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Fear Not

©2006 John P. Hewitt

Remarks prepared for New York Salon, November 14, 2006


Do contemporary people feel psychologically vulnerable? Does therapy now dominate American life? Are we a nation of therapy junkies? These questions prompt others: Who now worries about these issues? And why?

Criticism of what Christopher Lasch called the therapeutic sensibility is, after all, old news. In his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism he described it as a hunger “for the feeling of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.” In his 1966 book The Triumph of the Therapeutic Philip Rieff warned of the ascendance of psychological man. This genre of criticism has sold a great many books over the last 40 years.

Alarm about the therapeutic sensibility is currently being sounded mainly by conservative critics. They provide the ideological comfort food of “self-reliance” and “personal responsibility” to a movement that aims to shift social and economic risk as much as possible onto the shoulders of individuals and families, for example, by privatizing social security or curtailing health insurance. Their criticism echoes through the chambers of conservative think tanks, pops up in the columns of sympathetic pundits, and provides red meat to right-wing bloggers. Cherry-picked examples of egregious therapeutic practices make appealing targets for conservatives seeking new ways to demonize those “latte-sipping, Volvo-driving, sushi-eating”— and “therapy-loving” — liberals. For neoconservatives, therapeutic ideas are sheer heresy. In the theology of the market, a tough willingness to take risks is a sign of grace and any form of weakness a moral failing. It’s all there: potted history, a rose-colored view of the past, and an empirically dubious view of therapy as a moral hazard.

My aim is to apply a bit of sociological realism to this critique — to look at the sources of its ideas and to suggest where and how it misses the mark.

Social critics, whatever their ideology, like to think that their job is to shape public opinion. But more often than not their criticism reflects ideas that have already bubbled to the surface from far beneath their lofty perches. Several such ideas have in fact occurred to ordinary people, without benefit of critical guidance: That psychological help might be useful and yet have ethical costs; that medical technology, whether in the form of an all-out assault on terminal illness, a pill for depression, or a psychiatric label for bad behavior, can easily run to excess; that medicine and its popular alternatives are both promising and disappointing. Attitudes toward the therapeutic sensibility are, in a word, ambivalent, and like tides, they ebb and flow, first one way and then the other.

A minority of Americans are therapeutic seekers engaged in a quest for salvation through psychiatry, self-help, or new age counseling. A minority reject therapeutic ideas out of hand. Most people in the pragmatic middle, of necessity, focus their attention on earning money, raising children, and getting and maintaining a decent life. Judging from their long hours and short vacations, they still hold to the work ethic, and twenty or thirty percent of them are in church on any given Sunday. They do find therapeutic help useful at times and they are happy to have it. But they also resent unwarranted psychological excuses and are irritated by unwanted therapeutic help. They are a source of support for the therapeutic sensibility when its tide is flowing, and of resistance when it is ebbing.

There is, of course, a thriving and highly visible therapeutic industry, which manufactures and distributes diverse therapeutic products that compete in the marketplace alongside BMWs, iPods, fitness equipment, and McMansions. Its conceptual entrepreneurs create ideas about human behavior, and its sales force distributes them at retail. The industry resides in universities, the health professions, government agencies, and organizations devoted to a bewildering array of such proprietary truths as “Neuro-linguistic Programming” and the “Therapeutic Touch.” Like any successful industry, the therapeutic industry exaggerates the need for its products and keeps them fresh by introducing new models and new packaging.

But this energetic and visible therapeutic industry has achieved a far less central place in the culture than its advocates hope and its critics fear. It ebbs and flows, but it is no tsunami sweeping everything in its path. Resistance to it flourishes among the very people to whom it appeals, and for reasons we can readily cite.

First, therapeutic workers and entrepreneurs who want to cure our psychic ills are among the experts to whom people nowadays turn for guidance on matters that were once governed by inherited culture. But people are offered all kinds of expert advice — on parenting, investments, exercise, diet, and retirement. Only a fraction of the advice is therapeutic, and much of that is inconsistent or contradictory. Drug companies selling “social anxiety disorder” compete with self-esteem experts selling “Chicken Soup for the Soul” and new age counselors selling comforting glimpses of the future. Therapeutic experts are also key participants in a social problems industry that mounts a steady parade of problems clamoring for solution. Drug abuse and child abduction compete with internet pornography and drunk driving. These conflicting and competing claims yield a steady undercurrent of skepticism that undermines the program of any particular body of expertise.

Second, the therapeutic sensibility thrives in the absence of any cultural authority capable of adjudicating the legitimacy or truth of ideas. Whoever makes truth claims — religion, enlightened reason, the state, science, the literary canon, ministers, politicians, physicians, or professors — will be challenged. In the supermarket of truth, Scientology and intelligent design compete for shelf space with neuroscience and Evangelical Christianity. The absence of any final cultural authority is crucial to the therapeutic enterprise, but at the same time undermines it. Advocates have the right to claim truth for their ideas, but must at the same time rebut the claims of others. Physicians have to contend with alternative medicine and patients’ rights movements, real scientists with creation science, and humanities professors with the likes of David Horowitz. Nobody’s toes are safe.

Third, both the appeal and the limitations of the therapeutic sensibility lie in its resonance with individualism. Americans see the individual as the locus of faults and virtues, sins and sainthood. And the same individualism that prompts people to seek therapeutic cures for life’s problems also underlies their belief in personal responsibility. People may be urged to consider sickness and therapy, rather than sin and repentance, as they seek to excuse and remedy undesirable behavior. But sin and sickness are not so different: some religions tell us we are prone to sin and that accepting Jesus will secure God’s forgiveness and return us to the flock; psychology tells us anyone can become mentally ill and that therapy will yield a cure and restore us to the community. Rather than choose between religious and psychological grace, Americans generally take the pragmatic view. Theirs is an individualism of practical moral choice, which eschews the absolutes of both religion and therapy.

Fourth, the therapeutic sensibility is a contemporary expression of long-standing ideas that run against the grain of American culture. In any culture, preferred ways of thinking, feeling, and acting are invariably opposed by subterranean, contrasting, or dissenting themes. Contemporary therapeutic ideas and practices express longings for human connection, relief from competition, and peace of mind. Such longings are the inevitable counterpoint to a culture that emphasizes individual freedom, the untrammeled pursuit of success, and the virtue of risk. Historically these countervailing ideas found a home in utopian communities Ð from the religious movements of the “Burned Over District” of New York State in the 1840s to the “hippie” communes of the 1960s. For over a hundred years the therapeutic worldview has also given them shelter. These ideas will continue to oppose, but they will not triumph.

In short, the therapeutic sensibility resonates with Americans’ faith in experts, but also feeds suspicions about them. Therapeutic entrepreneurs make truth claims, but so do others. Therapeutic ideas support the same individualism that underlies our belief in personal responsibility. And the therapeutic sensibility expresses tolerant, caring, and communitarian values that have contended with unforgiving individualism and unrestrained avarice ever since the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock.

Therefore, be of good cheer, for the sky is not falling and we are not bound for hell in a therapeutic hand basket. Emil Coué, a wildly popular positive thinking guru imported from France in the 1920s, offered his followers a comforting mantra: “Day by day in every way I am getting better and better.” Let me amend that just slightly: Day by day in every way American culture, warts and all, is remaining much the same.


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