Ideology and Psychotherapy

By Dr. Keith Witt
May 31, 2023

I recently read a Free Press article, How Therapists Became Social Justice Warriors, by Lisa Davis. She reported a movement in some universities and therapist training programs to insist on political correctness and suppress discussions of certain ideas and data sets. For example:

  • A black female therapist refused to discuss cancel culture with a white woman client because it was giving in to “white supremacy culture.”
  • A UCLA professor disagreed with a black student asking for easier grading for black students in the wake of the George Floyd tragedy and was attacked (through student petitions and complaints, and by campus disciplinary committees) and put on leave of absence.
  • There seems to some influence of Critical Social Justice theory—CSJ—on training programs avoiding some conversations. To quote Lisa Davis, “According to CSJ, one’s identity categories are paramount to the therapeutic process.Neutrality and objectivity—once the cornerstones of the practice—are now tools of oppression and white supremacy.” This might be hyperbole on her part, but google Critical Social Justice theory and see what you think. They make some great points, and there is are echos of political correctness and moral condemnations influencing science in Critical Social Justice theory.
  • A University of Colorado Ph.D candidate in clinical psychology was disciplined for questioning safe spaces as a practice on campus.
  • An online Antioch master’s student said therapists in training intended to refuse to work with Trump enthusiasts. She was required to sign a civility pledge that acknowledged racism, intersectionality, and insisted on other worthy principles—prosocial values as coercive demands for her to comply and sign. This kind political correctness and virtue signaling subtly discourages discussions about other values and principles–the moral disapprovals don’t invite productive conversations. Immoral means it feels wrong! “These ideas are morally repulsive and we don’t talk about them!” Such energy generates that dangerous emotion—self-righteousness!

There are groups of psychologists inviting dialogues about these positions—a good sign of emerging conversations in psychology. I (as an ideological Integralist) always look for the polarities and blind spots. But I fear self-righteousness. Self-righteousness condemns, shuns, and doesn’t listen. People not perceiving their own self-righteousness are going to make errors in whatever they’re doing, especially therapy. I like the pushback from other therapists about the apparent shift away from client-focused therapy to ideology-focused therapy, but I love the emerging demands to understand people’s contexts of embedded cultural bias and historical violence. This was an important contribution of feminist therapy beginning in the 70s.

Colleges are more vulnerable to ideological absolutism these days because of iGen’s focus on safety and equality and some students’ expectations to be protected from distressing facts, ideas, and opinions. The UCLA and University of Colorado examples in the article reflect how student-as-consumer and college-as-parent-who-must-protect has affected graduate programs as well as undergraduate ones.

When I do therapy, I consciously advocate for worldcentric, serve-the-highest-good alternatives in all my sessions. I definitely have a philosophical orientation! That being said, like most experienced therapists, I privilege my clients’ current value systems and happily point out how the healthy aspects of their worldviews and moral discernments harmonize with the healthy aspects of other worldviews. Therapists are practical anthropologists! We observe and love different cultures, both their beauty and blindspots. Our love leads us to what’s beautiful about our client’s universe and that becomes our therapeutic touchstone in dealing with what’s unhealthy. All universes are dark and light, healthy and unhealthy, and therapists look to integrate everything with compassionate understanding.

Integral awareness provides an orienting epistemology that makes therapy easier and clearer. I try to point this out when teaching change workers, but this Integral advantage is generally not exciting to clinicians, unless they already have been lit up by Integral. I guess that’s the nature of a psychoactive system—you go deeper and deeper until BAM, everything is different! The world you are cocreating every instant has expanded and become more coherent and beautiful.

I’m interested in my moral disgust and sense of righteous superiority at the idea of teachers and therapists humiliating students and clients as they did in some of the examples. Moral disgust pulls me into wanting to exclude, condemn, or constrain them. Here is my power moment! I can flee or attack, or connect, heal, and find collaborative ways forward.

Surrendering to impulses to condemn, exclude, or constrain creates deepening animosities. If even one person in an argument is reaching for shared truths (like an Integral universal doner is moved to do), toxicity goes down and communication goes up. In the field of psychology, public dialogues between well-meaning therapists who disagree helps psychotherapy evolve. Let’s not discourage or ban dialogues!

Categorizing disagreement as immoral or insulting is a major hazard of all first tier vMEMEs. Teal looks at disagreement with interest on many levels. For instance:

  • If I disagree with someone, so what? If me disagreeing with you is immoral to you, then we should shift our conversation to looking for blind spots in our worldviews.
  • Am I normalizing violence or abuse in my position and refusing to look at it? This is certainly seems to be the accusation underlying cancel culture where conflicts sometimes are based on different beliefs. It’s always good to be emotionally sensitive to each other.  With well-meaning people, all this is best done in a context of the dialectic. The dialectic is willing to be influenced to find the better answer.
  • Are you mistaking disagreement for abuse?  Scientists disagree, philosophers disagree, healers disagree, fanatics attack different perspectives and refuse to effectively self-reflect.

At the risk of being an Integral fanatic, most times I prefer the dialectic, looking at all the polarities. I have faith that the dialectic is the best way to resolve apparent conflicts. It’s also more fun! Resisting impulses to attack or defend, while reaching for engagement and collaboration is a pleasurable, loving act.

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