Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Social justice: An inconvenient irony

Social justice: An inconvenient irony
By Rob Hunsaker
Counseling Today OpEd, April 2008

Although a relatively new phenomenon, the social justice movement is perhaps the best indicator of how politicized the mental health professions have become. It seems to me that social justice epitomizes what is currently being advanced as our field’s leading political concerns, assuming that the field has, or should have, such concerns at all.

Social justice is the doctrine of counselor-as-activist. It exhorts counselors and therapists to leave their offices, de-emphasize individual psychotherapy, and become lobbyists for special interest groups. Social justice activists solicit “legislative bodies for the purpose of facilitating systemic changes in response to social injustices” and “broaden their potential repertoire of helping behaviors beyond those associated with providing individual therapy” (Constantine et al., 2007).

In the aptly titled “A Social Justice Agenda: Ready, Or Not?” (Speight & Vera, 2004), we learn that “it is the oppressive social environment that is the cause of psychopathology. As long as psychologists persist in defining problems intrapsychically and individually, social injustice will be perpetuated due to efforts to change individuals and not the social context.”

What exactly is the social context that must be changed? Social justice activists focus on ‘disempowered groups’, ‘sick systems’, and ‘marginalized collectives’—in other words, groups they consider oppressed by the forces of sexism, racism, ageism, classism, heterosexism, etc.

Speight & Vera (2004) emphasize that “any discussion of social advocacy and social justice requires a foundation in the psychology of oppression and liberation”. Just what is meant by a ‘psychology of oppression and liberation’ is never defined, but the authors do admit to using “psychology as a tool for social justice”, and that “advocating for social change is a highly political and controversial position in professional psychology.”

After reading a great deal of social justice material, I’m forced to conclude that its authors have a problem being straightforward. They constantly fail to state the implications of implementing a social justice agenda, opting instead for half-admissions. For example, it is rather inane to say that social justice is ‘highly political’, when, in fact, it is entirely political. What else does one call activism on behalf of minority issues at the group level?

Similarly, the bare statement that social justice is ‘controversial’ is essentially meaningless. It does, however, make sense from a strategic point of view, because if activists had to admit exactly how the movement is controversial, it would be like shooting themselves in the foot. They would have to admit that social justice can only be practiced by those on the political far-left. Consider, for example, how incongruent it would be for republican, objectivist, pastoral, independent, and perhaps even moderate democrat counselors to advocate for gay marriage, or a variety of other group-level minority issues.

Why don’t social justice activists, who are by-and-large academics, present the explicit political nature of social justice? I suggest that it’s because of the movement’s most inconvenient irony: while claiming to fight against oppression, social justice actually perpetrates its own form of oppression by seeking to impose a far-left political agenda on all mental health professionals. Social justice’s most ironic turn, then, is that it seeks to erase difference, impose its values, and proclaim only one standard of ethics.

Indeed, activists and authors write as if social justice is already an accepted standard of professional practice. They condescendingly describe it as a ‘paradigm shift’ and ‘revolutionary’. They want it ‘infused’ into the curriculum of counseling training programs, and they have had a major influence on our professional associations. In 2003, for example, the Governing Board of the American Counseling Association (ACA) adopted what are called “Advocacy Competencies” for counseling professionals. Multicultural competencies apparently aren’t enough.

ACA’s Advocacy Competencies don’t specify any particular kind of political advocacy, but since advocacy is the special province of social justice, ACA seems complicit in promoting an uncritical acceptance of social justice imperatives. ACA President Brian Canfield’s comments in “Valuing Diversity of Thought”, published in the January 2008 edition of Counseling Today, are telling in this regard. He writes that “while many would like to employ the prestige and resources of the American Counseling Association to advocate for these and other issues [e.g. ‘oppressive and inequitable taxation’ and ‘personal rights and freedoms’], we need to tread cautiously, not for lack of desire, but for pragmatic reasons.”

The ‘pragmatic reasons’ must surely include the problematic far-left politics of social justice. Canfield’s intent was to assert that ACA cannot adopt political positions, but his language seems to furnish ominous loopholes: “Current ACA policy holds that absent compelling evidence or a clear consensus among our members, ACA as an organization does not possess a legitimate mandate to advocate for any particular position or course of action on issues not directly related to counselors and the counseling profession”. Perhaps ‘evidence’ and ‘consensus’ will soon be forthcoming from those who don’t lack ‘desire.’

Though never made explicit by its authors, the political basis of social justice is apparent after reading only a few activist tracts. Social justice rests on a distributive justice model, or, in more common language, socialism/Marxism. Janet Helms (2003) is fond of the term ‘communitarian social justice’. She states that “while it is not clear to me that communitarian social justice is workable to any great extent in a capitalistic society, it should be incorporated as one of many social justice perspectives that guide the profession.”

At a conference I attended in 2006, Michael D’Andrea, frequent Counseling Today columnist and former President of ACA’s Counselors for Social Justice, praised Marxism as a primary method of achieving social justice goals. He suggested, for example, that ‘wage caps’ would be a great way of creating more wealth equity in the United States.

It seems hard to believe that social justice activists endorse Marxism as a serious solution to any kind of societal problem, but it makes more sense when you consider that social justice is largely the project of academics. The news magazine The Week (Dec 21, 2007), recently reported that several studies show an extreme liberal bias in universities. Liberals and Marxists, outnumber conservatives and libertarians by 5-to-1 in political science and 20-to-1 in anthropology and sociology. Results for psychology weren’t given, but one may assume that the numbers would show a majority of far-left liberals teaching in our discipline as well. The point is that academics, particularly those who promote social justice, aren’t representative of average Americans, and probably not rank-and-file mental health professionals either.

In addition to socialist/Marxist aspirations, social justice authors cite postmodernism as their underlying philosophy. Postmodernism is famously obscure, and may very well be an influential source of obscurity in social justice writing. At any rate, boiled down, postmodernism is little more than the assertion that values and knowledge are relative, never absolute. Western culture is also heavily devalued.

D’Andrea (2006) highlights a definition of postmodernism “as the breakdown of our premodern (e.g., religious) and modern (e.g., scientific) institutions, our relinquishment of absolute truths, and our recognition of socially constructed realities.” If this sounds appealing, social justice eagerly waits to embrace you.

In the “Postmodern Assault on Reason” (, philosopher Stephen Hicks describes postmodernism in this way: “Postmodernism, as a philosophy and as an intellectual movement, is characterized by strong skepticism and subjectivism, and consequently by ethical relativism … postmodernism holds that our identities are constructed by our race or gender or class identities … you only exist as part of a collective group … so, society is made up of blacks versus whites, men versus women, rich versus poor. Generally, the political philosophy of postmodernism is left collectivism”.

Hicks nicely summarizes the main points in my criticism of social justice: he explains why social justice obsesses about identity as a product of group affiliation, the resulting political strategy of group-level advocacy, and socialism/Marxism as its only compatible political ideologies.
It is a somewhat daunting prospect to critique social justice. I’ve done it before with relatively punishing results. Others are attacked outright. Richard Henriksen’s experience, detailed in his January 2008 Counseling Today OpEd piece, is a rich example. Henriksen described the vitriol he suffered (e.g. “name-calling”, “personal attacks”) simply as a result of stating that it was inappropriate for a professional listserve to be used to promote the politics of social justice. Such reactions to questioning and criticism show social justice activists behaving like zealous ideologues, rather than critical intellectuals.

Social justice activists, like all mental health professionals, have an obligation to model good behavior to students in training, to colleagues, to clients. It would benefit our profession if social justice authors were willing to be more forthright. Here are some ways they could easily be more honest:

1) Stop using euphemisms like ‘social justice.’ If you want counseling professionals to agitate on behalf of political minorities, just say so directly and be open to critical feedback.

2) Refer back to the values management literature and practice a form of informed consent when promoting social justice to students, colleagues, the profession at large, and clients. For example, disclose the far-left politics of social justice. Be willing to see what happens when you tell students, especially those applying for admission to your programs, that to be a good social justice practitioner, it helps to be a Marxist. Or, tell your clients that you’re a Marxist and support redistribution of wealth through the implementation of ‘wage caps’. See what happens when you tell that to an immigrant—no doubt likely an ethnic minority—who came to the United States specifically to increase earning potential.

3) Stop misusing the tradition of multicultural competence by conflating terms like ‘multicultural-social justice’ (D’Andrea, 2006) or ‘multicultural-feminist-social justice’. No amount of hyphenating or stringing words together can change what they each mean. Also stop using blatantly inflammatory and manipulative language, like ‘White supremacist’, when describing general American culture (D’Andrea, 2005).

4) Stop diminishing multicultural competence because it does not include political advocacy. Reject statements like these: “it is not difficult to quarrel with the argument that the Multicultural Competencies (Sue et al., 1998) and its predecessors are defective because of their primarily individual focus” (Helms, 2003).
5) Acknowledge that social justice is only about political activism. It is claimed that various activities, such as service learning, are examples of social justice. Such activities are obviously not unique to social justice and are done quite apart from social justice goals. The movement’s only new offering is its far-left political agenda.
I hope counseling professionals who are unfamiliar with social justice will take the time to research it more thoroughly on their own. Take action if you don’t like what you discover. Write letters, speak out. Social justice has made great in-roads, and those of us who oppose its underlying goals and the over-politicization of our profession can no longer afford to be silent.