The Baneful Politics of the Therapeutic Sensibility

The most important casualty of our obsession with feelings.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

The heart of “woke” politics is the therapeutic sensibility: the primacy we put on the role of individual feelings in self-identity and self-worth. Thus our psychic comfort, self-esteem, and the acknowledgement of both by others should be the most important concern of society, its institutions, and government policy. And they should confirm and validate our subjective emotions and identities, even if doing so infringes on both the unalienable rights of others, and on the foundational principles of our political order, particularly free speech and truth, the most important bulwark of our political freedom.

These therapeutic attitudes have contributed to the moral and intellectual incoherence of the “woke” Left, and its threat to our political freedom, one enabled by the long transformation of our federal government into a nanny Leviathan-state that empowers itself by pandering to this juvenile narcissism.

“Cancel culture,” for example, and the eagerness to create mechanisms of censorship like the proposed Disinformation Governance Board, on pause for now, are manifestations of this obsession with the impact of politically proscribed ideas and speech on manufactured victim-group identities. Public monuments or names of schools must be “cancelled” because members of certain groups will be traumatized by fleeting reminders of injuries and injustices, like slavery, they have never personally experienced.

More pernicious, public speech, whether on online platforms or in public lectures, that “trigger”–– discomfit or injure–– the delicate feelings or self-esteem of others, must be “cancelled.” And if not, this speech can be legitimately shut down through physical intimidation and disruption. The aim is to create a “chilling effect,” as the ACLU used to call it, that leads to self-censorship, which is the most effective way of shutting up people whose views one objects to.

Another Orwellian technique is to brand speech one disagrees with as “hate speech,” usually accompanied by preposterous charges of “racism” or being a “white supremacist,” part of a collection of fringe groups our President, Attorney General, and head of the FBI have called our country’s most dangerous “domestic terrorist” organization.

The latter charge, of course, is transparently specious given the miniscule influence that such marginal groups have on the larger society and politics, especially compared to nakedly racist organizations such as the Nation of Islam. Even the Southern Poverty Law Center, a notorious promulgator of the alleged dangers of “white supremacists,” is compelled to acknowledge the “deeply racist, antisemitic and anti-gay rhetoric of its leaders, including top minister Louis Farrakhan,” which “have earned the NOI a prominent position in the ranks of organized hate.”

Yet despite its obvious foundation of “hate,” its current leader, Louis Farrakhan, is worth an estimated $5 million, and he has been photographed with President Obama and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, bespeaking a political influence no genuine “white supremacist” today enjoys. Moreover, his and NOI’s genuine “hate speech” and its impact on its victims are rarely criticized or even reported on by the establishment media, or receive a fraction of the uncritical, excessive coverage given to hate-crime hoaxers like Jussie Smollett.

Here we see one of the major problems that arise when “feelings” are allowed to dictate public policy––the sheer hypocrisy about which political group’s feelings and self-esteem are deemed worthy of public attention and political redress. It has long been the case that so-called white people, especially males, have not had their feelings or identities obsessed over and recognized by the political and media establishment. Judging by media coverage, the problems of the white underclass, like the current record number of deaths from drug overdoses, might as well not exist. White males in fact are now the legitimate focus of accepted and even celebrated rank bigotry.

So too with Christians, particularly those in the Middle East, who are currently being subjected to probably the largest persecution in history. Regions in which Christians have lived and practiced their faith for over 2000 years are being violently cleansed––by murder, torture, punitive laws, and enslavement. Hardly any of this mayhem makes its way into the establishment media, with the noble exception of the religious media and writers like the Gatestone Institute contributor and Freedom Center Shillman Fellow Raymond Ibrahim.

This hypocrisy, of course, reflects another problem with the therapeutic sensibility––its politicization. Some “feelings” and “identities” are more equal than others. Favored identity groups like blacks, Latinos, women, homosexuals, transsexuals, and the vague “People of Color,” are the most privileged victim groups. But even then, members of those groups who are part of the credentialed cognitive elite take precedence over poor or working-class members, or those who are conservatives.

So we witness spectacles like the celebration of a black woman’s appointment to the Supreme Court as a triumph of “diversity” and racial affirmation, even though she’s a graduate of one of the country’s most elite law schools, Harvard, alma mater of half of the current Supreme Court Justices. These celebrants of “diversity,” by the way, are the same people who cheered the “high-tech lynching” of black Supreme Court Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings–– chaired by Joe “you ain’t black” Biden.

Meanwhile, we hear little about the ongoing slaughter of black men, women, and children mostly by other blacks, a toll several orders of magnitude greater than all the historical victims of the Ku Klux Klan. Nor is there public concern over the fact that 40% of abortions are of black babies, and few question why so many Planned Parenthood clinics are located in poor minority neighborhoods.

The reason is those black lives don’t really “matter” politically, a truth supported by BLM’s “defund the police” movement that has propagated record numbers of violent crimes, most of whose perpetrators and victims are black people. To the “woke,” their suffering is not as important as the trauma of a transgender “woman” who’s suffered micro-aggressive “hate speech” from being addressed as “he.” Those thousands of black victims every year have no political capital, nor can they be weaponized against the Left’s political enemies, any more than a white person can who’s died from an overdose of Chinese fentanyl smuggled through our porous southern border.

Next, feelings of injury are notoriously prey to subjective thresholds of insult or “hate.”

As a consequence, eventually the standard of offense will be set by the most sensitive, or politically devious, or neurotic, and free speech will become their hostages.

Take sexual harassment law. Its careless subjectivity of terms like “hostile or intimidating” that trigger complaints have had a devastating effect on workplace dynamics and free speech. I learned this in the early Nineties when I was a university department chairman and was obligated to field sexual harassment complaints. Not one complaint I dealt with––mainly by referring them to the new administrative bureaucracy mandated by sexual harassment law––involved sexual quid pro quos or unwanted sexual passes, but ridiculously subjective charges such as accusing a colleague’s cologne of creating a “hostile and intimidating workplace.” I kid you not. Most complaints were really about intra-program spats over teaching schedules or course assignments.

In short, the therapeutic sensibility has given a potent weapon to the enemies of free speech, one even more powerful than the gulags and torture-chambers of totalitarian states. Much more effective is the insidious self-censorship we see everywhere, including many so-called conservatives who don’t want the media and twitter mob attacking them. So they practice the linguistic preemptive cringe, thus validating the mendacious use of language debased by politics.

Finally, the most important victim of this obsession with feeling is truth. Back in the day, we accepted that sometimes “truth hurts,” but that such discomfort is not worth the abandonment of public truth freely expressed in the town square. The widespread inclusion of diverse peoples in the processes of democratic deliberation requires a broad tolerance of various ways and styles of speaking and writing, so that from this contentious, sometimes blunt process truth may emerge and lies winnowed out. If someone is insulted by the rough-and-tumble of public discourse, he can stop reading or listen to someone else.

Protecting truth and exposing lies with evidence and reason in the market-place of ideas are our most important ways of defending our First Amendment rights. As French philosopher Jean-François Revel has written,

democracy cannot thrive without a certain diet of truth. It cannot survive if the degree of truth in current circulation falls below a minimal level. A democratic regime, founded on the free-determination of important choices made by a majority, condemns itself to death if most of the citizens who have to choose between various options make their decision in ignorance of reality, blinded by passions or misled by fleeting impressions.

In short, truth is democracy’s immune system, without which the body politic is vulnerable to the viruses of the big lie and ideological propaganda. We must not compromise truth and free speech by catering to the therapeutic cult of feeling now dominating our public discourse.

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