“The problem with this conception is that access to truth or objectivity becomes something not open to universal access but, instead, becomes something distributed on the basis of social position.”
letter was published as an “alternative view” by the magazine’s editor. The letter suggested that psychology seek to distance itself from “social justice” or intersectional ideology and, instead, become more focused on science and objectivity. This letter elicited such a torrent of condemnation that even after an apology bordering on self-flagellation was made by the editor (and the piece was taken down), members of the organization still threatened to cancel their affiliation. ast week, the magazine of one of the largest regulating boards for psychotherapy and counseling, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), proclaimed on its front cover that, “We need to talk about race—but what is stopping us?” What was stopping us had been awkwardly demonstrated just the day before, when the British Psychological Society (BPS)’s online magazine made the decision to prevent the aforementioned conversation from happening online. This occurred when a fairly innocuous (though quite direct)
As someone who is currently studying ideology (and its relationship to psychotherapy), this exchange piqued my interest. To me, it demonstrates some of the inherent—and not easily surmountable—problems with the adoption of intersectional, “anti-racist,” or “social justice” ideological underpinnings by psychotherapeutic practice and psychological organizations. In this article, I will briefly explain what it is about the epistemological foundation of these positions that causes the kind of reactive explosion and inability to engage with critique that the BPS article did. I will also put forward why I believe that intersectionality itself—while professing to support the underprivileged—unfortunately constitutes a closed or authoritarian system of thought, one that would be unwise to adapt psychotherapy towards.
False Idols: the Universal vs. the Particular in Intersectional Epistemology
The epistemological foundation of intersectionality and anti-racist ideology applied to psychotherapy leads it, I believe, to fall inevitably into groupthink, authoritarianism, and conflict. Often—as in the case of the BPS letter—conflict occurs between committed intersectional thinkers and those liberal thinkers who hold fidelity to the ideal of scientific objectivity, which exists separately from ideology as an ideal. Intersectional epistemology is also incompatible with those theorists who promote transpersonal values seeking to maximize human virtue or health, which are positioned as transcendent or universal and belonging to all humans regardless of particulars. This is owing to the differing conceptions of truth held by these liberal and transpersonal traditions and the intersectional/anti-racist viewpoint which I will now describe.
Intersectional theorists sacrifice the belief in the universal for emphasis on the particular. Lead commentators on intersectionality such as Kimberlé Crenshaw (outlined in her 2019 book Seeing Race Again: Countering Colorblindness Across the Disciplines) and Patricia Hill Collins (in her 2016 book Intersectionality, with Sirma Bilge) decry the idea of universal or transcendent values being valid. Instead, the perspective offered by these theorists is that any attempt to identify values that reflect a universal truth consist, instead, of an unjustified elevation of a particular, situated perspective (invariably that of “whiteness”) to the status of a universal. It makes for a sort of false idol.
There is some grain of validity in this analysis in that, historically, the particular, Eurocentric position was often considered as equivalent to a universal truth. As such, there has been a need to involve a greater plurality of perspectives to gain greater critical understanding of what truth actually is, separate from the trimmings of European culture. Unfortunately, however, intersectional theorists do this through decrying or demoting the idea of the universal in toto—and through inverting the unjust hierarchy they perceive the world as being immersed in. They do this rather than recognizing and emphasizing truth as something that all people have potential access to inherently, as part of their status as human beings.
For intersectional theorists, everything is ideological; nothing claiming to be transcendent exists that is not—in some way—an illegitimate reification of a particular “white” perspective.
Indeed, statements on universals and the conception of the existence of universal or transcendent truth (whether this be scientific truth, religious truth, moral truth, etc.) become—for this perspective—merely a reified ideological position, with no substance behind it: An idol whereby whiteness seeks to assert itself over other perspectives in disguise. This is one of the reasons why there is such a communication difficulty between intersectional theorists and those who wish to make psychology and psychotherapy less ideological and more focused on universal or transcendent values and processes (whether these be scientific objectivity, ethical or developmental norms, etc.). For intersectional theorists, everything is ideological; nothing claiming to be transcendent exists that is not—in some way—an illegitimate reification of a particular “white” perspective. This is one of the reasons why “lived experience” and emotion is substituted for critical argument and consensus.
Standpoint Epistemology and the Center of White Privilege
Epistemologically (again according to central intersectional theorists like Hill Collins and Crenshaw), intersectionality makes its truth claims based on the standpoint of Sandra Harding. Developing from a Marx-feminist background, standpoint theory incorporates a dialectical Marx-Hegelian method in which—simplified—those in the center of societal privilege are less able to make meaningful analyses of their environments, as they unconsciously seek to reproduce their privilege. Those on the margins have, on the other hand, a more “objective” view of the society that they find themselves in. This is as a result of their marginalization. This supposed objectivity born from marginality is seen as possessing stronger validity than everyday claims of scientific or normative truth. And the term “strong objectivity” has been employed by Harding to symbolize this and contrast it with objectivity of the more regular sort.
The problem with this conception is that access to truth or objectivity becomes something not open to universal access but, instead, becomes something distributed on the basis of social position. This, in turn, creates an inevitable slide towards discrimination and totalitarianism, even if done in the name of the oppressed. Holding this belief has led to—as the conservative theorist Christopher Caldwell has mentioned—an inversion of the hypothesized pyramid of privilege. But it is reconstituted in academic terms. White male voices are considered particularly suspect and can be dismissed by reference to their social position. Black female voices, on the other hand, are viewed as particularly valid and objective, and marginality and victimhood are rewarded. This is merely setting up a false idol of a different form and flavor. It does not remove discrimination or power dynamics between groups; it merely inverts them. What it does do as a consequence is remove the belief in a universal ability to encounter a truth (scientific truth, ethical truth, moral truth, objectivity, relational truth, etc.) by which those of differing backgrounds, traditions, ethnicities and genders are able to find common ground and consensus. Life can only be seen as the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor.
This epistemological hijacking of the concept of objectivity, in part, explains why somewhat bizarre cries of racism are leveled at those such as Kristy Miller, the author of the aforementioned letter in the BPS magazine. Miller was suggesting that ideological commitments should be sidelined for emphasis on universal, scientific validity. For the intersectional theorist, all that claims to be universally valid already makes for an incorrigibly ideological bastion of white supremacy, so total commitment to promoting an intersectional ideology is not only necessary as a counter-measure but is also considered a moral imperative. Anything opposing its further encroachment into institutions and psyches is merely the reactionary “pushback” of the dominant white supremacist ideology and is, therefore, de facto racist. Here, we are faced with the typical “for-or-against” choice of authoritarian politics; those who are not aligned with the anti-racist, intersectional quest are themselves racist. There is no middle ground; there is no neutral position—no objectivity or depoliticized humanity to escape from the culture war. There is only the binary choice of racist or anti-racist ideologies: good or evil. This is made explicit by Hill Collins and Crenshaw when they dismiss any attempts to find a more neutral or lukewarm version of intersectionality (with less emphasis on political radicalism) as compromised of or appropriated by white supremacy. As a result of this epistemological and political position, we have entered into a murky world of totalitarianism.
Theorists of totalitarianism who comment on the large-scale ideologies of the 20th century such as Vladimir Tismăneanu, Kenneth Minogue and Leszek Kołakowski have identified that one of the hallmarks of a totalitarian system of thought is that there is deemed to be no aspect of the person that is beyond the remit of ideological control. This means that the personal is seen as being fair game for being utterly permeated by the political. Opinions, beliefs, preferences, morality, and relationships: Everything is perceived as corrupted by ideology and, therefore, makes for a potential area in which to indoctrinate “correct” behavior. Intersectionality—and the social justice ideology that it is part of—quite clearly falls into this category; it justifies this by claiming that all aspects of self and culture are permeated with white supremacy anyways. As a result, it is a moral imperative to assimilate and revolutionize, as a counter-measure.
To object or to ask for further analysis or proof is to do so as an agent of white supremacy—no matter one’s skin color.
Adopting this view, it is safe to say that most intersectionalists will see themselves contrastingly as anti-totalitarian (even when adopting this decidedly totalitarian epistemological and political perspective). Their conception of themselves as anti-totalitarian rests on a semi-religious view of the world, in which the entire existing social structure is corrupted by endemic (they say “systemic”) white supremacy. To assume this is an act of faith, rather than strong analysis, as theorists such as John McWhorter and Glenn Loury have pointed out. The argument will inevitably be made that people such as myself, who argue this, will be making our claims from a position of white supremacy or white fragility and that black theorists who do so (such as McWhorter, Loury, Coleman Hughes or Thomas Sowell) will be doing it as people suffering from “internalized whiteness.” To object or to ask for further analysis or proof is to do so as an agent of white supremacy—no matter one’s skin color.
The Restriction of Freedom of Thought and Intersectionality
This epistemological base is also the reason why intersectional theorists more and more prominently seek to oppose free speech—and to read hate speech and gratuitous psychological “violence” into relatively innocuous statements (such as those made by Miller). This also extends to reading unconscious racism or white supremacy into refusals to accept the paradigm of intersectionality. Personally, I have had an academic supervisor from a well-respected psychotherapeutic college say to me that he felt it was impossible not to be an intersectional thinker. He then refused to work with me on research, owing to the fact I was applying academic critique to intersectionality as it pertains to psychotherapy.
This is to be expected; it is, of course, a hallmark of totalitarian ideologies that they do not permit critique. What is particularly interesting in this case, however, is the way in which psychotherapeutic concepts and ideology intersect in the case of intersectionality. Political theorists such as Christopher Lasch and Michael Lind (among others) have described the intersection between therapeutic language and ideology previously. However, in the case of intersectionality, anti-racism, and social justice, a particular version emerges: This pertains to the idea that critique is equated with psychological harm—or violence—leveraged against minorities. Minorities are portrayed as mortally wounded psychologically—not by anything as overt as outright racism but, merely, by the refusal of psychological theorists to accept the ideology of intersectionality as an accurate portrait of the world. Rejection of the premise—or even the questioning of it—is attributed to unconscious racism.
To ask for more focus on objectivity—as Miller was doing—was not only portrayed as an act of egregious racism. It was also hypothesized by other psychologists to have the unintended consequence of causing would-be minority psychologists to turn away from the field in anguish, devastated by the fact that someone might disagree with the intersectional framework.
Of course, these are bizarre, unfounded, and actually racist assertions. Both the suggestion that minorities would necessarily feel threatened by the idea of scientific objectivity—and that being a minority means that one must accept and identify with the intersectional paradigm to the point where critique or rejection of it constitutes an attack on the self—are truly odd notions. This presents a restricted image of minorities that is both insulting and seems to diminish them, in comparison to the image of white people who presumably can tolerate both concepts of objectivity and critiques of the ideologies they hold dear. The desired effect, however, is to redefine terms so that we are no longer talking about theory as an exchange of views between individuals but, instead, are talking about “violence.” The exchange is redefined through the lens of standpoint epistemology so that the person with more “privilege” is brutalizing the person with less. This is—I contend—a pathologically narcissistic way of dealing with conflicts of theory. In the inconvenient event that the person offering the critique is a minority himself, this, of course, can be explained away with appeals to internalized whiteness and similarly rejected. This is obviously a dishonest ideological and authoritarian way of dealing with criticism. It is almost fundamentalist in its dogmatism. It should be named as such and unapologetically rejected.
Conclusion and Anticipating the Fallout
In the event that this article gains widespread traction, it is almost inevitable that rather than engage with it honestly and via critical reason, I will instead be accused of the following:
A) Unconscious white supremacy or racism.
B) Epistemic pushback (not explaining why the questions about epistemology should not be considered but, rather, dismissing the piece as irrelevant “pushback” and a power struggle).
C) Causing violence or harm against minorities.
D) Deliberately misrepresenting the intersectionalist perspective.
These are often the go-to tactics to dismiss critique of this ideology. In anticipation of this, I will say that I am actually an apostate from the church of intersectional psychotherapy, having had eight years of therapy with one of the major promoters of the theory in relation to psychotherapy in the United Kingdom. I have previously commented favorably on postcolonial theorists such as Achille Mbembe and Frantz Fanon. My critique of intersectional thought partly derives from my own exploration of my ethnicity as member of a minority in the United Kingdom, as well as the Eastern European critiques of totalitarian movements that occupied the lands of my ancestors. These are often skimmed or missed by intersectional and decolonial movements, owing to the fact that the imperialism originated in paradigms that they are favorable towards and, thus, raises awkward and unaddressed questions.
The inability to conceive of out-group critique as anything other than an identitarian power struggle is—as I have discussed above—the major epistemic problem of intersectional and anti-racist paradigms. They cannot conceive of criticism as being an attempt at approaching a shared reality where two individuals of differing particulars can exchange ideas in the hope of achieving an objective truth or a near approximation of one. Instead, they must conceive of every exchange as a power struggle between the political identity of the oppressed and that of the oppressor; all discourse is reduced to struggles for power and identity.
For this reason, it would be absolutely unwise to adopt uncritically these paradigms as guiding ideological frames on which to perch our psychotherapeutic practices or institutions. Even the types of psychotherapy that view themselves as more of an art than a science would be massively compromised by adopting the weak epistemological parameters that this paradigm holds as central. The fact that the discourse is already so permeated with intersectionality (to the point where institutions are shutting down discussion) is surely an indicator of the abject failure of critical thinking in our profession and a damning indicator of how little ideological issues are being considered outside of a very narrow lens.
Nick Opyrchal is a psychotherapist in private practice. For his M.A., he researched the intersection between Lacanian and transpersonal perspectives in psychotherapy. His current doctoral work investigates the intersection of identity politics and the transpersonal within psychotherapy.