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  • Writer's pictureJane Chen

Let's Throw Out the Language of Vulnerability

The Victorian Government’s decision to “hard lockdown” nine public housing estates in inner-city Melbourne has been met with considerable debate. As VCOSS notes, the consequences of this quarantining could be dire for the many residents who “have fled war or family violence”, are “dealing with mental health challenges”, “don’t speak English as their first language” or are “working casual or insecure jobs.” Premier Daniel Andrews has also echoed these concerns, affirming that the Victorian Government “at no point underestimate[s] how challenging this will be for families and businesses, particularly families, many of whom are vulnerable in those public housing towers.”

In policymaking, social research and the community sector, “vulnerable people” has become a catch-all term to denote people who are “disadvantaged” by virtue of characteristics such as race, ability, income status or age. “Vulnerable” is often vaguely used to indicate being disproportionately at risk of negative health, social and economic outcomes. We apply it as a descriptor to identify certain groups or individuals as in need of additional support. In this way, the language of vulnerability serves an important purpose: it highlights the exceptional life circumstances of individuals in particular cohorts, and justifies targeted policy responses.

What the language of vulnerability often fails to capture, however, is why some people are exposed to certain risks more than others. It only specifies that they are. This leaves space for the tacit misconception that their experiences of disadvantage might the product of misfortune and chance – that they might result, for example, from the unluckiness of being a person of colour in a majority-White society, or being born into a low-income household. Whilst adjectives such as “oppressed” or “marginalised” allow us to recognise that processes of “oppressing” and “marginalising” have occurred, being “vulnerable” starts and ends with the individual and identifies no cause. This suggests that vulnerability should be attributed to the life conditions that a person has, by chance, found themselves in.

Consequently, in describing people as “vulnerable”, we obscure the various structural factors have underpinned the disproportionate likelihood of unfavourable life outcomes that they face. Public housing tenants are not vulnerable because of who they are and the unjust realities they happen to find themselves in. Rather, they have been rendered as such by factors including overcrowded housing, limited working rights and precarious employment, and a lack of translated and culturally responsive public health information. The language of vulnerability allows these conditions to go unsaid. It enables policymakers to acknowledge that public housing residents are disadvantaged, without admitting that their own policy decisions have created and reinforced these circumstances.

It’s high time for policy discussions to move away from the language of vulnerability, which is too easily weaponised to disempower people entrenched in systemic disadvantage. It is too often used to suggest neediness and elicit responses of sympathy and compassion, whilst erasing the power dynamics that contribute to their experiences of inequality. It enables states and other institutions to rationalise their interventions into the lives of “the disadvantaged”, yet hide the roles that they have played in making those responses necessary. It erases the agency of individuals, turns communities into passive targets to be saved, and enables the structural causes of inequality to go unchallenged. Ultimately, the language of vulnerability makes it possible for governments to appear benevolent but dodge accountability.

The residents of Melbourne’s public housing estates might be vulnerable, but they have been made vulnerable by a range of structural factors, including the actions and inaction of policymakers and third party organisations. It would serve us all to be more precise in our use of language, and more emphatic in calling out these dynamics. Only then can we move towards policy solutions that address the true causes of systemic inequalities.

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