Friday 13 February 2009

Resisting emotional education

Changing the Subject: Views from International Politics, Oxford Brookes University, 3 February 2008

Concern for ‘well-being’ is widespread in contemporary Western societies, particularly those Anglo-Saxon countries afflicted with nineteenth-century levels of social inequality. Although the rise of this concern has recently been documented in the field of education (1), it has also permeated deeply into other areas, not least politics and law. The second in the series of the ESRC and RSA-sponsored ‘Changing the Subject’ seminars tried to draw out and critique some of these developments (2).

James Nolan presented a fascinating paper on the rise of international ‘problem-solving courts’, based on many years of ethnographic studies. These courts were pioneered in Miami in 1989 to deal with drugs offences, and have now been rolled out across the Anglo-Saxon world in other areas like domestic violence. They do not dispense criminal justice, with magistrates sitting in judgement over defendants, and lawyers behaving in an adversarial fashion. Rather, they adopt what is explicitly called ‘therapeutic jurisprudence’, seeking to get to the root of the misbehaviour of their ‘clients’: the judge acts almost as a mentor-counsellor and the advocates collaborate; ‘clients’ are sent on rehabilitation and therapy courses and explicitly encouraged to narrate their recovery and repentance emotively in what are often highly theatrical environments.

Nolan argues this reflects America’s therapeutic culture: in one court he observed, the judge carried around a microphone, getting friends and relatives of the ‘client’ to share their stories; there are frequent scenes of crying; and judges frequently hug their ‘clients’. Therapeutic jurisprudence is also infused with explicit evangelism, mirrored in the court rooms by cries of ‘amen!’ (This is not quite the modern confession box, though: people are encouraged to divulge, not confess, to realise, not transcend the self.) The adoption of these courts in other Anglo-Saxon states is constrained by our reluctance to emote publicly, but Nolan has detected gradual convergence over ten years, with probation officers training judges using videos of US courts to overcome their stuffiness. In one West London court observed in 2006, the judge intentionally donned garish clothing to make clients feel more comfortable – including a t-shirt which, he explained, was the colour of urine after a negative drug test. And he had no problem with hugs.

While occasionally amusing, these findings are also quite disturbing. In response to probes from other participants, Nolan confirmed that ‘clients’ were only encouraged to express particular emotions – usually grief, remorse, etc – while anger-management courses are prescribed to banish less tolerable feelings. In fact, judges in New Zealand and Australia have been reluctant to embrace the therapeutic turn fully, fearing that such deep emotional engagement may in fact be destructive, and even distract the court from serving the due process that guarantees defendants’ rights. Moreover, there is a distinctly authoritarian bent to the therapeutic process. People convicted of drugs possession who do not see themselves as addicts – or who do not even use drugs themselves – are coerced into rehabilitation programmes which require that they correctly emote their therapeutic journey of facing up to their ‘denial’ and changing themselves. In addition to these serious drawbacks, there is also no evidence that ‘problem-solving courts’ are any more efficacious than standard courts.

Rudi Roose next presented a critique of the apparently progressive concept of ‘children’s rights’. Most contemporary debate on this is ‘technical’ in nature: it focuses on how to implement rights, rather than on their meaning and their relationship to contexts of socio-economic inequality. The emphasis on ‘child poverty’ as a violation of children’s rights and well-being, for instance, in which children are innocent of guilt for this poverty, but adults are not, implicitly blames parents for failing to realise their children’s rights; ‘bad’ parents are demonised and blamed for all manner of social problems, such as youth delinquency, which are thereby individualised. Increasingly, parents are viewed as ‘functions of their children’, existing only to serve their children’s well being.

The state increasingly intervenes to ‘support’ parents in this task – through parenting classes, family behavioural orders and other coercive measures – but the standards set may be so unattainable, particularly for impoverished parents, that they passively resign themselves to the status of ‘bad parent’. The publication of the Children’s Society’s Good Childhood report in the same week as the seminar was a reminder of the coercive, hectoring tone taken by officialdom towards ‘selfish’ parents (3). However, just as many problem-solving court ‘clients’ internalised their requirement to emote, many parents embrace the state’s therapeutic interventions, calling for more ‘support’ rather than for better jobs and higher pay.

This is likely to be increasingly the case as children are exposed in school to what Sarah Amsler called ‘educating the emotions’. Amsler argued the therapeutic turn in education is a form of what Foucault called ‘bio-politics’ – a subtle form of behavioural regulation devised by the state to maintain order, which is gradually internalised by its targets. The emphasis on teaching people how to be happy should, she suggested, be replaced by a critical pedagogy designed to educate children’s needs and desires, even to educate unhappiness, the dissatisfaction with the prevailing order that has always been the driver of progressive social change.

This theme of internalisation was also important in Steffen Jensen’s paper on ‘humiliation and respect in Cape Town’. Jensen’s ethnographic study of South African townships explored how the ‘welfarist biopolitics’ of Apartheid had created a legacy of powerful stereotypes among ‘coloured’ (ie, non-white, but non-black) people – that they are dirty, prone to criminality, welfare-dependent, etc. Scraping out ‘dignity’ in conditions of grinding poverty, he argued, required coloured people to distance themselves from these stereotypes, while pointing to others in their townships who did embody these characteristics. Thus dignifying oneself involves humiliating others, ultimately reinforcing the negative stereotypes. The discussion compared this scenario to constructions of upper/lower working-class identities in Western Europe, and raised the possibility that personal ‘dignity’ may be especially emphasised by economically marginal, insecure individuals.

The four papers each showed that the relationship between emotional well-being and socio-economic justice is at best ambiguous. Roose argued a narrow emphasis on rights obscures attention from the socio-economic situations that constrain or enable individuals’ self-realisation. Amsler implied therapeutic education was an attempt to persuade individuals to reconcile themselves with a social order that contains many inequalities and injustices. Nolan’s study suggested ‘problem-solving courts’ were incapable of solving the social problems of drug addiction and domestic violence. And Jensen’s paper indicated the dangers inherent in organising society around claims for ‘respect’ that are often mutually exclusive.

The papers also showed how the therapeutic turn was ‘changing the subject’ – the human subject – by recasting the relationship between individuals, society, and the state. However, although Roose’s argument that this involved a neoliberal move to individualise social problems has some merit, the situation is more complex than this. Individuals – like ‘bad parents’, drug addicts, etc – are indeed increasingly blamed for problems whose causes are at least partly social, and related to issues of anomie, deprivation and dislocation. However, the state’s response is not to match its blame for the problems with a complete delegation of responsibility to the individual for solving them. In fact, the therapeutic turn assumes individuals to be so damaged and feckless that they are incapable of acting (or perhaps unwilling to act) without the state’s ‘support’ and encouragement. We are not given the individual freedom to act, but instead educated about how to exercise our freedom in ways deemed ‘appropriate’ by officialdom.

In this sense, as James Panton argued, the rights-bearing subject is dissolving into an object of state concern, whose rights can be defended or promoted by the state on its behalf. This double movement is clear in the case of children’s rights. Children are said to be autonomous subjects with identifiable rights, but practically speaking they are incapable of exercising or realising their rights without external support. The state coerces parents into providing what it regards as the appropriate level of support and berates those who fail to meet its standards. Simultaneously, therapeutic education aims to ‘educate’ children as to how to exercise their own freedoms ‘appropriately’, de-legitimising negative emotional responses to their lot. Those who refuse to respond as required might face ‘problem-solving’ courts in later life.

There is little doubt that many of the assumptions and ideas underlying these developments are increasingly being internalised by many in the Anglo-Saxon world. On a day-to-day basis, rather than confronting antisocial behaviour directly, many adults simply call the police, calling on the state to mediate their social relations and thus reinforcing their incapacity to act without state ‘support’. ‘Bio-politics’ offers a powerful way to conceptualise the way people become instrumental in their own domination. Yet ‘bio-politics’ also risks evacuating agency altogether. For instance, Jensen’s claim that enactments of dignity constitute acts of humiliation comes dangerously close to claiming that even slum-dwellers’ efforts to rise above the violence and depravity with which they are frequently confronted of resistance produces un-freedom. The system is everywhere, even in our efforts to transcend it.

Perhaps the most pressing question of our day is how political subjectivity can be rebuilt after the collapse of the mediating institutions of mass society, in an era of fearful individuation and mass withdrawal from political life. Do material conditions have to change before people can rediscover their agency? Or is the rebuilding of subjectivity the necessary preconditions for any change in people’s material conditions? The frustrating answer is – probably a bit of both, in combinations we find difficult to imagine right now. But surely even within situations of socio-economic deprivation, we have agency, however limited, and by asserting it – by, for instance, asserting our dignity – we do not merely reaffirm ‘the system’ but refuse to be crushed by it. The poor can choose to work, struggle, fight – or steal.

Therapeutic apparatuses have particularly insidious ways of reincorporating dissenters as people who are ‘in denial’, as Nolan’s disturbing paper showed. However, we should never overestimate the power of officialdom to manage society and recast subjectivity by fiat. Although World Bank interventions clearly seek to constitute neoliberal subjects in the civil societies of developing countries to conspire with them and the target state in poverty reduction strategies, as Alastair Fraser’s ongoing work on Zambia demonstrates, they have only been successful in creating a thin layer of collaborators, while vastly more people engage in more traditional political behaviour – the organisation of unions, strikes, and populist political parties to resist economic exploitation (4).

The call for a ‘critical pedagogy’ to ‘hope’ and ‘desire’ for change deliberately seeks to re-inject agency into the masses. The danger with this is that external attempts to recreate subjectivity may simply take the form of encouraging children to respond to prevailing elite concerns. Schools today are full of well-meaning teachers trying to re-engage young people on the issues of the day and inspire them to action. The trouble is that the issues of the day are often deeply authoritarian. For instance, children are increasingly being terrorised by tales of environmental apocalypse and recruited to police adults’ behaviour (5). My six-year-old nephew recently returned home one night and, on the instructions of his teacher, hectored his mother about her smoking habit. These official agendas can be sold as saving the world (or your mum), or as having a whiff of anti-corporate radicalism, but they are official agendas nonetheless.

The hero of critical pedagogues, Paolo Freire, avoided this danger by being firmly rooted in the liberation struggles of his day, educating peasants rebelling against the landed oligarchs of Latin America. Although few such overt struggles exist today in the West – and attempts to educate people to ‘desire’ to struggle seem doomed to fail – contradictions and resistance, however diminished, are a fact of life. Those interested in resisting the therapeutic turn, and its recasting of the human subject as one incapable of exercising freedom unless guided and supported by the state, would surely do best to find, focus on, and, where appropriate, strengthen these sites of contradiction and resistance.


(1) See Lee Jones, Therapy Culture and its Critics, Culture Wars, 2 October 2008.
(2) For reflections on the first seminar, see Dolan Cummings, Knowing me, knowing you, Culture Wars, 16 January 2009.
(3) The Children’s Society, A Good Childhood: Searching for Values in a Competitive Age, 5 February 2008.
(4) See http://oxford.academia.edu/AlastairFraser and www.minewatchzambia.com.
(5) See Lee Jones, Turning Kids Green With Fear, spiked, 12 March 2007; The Grinch Who Stole Christmas Cards, spiked, 19 November 2007; Children, Forward to the Glorious Green Future!, spiked, 12 August 2008; Michael Odell, ‘So, How Many Trees Have you Planted, Daddy?’, Observer, 1 February 2009.


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