One sociopolitical ideology that in the last 2 decades or so has been on the rise in the service and advocacy culture is that of conveying to bodily or functionally impaired people, and to members of other societally devalued classes, power (as expressed in “empowerment” language), self-determination, and choice (as in “freedom of choice” language), even to the point of unbridled license to do whatever they want. Sometimes, this strategy is specifically alleged to be a superior or preferable alternative to Social Role Valorization (e.g., Branson & Miller, 1992; Chappell, 1992; Perrin & Nirje, 1985). Some people have also claimed (e.g., Nirje, 1992; Perrin & Nirje, 1985) that the original formulation of the normalization principle had been all about rights and empowerment, and that this emphasis has been ignored, left out, or overridden by later formulations of the principle by Wolfensberger and colleagues (e.g., Wolfensberger, 1972; Wolfensberger & Glenn, 1973a, 1973b, 1975a, 1975b), and possibly by others, and by its reconceptualization as Social Role Valorization (e.g., Wolfensberger, 1983, 1991, 1992, 1998, 2000), all of which these critics consider faulty. However, such claims constitute a historical revisionism, because early formulations of normalization (e.g., Nirje, 1969; Wolfensberger, 1972) were only partially concerned with rights, and although the power idiom and thinking began to infiltrate from the political arena into the human service and advocacy culture in the 1970s, it did not become commonplace there until the late 1980s.

Once the empowerment construct and idiom became popular, it was applied not only to traditional ways of discoursing about power, but to almost anything. Perceiving the appeal of a power construct and idiom, people began to incorporate it indiscriminately and almost everywhere, and issues that once would have been framed in very different terms began to be widely framed as issues of power. Even issues of competence are now commonly framed this way. In my files I have documentation of the following things (among many more) now being taught or interpreted as empowerment: meditation classes, personal planning, teaching about AIDS, good nursing, acquiring pistols, using condoms, building gambling casinos, praying, learning casework skills, beefing up a university's academic program, helping children do homework, teaching virtually any skill, being a caregiver, becoming more sexy, giving someone hospitality, kicking one's unruly child out of the home, practicing polygamy, putting children under guardianship, learning to read, playing “hard to get” with members of the opposite sex, being optimistic, home drug-testing of children by their parents, self-actualization, not being dependent on others, giving people computers or acquiring computers, getting on the Internet, dumping service clients, character education, not becoming anorexic, getting psychotherapy, enrolling in bibliotherapy, giving children “art therapy,” learning English, rehabilitating imprisoned felons, buying a computerized study Bible, “searching for the historical Jesus,” engaging in Christian ministry, being allowed to be present at the sentencing of a criminal who had done one harm, making more money, doing a solo in an orchestra, receiving rehabilitation after brain injury, starring in a play, improving product design, doing research, eschewing professionalism, and committing suicide. One entire conference was devoted to how to “empower” people who had to live in an institution for 1,200. Obviously, a term or construct that can mean anything eventually will mean nothing.

Confronted with the vast popularity of the self-determination and power ideology in recent years, some parties sympathetic to Social Role Valorization (SRV) have claimed, implied, or assumed that SRV is congruent with this ideology, and perhaps even that “empowerment” and self-determination are or should be the ultimate goal of SRV. However, even if one discounts most of the shallow and silly interpretations of empowerment, and conceptualizes power in more conventional ways, there are a number of important differences between SRV and ideologies of empowerment that will now be explained.

Some Important Differences Between Social Role Valorization and the Ideology of Empowerment

Coercive Versus Persuasive Change Strategies

The empowerment ideology relies a great deal on coercion, and/or a conflict model. One gives people powers to compel other people to do something, or not to do something. In contrast, SRV relies largely on educational and persuasive strategies that change people's mind content about certain classes of other people by changing their perceptions, expectations, and attitudes.

Ideology or Religion Versus Empiricism

One thing that all the ideologies of power, autonomy, and choice have in common is that they are based on de facto religion (i.e., on ideas of what “should” be), rather than on science which—at best—can describe what is and predict what will be.

Because people's minds tend to get scrambled the moment they hear the word religion, it is very important to understand what I do and do not mean by it. I mean the term to be understood the way many philosophers of science and epistemologists do, namely, as any supra-empirical or extra-empirical belief or belief system, or worldview. Accordingly, capitalism, communism, fascism, democracy, the hope that science or technology will save the world, and thousands of other beliefs are religions, including belief systems that have been formally defined as religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, ancestor worship, voodoo, and so on. In fact, epistemologists have made the convincing point that even atheism is a religion, as much as theism or deism, because it too is based on an assertion that can never be empirically disproven by appeal to the laws of nature. Insofar as every person capable of some thought holds to beliefs that are not empirically falsifiable, each such person has a religion—in fact, many people incoherently have several religions which, rather embarrassingly, are usually mutually exclusive.

While in the above sense, then, ideologies of autonomy, empowerment, and self-determination are de facto religions, SRV is an empiricism-based body of theory (actually, an amalgam of multiple theories) that can describe, explain, and predict phenomena, but that does not prescribe, even though SRV was created with the hope that it would be used as a basis for role-valorizing actions. For instance, like all moral “shoulds,” statements as to how much power anyone should have, or which rights should be given to or withheld from which people, must come from the supra-empirical level, and thus from above SRV. However, SRV can only inform us—actually or potentially—on an empirical basis how the restricting or according of power, autonomy, and rights is likely to impact on people's social image, their competence, their roles, and how others will perceive them and relate to them. The reason this kind of information is crucially important to SRV implementation is that, as I explained in this journal (Wolfensberger, 2000), within the SRV framework, imagery and competency are seen as the two major strategies for attaining valued social roles, and SRV posits that people in valued social roles are apt to be accorded the good things in life, while people in societally devalued roles are apt to get mistreated. Because these assertions by SRV are within the realm of empirical falsifiability, they are in the domain of science.

Both Nirje's (1969) and Wolfensberger's (1972) formulations of normalization did promote normative autonomy and rights for people, but this is no longer true of SRV. The reason is that although normalization was a mixture of ideology and empirical social science, SRV aspires to base its claims entirely on empiricism and on social science—though at a high and overarching level—that inform one what will happen to people if one does this or that, what will happen if one does not, and what may have happened in the first place to bring about certain situations that one may want to change (Wolfensberger, 1995, 1998, 2000).

Also, because SRV aspires to be no more than an action scheme based on social science, it cannot inform people whether they should or should not value all, some, or no humans, but it can give very powerful rules as to what one would have to do if one wanted people to occupy social roles that are valued by others (Wolfensberger, 1995). Also, SRV posits that people will be vastly more likely to become valued as persons by those others who perceive them to occupy valued social roles. Note, however, that although SRV can speak of valuing people or humans, it cannot speak of valuing persons if by “persons” is meant anything other than human beings. The reason this bears saying is that persons have traditionally been defined in philosophical, ethical, legal, or programmatic terms that are derived from de facto (even if not explicated) religious (i.e., supra-empirical) beliefs, and often coincided with definitions of humanhood. More recent definitions of personhood, however, are often no longer synonymous with traditional scientific definitions of humanhood.

Claims Regarding How the Good Things of Life Are to be Achieved

One of the big differences between SRV and the self-determination and power theories, strategies, or paradigms really boils down to how any of these would answer the following question: Are people more likely to get the good things of life by occupying social roles that are valued by others (which presumably will also be translated into more general social valuation), or by the exercise of power, autonomy, and self-determination in and over their lives, and of power over, or vis-à-vis, other people? Social Role Valorization proposes the former, the empowerment ideology seems to propose the latter. The power ideology appears to claim that having or not having power not only determines how one will be treated, but also whether one will get the good things of life. But the SRV literature and its oral teaching culture propose that, in the end, what ultimately determines how a person or group will be treated, and what others will afford to such a party in life, is what is in the minds of those who do the treating and affording, and, most specifically, whether and to what degree they perceive the party in valued social roles. Usually, the “they” consists of the majority of society; sometimes, “they” may be only its ruling minority, or the members of a societal subculture of close relevance to the party at issue.

For its position, SRV can cite much evidence that people will be granted by others the good things of life to the degree that (a) they occupy valued roles and/or are more generally valued, and (b) those others have it in their power to grant the good things at issue. In regard to the latter, one should note that human collectivities sometimes are in such extreme straits that they have little to offer to even their most valued members other than positive regard. But putting aside such extreme situations for the moment, both history and knowledge of human nature inform us that people can be—and often have been—valued, protected, and freely afforded a good life, even though they are/were totally powerless, especially in the material sense in which the empowerment cultus usually employs the term power (e.g., Branson & Miller, 1992; Brown & Smith, 1989; Chappell, 1992). Conversely, people who have a great deal of power to do and get what they want are not necessarily highly valued, even many of their roles that carry power may not be valued, and they may not be freely accorded all sorts of good things by many other people, even though there may be certain good things that powerful persons may be able to procure for themselves, or wrest away from others by means of power, though usually only if they are quite competent people. Under extreme conditions especially, this wresting can be of a Nietzschean nature, where raw power is exercised by the stronger over the weaker in disregard of any legal or moral law, as we have seen in recent civil and international wars—and there are always stronger and weaker parties. No religious, social, psychological, political, or economic cultus has ever succeeded in equalizing power between stronger and weaker parties, only in reshuffling who is stronger versus who is weaker. Any claims that some scheme some day will achieve equalization is utopian, and if it were not, it would probably be maladaptive and undesirable.

Having power is definitely not the same as being either valued, or even accepted, by others. Nor is the accumulation of enough power to intimidate others always a particularly successful way to win positive valuation and acceptance from others. We can see this, for instance, when crime bosses and drug lords definitely do acquire and wield power, and thereby cow others into submission and win their obeisance through bribery or intimidation—but then are loved, admired, or valued by few people. Also, once their power is somehow lost, so will be most of the submission, obeisance, and “respect” they once had, and they will probably be valued by yet fewer people than they were before they acquired power. Crime bosses who wield much power may be devalued even by those who depend on them, and when they lose their power, they may not only be fallen upon, but there may be no one to stand by them.

We can further understand that power is not necessarily the way to positive valuation when we consider that many people with very little or no material power, or even no power whatsoever, can nonetheless be highly valued. For instance, many valued moral leaders (such as Gandhi) have held and exercised at least no material power; similarly, most newborns are highly valued by their families but possess zero power in any ordinary sense.

Yet another question, though a secondary one, is what happens when people are de facto reduced in power and autonomy, regardless of how much one might like them not to be? For instance, when a person is in a coma, otherwise very ill, or profoundly mentally retarded—what then? It seems impossible to deny that then what happens to the person will depend almost entirely on how others around the person perceive him or her, and whether they value him or her positively and deeply.

Thus, one might say that although powerful people can wrest from others some of the good things of life for themselves by their exercise of power, their ability to do so will largely or entirely desert them as soon as they suffer an appreciable loss in that power—which may happen to them (or anybody) at any time. At that moment, their fate will be determined by other factors, and one of the biggest such factors is the degree to which others feel positive about them, and hold them in positive regard.

It is, of course, understandable that people—especially devalued ones—would deeply resent the fact that others are making value judgments about them, and that these judgments affect their social status and well-being in a negative way. Although this could be considered one of many sad facts of life—an expression of the imperfection of human nature—people imbued with modernistic values are no longer willing or able to see it this way, but believe that there is a brute-force solution to this problem, much as they believe that there is to virtually any problem. To the degree that this belief is resistant to empirical evidence about the cosmos and human nature—as it commonly is—it is in the de facto religious realm, as noted earlier.

Differences in the Relevance Accorded to Personal Competency

The more a person is impaired in normative competencies (and particularly in normative mental competency), the less a person will be able to exercise normative autonomy and “self-determination,” and the higher becomes the risk that attempts at such exercise will cause harm—possibly of major extent—to self, and usually also others. This is why in apparently all cultures in the past, and many still today, a person known to be competency-impaired usually either was/is not asked to perform certain functions and fill certain roles, or was/is even outright forbidden to do so. Social Role Valorization acknowledges both the reality and the relevance of such competency impairments, emphasizes the importance of competency-enhancement, and predicts that to the degree that a party's competency impairments limit its ability to wisely make life decisions, and to understand and constructively deal with the good or bad consequences of those decisions, then to that degree things will go ill with that party unless other people with good sense, good judgment, wisdom, and positive feelings for the party are willing and permitted to make decisions for that party—again, to the degree the party is impaired in a particular competency at issue. This assertion is especially likely to be true if the other people will make the decisions in a way that is not unnecessarily image-degrading to the party. But, in its emphasis on granting people full “choice” and self-determination in all things, the power ideology trivializes, or even denies, the relevance or legitimacy of issues of competency in any such decisions.

Further, if the idea of “choice” and self-determination in all things were taken at full face value and to its extreme, it would de facto result in what has come to be called “dumping,” that is, in handicapped people not only being set into society free from all constraints or supervision, but also without the supports that they do need to live safely and decently. After all, many such persons (or people who claim to speak for them) say that this is what they want, and commonly these days, this is what they get. Again, SRV itself cannot tell us whether people should be thusly dumped, but it can inform us of what this entails in the lives of dumped people, and that this is largely bad things, and often even death. Yet these days, this course of action is widely defended, justified—or even applauded—by empowerment ideologues who interpret self-determination as the highest good in life, and who exalt an allegedly “empowered” state above all other issues of personal welfare.

In those instances where what a competency-impaired party wants or even demands is not in its best interests, then other parties on the scene that have a caring, or even responsible, relationship with the competency-impaired party can become very conflicted, especially so if what the party wants or demands has also been defined as a legal right. However, at least SRV does not place an obligation to accede to the impaired party's demands onto those who are in a position to make such decisions. This is because, as noted earlier, SRV can only inform people how valued social roles for people can be either procured and protected, or degraded and diminished, but does not dictate any value stance. Social Role Valorization informs us that where a measure would harm a person in competency or image, it is also extremely unlikely to lead to more valued roles for the person—if anything, such a measure is apt to lead to the degradation or loss of valued roles, and perhaps even to entry into the dying, better-off-dead, as-good-as-dead, or already dead roles.

Historically, cultures have always legitimized certain people to impose restrictions on certain others, and/or to see to it that impaired persons get what they need, even if it is not what such impaired persons say they want. However, SRV itself cannot generate dictates as to what constitutes legitimate authority for making such decisions for others, because the legitimization of such authority is ultimately based on societal values, and therefore on de facto religion. What SRV, or at least social science, can do is inform us of what happens when society does not legitimize the above authority functions. However, the empowerment ideology would reject any or most impositions or unasked-for intervention by others, and would even encourage and “egg on” competency-impaired people to demand whatever they want as their “right,” regardless of what the consequences might be to them or others of either demanding such rights—or receiving them. In fact, such “egging on” is a major reality in the praxis of the contemporary empowerment cultus.

Another problem with the power ideology is that humans in general are very confused and inconsistent about what they want and how this relates to what they need, and they often say they want one thing when they really want or need another, or do not know what they want. Because this seems once again to be a part of human nature, or at least is an almost normative reality for humans, we live with it (and often die from it), but the problems this creates are vastly magnified when people are impaired in mental competency, and perhaps already deeply wounded. An aged person who changes his/her will every day for 30 days in a row—especially if the person's estate is appreciable—is extremely likely to be declared incompetent rather than to be accorded “choice” and self-determination.

Conclusion to These Important Differences

Several of the above points are reflected in a little essay I wrote (Wolfensberger, 1994b) called “On Advocating a Fly to Death During an Ice Storm in December”:

For two days in December, a hardy fly survivor had been buzzing at my office window insistently, trying to find a way out into the light. Finally I opened the window a crack, and with a piece of paper gave the fly an assist to fly out to liberty—where there was a raging ice storm. Knowing full well that the fly would die within a matter of minutes, I rationalized the whole thing by reminding myself that the fly had given ample evidence of ‘wanting’ to get out, and that I had done nothing directly to kill it. But then it suddenly occurred to me how comparable all this rationalizing was to a certain class of modernistic people asserting vehemently that the duty of service workers or advocates was to find out what persons of impaired mental competency wanted, and then giving it to them, enabling them to do/be it, or doing it for them. Thus, when a mentally retarded person ‘wants out’ from anyone's control and subsequently becomes homeless and freezes to death on the streets, the advocates can blithely assert that after all, the person wanted to be free rather than being under supervision, experienced the dignity of risk, and had every right to ‘die with his rights on’. (p. 9)

In regard to how a party's welfare and power are related, it is strange that one rarely hears three potentially relevant rationales spelled out as being very distinct: first, that power would be merely an instrumentality through which people would get the good things of life, rather than being made an end in itself (i.e., an empowered life being defined as the good life); second, that autonomy may not be the same as self-determination; and third, that either the autonomy or self-determination gained by empowerment would make the empowered people feel good and contented. Yet even the most casual observation of the lives of devalued people will reveal that these three alleged goals, benefits, or connections are neither at all the same, nor all true. For instance, people with great autonomy may have extremely few discretions available to them; and furthermore, all sorts of impaired people who have been dumped out of institutions into “independence” have gained autonomy, enjoy this autonomy greatly, defend it fiercely—but live miserably, often under material conditions vastly inferior to those they lived under in institutions.

Indeed, over and over, one gets the impression that the power ideology/lobby simply does not appear to recognize, or deal with, or even care, what happens to people who are already devalued by society when they do things that deeply offend the values and sensibilities of the valued (and usually powerful) sectors of society: Commonly, such perceived offenders will end up even more rejected, abused, violated, and brutalized than they are already, and perhaps even get made dead. They may even be given their autonomy and self-determination—but not any of the other good things in life. An extreme hypothetical example is being set out on a deserted island, there to exercise power and do as one wishes. The fact is that so many people these days are obsessed with the self-determination of impaired or devalued people, but not equally obsessed—if at all—with their welfare, so that real, nonhypothetical horror stories abound of how vulnerable people get egged on into situations in which they experience disaster, perhaps even are made dead, with the eggers-on nowhere in sight to either protect them—or share their fate.

One clash between SRV and an empowerment ideology becomes apparent even in the very language that names these schemes. Social Role Valorization is an overarching conceptual and action scheme that informs how one may be able to enhance people's social roles if that is what one wants to do, a major theorem being that such role value enhancement of people is extremely likely to lead to the conveyance of good things to them by others. But empowerment or self-determination schemes seek only power and autonomy. Never outside of Nietzschean thinking have I seen an analysis accompany demands for power and autonomy that has gone beyond an assertion that these things are a right, or should be a right. Never outside of Nietzschean thinking have I seen an analysis of what would happen if everybody were powerful and exercised all their power—or even only all their rights—all the time. Just imagine this scenario: setting 1,000 strong men, with indomitable desires to be empowered, loose on an island, giving them all “equal rights”—and each the material power of a sword. Nor have I ever seen in any of the promotions in recent decades of religions of radical individualism, self-determination, empowerment, “choice,” and rights in the context of deviancy/social devaluation, human impairment, or human services, an analysis of any length or depth of how these alleged goods should be linked to things such as duties, mercy, forgiveness, forbearance, virtues of self-denial, etc., or even competency.

In fact, when the power ideologists these days speak of empowerment and self-determination, they often root these ideas in a construct of rights, but hardly ever spell out whether this is to be a legal rights construct, or a human rights construct that transcends human and governmental law; and in the latter case, which the transcendent rather than human rights are, and what the source of such rights is. Also complicating is the fact that (especially since the time of Nietzsche) some people have promoted a power construct that is not rooted in law of either kind, but in the individual will (as in “the will to power” of Nietzsche).

Altogether, and actually quite obviously, the vast majority of the recent discourse on empowerment is based on a mentality that rejects or ignores age-old teachings that there are deep problems with power, and that often the challenge is to curb one's will to power rather than to grab more power.

Conclusion

The promotion of empowerment and total self-determination for impaired people comes at the worst possible time, namely, just as humanity is beginning to be beset by environmental catastrophe and the return of an age of plagues, and as both Western societies and the world order—such as it was—are collapsing (e.g., Wolfensberger, 1994a; note also that the above was written before 11 September 2001). Human decency and so-called natural law (rather than SRV) inform us that impaired people need to have competent advocates at their side who, if the occasion requires it, are willing and able to make wise decisions on their behalf, even if these do not always please a person of limited, disturbed, or diminished mentality.

Of course, it is quite possible that even when confronted with the above considerations, some people will nonetheless embrace a rather naked and unnuanced empowerment and self-determination position as a religion—in which case it is clear that what they want really is power, and not valuation and acceptance by and from others, or perhaps even from themselves. Thus, one would not be dealing with an empirical controversy over what does and does not work, but with a controversy at the level of fundamental values and religious beliefs. In a free society, people should have the right to pursue (“choose”)—up to a point—conflicting goods, provided such people are mentally competent enough to have at least a modicum of understanding of the decision, and the cost to themselves, both now and in the future. But to demand that one single value and accompanying lifestyle should be thrust on others who do not share the same religion—let alone the competencies to live accordingly—is a form of religious dictatorship.

Further, to the extent that the disagreement is about religion rather than what works, there is a lot of deception on the part of the power lobby, in that it fails to reveal to people at risk in society what it is that does work even when power fails. Another truth that the power lobby is withholding from its audiences is that there have never been, and never will be, social systems of any longevity at all that are not stratified. Of course, one reason this truth is not revealed is that the power people either do not believe it despite the weight of historical evidence, or do not want (“feel like”) to believe it. Very naively, they believe (or at least talk as if they believe) that what others consider to be human nature is only learned, and that one of the most self-evident and true universals of human history can be abolished—as long, of course, as they are on top with the power. All this is frightfully remindful of yesterday's deceitful and destructive “isms” and religions, such as Marxism. So yet another generation of gullible or vulnerable people is being misled by an intellectual, ideological, and professional elite, much as previous generations of such elites taught their versions of false religions.

There are yet other problems with the current self-determination and power ideology. For instance, this ideology is deeply inimical to notions of interdependence, which—after all—implies considerable surrender of independence. However, a brief article can deal with only selected aspects of this issue.

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Author notes

Author:Wolf Wolfensberger, PhD, Training Institute for Human Service Planning, Leadership and Change Agentry, 800 S. Wilbur Ave., Suite 3B1, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY 13204