Monday, October 24, 2011

Occupy Everything: This is What Democracy Looks Like in a Post-Therapy Era

I spent Saturday evening joining Occupy Chicago in a march to Grant Park where the stated intent was to occupy a space under the iconic sculpture of a Native American warrior astride a muscled horse.  This same location was the site of the clash between police and protesters  during the 1968 Democratic Convention. I was accompanied by my husband John who had also been present in 1968. There were drums, chanting and police on horseback at both demonstrations but this one was calm and diverse and while arrests were made, they were done with agreed upon protocol almost as ritual performance. A tent nearby was staffed with volunteers from the registered nurses labor union participating in the protest and prepared to provide first aid if needed.
There is an emphasis on solidarity among the protesters, middle aged men wearing jackets from the carpenters union, disabled adults in electric wheelchairs, rainbow flag hoisting representatives of the LGTBQ communities, students, pensioners and young parents carrying babies. I marched next to three young women in headscarves each wrapped in the flag of a different Middle East country. We gazed at cops on the curb, many likely the children of immigrants, judging from the shades of color in the faces represented.  One mounted cop took video of us on his iPhone while many in the crowd returned the gesture. We've come a long way since Abbie Hoffman's protest.
 I asked John what was the major difference between the gathering in Grant Park 2011 vs. 1968. The obvious difference is that 1968 had an easily stated galvanizing issue: stop the war in Vietnam. John's generation was at imminent risk of being killed in a far away war that many felt was patently unjust. We still have wars and generations of young men and women serving, dying and being maimed in them. The biggest change there is that far fewer of them are the college educated middle and upper middle class children of white mainstream Americans. While perhaps not entirely it's intention, ending the draft at the conclusion of the Vietnam War was the single biggest act that served to derail a robust protest movement in America. Words like solidarity have been used before to designate shared circumstances but this may be the first moment in history when the divisions between segments of society along class, income, race, gender and education are genuinely blurred.  Students who were able to attend elite colleges find themselves unable to find jobs while saddled with enormous school debt. Union workers who have always participated in collective bargaining and won a living wage, safe conditions and pensions find those gains being rolled back to where they feel having a job, however diminished, is all they can hope for. Teachers, firefighters, even the symbolic cops on horseback, none are immune from loss of pensions and health care.
One of the speakers at the rally was an Hispanic woman from Unite Here, the group representing workers in the labor dispute with the Hyatt Hotels, which are owned by the prominent Pritzker family here in Chicago. Apparently the Pritzkers are continuing to cut wages and jobs of housekeeping personnel while acquiring new hotels and posting record profits for their shareholders. This is the same labor dispute that was occurring at the Hyatt Hotel in Sacramento in 2009 where art therapists stayed while the AATA conference was taking place in the nearby Convention Center. The discovery of AATA's unknowing complicity in this labor dispute led to the formation of the Social Justice Caucus of AATA which this blog represents. Here's how the dots connect for me: the bonuses being granted on Wall Street, in mega banks and in businesses and industries across our nation are a form of faked productivity by the folks in charge. Like the Hyatt Hotel, what passes for gains on paper are simply the stolen wages of the housekeeping and maintenance staff who are laid off while those left do double or triple the work under threat of being fired. David Carr in the Business Day section of today's NY Times tipped the dominoes for me: he describes the identical strategy happening in the news organizations around the country. Staff are cut, coverage is curtailed, entertainment is substituted for news and CEO's reap bonuses made of the money stolen from workers while negotiating the terms of bankruptcy restructuring of the organization. Carr's column is entitled Why Not Occupy Newsrooms? Why not occupy mental health clinics and psychiatric hospitals, schools and farms, anywhere there is a vacancy of morals, justice and ethics? As the neighborhoods with foreclosed houses quickly learn, a structure that isn't occupied sends out a siren call to vandals who are happy to occupy as well as gut the copper pipes and leave the raped structures to die. The Occupy movement is making a space for the growing ranks of the disenfranchised to gather and recognize one another. It is time to occupy every space we are in with awareness and a voice for what is fair and just, without that, isn't therapy a little bit beside the point?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Empathy: Does it Lead to Right Action?

Much has been made in art therapy of the discovery of mirror neurons in the brain as confirmation that empathy is real and that creative work with others engages those neurons and hence creates empathy. Implicit for many of us is that empathy leads to care, compassion and perhaps even right action. Recently in the New York Times, David Brooks discusses the limits of empathy. Brooks makes the case that  feeling the pain of others does not lead automatically to appropriate action on their behalf or even to any action. He cites Nazi guards who wept while shooting Jewish mothers and children and the participants in the Milgram experiments who experienced anguish but continued to administer  what they believed to be painful electric shocks because they were told to do so. What is it that disconnects an empathic feeling response which, in Brooks' words "..orients you toward moral action"from actually acting? Self concern. It seems that if we sense ourselves to be at risk or if we are unaccustomed to taking action and the thought of it arouses fear, we move along. It's one thing to get an email about a cause, be moved and make one more mouse click to sign a petition. It's another thing to wrestle with a code of conduct that we consciously live by. In fact, Brooks contends, feeling empathy has become a shortcut that allows us to feel virtuous while doing nothing to make change.
This discussion is relevant to art therapy because being with suffering people and seeing their art certainly arouses empathy, most of us would agree. When, if ever, does the art therapist go beyond being a witness and compassionate fellow traveler? At what point does he engage the causes not only the results of suffering? Or is that someone else's job? If the art therapist is doing good work in the context of an unjust system, a hospital that exploits its workers, a clinic where shady business practices keep things running, a non-profit where an unreasonable amount of donations go to support overhead rather than programming, does she have any obligation to act? And if so, what is right action? A colleague was recently hired for a consulting job with an agency that sends contract therapists into different programs and schools in the community. It seemed like ideal part time work to augment her private practice and give her a chance to have contact with other therapists. After coming on staff and running her first group, she learned that one of her boss' expectations was that she would sign insurance forms for work done by trained but unlicensed staff whom she would be supervising. The argument made by the agency was that they could only afford one licensed person but this way could serve far more children. They saw their actions as virtuous in an imperfect system. My colleague saw insurance fraud.
A researcher cited by David Brooks says that not only does empathy not  usually impel right action, it actually can lead to wrong  action. The staff of that agency are no doubt brimming with empathy. My colleague certainly agreed that it would be great to offer as much service to kids in need as possible, just not by breaking the law. She has an internal code of conduct that prevents her feeling of  empathy to override her capacity to make moral judgments. It is the latter than allowed her to name the behavior she saw and refuse to participate.