Therapists Should Take Public Stands

When I started using Facebook several years ago, it was expressly for professional purposes such as networking and disseminating information relevant to trauma therapy. I avoided posting on political issues, reasoning that doing so would a) distract from the primary focus, and b) risk alienating people who disagreed with me about politics, thus losing the opportunity to reach them about trauma therapy.

For the most part I have stuck to this plan, but sometimes it doesn’t work for me. Not because I just can’t resist giving my opinion. But because sometimes not doing so would make me a bad therapist.

To explain this, here’s a thought experiment.

You’re in a public place (sidewalk, train, restaurant, hallway, whatever) and happen to witness a group of people ganging up on someone: calling that person names, threatening, etc. The names and threats focus on a particular feature of that person (being female, Asian, Hispanic, Black, overweight, homosexual, transgender, intelligent, disabled, poor, Muslim, Jewish, whatever) that you happen to share. OK, only a couple of people in this group are the aggressors. But others in the group are still, well, in the group.

You don’t feel safe intervening, so you move along.

The next day you go to your first appointment with your new therapist. And you recognize them as one of the (passive) people from that group!

Are you going to feel comfortable working with that therapist?

You probably get the point by now, but I’ll spell it out anyway. Bystanders are correctly regarded as complicit – if not as active participants, then at least as the supportive audience. If I don’t want to be regarded as a complicit/supportive bystander, then I have to actively oppose the wrong that’s being done.

And there’s a lot of wrong being done, right out there in the open. Particularly with me being a white male US citizen (though I’m not sure how much this matters in the present context), I can easily be assumed to be complicit in any number of outrages that occur in the public space. When a given outrage is front page news, I am by definition either a bystander, or not.

So I do speak out. On Black (and Native American, and Hispanic) people’s right to get through the day without being beaten or killed by police officers. On Lesbian and Gay people’s right to love and marry like everyone else. On transgender people’s right to use bathrooms, which translates to being able to participate in public life. On Muslims’ and Jews’ right to live in peace. On children’s right to walk down the street or go to school without fear of being murdered. On children’s right to go home without fear of being abused. On women’s right to live with, or leave, their romantic partners without fear of being beaten or murdered. On women’s and children’s right to freedom from rape, and to justice once it has occurred. Etc.

I’ve certainly been disparaged, blocked, and unfriended plenty of times by people who felt offended by one stand or another. I probably lose some prospective clients this way, who may perceive me as a hater or a hypocrite, because I oppose their views or their actions. But the value of tolerance does not require tolerating intolerance. To the contrary, accepting and respecting all people is incompatible with respecting some person’s view that certain kinds of people are less worthy than others or less deserving of rights, respect, or dignity.

Another aspect to taking these stands is that if we’re all about healing the world, the best bang for the buck is prevention. If we can modify social practices and/or government policies to avoid harming large numbers of people, we’re ahead of the game.

I am still glad to provide therapy to all comers, and in fact I am known in part for my expertise in treating people who have harmed others. I am able to respect and care for people even when I oppose certain of their views or behaviors. What I will not do is be a silent bystander when harm is being done. That would be incompatible with my mission to heal the world; and it would make me a bad therapist.


13 Responses

  1. I agree with what you’ve written here. I don’t openly take political positions in the therapy room. But in my own public life, I have to live with integrity or I’m not sure I’m fit to practice therapy. We’ve been having a conversation among my friends about how to break in to a conversation where microagression or more overt discrimination is happening. I find I need a reflex statement, a bookmark if you will, to buy time to figure out what to say next. I have been experimenting with this one..”that is a really weird thing to say,” accompanied by a look of alarm. Some folks will self correct and back down right away, and if not, I’ve had a moment to figure out what to say next. Works great on relatives and coworkers too!

  2. Nice post! I believe that therapists standing for social justice is critical. I will sometimes even challenge a client’s oppressive statements, or at least let that person know that I disagree. My office always has affirming, diverse art. The world is full of structural inequalities. and oppression. In this context, there is no such thing as “neutral.” I believe that on the one hand we have to help our clients negotiate the fierce realities of modern inequality, but on the other hand, encouraging people to overly adapt to these social horrors is kind of pathological itself. The impact I see that various forms of oppression have on my clients fuels my social change activism.

    Thank you for this powerful, compassionate, articulate post. I am a victim’s rights advocate, a human rights advocate. How can we not be if we are to serve our clients and honor the ethics of our field? Issues of social justice, human rights, civil rights, poverty… these are urgent universal moral imperatives not differences of political opinion. Political differences involve the healthy debate over HOW we can most efficiently and effectively enhance the health and well being of our communities, reduce human suffering, and ensure equality and freedom; it should not be a debate about WHETHER these are in fact universal moral imperatives. Your post brought to mind one of my favorite quotes by Elie Wiesel, during his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize:
    “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
    He points out that all the perpetrators ask if for us to look away and do nothing while the victim beseeches us to empathize, to awaken, to act and therefore to do something difficult, inconvenient, and perhaps even dangerous.

  4. Just a small comment….Ricky, you are not white; you are Jewish. You are a pale skinned Jew. Jews, regardless of skin tone are not white.

    1. Sheri, in the USA in some contexts I am white, and in others I am not. Anyway this is one of the reasons that I said that I’m not sure the white male status is relevant in this context. Like many or most people, I am certainly a potential target in one way or another.

  5. The bystander effect is real. I agree with you that those of us who feel safe in our society are the very ones who must endure the discomfort of defending those who don’t enjoy that freedom. Well put. Thanks

  6. I do agree that we should all stand up and speak our minds on how we feel. I am extremely conservative and against pretty much everything as expressed here…

    1. Note that I edited out most of what Brad wrote, and all of what Graham wrote (in opposition), because I do not intend this to be a forum for political debate. Still, I’ll respond a bit:

      The point of the blog post was NOT that we should all stand up and speak our minds on how we feel. The context is that therapists may normally tend to avoid taking public positions on various issues, to avoid coloring prospective (or current) client’s perceptions of the therapist. But that in the current climate in which hate and oppression seem to be more mainstream and public than ever, therapists should take an affirmative stand for the rights and dignity of all people, to avoid the risk of clients perceiving us as complicit.

      I welcome disagreement about this position.

  7. I agree wholeheartedly with this post. My social work training makes it clear that my responsibility is to always speak up for the greater good, for justice and equity. Like you said, this doesn’t mean I espouse my political views in the therapy room. However, I’ve had some wonderful and powerful moments with clients since a few of them saw me me at the Women’s March in January 2017. I’m planning to share this article with my clinical supervision group in the near future.

  8. Ricky, didn’t see your post for a while because your email had been censored! By an algorithm, no less, but luckily I check my Junk Mail folder periodically.

    Your point is made even more important by today’s climate.
    Evolutionary neurobiology, Elie Wiesel, the old Milgram experiments and my dad’s personal experiences liberating the Dachau Death camp in WWII have taught me something important: Any of us are capable of the unimaginable, from Dachau, to creating a better future just as unimaginable. I’ve been quoting Rebecca Solnit a lot lately.

    From Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

    “This means, of course, that the most foundational change of all, the one from which all else issues, is hardest to track. It means that politics arises out of the spread of ideas and the shaping of imaginations. It means that symbolic and cultural acts have real political power. And it means that the changes that count take place not merely onstage as action but in the minds of those who are again and again pictured only as audience or bystanders. The revolution that counts is the one that takes place in the imagination; many kinds of change issue forth thereafter, some gradual and subtle, some dramatic and conflict-ridden—which is to say that revolution doesn’t necessarily look like revolution.”

    Therapists, and other healers, advocates, etc. taking public stands…. speaking one’s mind…. is a revolutionary act of courage and imagination. Thank you.

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