ACA Blog

Ken Oliver
Nov 24, 2009

Politics in Counseling

I currently live in small, rural town in Missouri. Phewww, typing that was cathartic! The town is predominately made up of White, working class Protestants who, until the last presidential election, were tried and true democrats. The town recently renovated the local playhouse and currently shows a movie a few Saturdays a month. You know, one of those movies stuck in the “purgatory” between the theater and DVD release. But, I digress! Much to my delight, the leaders of the playhouse produced a comedy show this past weekend. They brought in a few comics from the St. Louis area and put on a very funny show. The comedy, as typical, was laced with misogynistic and racially insensitive humor that brought the audience to one belly laugh after another. It wasn’t until one comedian started to discuss the Obama presidency, however, that the air of discomfort and tension settled over the room. The comedian jokingly asked how many in the room voted for Obama. Not a peep!

This got me thinking about my own reaction to politics over the years. I used to claim to be apolitical when asked about a particular red/blue affiliation. It did me no good because I would still have to explain that no one group accurately reflects my ideas or positions. But in truth, I believe I just wanted to avoid the topic all together. Now, what does this have to do with counseling, you may ask? Well, counselors often attempt to portray a position of non-politics in their counseling. I’ll hear things from students like, “my beliefs on politics don’t matter; it’s all about what’s best for the client.” Such a dignified position to take! Erroneous, but dignified! Your socio-political views shape your beliefs about what is best for the client.

I take the position that one’s socio-political worldview shapes how they view human nature, the human condition, and the counseling perspective with which one will most closely align. Now, socio-political worldview encompasses much more than just liberal or conservative belief systems. However, let’s use this dichotomy to make the point. Let’s explore the concept of appropriate or normal behavior; something our profession examines on a consistent basis.

I’ll start with the premise that conservative thinkers tend to have more concrete positions on what constitutes moral behavior. Therefore concepts like right and wrong, good and evil, or normal and pathological take on a common meaning and may seem more obvious to a conservative thinker. Liberal thinkers, on the other hand, tend to have more abstraction in their beliefs about what constitutes right, good, and normality. If this holds true, then a conservative-thinking counselor would be more likely to see pathology when thoughts or behaviors do not match up with the counselor’s concrete views of normality. The liberal thinker, on the other hand, would be more inclined to let many things that might be viewed by many in society to be abnormal to pass as a quirk or idiosyncratic tendency. Therefore, even with “clear” diagnostic criteria, one’s politic will undoubtedly influence her or his view of normal human tendency.

But, it’s not all that simple to distinguish between the two. I mean this town has voted democrat in every election since I’ve been here by over a 70% margin except in the last presidential race. Maybe socio-political worldview doesn’t have as much to do with counseling as I previously thought. It obviously has nothing to do with elections!

Kenneth Oliver is a counselor in Missouri and an assistant professor at Quincy University in Illinois.

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