one hand diminishing some people by labelling them as vulnerable and on the other hand totally falling to see that vulnerability is a real strength, and an essential asset and characteristic of our humanity.
Throughout my working and personal life, I have continually discovered that it is those who are vulnerable, who are wounded, (the word ‘vulnerable’ indeed comes from the Latin word ‘to wound’), those who live fully raw and honest lives, it is they that evidence to us a strength, reality and maturity which is beyond price and value.
To live a life open to the dynamic of change and circumstance, to be courageous to the point that we can allow others into the space which is our inner self, to be able to stand against easy stereotype and hatred, to speak against the noise of expectation, strikes me as a wound of vulnerability we should all be seeking.
The English poet David Whyte has written a beautiful narrative poem which captures the intrinsic value and necessity of vulnerability:
‘Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, in refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.
To have a temporary, isolated sense of power over all events and circumstances, is a lovely illusionary privilege and perhaps the prime and most beautifully constructed conceit of being human and especially of being youthfully human, but it is a privilege that must be surrendered with that same youth, with ill health, with accident, with the loss of loved ones who do not share our untouchable powers; powers eventually and most emphatically given up, as we approach our last breath.
The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door.’