The tyranny of emotional etiquette

The critique of Frank Furedi’s Therapy Culture in the current British Social Attitudes survey misunderstands the thrust of Furedi’s argument, and the extent to which emotional conformism has gripped modern Britain.

Jennie Bristow

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Therapy culture comes at us from all angles: from Prime Minister Gordon Brown telling the nation that he is ‘deeply saddened’ by the death of reality TV star Jane Goody to worksheets slipped into our children’s schoolbags advising families on how to talk to each other about what makes them happy and unhappy.

For some, there is no opt-out from the compulsion to emote: schoolchildren are cajoled by ‘circle time’ into discussing how they feel, while politicians are pushed into parading their own personal tragedies before us and commenting on others’ sad stories as though these were issues of national importance, susceptible to political intervention.

It is a matter for debate whether the rise of therapy culture is a positive development in a formerly repressed, uncaring society, or whether its relentless focus on the self is a disturbing, narcissistic trend that distracts us from looking at the big picture of political and social life. But the fact that therapy culture exists as a distinct feature of our times is, I would have thought, a fairly uncontroversial insight. Until reading the most recent report of the respected British Social Attitudes survey, I had not appreciated the extent to which some people still seem to be, to coin a phrase, in denial about the therapeutic turn that contemporary culture has taken.

Chapter Seven of the twenty-fifth British Social Attitudes report is devoted to a critique of Frank Furedi’s theory, elaborated in his 2004 book Therapy Culture, that therapeutic culture has ‘triumphed’ in Britain. Anderson, Brownlie and Given, the authors of this chapter, acknowledge that Furedi is not the only sociologist to have conceptualised therapy culture as a significant feature of our times: the influential American theorist Christopher Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism back in 1979, while Anthony Giddens, a big fan of therapeutic engagement and an important figure in New Labour’s distinctive brand of psycho-politics, was writing in the early 1990s about issues to do with ‘modernity and self-identity’ and ‘the transformation of intimacy’. But Anderson, Brownlie and Given take exception to Furedi’s ‘particularly bleak and well-publicised’ critique of the impact of therapy culture upon British society, and set out to prove that he is making a big fuss out of not very much.

The authors present the findings of an ESRC-funded research project that ‘examines public views and experiences of emotional support’, the responses to which ‘allow us, for the first time, to examine a number of specific questions to have emerged from current debates about Britain’s so-called “therapeutic culture”’. These questions examine people’s attitudes towards talking about their feelings in general; attitudes towards therapy and counselling; contact with formal emotional support (for example, GP, psychiatrist, counsellor); whether there is a ‘hidden demand’ for emotional support services; and the relationship between formal and informal emotional support. This latter question is of particular significance to the authors, who are highly sceptical of Furedi’s argument that the therapeutic ethos has resulted in ‘the disorganisation of the private sphere’, meaning that individuals become increasingly reliant on professionals to gain emotional support.

The results make very interesting reading, particularly in the differences they highlight in respect of age and gender, and are worth looking at in detail. (The chapter is available to read for free here.) Broadly, the authors find that people are reasonably open to talking about their feelings in general, but not very keen on talking to counsellors as opposed to their GP, and that people talk to their friends and family a lot.

The authors conclude from this: ‘Furedi and others have posited a society in which therapeutic ideas and practices have become all-pervasive. In the critical realm of emotional support, however, this does not yet appear to be the case. There is undoubtedly an emerging consensus about the value of “talking about things” and a sense that we are now more open about difficulties in our emotional lives than we once were. But this does not translate into a universal or even widespread acceptance of formal therapeutic intervention. A sizeable proportion of the population remains wary of the idea of therapy or counselling, or simply understands very little about it.’

These findings do indeed cast some doubt on the official mantra that people are isolated from their friends and family and therefore want and need more emotional support from official or professional sources. However, they do not disprove Furedi’s analysis. Rather, the authors’ narrow focus on the question of attitudes to ‘emotions talk’ or to formal counselling reveals a misunderstanding of Furedi’s theorisation of the triumph of therapy culture and its impact in Britain.

The reason why Furedi’s Therapy Culture has proved such a devastating critique is precisely because it does not identify the problem as being individuals seeking counselling or being open about their emotions. One of the most powerful arguments in his book is that the contemporary focus on emotions is anything but honest and open. It is highly prescriptive about the kind of emotions that people should display, and the ways in which they should display them.

For example, emoting about how you feel hurt by a criticism, offended by a joke, deeply saddened by Jade Goody’s death – all of these forms of emotional engagement are validated by contemporary culture. On the other hand, becoming angry with your partner, being passionately committed to an argument, feeling nauseated by the media circus surrounding Jade Goody’s death – these emotional reactions and interactions are treated as suspect and in need of suppression or careful management by a trained professional. Therapy culture does not prize the honest display of emotion – it seeks to train us in emotional etiquette, and proves itself viciously intolerant of those who refuse to play the game.

The strand of Furedi’s argument that has proved most objectionable to Anderson, Brownlie and Given is that therapeutic intervention has turned people away from informal relations of emotional support, and towards external, professional sources. One of the great paradoxes of therapy culture is the extent to which it appears to be about supporting people’s personal relationships, yet has an ultimately destructive effect. The way to understand this process is not, as Anderson, Brownlie and Given have done, simply to look at who people turn to and confide in – though these are useful findings. It is to investigate the more subtle process of estrangement that takes place when individuals internalise the voice of expert authority, and make this the guide to their emotional life.

For example, in parenting culture it is clear that parental anxiety has sky-rocketed with the endless stream of ‘expert’ advice, and that people self-consciously measure their identity as a ‘good parent’ against an ingrained sense of what the ‘experts’ say they should be doing. This does not mean that they do not talk to, or take comfort from, other parents – it is common to share feelings of inadequacy, gaining comfort from the knowledge that so-and-so’s child eats spaghetti hoops/wets their pants/watches too much telly as well. Nor does it mean that parents have blind trust in counsellors or health visitors – the spectre of social services taking one’s kids away still looms large in parents’ minds. But the internalisation of the expert voice does mean that parents feel very unsure of themselves, and that the comfort or support that they gain from informal support networks is limited by the sense that these are not really the ‘right’ sources of support. As such, an internal contradiction is created between individuals’ sense of what they ought to do, and what their own instincts, experiences and friends indicate they should do.

Now, I could not point to any empirical evidence that proved the above point. To conduct a proper study of the process of individuals’ estrangement from informal relations would be a very difficult and worthwhile project. However, the fact that there is no incontrovertible survey evidence about this trend does not refute its existence – and that is the problem with Anderson, Brownlie and Given’s determined effort to disprove Furedi’s thesis through the marshalling of evidence.

These authors criticise Furedi for failing to offer studies from the UK population to prove his assertion that the impact of therapeutic intervention in British society is no less significant than in the USA – even though the authors recognise that before their own research there was no such evidence. They present their own findings as evidence that the reality is contrary to Furedi’s ‘bleak’ vision of therapy culture, but their findings do not contrast like with like. Anderson, Brownlie and Given are investigating narrow features of therapy culture; Furedi is offering a critique of a broad social trend.

The main problem with the critique offered by Anderson, Brownlie and Given is that it fails to understand where the roots of therapy culture lie. Furedi, like Lasch, situates the rise of therapy culture within a crisis of the elite. Simplistically put, it is a broad loss of faith in the traditions and institutions of democratic society that leads to the ‘cultivation of vulnerability’ discussed by Furedi, and to the attempt to connect with people through emotions and private concerns rather than through ideas and public matters.

The fact that therapy culture spreads from the top down does not preclude counselling from becoming popular, but it does explain how the therapeutic dynamic can have a powerful impact regardless of whether people say they want it or not. Therapy culture is not something that individuals can pick and choose; and when it is ubiquitous, therapeutic services cannot be easily separated from education, health or other public services that people access as a matter of course. In this sense, the number of people who see a counsellor is far less relevant than the impact of therapeutics in schools or political life, where there is no opt-out.

Because they focus narrowly on therapy culture as a service that individuals choose to use, or a general attitude towards ‘emotions talk’, Anderson, Brownlie and Given fail to grasp this crucial point. Like many other proponents – and critics – of therapy culture, they see this as something generated by the masses, and given expression through official and professional channels. From the ‘anti-therapy’ side, this idea is expressed in a grotesque form by the comedy writer Ben Elton, in his dystopian novel Blind Faith (2007): here, a world with obligatory emoting and absolutely without privacy is envisioned as a consequence of populist rule, where rational thought is outlawed and everybody eats and behaves like the caricature of the dumb fat American. From the ‘pro-therapy’ side, populism is co-opted through policymakers’ constant refrain that they are merely providing people with the emotional support that they want and need.

Furedi’s analysis seeks explanations beyond the pat prejudices about people’s base instincts and their essential weaknesses, and situates therapy culture as a socially constructed convention born out of the ruling elite’s own problems. The picture he paints is undoubtedly bleak, but the view of people that this critique offers is a highly positive one – particularly compared to those who believe that we can’t get out of bed without counselling, and that high self-esteem is the most valuable of all life goals.

Jennie Bristow is former commissioning editor of spiked, and editor of the website Parents With Attitude. Email Jennie {encode=”” title=”here”}.

British Social Attitudes: The 25th Report, edited by Alison Park, John Curtice, Katarina Thomson, Miranda Phillips and Elizabeth Clery, is published by Sage. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age, by Frank Furedi, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)


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