Saturday 1 March 2003

Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age

Frank Furedi

Sociologist Frank Furedi’s book exposes the often-bizarre thinking behind the growing practice of counselling.

Following James Nolan’s Therapeutic State (1998), and the work of the late Christopher Lasch, Furedi questions assumptions like the ‘emotional determinism’ that reduces people to puppets of their inner drives, and the value of unearned ‘self-esteem’. On the other hand, Furedi argues, therapists tend to be hostile to strong emotions that imply commitment to others, such as love. The case for therapy, he shows, is dependent upon rendering all personal relations potentially dangerous, while the formal relation of counsellor to client takes precedence.

Furedi illustrates the way that therapeutic values have come to inform political debate, taking the example of Bill Clinton’s claim ‘I feel your pain’ as emblematic of the substitution of counselling for political representation. Like Nolan, Furedi argues that therapeutic language is not merely an idiom, more an invasion of the personal into the public realm. At the same time, he shows, the sanctity of personal life is shattered by the intrusion of professionals who assume privacy must be a cloak for abuse.

Rather than dealing with the intellectual discipline that gave rise to therapeutic ideas, Furedi’s criticism is focused on the effect of their popularisation through measures like Edinburgh Council’s aromatherapy course for the homeless or California’s ‘Self-esteem task-force’. The danger of this ubiquitous development, he shows, is the tendency for the state and the prevailing culture to reinforce dependency in individuals by encouraging claims-making behaviour.

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