The end of self-reliance?

Posted: Apr 22, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- It hurt her feelings, says Jane Fonda, sharing her feelings, that one of her husbands liked them to have sexual threesomes. ``It reinforced my feeling I wasn't good enough.''

     In the Scottsdale, Ariz., Unified School District office, the receptionist used to be called a receptionist. Now she is ``director of first impressions.'' The happy director says, ``Everyone wants to be important.'' Scottsdale school bus drivers now are ``transporters of learners.'' A school official says such terminological readjustment is ``a positive affirmation.'' Which beats a negative affirmation.

     Manufacturers of pens and markers report a surge in teachers' demands for purple ink pens. When marked in red, corrections of students' tests seem so awfully judgmental. At a Connecticut school, parents consider red markings ``stressful.'' A Pittsburgh principal favors more ``pleasant-feeling tones.'' An Alaska teacher says substituting purple for red is compassionate pedagogy, a shift from ``Here's what you need to improve on'' to ``Here's what you have done right.''

     Fonda's confession, Scottsdale's tweaking of terminology and the recoil from red markings are manifestations of today's therapeutic culture. The nature and menace of ``therapism'' is the subject of a new book, ``One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture Is Eroding Self-Reliance'' by Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel, M.D., resident scholars at the American Enterprise Institute.

     From childhood on, Americans are told by ``experts'' -- therapists, self-esteem educators, grief counselors, traumatologists -- that it is healthy for them continuously to take their emotional temperature, inventory their feelings and vent them. Never mind research indicating that reticence and suppression of feelings can be healthy.

     Because children are considered terribly vulnerable and fragile, playground games like dodgeball are being replaced by anxiety-reducing and self-esteem-enhancing games of tag where nobody is ever ``out.'' But abundant research indicates no connection between high self-esteem and high achievement or virtue. Is not unearned self-esteem a more pressing problem?

     Sensitivity screeners remove from texts and tests distressing references to things like rats, snakes, typhoons, blizzards and ... birthday parties (which might distress children who do not have them). The sensitivity police favor teaching what Sommers and Satel call ``no-fault history.'' Hence California's Department of Education stipulating that when ``ethnic or cultural groups are portrayed, portrayals must not depict differences in customs or lifestyles as undesirable'' -- slavery? segregation? anti-Semitism? cannibalism? -- ``and must not reflect adversely on such differences.''

     Experts warn about what children are allowed to juggle: Tennis balls cause frustration, whereas ``scarves are soft, nonthreatening, and float down slowly.'' In 2001 the Girl Scouts, illustrating what Sommers and Satel say is the assumption that children are ``combustible bundles of frayed nerves,'' introduced, for girls 8 to 11, a ``Stress Less Badge'' adorned with an embroidered hammock. It can be earned by practicing ``focused breathing,'' keeping a ``feelings diary,'' burning scented candles and exchanging foot massages.

     Vast numbers of credentialed -- that is not a synonym for ``competent'' -- members of the ``caring professions'' have a professional stake in the myth that most people are too fragile to cope with life's vicissitudes and traumas without professional help. Consider what Sommers and Satel call ``the commodification of grief'' by the ``grief industry'' -- professional grief ``counselors'' with ``degrieving'' techniques. Such ``grief gurus'' are ``ventilationists'': they assume that everyone should grieve the same way -- by venting feelings sometimes elicited by persons who have paid $1,795 for a five-day course in grief counseling.

     The ``caregiving'' professions, which postulate the minimal competence of most people to cope with life unassisted, are, of course, liberal and politics can color their diagnoses. Remember the theory that because Vietnam was supposedly an unjust war, it would produce an epidemic of ``post-traumatic stress disorders.'' So a study released in 1990 claimed that half of Vietnam veterans suffered from some PTSD -- even though only 15 percent of Vietnam veterans had served in combat units. To ventilationists -- after a flood damaged books at the Boston Public library, counselors arrived to help librarians cope with their grief -- a failure to manifest grief is construed as alarming evidence of grief repressed, and perhaps a precursor of ``delayed onset'' PTSD.

     Predictably, 9/11 became another excuse for regarding healthy human reactions as pathological. Did terrorist attacks make you angry and nervous? Must be PTSD. And 9/11 gave rise to ``diagnostic mission creep'' as the idea of a ``trauma'' was expanded to include watching a disaster on television. Sommers and Satel's book is a summons to the sensible worry that national enfeeblement must result when therapism replaces the virtues on which the republic was founded -- stoicism, self-reliance and courage.