We Have to Take Our Chances on Development (and Democracy)

Emotional development is improvisational—not a scripted play.

Posted Feb 02, 2017

For the next few months, I'll be using my column to share some words of Fred Newman*—the public philosopher, creator of social therapy, political activist, “architect” of a new progressivism, and my friend and intellectual partner for 35 years. I hope you are moved and/or provoked by them.

The following is an excerpt from a “The Improvisational Activity of Developing”—which appeared in Psychological Investigations: A Clinician’s Guide to Social Therapy. Newman’s understanding of development and democracy as ongoing, improvisational social process and its relationship to democracy couldn’t be more timely.

Lois Holzman
Source: Lois Holzman

Therapist-in-training: How is social therapy developmental?

Fred: From the point of view of development, I have come to believe that we are better off relating to life as continuous happenings, continuous emerging processes, complex social activity, rather than as things happening to things. Periodically we impose commodified forms on continuous emerging processes because it has a certain utility. For example, it’s useful to know where things are on the kitchen shelf. The problem is that we leave ourselves vulnerable to coming to see the world in terms of what’s on the kitchen shelf as opposed to the processes which got them there and which get them off.

I try to help people to take a look at what we do together. We engage in a certain human life process together, and the discovery of who we are is the discovery of what it is that we are continuously becoming. The notion that we discover who we are from getting a deeper look at the component parts that make us up is, in my opinion, a pernicious myth. We aren’t who we are. We are what it is that we are continuously becoming.

It’s very easy to hear this as completely intelligible, but as metaphorical. But metaphor is a relative term. After all, one person’s metaphor is another culture’s reality. Ours is a culture of commodified “being” in which “becoming” tends to be related to as a metaphor, at best.  

What I try to do in my therapeutic work is to help people to relate to becoming not as a metaphor, but as activity. Given our culture, what people tend to do, quite understandably, is to commodify activity itself, and to say, “I see, you mean by activity another kind of thing.” But no, I don’t mean another kind of thing, what I mean by activity is not a thing at all. What I mean by activity is the complex, ever continuous social process that we are all continuously involved in; I mean by it life. Life is filled with things. But life itself is not a thing, although it is related to by all kinds of people, including the insurance companies, as a thing. You can understand why the insurance companies would relate to life as a thing. It’s their business. That’s fine. But I have no interest in living my life as if I were a thing, and I have no interest in relating to other people as if they were things.

To the extent that human beings come to recognize that life is the activity of living—and not the periodic identification of the components of our lives as certain things—they are helped to deal with the difficulties, the labels, the pains, the unhappiness, the distress, the emotional disorders which are inextricably related to the commodification of human life. This is what we have come to understand as we continue to practice and develop social therapy.

Therapist-in-training: Are there certain things that social therapy tries to develop?

Fred: For years, people have asked us, “Doesn’t your concept of development, either explicitly or implicitly, include some kinds of particular things that you want to develop? Doesn’t the notion of development have to have an end?” That characterization is a distortion of what it is that we’re doing. We’re trying to help people develop. To practice the art of development. To create with other people in their lives and to build their lives in the ways that they choose. I don’t think we have some kind of hidden agenda. Yes, many of us in this room would agree on some things that would be good to develop. But people will have to creatively determine for themselves what is to be developed. This is a big improvisation; this is not a scripted play—not mine, yours, nor anybody else’s. After all, you can learn something about acting and performing, but it doesn’t mean for a moment that you’re going to perform a beautiful play. Some of the most highly skilled actors perform terrible plays. Why? That’s what they get paid for, that’s where their tastes lie, who knows?

To me, it’s analogous to democracy. I am deeply committed to the position that what needs to be created is an increasingly democratic society. Many people who call themselves progressives say to me, “Why are you pushing so hard for democracy? Don’t you realize that if we had democracy the majority of the American people would support and enact positions that are antithetical to what is politically correct?” I frankly believe that we have to create a greater democracy and take our chances on that.

Likewise, I think we have to take our chances with development, which means that people might develop some things that you might not think are so nice. But the argument that you should stop development or steer it in a particular direction on the grounds that that might happen is ultimately elitist. That implies a certain power structure where some people give lip service to development and/or democracy but really hold to the position, “Here are the most valid kinds of decisions to be reached and goals to be set.”

Therapist-in-training: There may be the alternative of combining development with certain kinds of goals.

Fred: You might be right, but my experience is that when people slip in goals then development gets shaped in such a way as to achieve those goals. Goals tend to be over-determining. We haven’t as a species taken this risk yet and we’ve gotten into big trouble anyhow. It’s not as if the goal-oriented approaches have worked out beautifully! Maybe this is the essence of what I take postmodernism to be; maybe we’re at a moment in history where we’re going to have to take our chances with development. Maybe it’s time to find out if we can get better and better at this stuff—and if we are going to destroy ourselves or not. Maybe the moment of truth is at hand and we should find it out once and for all, rather than just quietly murdering millions and millions of people in the name of good goals.

*NOTE: In the 1970s philosopher Fred Newman created a unique form of therapy that he called Social Therapy. Social Therapy is a group therapy that is non-diagnostic and involves the active participation of the group members in creating their emotional development. Over the decades, Social Therapy matured and expanded not only across the US but globally as well. In addition to his large group practice, Newman trained and supervised a hundred or more Social Therapists over the decades until he passed away in 2011. Dozens of these sessions are compiled in the book Psychological Investigations: A Clinician’s Guide to Social Therapy. For more information on social therapy, visit socialtherapygroup.com and eastsideinstitute.org.