Prologue to an Anti-Therapeutic, Anti-Affirmation Movement
I’m not really one to call a “vibe shift.” The reality is that all large-scale cultural phenomena take place in distributed landscapes where profoundly different realities can reign, even in those social spaces that are very close to one another. Hollywood appears to be losing patience with the lumpen social justice politics that it cynically embraced in the past decade, while academia by and large seems to be doubling down. And of course even in any particular industry or culture, there will be local dynamics that make a huge difference for the lived experiences of the people in those local spaces. It frequently seems like canceling has run out of steam, as a disciplinary tactic; you watch people on social media trying to get somebody canceled, these days, and it sometimes feels like watching them trying and failing to get a pull-cord lawnmower started. And yet many people remain profoundly vulnerable to being canceled - perversely, they're the ones in closest proximity to the social justice movement - and the notion of a “vibe shift” would not be very comforting to them if they were. So when people ask me whether we’ve turned a corner, as they frequently do, I’m never sure what to say. “Woke” vs. “Anti-woke” is a horribly exhausted and pointless framework, one which suggests binary simplicity where there is only boundless complexity, but beyond that, there was never any chance that there was going to be some clear victory for one or the other. What will emerge will be some synthesis of the two impulses. (Probably an equally exhausting one.)
I sold my new book in May of 2022; I don’t think I could have sold it to a major publisher in May of 2021. Some things have changed. But every cultural dynamic lives for a long time with its negation.
That’s a lot of windup given that I am about to make a prediction about a political shift, of a sort. But I’m not predicting a major social change writ large so much as I am predicting a new or newly invigorated response to a preexisting cultural reality, an unfortunate one. I think there's gathering dissatisfaction with a common set of tropes regarding personal agency and mental health. In particular, I think that the dominance of the therapeutic assumption in American life, and the role of affirmation within it, will be challenged. Currently, an inescapable American cultural mode, particularly among the educated, is one of mandatory therapeutic maximalism and an attendant tyranny of affirmation. The therapeutic/affirmational mode assumes
Wanting and not getting is disordered and a kind of identity crime
Human life is meant to be spent in a ceaseless state of feeling “valid,” which is to say, affirmed and respected and paid attention to and liked; any deviation from this state is pathological and a vestige of injustice
Good people spend a great deal of their time categorically and uncritically affirming others - telling friends and strangers alike that their desires are all legitimate, their instincts always correct, their perceptions of their own needs never mistaken or misguided, their self-conception compelling
Correspondingly, we should all assume that anyone who is not affirming us is necessarily doing so out of a particular kind of politicized wickedness, that they are likely motivated by racism, sexism, homophobia, or other kinds of bigotry, and if these specific accusations are not plausible, then by simple evil
The job of society is to enable every individual to achieve every desire they believe that they’re entitled to, and the fundamental sin of our present order is not poverty or inequality or exploitation but the serial denial of the dreams of some individuals
Society writ large has the ability, the right, and the duty to manage the psychiatric health of every individual
Psychiatric health entails all elements of a person’s inner life, including basic aspects of the human condition like sadness, shyness, irritation, fear, disappointment, and the various other permutations of unhappiness, all of which are inherently pathological and disordered; there is no such thing as an appropriate negative emotion
The ratchet of expanding the number of conditions that are seen as falling under the broad umbrella of mental illness goes only in one direction - we add things to the DSM, we never subtract; the necessary and correct evolution of mental health mores over time is for more and more people to find themselves diagnosed with more and more conditions, and it’s cruel and bigoted to suggest that there is an overdiagnosis problem
The actual provisioning of medical care for genuinely pathological mental conditions is and should remain ancillary to the social conversation about mental health, which must instead stay fixated on the task of proscribing behaviors that might result in the psychic unease or unhappiness of anyone, rather than focusing on treating and curing medical conditions
Claims of psychiatric need are a special kind of claim which can override the wants and needs of others, and simultaneously, everyone is free to make a claim of psychiatric need at any time; the obvious contradictions and destructive consequences of this combination are not to be explored
We do the best for others by affirming what they already believe and validating what they already want; people are happiest and healthiest when they are encouraged to think that vulnerability is more valuable than resilience and that their pain is more beautiful than their strength.
There are already some people who oppose some or all of these assumptions. I myself have written a fair amount in this regard. My work on mental health ideology, obviously, with my distaste for trauma culture a good example. But it goes beyond that; see, for example, my look at the bizarre world of women’s inspirational Instagram memes or this piece on the internal contradictions in self-care. My interest here is not just in mental health specifically but in the broader sense in which the culture of therapy and affirmation leaves people unable to cope with a world that will never keep its promise to protect them from trauma. I’m also frequently struck by how a therapeutic mindset has the perverse outcome of setting standards for people that they can’t possibly meet, which just results in worse feelings. And I’m not alone in this. Not to put words into her mouth, but similar sentiments can be seen in the work of Seerut Chawla, a London-based psychotherapist who has a popular series of graphics that express skepticism about many elements of therapeutic culture and the tyranny of affirmation.
What’s unfortunate, but utterly predictable, is that resistance to the therapeutic and affirmational ideology is currently coded as right-wing. Among contemporary liberalism’s most powerful tools is its ability to assert that any deviation from the most narrow reading of its current dogmas is necessarily an expression of conservatism. But, in fact, there is no reason whatsoever to look at therapeutic/affirmational culture and see it as inherently left-wing, and as I’ve long argued I think that culture is very damaging to the marginalized groups that contemporary liberalism sees as the only legitimate recipients of society’s concern. And I think that we’re starting to see some dawning resistance to this ideology that comes from sources that can’t remotely be called right-wing. For example, these two recent, critical pieces on the ceaselessly popular book The Body Keeps the Score, from New York and The Washington Post, are both measured, fair, and not remotely callous towards people who believe that they’ve been the victims of trauma. Or take this New York Times piece from last year on the “recovered memories” movement, which shattered many lives and is a perfect example of how dangerous pop psychology can be. These pieces don’t stem from a conservative desire to stigmatize or a lack of sympathy for hurt people. They stem from well-articulated concerns about how contemporary psychology trends have been hijacked by social media and created unhealthy cultures that leave people totally convinced of their own powerlessness. And I think they’re just a few of many indicators that we may finally be getting some broad pushback that can’t be dismissed as MAGA.
I have no idea if this will indeed turn into a muscular social tendency, let alone whether it will “win.” I do hope that more decent people will start to speak out about how destructive pop therapy and affirmational culture have become. It’s important to say that I’m not interested in a counter-reformation; I don’t want to substitute one unhealthy set of psychological instructions for another. As Sohrab Ahmari recently pointed out, both online liberal culture and the more cultish corners of conservatism have devolved into bizarre self-help societies, and this is pretty much the opposite of what I want. Of course I want us to present people with alternative ways to feel about themselves and their mental health, but it can’t become just another catechism, a different checklist. There’s got to be an understanding that the human tools for confronting life are limited and contextual, some of them come from art and not from therapy, and that ultimately we’re all left to blunder along on our own paths, trying to achieve stability and self-ownership - but we’re not guaranteed to get either. So I would hope that this counter-movement would remain a matter of skeptical inquiry and not just another set of gurus.
That said, the anti-affirmation movement in my head assumes
Society’s interest and responsibility, when it comes to mental health, lie in providing everyone with the ability to access medical care, including psychiatric care, without undue financial hardship
Beyond fighting for this access, society has no business attempting to regulate the emotional lives of its individual members or to protect them from unhappiness and anyway has no meaningful ability to do so
Given that pain and suffering are literally and permanently unavoidable in human life, teaching others to be resilient rather than teaching them to be victims is an act of mercy, and cultivating resilience in yourself is an act of essential personal growth and adult development
Unhappy emotions, even chronic unhappy emotions, are inherent and ineradicable elements of the human condition, with boredom and disappointment something like the default state of adult life for those of us lucky enough to be financially secure in the developed world
Your pain is important and we should all want to help you heal, but everyone else is hurting too and the fact that you are hurting does not give you any special privileges
Human beings are self-deceiving creatures, and what we often need from others is to be told that we are wrong - that what we believe is wrong, that what we want is unrealistic, that the way we’ve behaved is unjustifiable
Not getting what you want is a default and healthy status, not a tragedy, though you are perfectly within your rights to be unhappy about it, and people who do not give you everything you want are not inherently “toxic,” though you’re perfectly within your rights to be unhappy with them
Self-diagnosis is inherently unhealthy, without exception
Acting as though the social and personal rules that apply to children should apply to you when you are an adult ensures that you will behave selfishly and hurt others, and the constant celebration of childish behavior in adults has profound negative consequences for all of us
Many conflicts in life involve multiple people making equally valid attempts to secure what they want in matters that are genuinely zero-sum, meaning that society actually can’t satisfy the desires of everyone, and most of the time, these conflicts are between people who are all principled and decent and who are simply trying to achieve their goals and desires the way we all do
Some people are just assholes, not narcissists, not toxic, not under the influence of the “Dark Triad,” not sociopaths or psychopaths, not BPD, not any other tendentious medicalized term you’ve used to express your distaste for them - they’re just assholes
Sometimes you're the asshole
Disagreement, expressed in language, can never be violence
When you experience trauma or grapple with your mental health, most people around you are trying their best to be kind and respectful to you, and creating long lists of behavioral or communicative standards that they will inevitably be unable to satisfy is your failure, not theirs
Sick people have as much responsibility to manage their disorders as society has to give them the tools to manage them; you cannot ask others to give you accommodation for your disability if you refuse to take accountability for it yourself
The natural place to look for love, acceptance, and affirmation when you need them is your close friends and family, the people with whom you have mutual emotional attachment, as they are the best equipped to help and the people whose opinion you care about the most; expecting strangers or society writ large to care about you the way your loved ones care about you is deluded and disordered
Some talented artists are able to turn their pain into compelling art, and some talented writers and thinkers are able to publicly explore mental illness in an interesting and generative way, but that kind of talent is rare, and trauma and mental illnesses are not only not inherently interesting, they’re usually intensely boring
You are not your pathologies, you are not your sickness, and you must be able to survive as just the person that you are, without a crutch
Once upon a time, there was strong social value in being “cool,” with the concept of cool referring to a studied indifference to the vagaries of fate; turning away from the pursuit of cool to defining ourselves according to our weaknesses and neuroses was a profound mistake, cool was a humane and correct social value, and we should return to it.
As a leftist, my core political assumption is that we are all responsible for each other’s material well-being, that we have a duty to build the kind of society where everyone’s basic needs are met, where everyone enjoys a certain degree of material comfort, and where our rights are respected equally regardless of race, religious, sexual and gender identity, ethnicity, or creed. That is the kind of mutual caring that I signed up for when I became politically conscious as a teenager. I never signed up for a vision of a society that helps everyone out there to constantly feel valid, mostly because society could never achieve such a thing. Nobody walks around feeling good about themselves all the time! Where on earth did people get the idea that human beings are meant to enjoy a permanent sense of mental security and social validity? That’s a totally unworkable and in fact quite cruel standard. If you want to be good to yourself, I suggest that you stop expecting society to be your therapist and go see licensed medical professionals in private to address the issues in your life that are appropriately treated that way. And if you want to be good to your society, I suggest you help to defeat the medicalization of everything, the casualization of the concept of trauma, the celebration of mental disorders, the assumption that everything that makes us unhappy is an injustice, the insistence that all conflict is abuse, and the infantilization of the human animal. That’s the best way to help.
I would never respond to someone telling me that they’re in pain by saying that I don’t care. In fact I’ve spent hours talking complete strangers through mental health crises. But if you care for people you try to walk them towards self-reliance, dignity, and toughness. Not from a lack of compassion, but precisely out of compassion. What compassion calls for is not pop therapy or affirmation but the extension of adult respect, helping people to endure a tragic earth. What’s required in the days ahead is for all of us to be a little harder on ourselves while we fight like hell for a world with less poverty, racism, injustice, sexism, and inequality. And we have to unwind a lot of bad habits of mind that have become inescapable before they hurt more people than they already have.
Yeah, sometimes you have imposter syndrome. And sometimes you feel like an imposter because you actually do suck at what you’re trying to do. Sometimes she’s not a narcissist, she just doesn’t love you the way you want her to, and she never will. Sometimes you don’t have ADHD, you just hate your job. Sometimes your boss isn’t a sociopath, he’s just correctly identified you as unqualified for a leadership position. Sometimes you really do have schizophrenia, only there’s nothing glamorous or exciting or romantic about it, and now you’re fat from meds and trying to hold down a steady job and going to support group to drink grainy coffee and hear people tell the same stories over and over again. And sometimes you’re just in pain because the world didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to, and you’re trying to scratch out a life you can live with, and you get overwhelmed with your mundane unhappiness on the subway home from work, and you think to yourself that it must be true that your suffering is something grander, something that calls out for medical attention and reasonable accommodation, something more that makes it easier. But it isn’t and it doesn’t and there isn't and you're just another good, deserving human being filled with the pain of being alive. I’m sorry. I am genuinely so sorry. You wanted things, and you didn't get them, and it hurts. You wanted to be something else, and you're what you are, and it hurts. You thought life would be more than it is, and it isn't, and it hurts. Me too. All of it hurts. So let it hurt.