Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Therapeutic Mindset

Victor Davis Hanson calls it the therapeutic mindset. Link here. I have been calling it the therapy culture.

Essentially, we are talking about the same thing: a set of values and principles that have infiltrated our minds and our culture, presumably because they promote mental health.

When people are convinced that mental health guarantees the good life, then the culture must be mobilized to provide the right kind of care by promoting the right values.

But where Hanson says that the opposite of the therapeutic mindset is the tragic worldview, I would say that if therapy sees us living within a utopian world where price doesn’t matter and where consequences don’t count, then the alternative would be a world where thrift rules and where you earn what your work is worth.

Be that as it may, let’s examine the tenets of the therapeutic mindset.

First, as Hanson explains it: “In such a utopian mindset, compensation is and should be based on what the employee considers necessary for the good life.”

This sounds like the old precept: “To each according to his need….”

Those who would question this tenet need but read my post about the musings of psychiatrist Dr. Don Levin, profiled in the New York Times last Sunday. Link here.

Dr. Levin feels badly about the fact that he is merely writing prescriptions-- some might even say that he is pushing pills-- but he justifies it because he feels that he and his wife deserve a good life and that requires a certain amount of money.

Hanson finds the same principle at work in the arguments that Wisconsin public employee unions are making.

In a world where the work ethic pertains, people gain increased compensation because their productivity produces wealth and profit. Also, an employee’s value is determined by the labor market. Apparently, such principles do not apply to Wisconsin teachers.

As Hanson summarizes their arguments: “Teachers in Wisconsin rarely argue that their students’ test scores have increased or graduation rates have improved, or that their school districts are flush with cash, or that they themselves can always move to a parochial school or private academy if their talents are not better appreciated. Instead, in almost every contemporary discussion of budgetary discipline, from pensions and benefits to compensation, the argument is based on what one needs, in the teenage fashion of reminding a now unemployed parent that he once promised to buy the graduating senior a car.”

Hanson defines the second tenet of the therapeutic mindset as: consequences do not matter.

Therapy has always been clear on the point. What matters is how you feel and your feelings are independent of reality. If you get it wrong you should feel good about yourself for trying your best. This is known as self-esteemism.

Hanson offers the example of what happened to California’s Central Valley when a court shut down its water supply in order to save a smelt.

Hanson has written about this before, and I have echoed his views before. Here’s his full description of the consequences of the court order: “If the delta smelt is deemed the barometer of healthy aquatic life in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, then a quarter-million acres of land will have be cut off from contracted irrigation supplies in order to divert the water to save the three-inch fish. Few of the biologists who engineered such strategies ever computed the wealth sacrificed by idling thousands of acres, the jobs lost, or the communities nearly destroyed. In the therapeutic view, the appeal is always to cosmic rather than earthly justice. If a tenured biologist’s job security is not predicated on bringing in a crop of carrots, if he can argue, in apocalyptic fashion, that saving the ecology of the planet is more important than a few “corporate” farms, then the rest of us are less likely to question such purported idealism — and not at all likely to wonder whether without such periodic existential crises we might need fewer tenured biologists and far fewer research grants.”

I would add another point, that Hanson raises in this paragraph, namely, that the therapeutic view of happiness has an other-worldly frame of reference.

If real consequences do not matter, unreal and metaphysical consequences become all-important. Therapy does not promise immediate or even proximate gratification. It models itself on the religious view of the afterlife and promises a happiness that you cannot have until you are dead.

We are not saving the planet right now; we are saving it for eternity.

Hanson’s third tenet states that those who feel the right feelings and express the right intentions do not have to live according to those feelings and intentions.

Some people get a pass on hypocrisy: “If Al Gore campaigns for cap-and-trade or massive ethanol subsidies, then we are less likely to worry that he enjoys traveling by private jet and owning several energy-hungry homes — just the sort of lifestyle that, if copied by three hundred million others in America, might actually heat up the planet. The more Michael Moore rants about capitalist greed, the easier it is to sue his producer for additional millions in income. The more the Hollywood set praises the socialism of Fidel Castro or Hugo Ch├ívez, the less we should care that the film and television community goes in for higher-than-average conspicuous consumption, energy wastefulness in expansive and multiple homes, a sort of teenage material indulgence, and narcissism in fashion and cosmetic surgery. If a Harvard or Rutgers professor wishes to make some extra cash by offering his consulting services to the murderous Qaddafi family, then he can do so with impunity by describing the contract in altruistic terms.”

Everyone knows that our culture force feeds us this double standard. Witness Bill Clinton. If you support the correct feminist positions you get a pass on the way you treat women.

If you don’t have the right beliefs, your least transgression will count as a major crime.

Hanson’s third tenet emphasizes that the therapeutic mindset fails to see any moral necessity to correlate our words and our deeds. Good intentions trump good deeds. Your state of mind, your mindset, is the sole arbiter of your goodness.

Many therapy patients embrace this point. They go to therapy because it absolves them, not only of responsibility for the consequences of their actions, but also from the basic ethical requirement to be good to their word.


JP said...

Stuart says:

"If real consequences do not matter, unreal and metaphysical consequences become all-important."

How do you deal appropriately with life without attempting to recognize and conform to the appropriate metaphysic?

I generally keep my metaphysical assumptions in the foreground of my thoughts.

Therapy Culture said...

Speaking of therapy, you have absolutely got to watch this 4 part documentary:

Our entire culture since WWI has been based on it.