There is one thing that the field of talking therapies is, ironically, not talking about and this is the existential threat posed to our professions by Critical Social Justice Theory (CSJT). In this article I will sketch out how the social justice ethos embedded in theory and practice at the beginning of the millennium is being replaced by the radically different form of CSJT—an intolerant postmodern authoritarian ideology antithetical to the healing ethos of counselling and psychotherapy. I speculate on some of the implications for the professions if the spread of this ideology is not checked and offer some thoughts about how to move forward.
Let’s roll back a couple of decades and look at how talking therapies were addressing issues of social justice and responding to the broader postmodern turn. This is inevitably going to be a simplified broad brush overview and it is anchored in the particular context of the UK.
It is not surprising that issues of social justice would be important in professions whose main aim is to relieve distress and improve the capacity of individuals to live productive and fulfilling lives. The therapist’s self is the main instrument in talking therapies and consequently there is a great deal of emphasis placed on investigating one’s own biases, limitations and barriers to being fully present with another. Therefore, by 2000 the talking therapies professions had well-established procedures and approaches suited to therapeutic work in increasingly complex cultural contexts. Good examples of these would be the well- formulated cultural competencies for clinicians working in multicultural contexts and anti-oppressive practice with marginalised sexual minorities.
Understanding and working with diversity was acknowledged as a fundamental requisite in training therapists and all professional training programmes would have been signed up to this. Professional bodies with oversight for standards in talking therapies such as the British Association for Counsellors and Psychotherapists (BACP) and the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) required a component of the training syllabus to be explicitly dedicated to issues of working with diversity. Good practice for working with difference in the clinical setting would be taught to counselling students and this would usually rely on the expediency of explicitly acknowledging its presence; a classic formulation being’ ‘I am white/ black/ female/ male/ straight/ gay, etc., and you are white/ black/ female/ male/ straight/ gay etc. How are we going to deal with this?’ In addition, there were increasing concerns that the demographics of the profession were out of step with the wider society. In the UK, the public perception of counselling and psychotherapy was that of a white middle class occupation. Efforts were being made to support both the training and employment from under-represented groups in the profession.
These initiatives were occurring within a wider context of the postmodern turn. Social practices evolve within, and are shaped by, wider intellectual fashions, and talking therapies are no exception to that rule. This matter is far too complex to address in a brief overview but we could probably single out three important developments. First, the disclosures of postmodernism with regard to the importance of language and narrative resulted in some productive new approaches in counselling and psychotherapy e.g. narrative therapy. Second, there was an increasing acceptance of how social contexts shape the self. Third, an increasing amount of attention was being paid to critiques of the practice of talking therapies (its problematics), on the basis that these disciplines are informed by a Western cultural model of the self.
So, to sum up, in the first decade of the 21st century, talking therapies were integrating postmodern perspectives in a range of helpful ways into the therapeutic project and implementing a social justice agenda in keeping with the ethos of therapy.
However, over the last two decades a fundamental change has happened in wider society which has profound implications for everyone: a combination of postmodern theory and social justice has mutated into Critical Social Justice Theory (CSJT), an ideology that has rapidly taken hold of mainstream culture. Before I discuss how this has played out in professions such as talking therapies, it will be useful to define what we mean by CSJT and why it is so problematic for counselling and psychotherapy.
Until recently, the real nature of this new form of social justice has been hidden from view, partly due to the obfuscating language used to deploy it. Another reason that these theories received little attention was that, on the surface, they appeared benevolent if somewhat esoteric. However, due to the dedicated work of scholars such as James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian, a clearer understanding of the nature of CSJT is starting to emerge. In very simple terms, CSJT is an ideology that views people not as individual actors but rather as representatives of particular groups which are nested within systems of power. Some of Its characteristics most salient to talking therapies would be:
- Group identity trumps individual identity.
- Identity is socially-constructed.
- Systems of power are maintained through discourses.
- Commitment to problematising—although power relations cannot be undone, they can be made visible.
- It is explicitly opposed to dominant ways of knowing and consequently rejects science as a liberal narrative.
- Commitment to activism—a fair and just society cannot occur until the dominant system is dismantled.
Only a cursory reflection on this list of characteristics would make it apparent that CSJT is a very different entity to the social justice ethos that has informed the diversity and inclusion initiatives in talking therapies. Furthermore, it is very hard to see how CSJT with its radically different agenda could possibly be integrated with the healing ethos and relational focus of mainstream counselling approaches. And yet, this rather obvious point receives almost no attention and, instead, there is an increasing amount of literature in the field that uncritically accepts CSJT concepts and its associated identity politics.
I imagine that an outsider looking in would gain the impression of the counselling and psychotherapy professions as secure in their well-established theories and models and fully onboard with the new version of social justice. So, is the claim that CSJT poses an existential threat to the talking therapies just hyperbole? Let’s have a look behind the curtains.
To any perceptive observer of current cultural developments, it is becoming easier to identify the means by which CSJT stamps its ideology on a field of endeavour and/or discipline. There seem to be at least three well-established routes and these are: refashioning the foundational narrative/principles; silencing any debate/ critique/ open dialogue; and harnessing (professional) education to an activist agenda.
To begin with the first route. In CSJT, social reality is generated out of and maintained through discourses, therefore capturing the narrative would be a primary objective. Once the narrative is refashioned along CSJT lines it will also then become politically actionable. One example of how this works can be seen in the recent publication of the American Psychology Association’s (APA) Guide to Psychological Practice with Boys and Men (2018). Its contention that ‘traditional masculinity’ is at the root of the psychological difficulties experienced by men has been met with considerable controversy. However, the APA has not backed down and the clinical guidance to help men understand their presenting issues through a revisioning of masculinity as inherently ‘toxic’ still stands. We can see a similar narrative capture happening in the UK, albeit more quietly. The BACP recently published their good practice guidance on working with gender/ sexual/ relationship diversity (GSRD). The issue is not with the policy itself—a helpful and necessary resource explicitly tied to a noncontentious biopsychosocial model—but rather in what it reveals about a change in the BACP’s position. Note the wording in the title of one of the sections: ‘Why an intersectional understanding is vital’. (Barker, 2019, p14). Instead of proffering intersectional theory as one of several potentially illuminating interpretative frameworks, the BACP appears to be championing it as the most vital one. When did the BACP shift from its long held nonpartisan position to advocating for CSJT—I don’t recall any discussion?
This leads neatly onto the next means of establishing a hold over the field—no tolerance of any other view and the aggressive silencing of opposition. All of us have been made aware of the strategies used by CSJT activists to effectively muzzle any opposition including: de-platforming; reputational damage; mobbing on social media; and public shaming through name calling. The latter tactic is particularly effective in health and social care—which professional practitioner could withstand being publicly labelled as “racist” or “homophobic” or “misogynist” or “transphobic” (to name some of the more common accusations of bigotry)? The field of talking therapies is particularly susceptible to this form of silencing. Who is going to write anything critical of CSJT, or at the very least bring up the issues that need some discussion? What professional body would give space to discussions like these? What scholar would risk their professional reputation and academic career by advancing any form of critique? This is the reason why CSJT can import itself into the field without too much opposition.
And finally, the long term future of any ideology is secured through education. The professional training programmes have a significant role to play in establishing the grip of CSJT on the field of counselling and psychotherapy. In the UK, training takes place in both publicly funded HE/FE institutions and in the independent sector. The humanities and social science faculties in British universities are wedded to CSJT ideology: there is very little opportunity to step outside this mainstream narrative. Furthermore, the recruitment processes for new faculty are increasingly controlled by an HR diversity mandate which screen for unorthodox views. Therapy training is an increasingly policed enterprise. Outside the academy there is more scope in the independent sector to retain more diverse perspectives on training. However, as I note in the following section, these independent institutions are vulnerable to being taken over by a CSJT agenda in other ways.
So where might this trajectory be leading for the talking therapies professions. Without any concerted attempt to prevent a complete imposition of CSJT ideology, I would make the following predictions:
- No shared expertise will develop with regard to how to work effectively with clients who have been negatively impacted by CSJT. Anecdotal evidence from my own and colleagues’ counselling and psychotherapy practices would indicate that these issues are taking the form of family rifts/ workplace bullying/unfair accusations of various forms of bigotry/ feelings of confusion and destabilisation due to wider cultural narratives. Interested readers are referred to Dreesman’s (2020) detailed discussion of working with these issues in practice.
- In the wider field of theory and practice, there will be an increasing focus on the problematics of therapy at the expense of refining productive knowledge about effective practice.
- The already dominant position of contemporary Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) will be further entrenched. Its commitment to evidence-based practice and its modern/scientific worldview makes it less susceptible to CSJT.
- Smaller independent training institutions may, in good faith, invite this opportunistic ideology in through, for example, staff trainings in anti-racism informed by CSJT concepts such as ‘white fragility’. However, once established, this CSJT ideology will require increasing resources to be diverted to fulfil an insatiable diversity agenda. The management is likely to discover that well-established institutions are easily destabilised through divisive tactics including mandatory ‘struggle sessions’ and shaming tactics.
- The demographics of talking therapy professions will change, for example, it is likely that there will be fewer straight white male therapists who are already under-represented in the profession (but, of course, this would not be viewed as a negative outcome by CSJT with its commitment to undermining the dominant power group).
And in the worst case scenario, I foresee hollowed out talking therapies professions espousing an authoritarian ideology that no longer serves the original primary healing objective i.e. to support people in living authentic, productive and fulfilling lives.
However, just to diagnose the problem and leave it there would be to follow the CSJT destructive path of unceasing problematising. It is necessary to consider some ways through the current impasse, and I have one urgent recommendation, and one creative suggestion. The first, and most important, way to move forward is to break the silence. Talking therapists need to speak up, be congruent, and ask pertinent questions. If academic journals and professional publications do not seem to be open to any meaningful critique of CSJT then there is nothing to stop concerned therapists from finding other opportunities to publish. Informal networks could be set up to monitor developments and share practice. The more people who take the risk to break the taboo, the more likely it will be that an open and honest dialogue can arise concerning matters of crucial importance to the professions and the clients that they serve.
An important goal for early discussions would be a clarification and analysis of how the foundational assumptions of CSJT map onto the theory and practice of talking therapies. Some authors, such as the moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, have already drawn attention to its anti-therapeutic nature in that it encourages people to be less emotionally and psychologically resilient. We need to go one step further here and think about how CSJT threatens the very practice of therapy itself. For instance, due to its incessant focus on group membership and the power dynamics associated with it (and interrogating those dynamics constantly), the relationship between talking therapist and client is more or less completely undermined. The following questions could be used to frame emerging critical discussions:
- Informed by CSJT worldview, how can it be possible for a therapist and client from different identity groups to work productively together? It raises the spectre of a deeply regressive move that sanctions segregated therapeutic practice.
- If the aetiology of a client’s presenting issue is always going to be located in their group identity, can any helpful solution be offered? CSJT holds out no hope of any real change and would usually prescribe a call to activism.
- What happens when a therapist views their client through an intersectional lens? Will clients from a ‘privileged’ group be further inculcated with a sense of collective guilt? Will clients from an ‘oppressed’ group be absolved of any personal responsibility for the difficult conditions in their lives?
- Conversely, what happens when a client views the therapist through an intersectional lens? If the therapist is from a ‘privileged’ group, will they be seen as complicit in a system that oppresses the client? If the therapist is from an ‘oppressed’ group, will the client be overly deferential and unable to properly evaluate the therapeutic service they are receiving.
In addition to these discussions, a strategic means for moving forward would be to adopt a realistic and pragmatic approach. CSJT is not going to go away: it is entrenched within the mainstream cultural narrative and it is embedded at every level of our education system. Young people, i.e. millennials, coming into the talking therapies professions are much more likely to have adopted this mindset. Instead, it would be helpful to begin to think of more creative ways of accommodating CSJT within the field of counselling and psychotherapy. One possibility might be to cordon it off within its own modality. This is a time-honoured tradition in counselling and psychotherapy which has allowed the field to assimilate radical new ideas and a range of different perspectives without destabilising the therapeutic project. Explicitly labelling a therapeutic approach as informed by CSJT would be an ethical move and offer a transparent service to clients. A CSJT school of therapy could then have the space to develop its own theory and practice without imposing its own ideology across the whole field to the detriment of the talking therapies professions more generally.
In conclusion, it is worth stating that we are clearly in a time of great cultural and social change and these cultural processes are difficult to grasp from our limited viewpoint. The existential threat posed by CSJT to talking therapies articulated in this article may be a symptom rather than a cause: healing practices that originated in the 20th century may be out of step with a rapidly changing world. We don’t know how this will play out over the long term. But for now, the imperative is to break the taboo and begin to have an open and honest debate. If talking therapy professionals and educators allow themselves to be silenced by an authoritarian ideology, it does not bode well for the clients whom they serve. Wherever this process is going, it is crucial to wake up and engage with it.
American Psychological Association, Boys and Men Guidelines Group. (2018). APA guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/about/policy/psychological-practice-boys-men-guidelines.pdf
Barker, M-J (2019). Good Practice Across the Counselling Professions 001: Gender, Sexual and Relationship Diversity (GSRD). Lutterworth: BACP
Dreesman, S. (2020) The Contradictions of Critical Theory and Counselling. Published on newdiscourses.com.