If you pull up Twitter and search for “men will therapy,” you’ll find an endless scroll of jokes, many quite funny, about the things men will do before they go to therapy. There’s one for every current event: “men will buy twitter before going to therapy.” And after Samuel Alito’s draft Supreme Court decision was leaked: “Men will overturn roe v wade before going to therapy.” As with any ironic internet utterance, there are multiple layers here. The (genuinely useful!) website KnowYourMeme.com believes that Tweeter Zero for this meme is someone named @SpencerKlavan, who wrote “Men will literally defend an entire civilization from ruin in two world wars, start and provide for a family, produce masterworks of art and culture, and then just NOT go to therapy smdh.” Klavan, like most of those who picked up the meme and ran with it, was making fun more of how Americans talk about therapy than any actual male aversion to it.
So the meme exists for a reason: we are very weird about the concept of therapy — and it’s worth unpacking who, in the popular imagination, needs it, and who should be offended by even the mere suggestion.
To be clear, I am pro-therapy. I come from what is likely the single American subgroup responsible for producing the most therapists and therapy clients per capita (Ashkenazi Jews), my mom was a therapist, and I’ve been in therapy (in fact, I could probably use a tune-up). The issue here isn’t whether therapy is good or whether individuals should have therapists. The issue is the strange way we weaponize and adulterate the concept of therapy. And not just when it comes to “official” therapy in an office with a peaceful painting of a boat, but the broader subset of practices we associate with the acts of looking inward and discovering or repairing and healing.
For example, a surprising amount of America’s Racial Reckoning has dealt not with concrete reforms to make the country a better and fairer place, but with individually-focused efforts to get liberal white people to look inward and scrub their souls of previously undiscovered smudges of white supremacy.
The super-bestseller Robin DiAngelo is the prime evangelist of this mode — her book White Fragility is, in many ways, a call for “good white liberal” types to understand that deep down, they actually aren’t quite so good. They are bigger contributors to white supremacy than explicit racists (yes, she really argues this), and if they don’t figure out what’s wrong with them, justice will never prevail. Adjacent efforts like Ibram X. Kendi’s Antiracist Baby posit, to the same white liberal audience, that racism is something like a communicable mental disorder that, with the right training from toddlerhood on, can be inoculated against.
None of this is exactly new, mind you. Commentators like Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn have long noted that modern civil rights efforts have been split between more “traditional” ones centered on legislation, activism and other meat-and-potatoes stuff on the one hand, and more soul-searching-oriented efforts on the other. In the 1960s, Esalen even held interracial “encounter sessions.” There were always skeptics of this approach to addressing racism. “The habit of considering racism as a mental quirk, as a psychological flaw, must be abandoned,” argued Frantz Fanon, a legendary anti-colonialist thinker.
There are interesting parallels between earlier forms of pseudotherapy and new, Reckoning-flavored variants. For example, there is a notorious intervention known as “Scared Straight” in which at-risk youth are brought to prisons, and sometimes yelled at, to browbeat them back onto the path of righteousness. The evidence we have suggests these programs don’t work and might even increase the probability of delinquency.
During the Reckoning era, a slightly more genteel version of this emerged for white women: Race2Dinner. The New York magazine subhead nicely captures the business model: “Two entrepreneurs have built a business dredging up white women’s shame.” The entrepreneurs in question, Regina Jackson and Saira Rao, simply accept payment to come to white women’s dinner parties and help them confront their racism right there on the spot, over the lamb chops. Naturally, it can get confrontational. It’s definitely a more comfortable setting for an intervention than the county jail, but it’s the same logic.
If it’s clear who needs therapy in liberal America, it’s even clearer who doesn’t. “You are valid” is the three-word catchphrase that sums up the prevailing attitude toward any “marginalized identity.” The modifier is doing a lot of work here — in many cases “marginalized” means “someone who says they are marginalized.” “Marginalized” people include affluent white women married to men who decide — and publicly announce — that they are “queer” without quite explaining what that means, as well as a veritable army of Tumblr teens who explain that yes, they are “asexual” — this is a super-important part of their identity — but also they are sexually attracted to other people.
Some of this, to be sure, is provocative trolling. The fact that I am writing about Tumblr teens in print already suggests something has gone very wrong in my life (perhaps it’s time for that therapy). Online, in progressive spaces, you can publicly dare anyone to defy your identity, no matter how convoluted or seemingly self-contradictory it is. None of your friends will, because such behavior is verboten, and if your enemies do, well, there’s that oppression you were complaining about! It’s a bit of a clout-chasing game.
I had a run-in with this some years back. A progressive YouTuber — a bearded white guy married to a woman with whom he had successfully created another human — announced he was agender, meaning he had no gender at all. “I am physically happy with myself but severely dislike my place in the gender dynamic,” he explained. “It just felt like the dynamic didn’t apply to me.” Without tagging him directly, I gently pointed out that this seemed to go against prevailing progressive norms, because it was generally understood that you can’t wriggle out of your “privilege.” I was met with a shitstorm: I was mercilessly “attacking” and “harassing” a trans person (the moment he announced his agenderhood, he was trans, and therefore marginalized).
But let’s take this seriously for a moment; let’s allow, for the sake of argument, that Bearded YouTube Bro genuinely felt agender (he doesn’t anymore, by the way), even as he was completely comfortable presenting publicly as basically a police sketch of “thirtysomething white male last seen in Brooklyn coffee shop.” That’s exactly the sort of setting where a therapist might be helpful! Not because there’s anything wrong with feeling agender, but because there is some contradiction there, and — more importantly — because if your identity is easily toppled by other people not recognizing it, that’s a problem with you, not society.
We live in a country where tens of millions of people think that hundreds of millions of their countrymen are going to hell. Where Muslims and Jews and Christians work side by side, and share drinks after work, despite being members of tribes that have traditionally warred, often viciously. At a certain level, no one “respects” one another’s identity in the sense Validity Discourse demands — you are exactly who you say you are, and no one can take that from you. I celebrate the fact that American Muslims get to worship however they please, but of course I don’t think they are literally members of a chosen group that has the one true answer to all sorts of eschatological questions. America’s general stance toward pluralism is not “everyone has to agree with everyone else’s self-conception” — a completely unworkable system if you think about it for thirty seconds — but rather “live and let live and try to bridge any potentially troublesome gaps via a societal consensus that pre-game NFL fighter-jet flyovers are awesome.”
If you’re asexual, but you like sex, and you find yourself spiraling anytime some internet troll suggests you’re not really asexual, then of course therapy might be useful. A competent therapist would gently but probingly ask: Why is this label so useful to you? What is it about your feelings about sex that cause you to embrace the idea that you are separate from it? What does it feel like to have an internet stranger deny, to you, this label you value, and why does it bother you what they think? These are all exceedingly useful questions for any well-functioning adult to answer, or at least to ponder. It’s strange that during a very therapeutic moment, even suggesting that these questions might be worthwhile is often seen as tantamount to violence.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s June 2022 World edition.
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