It is a part of the malady of our time that we try to see everything as a question of having the necessary skills. Somewhere in the middle of my grad school experience, at a time when everything seemed to be too complicated, I ran across Fritz Heider’s book, the Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. He calls his approach “naïve psychology” and he uses pretty uncomplicated words. He asks whether a person might be “willing” and also “able.” He is open to the idea that a person might be able, but not willing and also that he might be willing, but not able. That didn’t see too complicated to me.
Here’s a little clip to consider. I found it as I was cleaning out my desk after fifteen years at Portland State University. I have no idea where it came from. I don’t have any trouble see why I wanted to keep it, though.
This small sample survey examines probation officers’ aims and strategies when working with street prostitutes within the context of the Street Offences Act, and the results of their work. It indicates that the officers fail in their main aim of encouraging street prostitutes to stay within the law because of the women’s intention to do otherwise.
You need to look at this from the probation officers’ point of view. The officers have certain duties, apparently, deriving from the Street Offences Act—the spelling of offences makes me think this is a British example. Their job is to “encourage” prostitutes to obey the law. Again, the language is our friend. Encourage is based on the Latin cor, “heart” and the French noun courage, spelled like the English courage, but pronounced a lot prettier. It means, obviously, “to give heart to.” The OED gives us “to inspire with courage sufficient for any undertaking; to embolden, make confident.”
The probation officers are required to imagine that these prostitutes are willing to give up their trade, but not able to do so. They don’t have the heart to do this; they don’t have the courage; they are not bold enough. That perspective is what “encourage” gives us. The officers’ job is to “encourage” the prostitutes.
The difficulty, as it is identified in this little clip, is not that they are not able—to borrow Heider’s categories—but that they are not willing. They are able to do what the officers want, but they do not want to, so they don’t.
I don’t mean to make light of prostitution as a public problem. Everyone I have talked to who knows anything about prostitution, particularly street prostitution, believes that the life of street prostitutes is truly awful and that most of them would leave that life as soon as they could. They are not, according to my friends, unwilling. They are unable.
I know that. But I just can’t help finding this little clip funny. It makes me smile. The officers are doing everything they can to encourage the prostitutes to do something they do not want to do. So…they aren’t doing it.