Friday 5 December 2003

You’re so vain, you probably think this book is about you

Therapy Culture and the Therapistas

Frank Furedi’s book Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age has attracted a good deal of attention, with reviews and articles in most of the British broadsheets. On 22 November 2003, the Institute of Ideas held a public symposium in London to launch the book and debate the issues raised.

The scope of the book is broad, analysing important social and political changes as well as documenting the rise of counselling etc. Therapy Culture develops several themes explored in Furedi’s earlier work, notably in his 1997 book Culture of Fear. This is very much an analysis of contemporary culture, rather than a treatise on therapy as a clinical technique. It is unfortunate then that one of the most prominent responses has been a defensive one from therapists themselves, who have interpreted the book as little more than a mean-spirited attack on their profession.

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) has published on its website a 30-point refutation of the book. Echoing Darian Leader, who earlier responded to Furedi in The Times, the BACP begins by making a distinction between genuine psychotherapy, which it defends, and a broader ‘self-help’ culture, which it disparages. It is argued (the author is not named) that much of what Furedi attacks in his book is really part of this self-help culture: therapists, we are told, are equally opposed to the insistence that people weep in public, and equally concerned to avoid ‘over-pathologising’, and a loss of personal autonomy.

(In passing, though, I have to wonder how significant it is that the term the BACP throws to the wolves is ‘self-help’, which at least implies that people can deal with their problems without professional interference.)

The refutation goes beyond an objection to Furedi’s choice of title, however. Furedi is accused of appealing to the ‘forces of conservatism’, and of harbouring nostalgia for the 1950s. This reveals a more substantial disagreement, one that isn’t strictly about therapy at all. In Therapy Culture, Furedi argues against ‘emotionalism’, and especially the tendency to see people as vulnerable or easily damaged. All this clearly offends the sensibilities of those who see a sensitivity to human frailty as the hallmark of a progressive mindset.

But this is a very recent idea of what it means to be radical or left-wing. Revolutionaries like Robespierre, Marx, Lenin and Trotsky were not known for their emotional literacy. They had ruthlessly high expectations of themselves and those around them, and little empathy for their political enemies. Perhaps such figures would today be described as ‘right-wing’, but this is surely not because society has swung radically to the left over the past century. The current sensitivity to human vulnerability has not emerged straightforwardly from any political tradition, and indeed Furedi argues that it is conservative in effect.

Perhaps this is why the BACP accuses Furedi of being ‘polemical’. It is telling that this is regarded as a bad thing. Indeed, the document’s title, ‘Why is Frank Furedi so furious with counselling?’, betrays the very unease with ‘negative emotions’ that Furedi discusses in his book. His critics are offended as much by Furedi’s style of intellectual engagement as by the content of his book.

Darian Leader takes a very different approach in his own riposte. He is sanguine about the way that human passions are cast as problems, arguing that this is nothing new: society has always tried to regulate emotions. In contrast to Furedi’s polemic, Leader strikes a pose of ‘critical distance’. Indeed, such is Leader’s critical distance from the issue that it is hard to identify his own position, except to say that it sounds very reasonable.

This ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’ model of intellectual engagement is very much in keeping with the therapy culture described by Furedi. More than the rise of counselling or confessional TV, Furedi is concerned about ‘diminished subjectivity’, a shying away from just that robust sense of agency that is needed to sustain a polemic. Intellectual distance in this sense is the corollary of political disengagement and social cautiousness. Furedi argues that all are bound up in a loss of belief in the human potential.

Therapy Culture is neither an attack on the counselling profession nor on what they dismiss as ‘self-help’ culture. Both certainly come under fire, and it is understandable that therapists have taken offence, but it is notable that they do so not strictly as therapists, but inasmuch as they subscribe to the broader values of therapy culture, as ‘Therapistas’. Undoubtedly Furedi’s thesis ought to be debated and argued about, but it is to be hoped that critics can go beyond defensive and knee-jerk responses, to engage with the more profound trends explored in the book.

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