Thursday, June 29, 2017

Counseling Politics

Bear with me.  I’m going to try out an idea that may be completely off-base, or maybe not.  I would very much like to hear what you think of it.

When I was young, long ago, organizations sometimes employed a few counselors or advocates, people whose job was to help clients or other members of the public navigate the bureaucratic tangle of rules, forms, preconditions and other procedures that often stood between them and and the benefits they sought to obtain.  A hospital, for instance, might employ a patient advocate who could advise how to access care that, in principle, ought to be available to all.  When I was an undergraduate there was a small advising office at my university that helped students figure out how to complete their requirements and get the services and support they needed.

I have the impression that, in the last few decades, this job category has rapidly expanded, not only in the number of its practitioners but also the scope of their assignment.  This trend has attracted a lot of attention in higher education, where counseling has expanded at the expense of teaching, at least in its increasing command of limited budgets.  Other social service organizations have turned to counselors, advocates, advisors and similar sorts in increasing numbers.

And counseling has taken on a new ideology, a particular way of defining the set of problems it addresses and the forms solutions should take.  The old, narrow understanding was that people often lacked knowledge of available resources and the procedures for accessing them.  The solution was conveying the relevant information or maybe even changing the rules.  Many counselors still practice this art.  But there is also a new view that the core problem is disempowerment, a psychological condition that prevents people from solving their own problems.  The solution is (of course) empowerment via facilitation whose purpose is to invoke a sense of agency on the part of clients, so people can make decisions they feel comfortable with.

The old view of counseling located the problems of this world in institutions—their complexities and irrationalities.  The new view identifies the core problem as a need for a different type of consciousness.

Now take a further step: suppose this ideology centered on the transformation of consciousness has spread its influence widely through our culture.  One marker might be the distinctive language that “counselorship” employs.  I haven’t investigated the matter quantitatively, but my impression is that the phrase “advocate for” has steadily displaced “advocate” in a wide range of uses in recent decades.  Once upon a time, one advocated policies and occasionally, if one were in the counseling trade, one advocated for a client or group that needed support.  Roughly speaking, if you were for the means to achieve a goal, like a law or policy initiative, you advocated it, and on those rare occasions when you were speaking on behalf of particular human beings (who are ends in themselves) you advocated for them.  But now most English speakers are advocates for exclusively: they advocate for lower or higher taxes, fuel efficiency standards, whatever.  Counseling language has taken over.

Perhaps the counseling perspective has begun to transform politics as well.  If so, we would see a tendency to redefine problems away from the discussion of particular laws or procedures and toward new mindsets/paradigms/discourses/consciousnesses that, by empowering the oppressed or aggrieved, constitute in themselves the objectives of political action.  According to such a perspective, the problem of climate change, to take one example, is not explained by quantitative accounts of the carbon cycle and fossil fuel releases, but as stemming from a failure of consciousness.  People have been disempowered by false conceptions of the true costs and benefits of consumption, their relationship to nature, etc., and “solving” the problem must take the form of transforming consciousness along these dimensions.

What I’m trying to understand is this: I could agree that altering consciousness would be important if it were part of a thought-out political strategy.  Imagine the argument went something like, “if we change the consciousness of x% of the population, they will vote for politicians who will enact laws that restrict carbon extraction, and so on”—then yes, consciousness change is important.  (I don’t think this is how political change happens, but that’s a topic for another day.)  But I sense a widespread commitment to a type of politics in which consciousness change is the whole story; it’s not an element in a larger process—it is the process.

It could be that the perspective centered on transformation of consciousness is actually driving the spread of counseling-ism, rather than taking hold as a result of it.  I might be confusing cause and effect.  Or maybe it’s just coincidental.  I need help in understanding this.

What I do think I am observing, though, is a systematic shift, especially in large parts of the left, toward a view that social problems and solutions can be understood almost entirely as deficiencies of consciousness (“colonized” by oppressive mindsets) to be overcome by transformations of consciousness that empower the marginalized and dispossessed.

I don’t know what empirical evidence would look like on this topic.  I am proceeding from a small set of case studies, including one I have been living through intimately at my place of work.  At this point, if an explanation seems to work for a particular case, that’s a point in its favor.  Useful responses to this very speculative blog post would take the form of cases that either exhibit or contradict its argument.


Jerry Brown said...

I would be happy to give you my opinion but there are some things I don't understand. Such as-"The solution is (of course) empowerment via facilitation whose purpose is to invoke a sense of agency on the part of clients, so people can make decisions they feel comfortable with."
What does a sense of agency on the part of clients mean?

And then all the stuff about transformation of consciousness? Is that similar to me having a few beers? What is all this stuff and why should anyone be expected to understand this language? If someone else is making these phrases up and expects you to react in some way, I feel for you. If these are your words you need to explain them better, if you are interested in my opinion. Which you probably aren't by now. said...

This talk of advocating for consciousness changing had better not be instigated by students ran around Evergreen with baseball bats while Weinstein went on Fox News again. But I gather that has all quieted down for the moment. Summertime, and the living is easy, sort of...

Peter Dorman said...

Barkley, my primary goal at this point is to understand how a rhetorical mania can take over an institution like Evergreen. That it happened is beyond doubt, but why? This counseling hypothesis is a stab at coming up with an answer. I think it's a small part of the story at best, but there are indicators here and there that something like this has been going on. The impacts at Evergreen may be exaggerated because something like a fourth to a third of our curriculum is essentially counseling -- helping students find themselves -- with limited academic content. The students and faculty in that segment of the college (which doesn't include me, as you can probably guess) have been the primary incubators of a long series of events that culminated in the recent explosion. It may be that we are an outlier in that respect. said...

I thought so... :-) or maybe :-( more appropriate.

Wallfly said...

Is what you are describing synonymous with cultural radicalism? And if so, has that been dominant on the US left for a long time? Conservatives and the religiously oriented intellectuals (e.g. 90% of the guests passing through Krista Tippet's Speaking of Faith) saw it as incumbent on themselves to transform/improve consciousness (i.e. morality).

Bill said...

I don't know about the counseling aspect, but certainly "consciousness raising" has been prominent in politically activist circles for a long time. It certainly seems to be a necessary part of long term progress. Without a change of consciousness we would still have slavery and we would still hang children for stealing bread, for instance. At the same time, action is necessary. If we had waited until White Southerners had a change of heart and consciousness, we would still have American apartheid. And as it is, even with changes of consciousness, Black people face daily oppression throughout the U.S.

Peter Dorman said...

What I find fascinating (and disturbing), Bill, is the elevation of consciousness change to an end, rather than a means. The problems have been redefined as "bad consciousness" and the solutions as "good consciousness". And this is considered much more left wing and radical than, oh, instituting policy changes.

Anonymous said...

I began college in CA when SDS, Black Panthers, and anti-war protests began a few miles from where I attended. I watched the anti-war movement go from student protests, often with extremely heavy police presence and opposition to the protesters (I observed from a distance), to wide general public protests, though my observations were in the SF Bay Area, so more liberal and anti-war than most.

So I think, perhaps, you're not realizing that efforts to changes in consciousness are always focused on and have the objective of the ends. The objective is primary. Consciousness changes are just one means to force the objective to become manifest... and a relatively very, very benign means at that ... the most benign in fact besides written op-eds & perhaps news broadcasts (Edward R Murrow and others made news an opinion piece to change consciousness for example).

You use the term "consciousness", where I would use the term "awareness" or "injustices sensitivity training" since as I perceive your post on "consciousness" what you are referring to is an awareness of those things which "should be" recognized outside the sphere of status quo or awareness of and becoming "consciously aware" of those things which exist to promote maintenance of the status quo.

The objective of "consciousness" in this context is to change the status quo.

I differentiate it from your posted comments that what you (and I) used to recognize of counselors and advisors as an enabling exercise. I think enabling differs substantially from "consciousness" in as much as enabling has no objective other than to inform. Consciousness as you are using the term (as best I can discern) is not an enabling exercise, although teaching is an enabling exercise and clearly is ideally supposed to also raise awareness, it has no specific objective.

If I didn't correctly discern what you mean by consciousness, I think you need to be explicit and provide specific examples.

In the Evergreen example raised by Barkley (above) for example it isn't clear whether he (or you) are referring to the "consciousness" (awareness) issues and events leading up to the original Weinstein statement or just those following his statement. I cannot distinguish between the events at Evergreen prior to Weinstein's statement and those that occurred after except in their frequency and numbers involved.