Critical Social Justice Theory (CSJT)—a political ideology that views society as grounded in systems of power—has several ways of colonising a territory. One favoured route is through training and education, in particular the education of the young. The general public is only now becoming aware of the way in which this radically different worldview has become established in mainstream school education over the last few years. Unsurprisingly, professional health and social care education training programmes have also demonstrated a similar trajectory; the talking therapies being no exception. All counselling and psychotherapy professional training programmes will include a diversity module, and this is the portal used for a Trojan horse strategy that allows CSJT to enter and take over. Therefore, it is particularly important to understand how this hijacking of the diversity module operates in order to protect the integrity of the training. To do this, I am going to use the example of one academic paper to identify the disingenuous pedagogy involved in this process. Based on this analysis, I will make a case for excluding CSJT from mainstream counselling/psychotherapy professional training on the grounds that, in application, it models authoritarian relationships in direct contravention of the relational ethos of talking therapies. I will also provide some thoughts on how the field can respond with more authority to the challenges presented by CSJT.
Before I begin, it is necessary to issue a caveat. The illustrative paper employs Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1991) intersectional framework as its analytic tool. However, my article should not be taken as an argument against this theory: I have no objection to intersectionality in principle—Crenshaw’s framework provides a useful perspective on the complex phenomenon of different cultural experiences. But it is an entirely different matter when a theory is deployed as a means to enforce compliance with a doctrine. Therefore, my objections are concerned with the move to instantiate one particular perspective as the ideological ground of the diversity teaching curriculum. These objections are compounded by the sleight-of-hand strategies that are used to insert this ideology into training programmes.
One way of gaining more insight into how the diversity module is providing the main entry point for CSJT into training programmes is by examining the academic literature. Papers published in peer-reviewed journals are particularly illuminating in this regard because, quite often, these operate as testbeds for developments in theory and methodological innovations which then start to seed the field. In this article I will be discussing a paper titled White practitioners in therapeutic ally-ance: An Intersectional Privilege Awareness Training Model (Case, 2015) (unorthodox spelling is used in the original title). I chose this paper for three reasons. First, it is by a well-established writer who specialises in intersectionality and pedagogy (see her edited book titled Deconstructing Privilege: Teaching and Learning as Allies in the Classroom). Second, as it was published a few years ago, it is likely that some training institutions have already adopted the proposed pedagogic framework. Finally, and most importantly, the paper not only gives a clear account of how CSJT-centred diversity teaching is likely to be delivered, it also shows how postmodern language games are used for the purposes of destabilising the established discourse in counselling and psychotherapy.
To start, it is necessary to summarise the contents of this academic peer-viewed paper. It begins with a literature review which highlights the evidence for the importance for white students developing awareness of the complexity inherent in multi-cultural counselling and the need for developing competences in working with diverse clients. The introductory section arrives at a noncontentious conclusion, stating that, ‘The lack of multicultural competencies to address client needs harms the therapeutic relationship by failing to provide a safe space, often resulting in distrust from the client’s perspective (refs)’ (p 265).
However, at the start of the following section, it becomes clear (as would be assumed by the title of the paper) that the literature review is harnessed to a particular approach to achieving social justice, that is CSJT. This move is evident when the author states, ‘As White trainees increase their awareness of white privilege, they can begin to work toward effective therapeutic ally-ances, taking action to dismantle racism and privilege for social justice (refs) (p 266) (italic font and capitalisation are in original). This slippage from a traditional understanding of social justice into a CSJT-centred approach has been an effective sleight-of-hand strategy which has blind-sided the talking therapies field (see Thomas [2020a]). A common tactic is to hijack the consensus view that supports social justice and then harness it to political activist ends.
The paper then provides an explanation of intersectionality making the case for its value in helping white students overcome their resistance to learning about racism and privilege. This resistance can take the form of avoiding ‘…readings, class discussions and self-reflection on white privilege, preferring to focus on their own status outside the privileged group, …’ (p 268). It is argued that an intersectional framework will help to overcome resistance to the concept of white privilege by helping white students explore other types of privileged identities such as being male, heterosexual, etc.
The pedagogic model is then explained. It is made explicit that this is an incremental process of turning resistant students into enthusiastic activists advocating in public for concepts such as invisible white privilege. As this pedagogic framework may well have been taken up in counselling training by now, it is worth spelling out what these stages look like. There are four steps as described below (italic font is used to indicate the verbatim titles of each pedagogic strategy).
- Groupwork analyses of counselling privilege case studies. Designed to introduce notions such as ’invisible privilege’.
- The intersectional photo-voice project. Students use photos to present and reflect on their own array of privileged and marginalised identities.
- Student personal reflection on white privilege. Students are asked to analyse how invisible white privilege results in real benefits.
- Intersecting identities practitioner education project. Students are required to move into social activism by developing and delivering products that promote intersectionality to the professional field/wider society.
A full examination of the implications of this proposal for counselling and psychotherapy training is beyond the scope of a short article. I am therefore going to limit my discussion of this paper to two salient issues. The first is how to decode the language being used and the second is how this CSJT-centred pedagogic approach contravenes the ethos of professional therapy training.
I will focus on the central conceit of the ‘therapeutic ally-ance’ that shows up in the title and is woven through the paper. To anyone versed in post-modern language usage, this phrase is not just an example of rather poorly executed wordplay instead it is a red flag that needs to be taken seriously. Remember that CSJT is informed by the postmodern notion that language generates social reality and therefore how we talk about a subject determines what we can know about it (narratives/discourses). Language is used to blur boundaries and disrupt and destabilise established categories especially if they are expressions of the dominant group or hegemony (see Lindsay and Pluckrose’s illuminating discussion ). The term ‘therapeutic ally-ance’ is a give-away because it flags up that a deconstructive move is taking place through ironic playfulness of language.
Let us consider for a moment what is going on here. The therapeutic alliance about which the author is being ‘playfully ironic’ is the ground of therapy. The therapeutic relationship (the term ‘alliance’ refers to the most basic generic version of this relationship between therapist and client) has been established as one of the main, if not the main, factor implicated in positive outcomes in counselling and psychotherapy (see Cooper’s summary of the research ) —it took decades of research combined with accumulated clinical observations to be able to arrive at the unequivocal conclusion about its importance in therapy (a remarkably complex process which is very difficult to analyse). This is very important for many reasons, one being that the therapeutic relationship is now recognised by the talking therapies as providing a locus of cohesion for the many diverse modalities. An attempt to destabilise this category represents an attack on the foundations of the professions of counselling and psychotherapy. In one ‘playful’ little word game, the author, in a sleight-of-hand move, is referencing a fundamental tenet and flipping it into a completely different CSJT-centred idea of oppression-based inter-relationship. In this case, the therapist from an oppressor/privileged group is now in a transactional relationship as ‘ally’ to a client of an oppressed/marginalised group. This move is completely disingenuous and is an attempt to bypass an intractable difficulty—CSJT’s hermeneutics of oppression make it antithetical to the therapeutic relationship as understood in mainstream approaches and across the range of therapeutic modalities (Thomas, 2020b).
The paper then unwittingly illustrates how the actual implementation of the pedagogic framework will also work to cover over this fundamental incompatibility of CSJT with counselling training. To start with, the limitations of intersectional theory as a grand explanatory theory of interpersonal relational processes become immediately apparent in the failure by the paper’s author to address the elephant in the training room—the unequal power between tutors and students. I would contend that the matrix of power relations implicit in intersectional theory is not going to be the focus for the students. Instead they would be much more alert to their tutors’ invisible privilege based on their role rather than any immutable characteristics or identity markers. In this micro social environment, it is the tutor who can pass or fail the student and determine whether they qualify as a professional therapist: in comparison, all other power relations are far less significant.
The reason that some types of interpersonal power dynamics are ignored is because intersectional theory is informed by a postmodern social constructivist perspective that privileges group identity over the individual. The unequal power dynamics operating in the trainer/student relationship are not open for discussion and, this silencing lays the ground for an indoctrination project. The goal of the entire pedagogical strategy is to turn trainee counsellors into social justice activists whether they agree or not. There is no respect for either trainee autonomy or relational processes. I am not inferring that the author’s intentions were to lay the ground for subtly coercive and controlling trainer/student relationships it is just that an authoritarian political ideology such as CSJT will automatically lend itself to such conditions.
To contextualise this argument, it is helpful to step back and consider the aims of counselling and psychotherapy training. The goal is to produce competent practitioners who can, among other things: develop effective therapeutic alliances and make productive use of the therapeutic relationship to facilitate therapeutic processes; treat people with sensitivity, empathy and respect; help their clients express themselves authentically and, of particular relevance to this argument, do not impose their own values onto their clients. It would be expected that the trainers delivering the professional training programme would model these expectations in the way they treated the trainees. The CSJT-centred pedagogic approach and strategies described in this paper contravene all of these requirements. In other words, the students are going to be treated in a way that is the exact opposite to how they are being taught to treat clients. To sum up, this CSJT-centred pedagogic practice models an authoritarian relationship which is in complete contradiction to the ethos of mainstream counselling training.
It is difficult to predict anything other than negative consequences if a CSJT-centred diversity module is incorporated into a counselling training programme. The most likely result will be confused, demoralised, resentful trainees. Not all, admittedly, as some of them will be on board with the ideology—it is deeply entrenched in education systems now. We can also predict that some trainees will refuse to go along with a process of indoctrination, and they will bail out of the training programme. But the rest will find ways to accommodate it by demonstrating an outward compliance. One particularly difficult challenge for them will be how to make sense of a split between one part of the programme promoting the relational and healing ethos of therapy and a diversity module which requires self-censoring and inauthentic relating. Students will know that there is something amiss with their professional training but will not have any means of addressing it. If they do try to raise these issues, they will be either be shut down or pathologized. Not to put too fine a point on it, the students are being subjected to gaslighting.
What can be done? At this critical point, we cannot expect any support from our professional bodies—they have been taken over by CSJT ideologues (see the most recent statement by the American Psychological Association that characterises America as a white supremacist country and commits the organisation to dismantling systemic oppression). The therapy establishment will promote this current orthodoxy. It will be down to individuals, be they practitioners, students, or educators, to start to challenge the status quo and push back against the encroachments of CSJT into the training programme. Educators, for example, should ensure that the teaching on the diversity module stays true to the training ethos. They can commit to viewpoint diversity by encouraging engagement with postmodern frameworks such as intersectionality but preventing it from becoming the default ideology. If students discover that the diversity module is enforcing ideological commitments which do not allow for principled opposition then they could try the following:
- Reflect out loud in the training forum on the difference between the teaching approach on the diversity module and the rest of the programme.
- Ask for clarification about the type of social justice approach that is being taught.
- Ask for clarification about the training ethos that informs the whole programme and note any discrepancies.
- Volunteer for any role such as student course representative where feedback regarding the imposition of an ideology will be formally recorded.
- Consider if there is a case for misrepresentation of services and seek legal redress.
When people start to speak up in whatever role they have related to counselling training, it will embolden others. One of the biggest difficulties up until now in addressing the issue of CSJT in therapies is that the field has been silent. Each person who tells the truth about their thoughts and experience adds to the critical mass required to protect the integrity of counselling and psychotherapy training and preserve it for future generations.
To conclude, the best contribution we can make to the future of therapy is to strip CSJT out from professional training programmes. It is an authoritarian ideology, anti-therapeutic both in intent and in application, and, consequently, has no place in mainstream counselling and psychotherapy. Only when this is achieved can we, as a community of practitioners and educators, be able to reclaim our heritage as members of professions that once challenged repressive orthodoxies and advocated for free speech, authentic relationship and truthful self-expression.
American Psychological Association (2020). APA Calls for True Systemic Change in American Culture. Accessed on 5/9/2020 from: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/09/systemic-change#
Case, K. (ed.) (2013). Deconstructing Privilege: Teaching and Learning as Allies in the Classroom. New York, NY: Routledge.
Case, K. (2015). ‘White practitioners in therapeutic ally-ance: An Intersectional Privilege Awareness Training Model ‘, Women & Therapy, 38:263-278.
Cooper, M. (2008). Essential Research Findings in Counselling and Psychotherapy: the facts are friendly. Lutterworth: BACP
Crenshaw, K. (1991). ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Colour.’ Stanford Law Review, 43(6).
Pluckrose, H. and Lindsay, J. (2020). Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholars Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity —and Why This Harms Everybody. Durham, NC: Pitchstone
Dr Val Thomas is a psychotherapist, writer and formerly a counsellor educator. Her specialism is applications of mental imagery. She is the author of two Routledge publications: Using Mental Imagery in Counselling and Psychotherapy (2015)andUsing Mental Imagery to Enhance Creative and Work-Related Processes (2019). Her website is http://www.valeriethomas.uk