Therapy Culture, by Frank Furedi

Please don't feel our pain

Anyone who watches a bit of daytime or prime-time television will recognise what Frank Furedi is talking about in his stringent attack on the way we live now. It is not just the intimate subject matter routinely on view: childhood abuse, domestic violence, marriage problems. It is the tone, the timbre of the new conversation which so disturbs: the encouragement of "ordinary people" to speak of distress, to own up to trauma, to keep "working on their self-esteem". In a world where power still operates nakedly in the global markets or at the end of a gun, what can be meant by the mass emoting of so many apparently vulnerable citizens?

Furedi has written a textbook-style assessment of this new therapy culture. While he lacks the illuminating gifts of sociologists such as Christopher Lasch or Richard Sennett, who can make their analysis of shifting social forces as compelling as a novel, Furedi does a good job, through statistics, quotations and examples, of hammering home his points. For instance, the rising black lines on a series of graphs show how the use in newspapers of terms such as "stress", "trauma" and "counselling" has soared.

Furedi forensically examines this brave new emotional world: the rush of counsellors to the site of every trauma, the ways in which economic problems are recast as psychological phenomena, the cult of the Victim, the decline of political activism. Vulnerability is encouraged, dissident emotions such as anger and hate are managed away. On the one hand citizens are encouraged to "affirm" and "recognise" themselves and others. On the other, we have a citizenry who consider themselves almost uniquely powerless, a fact confirmed by ever-lower election turnouts.

Furedi puts all this cogently in context. The 20th century was indeed, as one of the most intelligent television series of recent times called it, The Century of the Self. The new emphasis on subjectivity heralded both by psychoanalysis and psychology merely laid the ground for the new mass emotionalism.

Yet there is something too partial, too bleak about the world as Furedi paints it. Yes, there is more public intervention in private life, but is that entirely a bad thing? Feminism blew the gaffe on private cruelties; it made domestic violence culturally unacceptable. Would it really be better, as Furedi hints, for us to return to the informal management of private life, otherwise known as silence and injustice, of the good old days?

He also likes to present the world of therapy as rather soft, wet about the ears. But the profession is much more complex and dissident than he suggests. Plenty of therapists would die before they used the term "self-esteem". Instead, they see their business as thinking about, and helping others to think about, what it means to be human.

Furedi is right to argue that one of our culture's weaknesses is an unwillingness to face the fact that life is difficult and sometimes cruel; we can't litigate or self-love our way out of every problem. I also share his longing for a return to a more public, less touchy-feely form of politics. But this may already be happening, judging from the difficulties that Blair, the ultimate emotionally literate politician, now finds himself in. Voters now want social change more than sharing. Furedi may well have written a book that skilfully delineates a slice of recent history, just now slipping away.

Melissa Benn is the author of 'Madonna and Child' (Vintage)

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