Critical Social Justice Is Incompatible With a Therapeutic Relationship
1. Val Thomas:
"There is no way to reconcile Critical Social Justice with the fundamental tenet that the relationship offered by the clinician is a vehicle for the therapy. Relationships are primarily construed by this ideology as encounters between members of identity groups and are consequently viewed through the lens of power. The therapist’s and client’s memberships of particular identity groups will determine the nature of the exchange. The relationship can only be transactional. (I’ve written at more length about this here.)
Critical Social Justice is a totalising ideology, intolerant of any other perspective: its goal is not to be integrated but to take over, through well-established routes that include infiltrating bureaucratic administrations, changing discourses and re-education.
Even the most cursory inspection of the main professional bodies in the US and the UK reveals the degree to which they have been captured by Critical Social Justice ideology. For example, in 2018, the American Psychological Association released updated guidance for working with boys and men, which characterised traits ascribed to traditional masculinity as toxic.
New generations of practitioners are being trained to accept not only a different way of achieving social justice, but also that achieving social justice is the job of therapy. These ideas have been entering professional therapy education by way of the compulsory diversity modules—an important training component designed to prepare students for working with diverse client groups. Until relatively recently, students were taught multicultural competencies and anti-oppressive practice as part of a syllabus informed by liberal notions of social justice. But the new generations of practitioners are being required to accept a different, ideological approach, in which, increasingly, any questioning of notions such as systemic inequities, intersectionality or white privilege is viewed as a pathology (I’ve written more about this here). The goal is the creation of therapist-activists, who will diagnose presenting problems through a collective lens and use the client-therapist encounter to inculcate an ideology that fosters grievance and victimhood: the only solution offered to presenting problems will be a never-ending political activism. This disastrous trajectory will surely be speeded up as younger generations, who have been imbibing this ideology in their school and college educations, arrive in the training centres.
You would be hard pressed to find anyone in the profession critiquing Critical Social Justice. The reason is simple: dissent comes at a significant professional cost. Even a straightforward expression of opposition exposes the person to attacks on her character and professional practice. For example, this summer, the British Psychological Society (BPS) published a resignation letter in which Dr Kirsty Miller explains that she feels unable to continue to be associated with the society due to its increasingly politicised stance. The BPS then decided to take the highly unusual step of retracting the original letter. The editor gave a detailed justification of his decision that in the main devolved to concerns that some of BPS’s members had expressed feelings of hurt. Miller was consequently subjected to a social media mobbing campaign aimed at destroying her professional reputation.
If you are a client looking for a therapist, caveat emptor! The counsellor or psychotherapist you are considering may not be practising traditional therapy: they may have signed up to an anti-therapeutic political ideology that fosters grievance and pushes activism as the only solution to life’s difficulties. So it is worth asking your therapist, What is your position on social justice and intersectionality? Psychotherapist or psycho-activist—this distinction will determine the course of therapy."
"Across all four ‘forces’ (as listed earlier) in counselling and psychotherapy, there is an unquestioned acceptance of the foundational importance of the therapeutic relationship. Each of these groupings have very different philosophical underpinnings and radically different understandings of the relationship between therapist and client. They include both the earlier 20th century modern schools, which focus on intrapsychic processes operating within the individual, as well as those developed towards the end of the century, which view the client’s difficulties as arising not just within themselves but also shaped by a wider social matrix. Yet, all of them, due to cumulative clinical observations and unequivocal empirical evidence, agree on the role of the therapeutic relationship in delivering effective outcomes in therapy. It is the ground on which the field rests. Put very plainly, no therapeutic relationship equals no real therapy.
However, CSJT’s perspective on human nature is so different that it makes the very notion of a therapeutic relationship a contradiction in terms. One simple way of illuminating this is to use a hermeneutic framework.
The term ‘hermeneutics’ originally referred to the means whereby biblical texts were interpreted. During the 20th century, hermeneutics was taken up and developed within the Continental philosophy tradition as an interpretative method for making sense of the world. It was understood that different philosophical positions would generate different types of hermeneutics—the characteristic way in which the method of interpretation would be applied. When considering the therapy field from this framework it would then be expected that its pluralistic nature would generate a set of different hermeneutics. The following list identifies the type of hermeneutics linked to each of the four ‘forces’, previously discussed, and how this maps onto the therapeutic relationship (with the caveat that this complex and nuanced matter is presented in a very simplified fashion).
- Psychodynamic therapies and the hermeneutics of suspicion. Taking this interpretative position, nothing is what it seems to be on the surface. The therapeutic relationship is the means by which unconscious/hidden processes can be brought into the light of consciousness and thereby transformed.
- Behaviouralist (later CBT) therapies and the hermeneutics of evidence. Making sense of the world is based on empirical evidence. In terms of the therapeutic relationship, the incontrovertible evidence base leads to an emphasis on developing a strong therapeutic alliance between therapist and client.
- Humanistic therapies and the hermeneutics of love. Making sense of the world in the light of love leads to therapeutic relationships which focus on accepting and prizing the client.
- Systemic/contextual therapies and the hermeneutics of context. Taking this interpretative position, the individual is understood in terms of their relationship to the wider setting. In terms of the therapeutic relationship, it is both the means of illuminating how the client is operating within a wider system (e.g. systemic psychotherapy) and/or the trusted arena where the client can explore the impact of social context (e.g. feminist psychotherapy).
What happens if we now apply this hermeneutical framing to CSJT, with its view of human beings not as individuals but as members of particular identity groups that are understood to be either oppressor or oppressed? First, its interpretative method is self-evidently characterised by the hermeneutics of oppression. Second, applying this type of hermeneutics in the context of counselling and psychotherapy illuminates the profoundly anti-therapeutic nature of CSJT. It becomes immediately apparent that the encounter between therapist and client cannot be a vehicle for therapeutic processes.
This difference is predicated on the way in which the therapist and client will be primarily understood as members of either an oppressed or oppressor identity group. The hermeneutics of oppression means that all human interactions—and there can be no exceptions—are characterised by the power dynamics operating across differently positioned identity groups. The focus of the work can only be on interrogating the ensuing power relationships (which is a cynical variation on the hermeneutics of suspicion). In other words, the work will devolve to the problematising of the relationship between therapist and client rather than the relationship serving any therapeutic goal. Even if both therapist and client are nominally members of the same identity group, the hermeneutics of oppression would only allow for a transactional relationship in service to its goal—the disruption of dominant systems of power. Consequently, the meeting between therapist and client is no longer therapeutic in the way that the four ‘forces’ of counselling and psychotherapy would recognise. The theoretical, conceptual, and philosophical underpinnings of CSJT are not compatible with the practice of therapy. Its hermeneutics of oppression undermines the ground on which counselling and psychotherapy stand. Therefore, on this basis, it cannot be successfully integrated into the field."