Call me J. I am a first semester student of clinical mental health counseling at the graduate level, and I’m very worried about my chosen field. I would like to take this opportunity to share my experiences as a student regarding the encroachment of Critical Social Justice Theory into the counseling profession. In this piece I will be writing on a more personal level, letting you get to know who I am and why I’m here, as well as what I’ve experienced in the academy and what I’m personally doing about it. In a future article, I will more formally explore how the philosophy of Critical Theory/Critical Social Justice is incompatible with the counseling ethos, the dangers ideology as such presents, and what we might do about it.
I am normally a very private person, but today I’m going to share some relevant background on myself. My life has been full of challenges. I am an adult child of a narcissistic parent. Counselors who have worked with clients like myself or laypeople whom have become entangled with narcissists will understand the implications of this statement: I am a survivor. My survival was ultimately the result of becoming homeless, yet another challenge I have faced. After severing the trauma bonds that had kept me trapped under the influence of my narcissist, I was free to make my way in the world and become my own person. I had a lot of deficits I needed to address. Some I have made up for. Others I simply must accept and work around. It has taken me over a decade but now, in my mid thirties, I’m in graduate school.
The troubles I have faced in my life are cross-cultural. They shatter the boundaries between demographic categories and group identity. People of all colors and walks of life experience childhood trauma, abuse, and poverty. If you, specifically, have not experienced these things, it’s very likely that you know someone who has. It is also very likely that you have suffered some soul shattering tragedy, or will soon. Everyone must contend with the human condition; finitude, the ultimate isolation of the self, meaning, and death.
These are the sorts of important issues that we might explore with a client. The human capacity for suffering seems to be limitless, and as clinicians, it is our job to try and help people to alleviate this suffering. One could say that, as counselors, our primary objective is the alleviation of unnecessary human suffering, and the reduction of that suffering which cannot be avoided, because it comes “built in” with existence. Therapists do this through talk and education, empathy, and positive regard for our clients. Critical Theory undermines that entire process, and I will explain more about that in the second segment of this piece.
My story is not a sad one. It is one of success and triumph. I am not a victim. I’m just like every other human being: factory loaded with a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. Suffering is the fate of all humans, and therefore I am by no means a unique, special flower. While I still deal with a lot of issues, educating myself on these issues and the effects that narcissists have on children has been invaluable to me. Of biggest help was counseling, not in the traditional sense, but via a parasocial relationship with a particular practicing clinician.
My interest in psychology was sparked in 2016 when I encountered Jordan Peterson. In the decade leading up to discovering Dr. Peterson, I was slowly drifting from the moderate left to the far right. I was still wallowing in self-pity and resentment, and politics gave me the perfect outlet and avenue for blaming others. In the face of a vocal anti-male feminism which is becoming more mainstream, and noticing the increasingly anti-white, anti-Christian, and anti-heterosexual rhetoric in popular discourse, I was becoming increasingly radicalized.
I was one of those men. I was playing the identity politics game, and I knew which team I was on. So one can imagine that my initial interest in Dr. Peterson was political in nature. And while this is completely true, I became one of the millions who “came for the politics; stayed for the psychology”. Over time, my politics have become more nuanced and moderate, and I’m thankful for that.
I learned a lot from listening to Dr. Peterson and reading some of the books he recommended. The material had a profound and positive impact on my life. I became so passionate and fascinated by psychology that I decided to make a career out of it. I wanted to share this with other people, and help others the way I had been helped. By spring 2017, just a few months later, I was already taking classes at community college in preparation for university.
A lot of my friends were concerned for me, stating that I was entering “the belly of the beast” and lining myself up for “the leftist indoctrination mill”. I was also derided for my decision on more conservative forums. “Just go to trade school” was a common refrain. I understood these reactions, and there were good reasons for them. These viewpoints would be vindicated by events that would unfold over the following year: during my first semester back in school the situation at Evergreen State College took place. I paid careful attention to what was happening, and it was very disconcerting. In November 2017 Lindsey Shepherd also got “canceled”. There were dozens of other incidents I could list during that year, but at this point we all know the score.
Despite this, my undergraduate experience was one of the best times of my life. I was on a heroic journey to make the world a better place – one wounded individual at a time. For the first time I saw the world, not as a place of danger, abuse, and failure, but as a place of opportunities and possibilities. As an undergraduate student, I participated as a research subject, volunteered with an organization working with children at risk for abuse, took research and clinical practicums, and assisted a professor in conducting his own research into ADHD screening. I was accepted into Psi Chi, and my professors did nothing but provide constructive feedback and encourage me. I saw them all as mentors. I came to understand what “Alma mater” really means.
For a long time I thought I was safe from the social justice agenda, that Dr. Peterson was making a mountain out of a molehill, and that while this was definitely happening, it was limited to only a few, geographically distant institutions. As an undergraduate, I only encountered a few instances of the agenda, mostly in the form of disparaging comments about “white people”. It was very easy to push back against this—simply voicing my disapproval was enough. Saying “I find that comment discriminatory and objectionable” was sufficient to stop a professor in their tracks. While my student email account was constantly bombarded with emails inviting me to what I can only describe as “social justice events” (a BLM talk, a talk on “diversity”, a talk on “deconstructing white privilege”), these events were voluntary. So I just opted out. Only those crazy SJWs were going to go anywhere, and there’s hardly any of them here. I thought to myself— maybe it really is all a conservative conspiracy theory?
This all changed once I reached the graduate level, and “social justice” was no longer something I could opt out of. I remember it started right away, with my initial interviews. I interviewed at several universities, and at each university I was asked the same set of questions. The majority were “social justice” questions in reference to making counseling more “affirming” to LGBTQ+, how to use a counseling license to advocate for “marginalized identities”, and which “marginalized population” the interviewee intended to work with post-graduation.
At the risk of sounding paranoid, I believe these questions were intended to screen for people who were either already on board the social justice agenda, or were primed to accept the social justice ideology and not make too much fuss over it. My reasoning is that I gave very moderate answers based on a philosophy of individualism. I was invited to interview at every school I applied to—based on how I appeared on paper. I was then rejected from all the schools I applied to—following the interview. (Except for one that wait-listed me. Luckily, a spot opened.)
Correlation is not causation, but my gut instinct is telling me that I am looking in the right direction in regards to the counselor education programs in my state screening for ideological compliance. My supposition is evidenced by my experience of other students in the program juxtaposed with how competitive these programs are (up to 10 applicants for each seat). Based on interactions during class and reading student papers, I believe that ideological compliance was the primary, overriding criterion for which students were selected and not aptitude or merit.
My cohort started our first semester with Theories, Ethics, and Social & Cultural Diversity classes. I like these classes, for the most part. There is a lot of good information and food for thought. However, during lectures and readings for the S&CD class, the strong influence of Critical Theory is undeniable. We are taught about “decolonization”, “institutional ‘violence’ against BIPOC”, “models of racial identity development”, about “privilege” and “systems of oppression” and how all of these things “harm” clients. We are also fed anti-America and anti-democracy rhetoric.
We even had an entire lecture about how Thanksgiving is a racist holiday that celebrates the genocide of American Indians (and how I’m racist for saying “American Indian”), and how Christopher Columbus was a mean white man who didn’t discover America after all. He discovered the Caribbean islands! He never even set foot in America! (I could be wrong but I seem to remember learning in geography class that these islands are, in fact, part of the North American continent…).
I believe I was carefully prepared and called to counseling by something higher than myself. And so, I have begun to take my stand, as I am being called to do. I have openly declared my skepticism of CSJT, calling it out by name, and framing it as “one theoretical perspective among many” that “may have unique and important insights to offer, but needs to undergo the same test of defeasibility and scientific validation as any other theory”. I have openly opposed “group identity” as a valid therapeutic level of analysis, citing concerns that “validating people’s perception that the entire world is racist against them may in fact constitute positive harm to the client.”
So far I’ve come away unscathed. I suspect it is only because I am lucky enough to have a professor who still has some integrity left.
Ultimately, however, debate and framing will only go so far. The marriage of postmodernism and Critical Theory has created a discourse based on the hermeneutics of power, with no need for internal validity and no use for cognitive dissonance. Because they only see the world through the lens of power, they will use power, institutional and otherwise, to push their agenda.
As detractors, I feel we must also use power to push against this— but power of the best sort. The power of simply saying “No. That doesn’t seem right to me. I disagree.” We need to use the power of truthful speech, authentic being, and cogent, persuasive arguments. And we must use the power of empathy and understanding: most of the people caught up in CSJT are not bad people. In fact, most of them have been co-opted precisely because they are empathetic, well-meaning people who want to do good.
I understand that dissent is risky. As a student in debt I have no protections and much at stake. When dissenting or questioning the doctrine of Critical Theory, or the role of counselors as “social activists”, my professors have more than once brought the discussion back to the ACA Code of Ethics, and how compliance is mandatory. I am not always sure if they are simply looking out for me, outright threatening me, or just laying the groundwork for my later dismissal from the program “over ethical concerns”.
But as counselors, there is an ethical concern at play here. We have adopted a serious responsibility to safeguard the wellbeing of our clients. Critical Theory’s infiltration into the counseling profession puts our clients at risk. I am a student. And I’m in the fight. I hope others join me.
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Before concluding this essay, I want to show everyone where we’re at right now. I recently attended an online panel where prominent members of the American counseling profession—such as Gerald Corey—gathered to discuss self-care and social justice in counseling. Here is a comment made by one of the panelists. This statement went completely unchallenged. Nobody even flinched. In case you missed it, Dr. Singh—who identifies as a person of color— said the following: “Racism is a white people’s problem”. She seems to completely lack a sense of irony, and she is a licensed counselor. When you seek counseling, how do you feel knowing that the person supposedly providing you with empathy and care sees you as an oppressor? Or as a victim? How is this healthy and productive for anyone?