Skip to comments.Theodore Dalrymple reviews Therapy Culture by Frank Furedi
Posted on 11/16/2003 4:15:15 PM PST by shrinkermd
In a matter of only a few decades, counselling has replaced fortitude as our culturally approved way of confronting misfortune. A large number of my patients ascribe their current unhappiness to the fact that they were not offered counselling at the time of an unpleasant occurrence, such as a surgical operation or the death of a friend or relative. Every form of human suffering, it seems, is susceptible to the magical powers of therapy. It is the superstition of our age.
Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology, examines this curious, and by no means harmless, phenomenon in some detail. Only occasionally does he resort to the barbarous locutions of his academic trade, with words such as "problematise", but for the most part he writes in good plain English.
He argues, in my view convincingly, that the extension of belief in "therapy" is both symptomatic and productive of a profound change in human relations, and not for the better. It may also lead to an extension of the powers of the state over our lives. Therapeutic culture is therefore destructive - though the author fails to allow the possibility that many people may nevertheless benefit personally from the sympathetic ear and disinterested advice of third parties when they have no one else suitable to turn to. Nor do I agree with Furedi that state intervention is invariably a bad thing: in cases of domestic violence, for example, it is often a necessary duty.
Yet the bigger picture he presents is persuasive. He points out that in the not-so-distant past, people looked (at least in this country) to their relatives and friends to help them with their difficulties. They also turned to the consolations of religion, and believed in the virtue of stoicism. However, for a variety of cultural reasons many people have gradually come to consider the ups and downs of their emotional lives to be by far the most important aspect of their existence.
But self-absorption and an emphasis on self-realisation are divisive: to quote the cant phrase that makes my heart sink every time I hear it, people are no longer "there for one another". Thus they increasingly turn to professional third parties - alleged experts such as counsellors - for support and advice. In the process, perfectly normal, inescapable, human experiences - such as those of loss, conflict, ambivalence and anxiety - are turned into quasi-medical problems to be treated by quasi-medical means.
Thus it has not taken long for the corps of counsellors to develop a small empire (in fact, a big business), whose scope, in the nature of things, it tries indefinitely to expand. In the process, the individual is rendered utterly vulnerable to the slings and arrows of daily life.
In the therapeutic world-view, a person should not be emotionally dependent upon anyone else, but should be self-sufficient. Relationships with others should be distanced and mutually self-realising. When a relationship ceases to be so, it should be ended forthwith.
Very few people can actually live like this: those that can tend to have peculiar and not very attractive personalities. Yet this is the ideal to which we are encouraged to aspire. We soon find, however, that a radically asocial or solipsistic life is deeply unsatisfying and even threatening. The slightest difficulty causes us major upset, but we have no informal network to turn to because we have pursued our own autonomy for so long.
Enter the professionals into our lives, though the evidence for their effectiveness is slight to non-existent. The state also steps into the emotional vacuum. Politicians increasingly talk the language of therapy: they believe that it is necessary to boost our self-esteem, because of course self-esteem (in the opinion of the experts, which is founded upon nothing but prejudice) is necessary for the individual to function autonomously. But anyone who even so much as thinks about his self-esteem is doomed to a life of self-absorption. Exaggerated individualism leads in the end to a terrible lack of individuality.
Professor Furedi alludes to more than one cultural trend that has encouraged the culture of therapy. First, there has been a loss of belief in the authority of inherited standards, codes, morals and so forth: every man has to work everything out for himself from first principles - every man is expected to be his own Descartes. This leads to a terrible cacophony of unshared values, while simultaneously rendering us susceptible to the siren-song of ersatz values.
We have also lost faith in politics as a source of betterment in our lives. We regard politicians, ex officio as it were, as self-interested opportunists and nothing else. This throws us back on the ups and downs of our private lives.
Professor Furedi has written an important book - occasionally a little repetitive - which is essential to the understanding of our times.
Theodore Dalrymple is a practising psychiatrist in London England. He writes for City Journal in the US and Spectator in England. He is a prolific essayist and is published in many other places.
Parenthetically, Freud believed the superego (conscience) also served an economic function. If one believes stealing is wrong and immoral then one does not have to spend extraordinary amounts of time and thought every time one goes into a store.
Theodore Dalrymple has written a masterful book called Life At the Bottom. It is a must read to understand the concept of "underclass" and why it persists.
Finally, all Freepers can rest assured --the government will soon fund counselling for any and all personal problems as a medical reimbursement.
Maybe, but the world we live in is characterized by such exaggerated individualism. Can we put the genie back in the bottle or the toothpaste back in the tube and return to a more stable, duty-oriented way of life? Do we want to? And are things really as grim for all as Dalrymple paints them? Perhaps those who languish without the guidance of fixed roles today would have chafed and bristled against the roles that were assigned to them in past eras. It's the same struggle to make something out of one's life -- just conducted in a different setting and against different opponents.
Maybe "duty-oriented" isn't the right way of looking at it. Why not go back to our roots, and ask what is our nature? Do we have one, or can we literally be anything we want to be? If we have an inherent nature, what are our limits? And, assuming one believes in Revelation, what is the significance of "God created them male and female"?
Often read his articles in the Spectator. Didn't realise he was a shrink. Some of his tales about his patients in Jail are both hilarious and sad.