Therapy Culture and Counterculture

One of the bloggers at Samizdata.net directs us to this piece by Damian Thompson in the Daily Telegraph. It's about a forthcoming book called Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age by Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent . And it tells us a great deal about one of the major threats to liberty in our time.

According to Thompson, Furedi's book explores how the British people have been made to think of themselves as helpless victims by being treated like emotionally fragile children in need of therapy after the slightest mishap or bit of suffering. Through a class of professional therapists and counselors, this mindset 'is attempting to impose a new conformity through the management of people's emotions, by inciting them to feel powerless and ill.'

The therapeutic culture is a culture of dependence, especially dependence on the state and its certified experts. Moreover, Furedi argues that the institutionalized therapeutic culture in Britain has replaced the more overtly political attempts at social engineering of the past:

'Therapy culture is not political in the traditional sense. On the contrary, says Furedi, it is in many ways a replacement for the straightforwardly utopian projects of the past. Today's cultural elites lack the confidence to tell people what to believe; instead, they tell them how to feel.'

I think there's a connection here between the therapeutic project (which is alive and well on this side of the Atlantic ) and the role that the media plays as apologist for the modern state. Craig Russell has written eloquently about the role of the media on STR (here and here, for starters). The media, especially television, promote, by their very nature, reliance on emotional response rather than on critical thinking for making judgments. Like the class of state therapists and counselors, it teaches us which emotional responses are appropriate to events.

The fear of terrorism, for instance, has been relentlessly fed by the major media, paving the way for policies like the war in Iraq . By teaching us to feel like helpless victims who must rely on Leviathan to save us, the state is able to short-circuit much of the opposition its policies might otherwise arouse.

Thompson concludes:

'Yet, like the state socialism of the postwar years, the detailed management of emotion requires a formidable apparatus of bureaucratic inspectors. No government can hope to build such a structure on its own: it requires entire professions (such as the police, post-Macpherson, or the BBC) and large sections of the public to submit willingly to ideological control. That is how totalitarianism works.'

The phrase 'the management of emotion' nicely captures much of what the modern state is all about. After all, rule by brute force is costly and inconvenient. Manipulating people's emotions is a way to rule and maintain tranquility at the same time. But it is horrifying in its implications'the state's sovereignty reaches into your very soul. Unfortunately, most people lack the tools to resist the many forms of subtle indoctrination and emotional manipulation. They submit willingly.

A big part of the problem is that there is no neat division between "politics" and "culture." Culture is the sea in which our psyches swim, and it shapes our assumptions and expectations about everything, including government. We are primed to see ourselves as powerless and to see government as the primary agent of social change and the chief solver of problems. We learn to see power and coercion as the preferred means for solving problems rather than persuasion and non-violence. Since, by this measure, the state is unquestionably better equipped than its citizens, we are taught to believe in our own powerlessness.

Note that those groups who have most successfully resisted the encroachments of the state are genuinely 'countercultural.' That is, they have a strong sense of identity that inoculates them against the emotional manipulation of the therapy-state-media complex. The old order Amish, for instance, have rejected much of the culture of the surrounding society, and the blandishments of the welfare-warfare state as well (Russell also tackled this subject here. I made a similar argument here.).

Another example of cultural resistance is, of course, the vibrant homeschooling movement. Also, realizing that the state is irredeemably hostile to their values, some Christian groups have started their own schools dedicated to recovering a classical humanistic education and training students in the habits and virtues of a free people. Douglas Wilson writes about this movement in the September issue of Chronicles.

I suspect that those who seek freedom are going to have to become increasingly countercultural as a way of resistance. The therapeutic culture identified by Furedi and others works to increase dependence on the state at every turn. This culture is magnified by the media, and pumped into our homes and offices (and, increasingly, all public spaces) daily. To resist this kind of pervasive indoctrination would require habits of discipline, character, and thought that are foreign to many people in the modern West. This indicates that we could learn much from those, such as the Amish, who have had to protect their freedom and identity from a hostile culture.

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Lee McCracken's picture
Columns on STR: 8

Lee McCracken lives in Philadelphia and works in publishing.  He has also written for anti-state.com.