How safe a space is therapy in the age of wokeness?

                                                                  Colin Feltham

Perhaps I should begin by saying that I assume this forum is safe but not necessarily completely safe, since I don’t know you, nor you me. Trust and risk are ultimately inseparable.

Therapy is often seen as a safe, protected space or oasis in a society that may be experienced as alienating or threatening. I am not talking here about physical safety. I want to raise a few points about how safe clients are in therapy to express anything they wish to; what the barriers to feeling and being safe are; when safety has to give way to challenge and confrontation; and how safe, resilient or upset therapists may be at times.

Let’s note that those woke students who have demanded a safe space in universities – free from controversial speakers, lecturers who fail to toe the line, microaggressions, etc. – are not in the same position as individual therapy clients. These students are political activists who are denying space in public institutions to their perceived political opponents.   

We are aware that the main exceptions to confidentiality are when clients might discuss terrorist plans; paedophilic or other harmful criminal actions or intentions; serious suicidal ideation; and perhaps other criminal or anomalous cases. In certain settings where, for example, corporations provide counselling, there are sometimes further exceptions regarding theft, fraud, and so on. These are probably quite rare. Clients should be told about all exceptions at the outset. Perhaps further legal clarity is required on what may or may not remain confidential. Any therapist who has specific ideological or ‘woke’ boundaries should alert the client to them, e.g. ‘I will not tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia’.

Clients may be unsafe or feel unsafe if their therapist comes to be out of their depth. Clients may intuit this and assertively raise it, or they may not. Therapists may identify these moments or they may not. Sometimes therapists may be unprofessional or abusive, rendering the client unsafe.  

Potentially harmful mismatches between clients and therapists can involve many different scenarios involving gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, class, appearance, and perceived status or power. The permutations are many. A small woman who has been abused may feel unsafe with a male therapist who is large and strong, say. She may be able to request an alternative therapist, or not. She may work through her unease and benefit, or not.

Clients who are refugees may be wary of disclosing details about themselves because they are guarding against painful PTSD being triggered and/or they are unsure exactly how safe and confidential the setting is.

Many years ago, I was in a therapy where clients were encouraged to say what we really felt, as strongly as we felt it, whether it was positive or negative, and even if it was a direct confrontation to the therapist. Therapists would even invite this, with provocative ‘what’s going on right now?’ questions. This was usually seen as a way of accessing deep feelings with long roots in family life. It could include the most hateful, erotic or other unsettling statements. Risk was a key element. It seems likely that today, many therapists are wary of such challenges and avoid them.   

CSJ and the atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia

Some of us have lived through major cultural changes in the past few decades, certainly from the 1960s and intensifying recently, with the change to an increasingly multicultural society, hypersensitivity around racism and demands for radical reforms. Feminism has raised similar sensitivity around gender, and the LGBT community around homophobia and transphobia. A degree of uncertainty about ‘what can I say?’ sometimes amounts to a kind of paranoia: if I say something ‘politically incorrect’, will I be ostracised by colleagues and lose my job? Such cases of cancellation culture are more obvious in academia, politics, sport and celebrity circles than, as yet, in therapy. But the ‘creep of hate speech laws’ must worry us all (Bowcott, 2021; Tylecote, 2021) 

From the 1980s I sometimes had to attend anti-discriminatory workshops as part of a job. I more or less uncritically adopted the beliefs I was taught, for example saying woman instead of girl or lady, black person instead of coloured person. I learned to write ‘she or he’ instead of ‘he’. I dropped the slang terms I had grown up with. It wasn’t safe to use the wrong language or to express the wrong views and I learned the game of political correctness. I even wrote some loosely political material using the term ‘critical‘, although I have always applied it to critique from every perspective, not having understood that anything ‘critical’ apparently belonged to neo-Marxist authors (Feltham, 2015).

But in 2016 this intensified with Brexit. I was at a meeting at a psychotherapy institute when a visiting academic started sounding off about the referendum result in the most vilifying terms. Since I had voted for Brexit, I kept my mouth shut after that. But I had an exchange with a leading therapy academic around 2017; it turned out she had voted to remain, was offering free counselling to other remainers who were ‘devastated’, and she called me ‘extreme far right’ for voting Brexit – someone, a bigot, on a par with a Nazi for voting the ‘wrong way’ in a legitimate national referendum. After that I felt very unsafe among colleagues.   

The turning point coincided with my team and I being made redundant from my university in 2010. I wrote an article about links between therapy and politics and sent it to some friends for their views. I was blanked. I can’t know how much work I was not offered since then, but I realised that I had to be cautious who I was honest with. I began to notice how many academics were cancelled for politically incorrect views about immigration, multiculturalism, feminism and LGBT issues. Therapy textbooks had started incorporating obligatory, inclusive sections on race, gender, sexuality and disability.

I started to notice that mainstream bookshops held many radical leftist books and almost no conservative titles. Many publishers wouldn’t go near anything even slightly right of centre. An American friend told me his psychology tutor would allow no dissent in class, and he himself was becoming depressed with academia. I had a co-authored book contract cancelled and resorted to using a pseudonym. Close friends humoured me as turning conservative with age. Yet I say nothing crass or illegal; I simply have different views. I have stopped reading only The Guardian and read a variety of news sources. Indeed, I read at least two sides of every major news story or contentious issue.  

Were I employed by a university today, or by a health organization, I would have to conceal many of my views. Were I in private practice, I would be inclined to conceal many of my views, for example on websites, and not only in sessions, because disclosing the ‘wrong views’ would (mostly) be bad for business. I imagine that many practitioners withhold their views, perhaps justifying this as maintaining their ‘blank screen’ for therapeutic purposes.

A New York psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Aruna Khilanani, of Pakistani origins, shows no such circumspection. In a talk at Yale University in April 2021– ‘The Psychopathic Problem of the White Mind’ – she called white people ‘demented’ and said she fantasised about shooting them in the head (Crane, 2021). Khilanani has a background in critical race theory and postcolonial studies as well as medicine, psychiatry and psychoanalysis. Itis claimed that Khilanani ‘recalled a white therapist telling her in psychoanalysis that she was “psychotic” whenever she expressed anger at racism, and said she had spent “years unpacking her racism to her,” even though she was the one being charged for the sessions’ (Levenson, 2021). If true, Khilanani should certainly make a formal complaint against this psychoanalyst but it does not absolve her from responsibility.

Any concerns among whites about Khilanani’s pronouncements are, presumably, mere white fragility. Yale, meanwhile, claims to ‘ensure balance, independence, objectivity and scientific rigor in all its educational programs’. But Khilanani’s speech is not as new as many believe. The (then) psychoanalyst Joel Kovel wrote about ‘white racism’ in the 1980s (Kovel, 1988); and of course, Frantz Fanon was writing in the 1950s about very similar ideas (Fanon, 1952/2021). Consider too, a very recent article against whiteness in an American psychoanalytic journal, which describes whiteness as a ‘malignant, parasitic-like condition’ (Moss, 2021). I don’t think we should outright reject whiteness-critical views, but they themselves must always be open to critique too.   

In the UK, BACP publishes antiracist material. An example is Anthea Benjamin’s (2020) plea for white therapists to understand and change following George Floyd’s murder. Her piece is utterly sincere and no-one can deny her painful ‘lived experience’. One would fully respect this if she was a client. But Benjamin shows no awareness that many others, black as well as white, do not share her interpretation of events. However, it is almost impossible for any of us to disagree with the concept of white privilege without sounding racist. So we are forced to remain inauthentically silent, even if ‘silence is violence’. Meanwhile, BACP’s status as a charity, bound to remain apolitical, sometimes walks a fine line.          

One of very few exceptions to therapists keeping their heads down is Marcus Evans, who worked at the Tavistock Clinic for many years. He resigned after witnessing events at the Gender Identity Clinic and its growing uncritical acceptance of claims to gender dysphoria by young people seeking gender conversion, when his clinical experience told him that gender dysphoria often resulted from a defensive reaction to psychotic turmoil (Evans, 2020). Evans was able to resign because he had already retired as a therapist and had become a governor.   

Clients and students     

I haven’t seen clients recently but I teach occasionally, and sometimes lead self-awareness groups. In these contexts, I am restrained but I have at times explored spiritual and political views, and I always find, in every student group, that those who are prepared to admit to any degree of right-of-centre views are in a tiny minority. Trainees and therapists are overwhelmingly leftist, and usually identify with social justice or woke attitudes. Yet the likelihood is that half their clients are right-wing, voted for Brexit, or have some reservations about multiculturalism, BLM, gay marriage and transgenderism, radical feminism, diversity, inclusion and equity.   

It’s quite possible that some clients rarely if ever mention politics, or other controversial topics outside of their personal therapeutic concerns. They may conceal such views, like many of us. They may intuit that the therapist belongs to the woke class, and self-censor. Or they may very occasionally ‘slip up’ in a throwaway remark, and reveal something ‘bigoted’. Only a very few may make no effort to conceal their unfashionable, unacceptable views, and I suspect that these people would rarely seek therapy anyway. For those clients who feel uneasy around people who are very different from them, there must sometimes be a dilemma regarding the therapeutic relationship (Winter, 2021).

Therapists have a choice. They may listen non-judgmentally to the client who is ‘not woke’, take it that this is the normal way the client expresses their views, and say nothing about it. When it impinges acutely on the therapist, they may decide to challenge it, interpret it psychodynamically (Smith, undated), or even terminate therapy. But astute clients will pick it up when the therapist uses ’PC’ language that is different from theirs. Clients may detect a change in therapists’ responses when, for example, they deviate from a non-directive, accurate empathic refection of the client’s frame of reference and instead use their own preferred terms.     

Sometimes, both client and therapist may be playing the game of speaking correct language. Sometimes, both may be fully committed to woke ideology. 

It is possible but less likely that the client will be more woke than the therapist. In such a case, it may not matter (if therapeutic needs eclipse CSJ values), or the client may drop out, or confront the therapist.  

Sometimes the client’s concerns may directly relate to ‘woke material’. Examples could include inter-ethnic neighbour disputes; facing disciplinary action at work due to insensitive language; gender dysphoria; a homophobic attack; being ostracised at work due to Brexit or anti-Brexit sympathies; receiving death threats due to views deemed bigoted, etc.     

Supervisees, particularly those still in training, might be naturally anxious about what they say to supervisors; and I know, via the grapevine, of at least one experienced supervisor who suspects that supervisees often self-censor out of fears for their professional safety. 

I am aware of self-censoring in many contexts and I assume others do this too. I am not aware of any instances where therapists or clients have been in overt conflict, complaints procedures or legal cases in connection with CSJ issues.   

I know that I am much safer in unguardedly expressing my political views in my white, working-class family of origin than among middle-class professional colleagues.

Conclusions

CSJ is now in almost every corner of our lives. Anxiously watching how we behave and what we say is stressful (Blanton, 1996). Arguably, it is least stressful for those whose identity is intersectional, for example the disabled, militant black lesbian with full licence to express anger (Carruthers, 2018). Even so, many suffer from what I call contrasectionality. We cannot relax in the assumption that things are a clear-cut PC vs non-PC. Trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) are vilified by many transwomen, some gays do not believe gays are ‘born that way’ and some reject gay marriage. Conservative black commentators condemn BLM; but the BBC tends to present a pro-BLM narrative. Andy Ngo, the gay, Vietnamese American journalist, has been threatened by Antifa for reporting on them. Douglas Murray (2020), the gay political commentator, has pointed out the ‘madness of crowds’ we are living through. Perhaps no-one is safe!

In what is often called the culture wars, there is a broadly left-right division. As an example, the young Labour MP Nadia Whittome has been in the news for taking time off for mental health issues, reportedly PTSD. Whittome is of Indian heritage, she is a vegan, she was previously a hate crime project worker and care worker, and she identifies as queer. She has been lauded for honesty about her mental health but some have questioned this. Mental health itself and its causes have become part of the culture wars and therapists are intimately involved in this. Harry and Meghan have both publicly declared their mental health issues, Harry discussing EMDR and Meghan advocating ancestral healing. Race, anti-monarchy politics and mental health are all intertwined here.

Jordan Peterson, the white, conservative Canadian clinical psychologist and academic, experienced severe withdrawal symptoms from anti-anxiety medication and underwent rehab treatment, but was not spared vilification by his leftist critics (Mishra, 2018). Commentators like the sociologist Frank Furedi believe Westerners have become ‘soft’, all too ready to flaunt vulnerability, and unwilling to face the hard truths of life. In the world of counselling and psychotherapy we have to decide where we lean theoretically and therapeutically. 

Psychology, counseling and psychotherapy attract a majority of white female students and practitioners (Diamond, 2012), and yet the theoretical base remains dominated by white males. Inevitably, this will become a focus for CSJ advocates who will insist on decolonizing the curriculum and boosting inclusivity in order to ‘reflect the community’ and ‘bring the field into the 21st century’. Inputs on multicultural counselling have not proved sufficient. Critical whiteness studies may become a module all therapists are obliged to engage in (Clausen, 2020). If not even physics has been spared a CSJ make-over (Krauss, 2021), psychology and psychotherapy will certainly not be spared. Will feminism protect women as psychotherapists, or will black males be boosted within the profession? Who will be safe?     

Occasionally it looks as if there is concerted pushback against CSJ from government, free speech lobbyists, outspoken journalists or brave lone souls. But overall, the decades-long march through the institutions is at tsunami proportions compared with those fighting back. Some churches are reeling from LGBT attacks, as are schools and universities. Therapy, like the confessional, is one space that should be sacrosanct. If the therapist isn’t someone who is able to transcend political, religious and other polarities and preoccupations, who is? Yet pressure and propaganda are being applied to LGBT and other fads.

A leading person-centred/pluralistic psychotherapist, Mick Cooper, has stated that therapists should not force politics on clients but should talk to each about politics. The kind of politics in question should be progressive, and therapists should be encouraged to vote against Tories (Cooper, 2019). ‘As counsellors and psychotherapists, we need to … work with other progressive forces to create a society that is fairer, safer, and better for all’ says Cooper. To put this differently, however, it is not really safe for therapists to be either apolitical or right-wing among colleagues. It is also highly unlikely that therapists who are actively engaged in leftist-progressive politics will actually be able or willing to conceal this from clients.

CSJ-loaded therapists may claim to believe in free speech and in optimal safety for clients but almost inevitably they practise double standards. They may allow themselves to make anti-white, misandrous, anti-heterosexual, statements (Moss, 2019; 2021) but are aghast and punitive – or conveniently hyper-analytical – if anyone speaks from an alternative point of view. Presumably therapists who publish their political views realise by now that their clients or potential clients read this stuff. Meanwhile, some research on these issues is now appearing which is duly tentative (Winter, 2021).

Therapists as group facilitators should be able to encourage fruitful dialogue, the exploration of viewpoint diversity and conflict resolution. Should we not all acknowledge the inevitability of many conflicting views and the necessary freedom to express them, except in very rare cases such as Holocaust denial, and perhaps not even then (Slater, 2021)? Aren’t therapists equipped to probe the ways in which strong emotions underpin ideological views and resist openness to others’ views? To what extent do we subscribe to the importance of authenticity and spontaneity rather than politically correct attitudes? The philosopher Hrishikesh Joshi (2021) even commends ‘speaking your mind’ as a duty. Like most families, the tribes of therapists probably have their embarrassing, suppressed difficult feelings that may or may not be aired, but sometimes confrontations and eruptions are necessary preludes to healing.  

References

Benjamin, A. (2020) Woke: emerging from the dream. https://www.bacp.co.uk/bacp-journals/private-practice/september-2020/woke-emerging-from-the-dream/

Blanton, B. (1996) Radical Honesty. New York: Delta.

Bowcott, O. (2020) UK lawyers uneasy about plan to prosecute hate speech at home. The Guardian, 4 November. 

Carruthers, C. A. (2018) Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements. Boston, MA: Beacon. 

Clausen, M. M. (2020) Whiteness matters: exploring white privilege, color blindness and racism in psychotherapy. https://www.psychotherapy.net/article/racism-white-privilege-psychotherapy

Crane, E. (2021) ‘They make my blood boil’: NYC psychiatrist tells woke Yale University panel she fantasises about shooting white people. Mail Online, 4 June.

Diamond, S. A. (2012) End of men: the ‘feminization’ of psychotherapy. Psychology Today, 5 October.

Evans, M. (2020) Why I resigned from Tavistock: trans-identified children need therapy, not just ‘affirmation’ and drugs. Quillette, 17 January.  

Fanon, F. (1952/2021) Black Skin, White Masks. London: Penguin.

Feltham, C. (2021) Is psychotherapy a safe space for political dissidents? CTA, 11 May.

Feltham. C. (2015) Critical priorities for the psychotherapy and counselling community. In D. Loewenthal (ed) Critical Psychotherapy, Psychoanalysis and Counselling: Implications for Practice. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Joshi, H. (2021) Why It’s OK to Speak Your Mind. New York: Routledge.

Kovel, J. (1988) White Racism: A Psychohistory. London: Free Association Books.

Krauss, L. (2021) In defense of the universal values of science. Quillette, 2 June.

Levenson, M. (2021) A psychiatrist invited to Yale spoke of fantasies of shooting white people. The New York Times, 6 June.

Mishra, P. (2018) Jordan Peterson and fascist mysticism. The New York Review, 19 March.

Moss, D. (2021) On having whiteness. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, https://doi.org/10.1177/00030651211008507

Moss, D. (2019) Free speech, love speech, hate speech, and neutrality: in and out of the consulting room. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 67 (2), 313-327.

Murray, D. (2020) The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity. London: Bloomsbury.   

Slater, T. (2021) Why even Holocaust denial should not be censored. Spiked, 14 May.

Smith, K. L. (undated) When your client is racist; in three not so easy steps. https://www.fullliving.com/blog/when-your-client-is-racist-in-3-not-so-easy-steps

Tylecote, R. (2021) The totalitarian creep of hate speech laws. Spiked, 1 February.   

Winter, L. A. (2021) Swimming against the tide: Therapists’ accounts of the relationship between P/politics and therapy. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research,  https://doi.org/10.1002/capr.12401

2 thoughts

  1. I think this is an excellent summary account of the very fearful time that society is going through. I am reading an account of the Enlightenment that took place 500 years ago and thinking people then were faced with the same ostracism, plus torture and brutal forms of execution. Now the favoured method of ‘execution’ is the ‘cancel culture’ that also takes people’s lives away.

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  2. Australia’s latest contribution to the discussions on CRT et al is a broad canvass of ideas in the book titled “Cancel Culture And The Left’s Long march” There is a variety of authors commenting on fields – school education, universities, language and literature, history, law and religion, democracy, and others. It does not have however commentary on therapy and counselling. Maybe they didn’t think of it or maybe it is yet to arise in Australia as a sharply polarising phenomena. We will see.

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