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OnWords: 'Our Most Vulnerable'


“Our most vulnerable” is a term we use to transfer an audience’s pity from others and onto whoever isusing the term.

Consider its use: when we label groups such as the homeless, the elderly, and children as “our most vulnerable” we draw attention away from them as people and onto whatever probably terrible scheme we have in mind.

When bioethicists from the University of Pennsylvania recently invoked the vulnerability of homeless folks with mental health challenges as a reason to bring back long-term psychiatric institutionalization, they failed to mention that other models work better but are under-resourced.  

But they did make it seem as if they cared.

That may sound cynical, but by labeling people “our most vulnerable” we’re already putting ourselves into a patronizing position over them—implying that we own the rights to their voices and possess superior abilities.

The term glosses over the lived experiences of those we call vulnerable and creates a space in which to speak for “our most vulnerable”—people who, if we’d bother to listen, can probably best speak for themselves, even if they speak in ways we aren’t all prepared to understand.

In a culture built around youth, wealth, and ableism, we ought to accept the role we play in creating the vulnerability these folks experience.

Instead of labeling others, why not work toward making “our most vulnerable” as empowered and self-directed as they can be?