[Paleopsych] Commentary: Emotional Correctness

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Wed Oct 12 00:07:26 UTC 2005

Emotional Correctness

Book Review

One Nation Under Therapy:
How the Helping Culture Is Eroding Self-Reliance
by Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel
St. Martin's Press. 310 pp. $23.95
Reviewed by Bruce S. Thornton

    In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 9,000 "grief
    counselors" descended on New York City. Their mission was to provide
    the treatment and psychological guidance considered necessary to help
    both survivors and families of victims in coping with their trauma. So
    ubiquitous has this sort of intervention become after every disaster
    in America that we no longer stop to think about it. Yet, according to
    Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel in One Nation Under Therapy, it
    is just one manifestation of a much larger and in their view highly
    detrimental set of assumptions about how to deal with the vicissitudes
    of life--assumptions that now permeate many of our public

    Christina Hoff Sommers is the author of Who Stole Feminism (1994) and
    The War Against Boys (2000), two trenchant analyses of the baleful
    impact of extreme feminist theory on the education of both boys and
    girls. Sally Satel, like Sommers a resident scholar at the American
    Enterprise Institute, is a practicing psychiatrist and the author of
    PC MD (2002), an account of how "identity politics," in the form of
    theories about race, gender, and poverty, has compromised the practice
    of medicine. The book they have now co-authored is a biting exposé of
    "therapism"--not the same thing as therapy per se, which can often
    provide real benefits, but a damaging mindset that, in their words,
    "pathologizes normal human emotion, promoting the illusion that we are
    very fragile beings and urging grand emotional displays as the
    prescription for coping."

    One Nation Under Therapy is organized around specific practices that
    have been promoted by the mental-health establishment and are now
    widely institutionalized. In many schools, for instance, certain
    games, including dodge ball and tag, have been eliminated, on the
    grounds that they inflict an esteem-killing competitiveness and sense
    of exclusion on the "fragile child"--a helpless creature of the
    therapists' imagination who wilts at the slightest breath of
    criticism, judgment, or failure. Despite the fact that (as the authors
    put it) "the prevalence of depression among children and adolescents
    has not significantly changed in the past 30 years," and that no
    scientific evidence links elevated self-esteem to success or
    happiness, a belief in children's psychic vulnerability has become
    enshrined in school programs and curricula.

    Sommers and Satel turn next to the so-called "human-potential
    movement," a mid-20th-century offspring of the psychologists Abraham
    Maslow and Carl Rogers and the parent, in turn, of the self-esteem
    craze. This school of thought posits the existence inside each of us
    of an ideal self, "buried under a lot of wreckage put there by a
    judgmental, emotionally withholding, unforgiving, and oppressive

    In this reading, persons we might once have considered sinners or
    wrongdoers are instead reconceived as the victims of malign social
    forces, and entitled as such to our empathy and compassion and,
    frequently, our tax dollars. They can be restored to health only
    through the ministrations of professionals who have been trained to
    guide them on the path of personal fulfillment "through a regimen of
    self-preoccupation, self-expression, and psychic release." From this
    medicalizing of moral failure, write Sommers and Satel, have come such
    latter-day spectacles as the "treatment" accorded to some pedophiliac
    Catholic priests who, once "cured" of their "sickness," were released
    to prey again on children in their parishes.

    Still another expression of therapism is the doctrine of "emotional
    correctness." According to its dictates, people who have suffered a
    tragedy are virtually required to dwell publicly on what they have
    undergone lest they be considered humanly inadequate. The idea here is
    that sudden or deep loss can leave a hidden dysfunction in the psyche,
    often in the form of "post-traumatic stress disorder" (PTSD)--a term
    invented by antiwar activists in the late 1960's to pathologize
    Vietnam veterans, now extended into an all-purpose "archetype for the
    experience of adversity in our culture."

    For Sommers and Satel, PTSD, like emotional correctness, "confuse[s]
    pathos with pathology." Worse, it ignores "how frequently survivors
    find sustaining meaning in heartbreak and how often they persevere
    nobly" in the face of it, especially if they have the support of
    family, friends, or religious faith. By contrast, "when people are
    distraught, ruminating about their pain may only intensify the pain."

    This brings us back to 9/11 and its aftermath. As it turned out, the
    9,000 counselors and therapists who gathered in New York ended up with
    very little to do. Most people, drawing on their own resources of
    resilience and inner strength, were quite able to deal with that
    life-shattering disaster. Indeed, as Sommers and Satel conclude, many
    victims of trauma "can point to ways they have benefited [emphasis
    added] from their struggle to cope" with catastrophe. What they need
    most from the helping arms of society is a reduction in the "disorder,
    uncertainty, and economic devastation" that accompany such events.
    Mental-health professionals unable to strike "a balance between
    offering [their] services and promoting them too eagerly" too often
    constitute only another source of disorder, and a hindrance to

    One Nation Under Therapy is a salutary book, one that not only
    provides convincing evidence of the harm done by therapism but also
    reminds us of the appropriateness--indeed, the necessity--of
    indignation and censoriousness in the face of destructive behavior.
    Beyond this, it seeks to recover the connection between such
    old-fashioned virtues and the preservation of a democratic culture
    founded on the ideals of autonomy and freedom. As Sommers and Satel
    rightly point out, "Only a society that treats its members as
    ethically responsible and personally accountable can achieve and
    sustain a democratic civil order." The American creed, in particular,
    emphasizes "self-reliance, stoicism, courage in the face of adversity,
    and the valorization of excellence." Therapism, unfortunately, "is at
    odds with them all."

    If I have a reservation about the authors' argument, it has to do with
    their insistence on confining themselves to the realm of social
    science and social psychology. Given their perspective, this was
    perhaps unavoidable, but it leaves open the question of whether there
    is such a thing as a "science" of human identity and behavior in the
    first place. Sommers and Satel answer one deeply flawed conception of
    human well-being with another that is presumably more accurate and
    assuredly more mature. But, from the scientific point of view,
    psychological states are in general notoriously difficult to define,
    measure, and assess, and most efforts to do so are inevitably
    compromised by the subjectivity and fuzziness of terms like "happy,"
    "anxious," and so forth. In the end one wonders whether we might not
    be better served simply by relying on our common moral sense, aided by
    the millennial teachings of literature and religion.

    Within its own social-scientific framework, however, One Nation Under
    Therapy does an impressive job of documenting the shaky assumptions,
    bad science, and simplistic nostrums of therapism. It also offers
    powerful empirical reasons for resisting an ideology whose proponents
    seem bent on turning us not into free and responsible adults but into
    children dependent on their advice and treatment, if not subject to
    their control.

    Bruce S. Thornton is a professor of classics at California State
    University at Fresno and the author of, among other books, Greek Ways:
    How the Greeks Created Western Civilization.

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