As a general election has been called in the UK I have been thinking more about the parallels between politics, the media and counselling. In politics and the media there seems to be a deliberate simplification and separating of people into opposing camps – either through an attitude of ‘winner takes it all’ or through the creation of an ‘us vs them’ diametric. This is reflected in our first-past-the-post voting system in which a vote of 51% – 49% is turned into a binary 1-0. It is also shown in how the media creates and repeats stereotypes designed to separate and isolate people, thus weakening people’s power to join together to challenge existing power structures. Partly this is done through the creation of the ‘Other’. ‘We’ are told that these ‘Others’ are responsible for terrorism, benefit fraud, drugs, murder etc. ‘They’ are talked about in a dehumanised language e.g. that the UK is being ‘swarmed’ or ‘flooded’ with immigrants. As an aside, I think it was Noam Chomsky who said if you reverse everything the mainstream media tells you you’re probably closer to the truth that what they’re actually saying. So for example we’re told Muslims are terrorists, when in reality the US and UK governments have arguably committed more terrorism to Islamic countries that individual Muslims have to the US and UK (I recommend reading British journalist Mark Curtis work on this). We’re told that the poor are committing benefit fraud when in reality the biggest benefit fraud is committed by the super-rich – through the use of offshore tax havens and their influence over changing laws to suit their financial interests.
What does any of that have to do with counselling? I see parallels through the existence of black and white thinking. As I’ve described above the media gives a simplistic ‘us vs them’ narrative which is the interest of those in power, highlighting differences between people to separate them (sometimes literally into ‘black’ and ‘white’ – there is obviously much more to be said about institutional racism and the creation of the ‘Other’). In the counselling room I often see people who are stuck in black and white thinking about themselves – for example, believing that everything positive that happens to them is a fluke and everything negative is their fault. This simple narrative may once have helped them navigate the world, but something has happened to lead them to therapy and perhaps seek a shift in that story. I believe a way forward in such situations is to gently untangle the threads of the client’s story, perhaps by challenging some of their beliefs about themselves through highlighting areas of their life that don’t fit that black and white narrative. I believe the role of a counsellor here is to complicate matters rather than simplify them. Challenging black and white thinking in the counselling room will hopefully help lead to new ways of thinking for the client. Sometimes it can be challenging to untangle firmly held beliefs, and I believe it should be undertaken with respect and compassion for the different threads that wove such a story in the first place.
If we are to apply such an approach to the political arena, I think we need to challenge the narrative of division and find compassion for others – while trying not to demonise the people forging those divisions in the first place. It is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking “the politics of hate is winning, and I HATE those responsible!” To think in terms of ‘us vs them’ is so normalised it can be hard to escape – I realise I have partly done it myself in this blog when suggesting that the US/UK governments and the super-rich are villainous ‘Others’. However, being able to hold onto compassion for others certainly doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to injustice, far from it. Challenging narratives and finding the ‘grey’ in our personal and political lives doesn’t have to mean sitting on the fence. All emotions are legitimate (especially anger!) but this doesn’t need to lead to black and white thinking. What I am talking about is challenging black and white thinking when it comes to ourselves and our society. Underlying that is the challenge to seek more compassion for ourselves and others, while being bold enough to question narratives that undermine that.