Activism and Anti-oppressive Practice

If you follow me on social media you might have just noticed that I am involved with a little event called Bi Pride next week – the UK’s first pride event for multisexual people, and allies.As one of the longest serving committee members of the charity (I attended the second meeting, before we were even called Bi Pride) my role has moved from backroom diversity and inclusion policies to very visible and public.

This of course means that my identities, or at least some of them are now out for all to see, although I never considered myself not out, preferring the concept of “inviting in” as addressing the power imbalances of a hetronormative and cisgenderist society. To some though, still wedded to the idea of the therapist as a blank slate, it may feel jarring to know aspects of who I am and what I believe.

The blank slate has always been a myth. as I explore here we label those we wish to distinguish as “other” and believe the default has no label, other than of course “normal”. So, the identities which were determined to be blank, as in normal, of white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, abled, were assumed not to exist as identities. Disclosure of them was never discussed because there was seen to be nothing to disclose. Only the “other” has to consider whether their identities might be an issue for a client, because only the other exists apart from normal.

We have hopefully moved on from this idea, especially as there is a wealth of research that suggests that naming our identities is beneficial to clients. Indeed in some spheres (such as rape crisis counselling) it is assumed that knowledge of a particular identity – such as gender – is vital for the therapeutic work to take place. This is not the space to explore whether that is actually the case, I cite it merely as an example of how we have moved from the therapist as a blank slate upon which the client can project whatever they wish.

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, The point, however, is to change it.

Karl Marx Eleven Theses on Feuerbach

In exploring the tension between psychotherapy and activism this quote keeps returning to me. My first degree was in Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method, where i studied the great grandfathers of psychology, Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche and in particular Schopenhauer. Often they were attempting to explain the inner world, developing the language and ideas that led to Freud, Jung, and their descendants from the behaviorism of Perls to the Person Centered approach of Rogers. What Marx identified was that they saw themselves as disinterested observers of reality, even if the reality they believed in was negative they did not believe it was their role to change – and of course in the case of Hegel did not believe that change was necessary given the perfection of the Prussian state. (With the usual disclaimers of Hegel being quite so unreadable its entirely possible he did not mean that all all)

For the majority of the history of the talking therapies the idea that we are the disinterested observer, the blank slate for reflecting the client/patients inner world has been prevalent. To dig even further into the philosophical ancestors the therapist observes the shadows on Plato/s wall and interprates them for the seeker after truth, their client. This process takes place away from the world, and with a knowledge that it is only the internal world which we are concerned with, as the true reality.

This concept has led to some of the worst abuses of therapeutic practice, and clients. People incarcerated because of their gender, sexuality, race. Genuine anger at injustice pathologised, pain treated as a mental illness, The outer world has been dismissed of less importance than the inner, and those seeking therapy have so often been treated as wrong in their reactions to injustice and oppression. This finds its culmination in many of the trite CBT type memes which suggest the only problems people face are a negative attitude.

Racism Exists

Homophobia Exists

Sexism Exists

Homophobia Exists

Biphobia Exists

Disabilism Exists

Transphobia Exists

Islamaphobia Exists

Antisemistism Exists

Classism Exists

Whorephobia Exists

Agism Exists

Injustice and Oppression Exist

If we accept, as I believe that we must, that our clients exist in a world where they can be impacted by marginalization and oppression then we have a choice, to see ourselves as the philosophers who merely interpret our clients worlds, or to engage with changing those things which bring them to us in distress and pain.

Surely if the point of every therapeutic relationship is to work towards its own redundancy, then the point of the profession as a whole should be to see ourselves as no longer necessary? If this is the case then are we not duty bound to try to create a world without margenlisation and oppression?

In considering how one navigates accepting the need to change the material conditions of those who come to therapy I have concluded that we need to go beyond affirmative and non judgmental and into anti-oppressive. Anti-oppressive practice was first developed for social work in the US but has been adopted by a number of therapists around the world. AOP considers that some individuals are actively, and systematically oppressed, and that we must accept the impact of the the outer world, and work towards countering it.

An anti-oppressive (AOP) framework encourages social workers to critically analyze systematic oppression, individual bias and beliefs, and oppression which occurs between service users and oppressors.

In considering the need for anti-oppressive practice we have to also consider how we interact with the world. We are no longer therapist and client locked away from the outside, observing the shadows on the wall, but acknowledging how the outer world is also in the room, giving it concrete reality and accepting that 1000 positive thinking memes can be wrong, you cannot erase oppression with a forest bath and readjustment of attitudes.

Caption reads The goal of therapy should never be to help people adjust to their oppression

Can one accept that oppression is real and then not engage with changing the systematic structures which uphold and perpetuate it?

Can I accept that oppression is real and then not engage with changing the systematic structures which uphold and perpetuate it?

I can only answer the question for myself, I cannot, and thus we enter the activism part of this essay. I cannot reconcile knowing of the impact of double discrimination, minority stress, and other impacts on bi mental health and not feel the need to challenge them. i cannot read the statistics around rape, sexual assault and domestic violence and feel it is enough to observe the shadows on the wall. If it is the outer world which is causing pain to my clients I cannot ignore it, lock the door and pretend only the inner world exists. I am not a philosopher, I am an anti oppressive therapist.

Anti oppressive practice is not just about the external world however. Whilst, to me, it demands engagement with structures of oppression, there is also a requirement to consider how those structures might replicate within the therapeutic space. Again this demands we ditch the idea of the therapist as a blank slate, or quasi priest offering the sacrament of hob judgement. I am white, not visibly disabled, assumed to be a certain class, gender, ethnicity, and possibly religion and many more. Only be exploration of my own identities can I consider how I might uphold the structures of oppression either consciously or unconsciously.

To integrate anti oppressive practice into ones work is to step outside of therapy room, and in doing so to say our role is both to explain, and to change, for without one the other is meaningless. Indeed I would go as far as to say that without the active intervention for change we put our needs and desires to be the philosopher above those of our clients. Whether working as a consultant, training organisations, or helping to organise Bi Pride I am fulfilling my own needs, but I am also meeting the need for change to occur in the world.

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