In a famous scene from the now-iconic film “The Matrix”, the character Morpheus offers Neo a choice: he can either take the blue pill and choose not to see the world around him or take the red pill and go “down the rabbit-hole” of a naked, horrifying reality. This scene would resonate with many of us in the therapy professions who have investigated the primary literature of critical social justice (CSJ) ideology. Strong emotions grow in parallel with our developing understanding. We pick up a book or read an article that everyone has been talking about. Then we find a passage with ideas so odious, so intolerant, that we find we need to read it again to find out if we’re misinterpreting. And, on finding that we’re not, we read more, and then more. There can be intense emotion, over both what the books say, and over the implications of what they say. For me, this took the form of a mixture of anger, disgust, and horror at seeing the reductionist and essentialist philosophies, which fell out of favor during the 20th century, reassert themselves in new terminology.
CSJ has infiltrated itself into every aspect of Western life. In most cases, it has either destroyed or completely transformed areas where it has taken hold, such as in academia. Cynical Therapies is the red pill for the therapy professions. The book brings us down a rabbit hole of conclusions, scenarios, and predictions for the future which, if true, promise to completely change the way we think about mental health, and not for the better. For anyone who has investigated CSJ, even superficially, the book provides a much-needed relief. It states in plain English what many of us have thought but not dared to speak out loud in supervision groups, in team meetings, or in mandatory trainings: that seeing therapy clients solely in terms of their identity groups does not bode well for the mental health of those clients. For me, the relief of seeing these ideas in print was balanced by an appreciation of the nuanced understanding of many of the authors. This is not a merely reactionary book, but a collection of thoughtful, provocative essays by practitioners with advanced degrees that looks at what it means to be a psychotherapist in the 21st century. The combination of relief and appreciation for nuance was a breath of fresh air for me – an antidote to the essentialist, countertherapeutic toxins that currently fill much of the world of mental health treatment – and in fact the group behind this book is named Critical Therapy Antidote (CTA).
The book’s first section addresses how we got here; it’s a look at the historical context of the cultural and political moment that we’re living in. This is followed by a look at the influence of CSJ and gender ideology on the psychotherapy professions. This section includes both a lengthy discussion of transgenderism and a look at men’s issues and the problematizing of typically masculine traits, such as has been seen with the most recent guidelines from the American Psychological Association (APA) on the treatment of boys and men. The third section deals with CSJ’s influence on various aspects of clinical practice. The ways in which CSJ has inserted itself into the space between therapist and client, that most intimate of relationships, is the topic of this section. This part addresses the influence of critical race theory (CRT) on the therapeutic relationship, on marriage and family therapy, and on cognitive-behavioral therapy, among others. The following part deals with professional matters: the politicization of specialized training programs and professional organizations such as the APA. Lastly, there is a chapter by the book’s editor Val Thomas, on how concerned therapists and educators can reverse the current trend.
The book’s authors represent a diverse array of modalities and viewpoints. There are practitioners of psychoanalysis, CBT, family counseling, psychoanalytic psychotherapy, and experiential psychotherapy. Not all their viewpoints agree with each other, but this had the effect (on this reader) of being refreshing: this difference of opinion and thought is the kind of diversity that matters most in the current climate. All authors are from either the United Kingdom or the United States. Most have practiced therapy or served in teaching and training roles in their home countries. Ten out of the nineteen authors, including the book’s editor, are women, which should put to rest any assumption that the CTA must be a “white male” movement.
Most notable, on the negative side, was the absence of any case material, except for the chapter on marriage and family therapy. It’s clear that the authors have all practiced psychotherapy for many years, and that their practices are being rapidly invaded by a pernicious, countertherapeutic ideology. More discussion of how CSJ has impacted work in the therapy room on individual clients would have strengthened the book. But the heterodox movement in the therapies is still growing, and there will certainly be more books like this to come. Sadly, as CSJ reaches further into everyday people’s lives, more therapy clients will bring it into their therapists’ offices, creating more opportunities to discuss specific impacts using case material.
This is an essential read for anyone concerned about the encroachment of CSJ on the therapy professions. Although it’s disturbing, the very act of bringing these issues to light suggests that a hopeful turnaround may be on its way. There will always be a place for psychotherapists to do what we do, no matter what we choose to call it.
By JRZ , a social work psychotherapist with a certificate in experiential psychotherapy based in New York, NY.