Sunday, April 26, 2020

The therapeutic turn

One book I would like to read is The Fatherless Society by the Danish academic Henrik Jensen. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be available in English, so I'm limited to descriptions of it from other sources.

Take, for instance, the following from The Therapeutic Turn by Ole Madsen. In a discussion on how Western culture changed its emphasis from duties to rights, Madsen writes:
In 2006 the Danish historian Henrik Jensen's monumental work The Fatherless Society was published, a work that depicts the current culture of rights as a clear departure from former civilisations' authoritative patriarchal cultures of obligation. Jensen, like Rieff and Carroll before him, sees signs of a moral crisis in Denmark and in the West in general. Late modernity is characterised by what he calls 'mother rule' and which indicates that the citizen is apparently liberated from all forms of authorities and duties, and the only guidelines imposed on him or her is the welfare state's encouragement of its citizens to pursue self-centred, self-actualisation. The social hierarchy in the West up to the present day has been organised around a vertical cosmos, while today we live in a horizontal culture, Jensen maintains,.. (p.59)

This reminded me of a talk I had with my father when I was a young adult. I happened to mention the word "duty" as part of the conversation and my father stopped me and told me with concern "there is no such thing as duty". It seems that my father (a classical liberal in his values) had already accepted the cultural shift described above, the change in mindset in which there is no vertical dimension we look up to as being authoritative and from which is derived duty or obligation. Instead, there is only the striving toward our own individual "self-actualisation".

The discussion then turns to the downside of this shift to a "horizontal culture":
On the flipside lies the pitfall of the culture of rights, if it should become an overly unilateral, self-stimulating, mass individualised victim culture, Jensen argues...
Where the individual in the culture of guilt is indebted to God, the parents or society, the opposite is the case in the rights culture: the victim has an eternal claim to recompense...

The second main problem with 'the fatherless society' which Jensen identifies is the fatigue effect. This is a type of crisis of meaning which finds expression in the form of an increased feeling of emptiness, loss of direction and meaning, particularly among the younger, adolescent generation, in that the individualistic culture does not offer access to anything outside themselves...

Self-actualisation is hard work and fewer external reference points make this project confusing and potentially exhausting for many people...

The paradox is that the therapeutic ethos invites people to understand their lives in terms of suffering because pain provides a basis which enables psychologists to give their knowledge legitimacy and construct stories about individuality. The greater the number of causes for suffering that are situated in the self, the more the self is understood on the basis of its predicament. (pp. 59-61)

There is a lot in this quote. The first two paragraphs describe one of the shifts between traditional and modern cultures. In the former, the individual is indebted to those who formed him (God, parents, nation/ethny) - and therefore it was thought right that he should have the virtue of piety in honouring them. The individual might be subject to feelings of guilt if he did not live up to what was expected of him from these sources of authority in his life. In modern culture, when this vertical dimension is lost, and there is only the individual existing as part of a mass, there are no longer obligations to external sources of authority (duties), but individual rights to oneself that might not be adequately upheld, leaving the individual in the role of a victim. The focus shifts from what we owe to others to what is owed to ourselves - and therefore our focus is more likely to be not on our failure to adequately serve but on how we have been failed in what is owed to us as a right - on ourselves as victims.

The next two paragraphs are also very interesting. In traditional societies the individual was connected to transcendent goods that were a source of meaning, purpose and identity in his life. Some of these goods held inherent meaning and were a stable source of support in an individual's life. For instance, if there was an inherent meaning in masculinity, and I was a man, then my sense of self had something positive to rest on. Similarly, if I were English, and there were admirable qualities associated with this, and a collective memory of achievements, then this too might be a stable support for my sense of self - independently of what I achieved personally in life as an individual. Yes, there were ways in which these sources of meaning did require the individual to live up to a certain standard, so there was a possibility of having a sense of personal failure, but these standards were at least known to the individual.

The self-actualisation ethos can be harder on individuals, because everything comes down to finding some inner, unique, hidden aspect of the self to be "actualised" that then will then put things right, i.e. adequately provide meaning or that might justify our existence. Most people seem to interpret this in terms of career success bringing validation - I know a few people who when they made it in their careers suddenly became more settled in themselves. It does make things particularly difficult, though, on adolescents who haven't yet even chosen such a path, let alone travelled down it. Failure, too, is immense in this outlook as there aren't other given aspects of our nature that provide meaning or identity.

I found the final paragraph interesting simply because it does seem to describe some moderns, particularly those on the left. The phrase "the more the self is understood on the basis of its predicament" describes people I know for whom their "oppression" is inextricably linked to their sense of self. If you go on social media, and engage with some on the left, you get a sense that the greater part of the mindset is organised around this. I doubt if this is entirely to do with a turn to therapeutic culture but it could be part of the explanation.

Again, to make the contrast clear, it is more common for traditionalists to focus on aspects of the self that are connected to either pride or service, e.g. to manhood/womanhood, to national/ethnic identity, to fatherhood/motherhood, to membership of a church etc. But the more you head leftward, the more likely it is that people will organise their approach to life around coping with victimhood, e.g. from being a particular sex or ethnicity, or else they will speak about being "triggered" in their mental health from exposure to things they find difficult to cope with. For instance, if you go all the way leftward to the Democratic Socialists of America you get this:

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