Counseling and Social Justice

Robert C. Hunsaker

Debate on the topic of liberal bias in higher education is now decades old, but the issue remains as controversial as ever, positioned, as it is, within broader culture wars that show no sign of waning. Passions continue to be heated on all sides of the argument. Occasionally, though, there is some levity. Scott Jaschik, for example, tells the old joke that “Professors are all Democrats, except those who are communists.”1 But such humor is always short-lived; Jaschik’s point in “Bias Seen in Bias Studies” is to present the results of a review of eight previous studies that purport to document liberal bias. All eight are reported to be fraught with significant methodological problems. Interestingly, however, controversy surrounding methodological issues was considerably quelled with the publication of Neil Gross and Solon Simmons’s The Social and Political Views of American Professors, widely acknowledged as a definitive and methodologically sound study of politics in the professoriate.2The Social and Political Views of American Professors clearly demonstrates that conservative viewpoints are conspicuously marginal on college and university campuses.

Nonetheless, the political views of academics are a non-issue, unless and until those views are imposed on others in unscholarly, unfair, or punitive ways. Camille Paglia puts the matter rather pointedly by stating that “scholarship swayed by politics becomes propaganda.”3 The relevant concern is not the category of political views espoused by academics, but how those views are enacted or expressed. That is, how do the political views of the professoriate influence, motivate, or emerge in their teaching, writing, research, and activism?

One detailed and discipline-specific answer to this question comes from The Scandal of Social Work Education.4 This 2007 report by the National Association of Scholars explored social justice curricula and standards used by programs at multiple public schools of social work that, among other things, violated the rights of conservative students being trained. Four years later, it is clear that social justice efforts, with deep roots on the far left of the political spectrum, are flourishing in academia—particularly in the social sciences, education, law, medicine, and the humanities.5 But while The Scandal of Social Work Education does a noteworthy job of revealing the liberal bias of a social justice agenda, and the subsequent negative effects on students in social work programs, it does not trace the extent to which partisan social justice activism operates in the broader context of mental health training programs and professional organizations. Over the past decade, the social justice movement has become a dominant and deeply problematic force within all mental health disciplines. This article therefore aims to expand the findings of The Scandal of Social Work Education and to present a critical exploration of social justice ideology in academic and professional mental health training and practice as a whole.

What Is Social Justice Counseling?

The exact nature of social justice counseling is often difficult to grasp. Proponents can be unhelpfully vague when describing their approach. Consider the preface to Cyrus Marcellus Ellis and Jon Carlson’s Cross Cultural Awareness and Social Justice in Counseling:

Social justice can be thought of in terms of one’s internal sense of conscience or spiritual responsibility as well as one’s sense of righteousness for the world. Whether your sense of social justice comes from your faith, your spirit, or your religious conviction, social justice can be equated to the harmonious nature by showing love, goodness, or kindness to your fellow being because you are a recipient of blessings and precious love yourself.6

While the message of social justice-as-love (or spirituality or religiosity) offers no practical direction for counselors, it provides an important clue about the emphasis placed on social justice as the correct moral endeavor for counselors to pursue.7 Social justice advocates even believe that existing professional ethical codes are inadequate because they do not address a counselor’s moral duty to pursue social equality and to end any and all forms of oppression.8

Nonetheless, specific information regarding what is involved in social justice practice does exist. Nine social justice competencies have been proposed for counselors:

(1) gain knowledge of how social injustices are manifested and experienced at the individual, cultural, and societal levels; (2) participate in active self-reflection on issues concerning race, ethnicity, oppression, power, and privilege; (3) when interacting with clients and community organizations, maintain ongoing self-awareness of how your personal positions of power and privilege may unintentionally parallel experiences with oppression and injustice; (4) promote the well-being of individuals and groups by challenging interventions that seem exploitive; (5) gain knowledge about indigenous models of health and healing and work alongside these entities to promote culturally relevant, holistic interventions; (6) expand awareness of global issues and injustices; (7) conceptualize and implement preventive therapeutic interventions; (8) collaborate with community organizations to provide culturally relevant services to the identified groups; and (9) hone systemic and advocacy skills to facilitate social change within institutions and communities.9

In relation to professional groups, Counselors for Social Justice (CSJ), formed as an official division of the American Counseling Association (ACA) in 2003, provides this definition of social justice counseling:

Social justice counseling represents a multifaceted approach to counseling in which practitioners strive to simultaneously promote human development and the common good through addressing challenges related to both individual and distributive justice. Social justice counseling includes empowerment of the individual as well as active confrontation of injustice and inequality in society as they impact clientele as well as those in their systemic contexts. In doing so, social justice counselors direct attention to the promotion of four critical principles that guide their work; equity, access, participation, and harmony. This work is done with a focus on the cultural, contextual, and individual needs of those served.10

By now it may be apparent that social justice counseling can be legitimately construed as more concerned with the pursuit of certain kinds of justice (e.g., distributive) than with the pursuit of counseling. Social justice activists are actually on record in this regard. For example, in “A Social Justice Agenda: Ready, or Not?” Suzette L. Speight and Elizabeth M. Vera wish that “counseling psychology would step out beyond the [American Psychological Association] Ethical Principles and Codes of Conduct…to assert forthrightly that it was committed to using psychology as a tool for social justice” (emphasis added).11 And in “Ethics and Professional Issues Related to the Practice of Social Justice in Counseling Psychology,” Rebecca L. Toporek and Robert A. Williams acknowledge that social justice entails “political and religious proselytizing in professional settings.”12

Traditional counseling, understood as an individual therapy session, or a couples or group therapy session, is unrecognizable from these points of view. The social justice emphasis on changing social conditions—on counselors as “social change agents” as part of normative practice—is something entirely new.13 Social justice activists deem it necessary for mental health professionals to “understand the political and economic forces that cause so much of the alienation, depression, and self-hatred in their clients.”14

Growth of the Social Justice Movement

Growth of the social justice movement has been rapid, occurring mostly from 2000 to the present. As of December 1, 2010, a PsycINFO search using the terms “counseling and social justice” returned 430 publications, only thirty of which were released prior to 2000. Given the movement’s nascent status, robust critical examination has been lacking. In 2009, Shannon D. Smith, Cynthia A. Reynolds, and Amanda Rovnak wrote:

The most pressing mandate for the counseling profession at this time is an in-depth examination of the social advocacy movement….[It] lacks sufficient moderation and sometimes attempts to promote various agendas (e.g., personal, political)…[and] makes bold claims for which it has little or no substantive evidence, such as clinical effectiveness.15

Aside from generating little or no critical feedback and lacking empirical proof of its effectiveness, the social justice agenda is driven primarily by academic activists, as my literature review and an analysis of professional social justice groups reveal. To give but one example, the activist CSJ, the aforementioned division of ACA, has always been led by university-based academics.

The emergence of an organized social justice movement—with academics as core leaders—raises questions about the extent to which general counseling professionals understand the social justice agenda. Practitioners who completed training before 2000, or who may not have followed the movement’s evolution in the literature, likely lack the ability to describe it accurately or to understand the ways in which it politicizes their profession.

Nonetheless, movement activists plan for more growth from efforts that have already produced a vast professional literature and the formation of various professional groups, and that have had profound influence upon professional associations and organizations, including accreditation entities. For example, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs included social justice language in its 2001 standards, and expanded that language in the 2009 standards.16 The influence of accreditation entities is highly significant. As Allen E. Ivy and Mary Bradford Ivey explain, “Accrediting agencies have the power to lead our field in new directions.”17 As for social justice efforts specifically, Laura K. Palmer states that “if training programs are to move forward with embracing social justice as a core value, then this will need to be reflected in accreditation standards.”18

Plainly, significant institutionalization of the social justice agenda has already occurred, but activists envision nothing short of a sea change in mental health counseling. They advocate for the “sociopolitical education of counselors,”19 that is, activists want social justice infused into professional training programs20 and recognized as a new ethical mandate and standard of practice.21 Social justice advocacy is variously referred to as “a new ethical praxis,”22 a way of correcting deficits of the multicultural counseling movement,23 “an expansion” of professional roles,24 an “agenda,”25 and a “moral imperative.”26 Suzette L. Speight and Elizabeth M. Vera summarize these many descriptions in the comparatively innocent statement that “commitment to a social justice agenda might require fundamental changes to the way we currently think about, define, and carry out our work as counseling psychologists.”27

Put more precisely, the counseling professions are on the cusp of a major shift in values and focus if the social justice agenda continues to expand—whether or not rank and file professionals fully understand and endorse the changes the movement seeks. That social justice efforts have developed so quickly and received so much institutional support is cause for sustained inquiry, since having any one “agenda,” particularly a political one, is typically viewed as anathema to basic notions of liberal education and to academic and professional freedom. Despite claims that psychology has never been apolitical,28 the attempt to inject the highly specific social justice agenda into professional training and practice is extraordinarily unusual and must be scrutinized.

One form of scrutiny involves identifying the role and influence of professional associations in the development of the social justice agenda. It is important to note that professional psychology and counseling organizations, including the ACA and the American Psychological Association (APA), consistently receive complaint letters about the social justice movement. In relation to the APA, “the public interest directorate has reported receiving regular letters from association members expressing negative reactions that the directorate is taking a political stance by advocating about issues ranging from homelessness to immigration.”29As for the ACA, member letters like the following appear at intervals in the association’s monthly magazine, Counseling Today: “I am going to exercise my freedom by not handing over $172 a year to an organization that appears to act more like a political action committee than an actual professional association.”30

But the extent to which such complaints have any appreciable effect is unclear. Complaints have not appeared to limit or reduce the broad organizational support that social justice efforts receive. As Jason H. King indicates:

The summer 2009 Journal of Counseling & Development published a special edition on social justice, the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision held a social justice summit in 2009, Chi Sigma Iota’s Spring 2010 Exemplar was a special edition on social justice, and the Association for Specialists in Group Work sponsored a multicultural-social justice leadership development academy this past March.31

Perhaps the best evidence of institutional complicity with the social justice movement comes from accounts of the movement’s development—histories produced by social justice activists themselves. These histories document the movement’s advancement to its current prominence through the actions and directives of a relatively small group of professional association leaders and activists.32 Beginning in the 1990s, three successive ACA presidents defined their tenures by focusing on social justice: Courtland Lee’s presidential theme was “Social Action: A Mandate for Counselors”; Loretta Bradley’s was “Advocacy: A Voice for Our Clients and Communities”; and in 2002 Jane Goodman commissioned a special task force to produce a set of advocacy competencies for counselors.33

The situation within the APA is remarkably similar. “Social justice was the focus of Nadya Fouad’s 2000–2001 Division 17 presidential initiative and a prominent theme of the 2001 National Counseling Psychology Conference in Houston, Texas, co-chaired by Nadya Fouad and Bob McPherson.”34 During the conference, various minority-based APA sections “came together in the spirit of creating stronger coalitions and alliances around social justice issues affecting each of their constituencies.”35 Those in control of publication sources have also provided major support for social justice efforts. In addition to the Journal of Counseling & Development’s 2009 issue on social justice, the APA has released two such issues of The Counseling Psychologist.

Thus, during the time period leading up to and including the growth of social justice, its activists were promoting the movement while in leadership positions at the ACA or key divisions of the APA, or while making editorial decisions at massively influential professional journals. Though elected to office, ACA and APA leaders and representatives appear to have enormous freedom to focus their tenure as they wish. This is highly problematic, since most of the electorate—at least in the ACA—do not vote. Of 42,000 active ACA members, only 2,600—or roughly 6 percent—voted for new association leaders in the 2009 election.36 To be sure, members of professional counseling associations need to become more involved in selecting leaders and examining their platforms, but voting numbers also indicate that elected leaders should by no means be considered to hold views representative of association membership as a whole.

The Social Justice Agenda in Action

From a social justice perspective, a client’s distress or functional impairment is not so much rooted in cognitive, affective, behavioral, or relational factors, but in a long list of impinging social/environmental ills, including poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Social justice activists are therefore critical of primary service delivery to individuals by claiming that this traditional emphasis renders the counseling professions socially and politically neutral.37 Per Lisa A. Goodman et al.:

Thus, the target of intervention in social justice work is the social context in addition to or instead of the individual….The point here is that social justice-oriented psychologists locate the source of individual suffering in these social conditions and then work to change them.38

However, when social conditions are targeted instead of individuals, whole minority groups—those who “do not share equal power in society because of their immigration, racial, ethnic, age, socioeconomic, religious heritage, physical ability, or sexual orientation status groups”39—become the concern. Furthermore, a central issue for social justice activists, the underutilization of traditional psychotherapy by racial and ethnic minorities, “has raised the question of whether such services, even when culturally sensitive, can ever adequately address the needs of diverse populations.”40 Traditional psychotherapy is thus deemphasized as the social justice tool of choice. But when speaking of other remedies at the broader social level, it is not uncommon for activists to put the matter in rather radical terms. Catherine Y. Chang, Danica G. Hays, and Tammi F. Milliken, for example, assert that “the purpose of social justice is to empower disenfranchised clients and create sociopolitical change to dismantle the current status quo.”41

The major criticism of the social justice agenda—of activism on behalf of entire minority groups, or what Roderick J. Watts calls “population-specific psychologies”42—should be obvious: It is most often associated with the political left. Sandra L. Shullman, Bobbie L. Celeste, and Ted Strickland even go so far as to state that “center-leftists shoulder the lion’s share of social justice work.”43 But more to the point, issues associated more with the Left, such as support for gay marriage and affirmative action, can conflict with the values of counseling professionals who have other political, not to mention religious, affiliations. It would be contradictory for many (perhaps most) practitioners who identify as political or religious conservatives or even moderates to engage in activism based on identity politics.44 To make matters worse, social justice activists rarely—if ever—acknowledge the ways in which their agenda is incompatible with other political positions. For example, Nadya Fouad et al., offer the general statement that “these are highly political and controversial positions in professional psychology.”45 Somewhat less vaguely, Suzette L. Speight and Elizabeth M. Vera admit only that “social justice work is critical, controversial, political, and perhaps quite removed from our typical counseling psychology practice.”46

Despite an extensive literature review, I could find only two sources that provided some acknowledgment that social justice objectives create political schisms. Sandra L. Shullman, Bobbie L. Celeste, and Ted Strickland describe characteristics of “center-right voters” whose values do not align with the social justice agenda,47 while Maureen E. Kenny and John L. Romano point out that political conservatives are not in favor of certain kinds of social change.48

The lack of transparency about the political implications of social justice efforts makes it all the more important to examine the agenda activists are trying to institutionalize. For example, mental health professionals may be surprised to learn that social justice activism includes such actions as “boycotting” and “being arrested.”49 And, in terms of the diversity movement in general, Davina Cooper finds that “intellectually, diversity politics sits at the confluence of several currents that include liberalism, communitarianism, poststructuralism, post-Marxism, feminism, post-colonialism and queer [theory].”50 All of these frameworks, particularly Marxism and communitarianism, are common within the social justice movement.51

In a prime example, Dennis R. Fox promotes a history of psychology in which:

Psychologists incorporating insights from feminist, Marxist, anarchist, communitarian, and other perspectives emphasized the understanding…that American psychology’s determined individualist focus, paralleling the broader American capitalist victim-blaming ethos, needed correction by a compensating emphasis on the communal and the mutual.52

Although Fox clearly identifies the left-wing perspectives that anchor social justice work, he is yet another activist failing to acknowledge that social justice efforts cannot possibly accommodate the views of counseling professionals whose affiliations span the political spectrum. One can only speculate why this is common practice among activists. Perhaps they wish to avoid the scrutiny their growing movement—full of “far-reaching radical prescriptions”53—would have trouble weathering. Whatever the reason, advocates who fail to disclose the precise political nature of the social justice agenda ignore scholarly norms and impede full engagement with critics. They also have a questionable relationship to ethical standards that require open and honest relationships and communication with other professionals.54

Despite lack of activist candor and transparency, the politics of social justice become clear in even more revealing ways. Activist behavior, particularly in response to resistance or criticism, paints a vivid picture of how the social justice agenda actually operates. In an Academic Questions piece commenting on The Scandal of Social Work Education, David Stoesz detailed the experience of Emily Brooker, a social work student at Missouri State University who

refused to comply with a class assignment requiring her to petition a state lawmaker to alter state law to permit adoption by same-sex partners, an act that she said violated her religious beliefs….“A month later she was called before a faculty-student committee to respond to questions about her academic performance and her fitness for social work. Nine months later (Sept. 17, 2006), she filed her complaint, and on Nov. 8, 2006, the university settled out of court and agreed to pay Ms. Brooker a sum of $9,000, waive academic fees totaling another $12,000, clear her academic record and remove her professor from his administrative duties and the classroom.”55 (Emphases added)

In the context of Brooker’s experience, it is essential to note that social justice activists commonly refer to their ongoing battle against “institutionalized domination and oppression.”56 Quite obviously, however, the Missouri State University faculty involved in the Brooker incident deployed an extraordinary amount of institutional power as part of their own activism, disregarding Ms. Brooker’s religious beliefs, and subjecting her to disciplinary action.

In his AQ piece, Stoesz makes the following remark about The Scandal of Social Work Education:

Based on a review of the websites of the schools of social work at the nation’s ten largest public universities, NAS concluded that “even within the ideologically colored environment of the contemporary university, social work education constituted an especially advanced case of politicization, in which dogma, tendentiousness, and coerced intellectual conformity were becoming integral to the definition of the field.”57

The NAS study helped to bring national attention to Emily Brooker’s experience as one of three detailed case histories that documented discrimination against conservative students in social work programs at various schools across the country.

The Scandal of Social Work Education had a wide readership, including journalists. After learning that social work students were being harassed for being conservatives, Washington Post columnist George F. Will asked, “Why are such schools of indoctrination permitted in institutions of higher education? And why are people of all political persuasions taxed to finance this propaganda?”58

Will’s questions are important for various reasons, but counseling professionals should be particularly concerned about the high priority activists place on infusing social justice into mental health training programs of all kinds.59 As Laura K. Palmer correctly suggests, “it is likely that faculty experience in advocacy and research will be a driving force for inclusion of social justice issues in the curriculum and training experiences.”60 What will prevent such faculty from behaving as did those who discriminated against Emily Brooker and other conservative students?

A proposed ethical code for CSJ certainly seems to indicate that its proponents are serious about forcing students to practice social justice activism, regardless of whether such activism matches a trainee’s personal set of values. Section C.6. of this code, “Evaluation and remediation of counselors-In-training” [sic] reads:

CSJ professionals who are counselor educators clearly state to trainees prior to and throughout the training program that they are expected to meet the expectations set forth in the Multicultural and Advocacy Competencies (Lewis, et al., 2002, Sue, Arredondo, & McDavis, 1992) endorsed by the American Counseling Association and provide ongoing evaluation of their progress towards mastery of these competencies throughout the training program (ACA Code of Ethics, 2005, F.9.a.). When aware that the inability of a trainee to achieve multicultural and advocacy competence can impede counseling performance, CSJ professionals who are counselor educators seek consultation to determine the need to dismiss or refer trainees for remedial assistance, assist them in securing remedial assistance when needed, assure them they have timely recourse to decisions, and provide them with due process according the institutional policies and procedures (ACA Code of Ethics, 2005, F.9.b.).61 (Emphasis added)

This proposal is all the more troubling because neither the Multicultural nor the Advocacy Competencies have any empirical validation;62 they were, as indicated, merely endorsed by the ACA.

Unfortunately, it appears that other attempts to bully people into toeing the social justice party line are not uncommon. Practicing therapists and teaching professionals—ironically, even those belonging to minority groups—become targets when they criticize the social justice agenda. Richard C. Henriksen, Jr., a self-described “African American/Norwegian American,” described what happened to him when he questioned the use of “a Listserv for counselor educators, supervisors and graduate students” on which Michael D’Andrea, 2009–2010 CSJ president, expressed personal political views.63 Henriksen experienced such a backlash in the form of “personal attacks and name-calling” (34) that he had to remove himself from the email list. Later, defending himself, Henriksen stated that “people have the right to be religious, moderate, conservative and have differing points of view to be accepted or to be heard” (35). In words that could easily describe Emily Brooker’s experience, Henrikson reflects that “being called insensitive and an enemy of social justice just because I was unwilling to blindly accept the views being expressed felt like being bullied” (34).

Even as a member of a group that social justice activists claim to champion, Henriksen discovered that individuals are dispensable in a collectivist movement that focuses on social advocacy and identity politics. Suzette L. Speight and Elizabeth M. Vera explain that this occurs because social justice “necessitates refocusing the lens of counseling psychology from the individual to the environment, from the microsocial to the macrosocial level.”64

Electronic mailing lists have become a domain in which activist bias is easily expressed. On January 12, 2011, nearly two years after coauthoring “A Critical Analysis of the Social Advocacy Movement in Counseling”—which appeared in the September 2009 issue of the ACA’s Journal of Counseling and Development—Shannon D. Smith wrote on the CSJ listserv:

I’m just not sure why critical examination of the movement in the profession seems to be threatening? I guess a certain psych-emotional threat comes with any type of scrutiny…perhaps one missing element in [the] movement thus far is a “safe place” to engage further in the critical analysis. To be honest, I didn’t expect to receive hateful and threatening mail and emails in response to the critical analysis that we provided. However, these types of responses highlight some of the main reasons for the necessity of an ongoing critical analysis of the movement. (Emphasis added)

Another striking case of prejudice emerged during the U.S. Senate confirmation process for then-Supreme Court nominee Sonja Sotomayor. On July 16, 2009, Anthony Marsella, former president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, sent the following email to CSJ listserv members:

The white male republican senators reveal themselves to be vicious, prejudiced, and ignorant men who do not deserve the title of senator of the United States. Their hate spews from their mouths and eyes as they speak with glee at the torture they inflict on Judge Sotomayor and on all of us.

Marsella’s excessive language may have been what Smith, Cynthia A. Reynolds, and Amanda Rovnak had in mind when they argue that social justice activism “lacks sufficient moderation and sometimes attempts to promote various agendas (e.g., personal, political).”65 But Marsella’s posting may also demonstrate that some social justice activists are firmly in the grip of their own hatred, and again, are intolerant of opposing political orientations. There were, after all, no disapproving responses to Marsella’s posting from CSJ members, including the group’s leadership. One member even responded with “Well said, Tony!!!” (F.P. Bemak, July 17, 2009).

Other Issues in Need of Examination

The future of inquiry into social justice efforts is wide open. Even proponents acknowledge that the movement has gained prominence only recently.66 Still others admit that social justice activities “have provided a critical set of aspirations, goals, and ideals for the field, [but] they have not resulted in much discussion about what social justice work actually looks like or what kinds of principles and struggles such work entails.”67 What follows is a brief overview of areas of focus for future inquiry—especially for critics of the movement.

Lack of Empirical Support

Those advocating for social justice objectives lack empirical support for their target proposals and activities.68 One particular example concerns the ACA’s Advocacy Competencies, which were formally adopted by the ACA Governing Council in 2003,69 and have been presented to counselors as practice guidelines. Because the Advocacy Competencies lack specific research support, activists are forced to promote them without scholarly rigor. For example, Manivong J. Ratts and Michael A. Hutchins state that “use of the Advocacy Competencies seems critical given Prilleltensky’s (1994) argument that the counseling profession has a tendency to ‘attribute excessive weight to individual factors…in explaining individual and/or social behavior’”70 (emphasis added). Justified so weakly—here, on the basis of an “argument” put forward by the cited author fifteen years earlier—the Advocacy Competencies fail to inspire any reasonable level of professional confidence.

In addition, Stephen G. Weinrach and Kenneth R. Thomas, two of the most important authors critically evaluating what they refer to as “diversity-sensitive counseling,” state that:

Some diversity-sensitive counseling experts have developed strategies that they consider to be appropriate for various client populations (Arrendondo, 1994; Sue, 1990), but few, if any, have demonstrated their respective approaches at ACA conventions or on videotape, much less subjected them to empirical validation.71

Dubious Historical Accounts

Historical accounts of the social justice movement often claim that social justice was operative in the work of such early counseling figures as Clifford Beers and Frank Parsons, the former an advocate of the severely mentally ill, the latter understood as the father of career counseling.72 However, drawing connections between the work of Beers and Parsons and that of current social justice activists ignores that advocacy on behalf of the mentally ill and/or career counseling is politically neutral compared to advocating on behalf of population-specific groups. That is, mental health professionals of every stripe support advocacy for the mentally ill and for those who need career counseling, precisely because these kinds of advocacy benefit people of all populations—and are not likely to conflict with counselors’ political and/or religious beliefs either.

Appropriation of Multicultural Competence

Social justice activists maintain an ongoing internal debate regarding the relationship between multicultural competence—a relatively neutral concept indicating the ability of therapists to work effectively with clients who are culturally different from themselves—and social justice efforts. For example, a straight therapist might see a gay client who comes to therapy to talk about depression resulting from the inability, in most states, to get married—a concern/issue that does not apply to the straight therapist or to heterosexual couples. Within the context of individual therapy the straight counselor may help to address such a concern by trying to empathize with limitations the client faces. The major difference between this “multicultural competence” scenario and social justice counseling is that the former allows counselors to focus on the concerns of individual clients, while the latter expects counselors to address individual client concerns and to engage in some kind of political activity or social change (e.g., gay rights activism). Counselors with liberal political views would probably be inclined to do both, but conservative and moderate counselors would likely limit themselves to the individual intervention only.

Accordingly, some social justice activists devalue the importance of multicultural competence because it focuses on the psychotherapeutic setting without much regard for the broader social context.73 Still others claim that social justice has always been part of multicultural competence.74 Despite the disagreement, both sides of the argument misuse the tradition of multicultural competence as a springboard into social justice work. Just as they append social justice to figures like Beers and Parsons, they try to append it to multicultural competence as well. Michael D’Andrea and Elizabeth Foster-Heckman provide a telling example of this in their introduction to the Journal of Counseling & Development’s special issue on the multicultural movement:

The reader will note that the authors [throughout the special issue] commonly use the terms multicultural/social justice counseling and a multicultural/social justice perspective instead of multicultural counseling and a multicultural perspective, respectively.…In doing so, they remind us that….[t]he social justice underpinning of the multicultural counseling movement has occasionally been understated over the past several years.75

Addressing Environmental Factors

Social justice activists believe that counselors must be mandated to address toxic social conditions76; however, the literature on therapist career choice has long indicated that altruism and social-mindedness are two of the major motivational factors influencing people to enter the counseling professions.77 Furthermore, as has already been shown, the social justice agenda would funnel all counselors, no matter what their political orientation, into efforts for affiliation-specific public policy change. Critics of the social justice movement should reject the notion that addressing social problems must be linked to certain kinds of political activity or perspectives, and instead promote the position that individual mental health professionals should be left to engage in social action how, when, or where they may, according to the dictates of their own politics and values.


Lastly, the social justice agenda should be analyzed from the perspective of propaganda, beginning with identification of the term “social justice” itself as a euphemism for left-wing political activism.78 In addition to the examples presented throughout this article, the purpose of the movement’s politics is perhaps best exemplified by a statement from Suzette L. Speight and Elizabeth M. Vera’s aptly titled “A Social Justice Agenda: Ready, or Not?” quoted earlier. Again, in their view, “counseling psychology would step out beyond the APA Ethical Principles and Codes of Conduct (APA, 2002) to assert forthrightly that it was committed to using psychology as a tool for social justice79 (emphasis added). Here, Speight and Vera open the door to the possibility that social justice, as a political movement, has nothing to do with psychology or counseling. As they stated, psychology should be used merely as a “tool” for advancing social justice. In addition to being extraordinarily offensive to those who value and enjoy their work as counseling professionals, this assertion conveys the sense that activists are but ideologues and that unabashed Machiavellianism is operative in the social justice community.


Despite damaging and divisive consequences in the field of mental health counseling, it seems reasonable to assume that social justice activists will continue to pursue their extreme agenda. It may be difficult to do otherwise, considering their belief that they operate under the mandate of an ethical and “moral imperative.”80 This is not to say that activists are satisfied with the various ethical codes across the counseling professions. Rebecca L. Toporek and Robert A. Williams declare that “there is a need for clearer and more direct language in ethics codes regarding the professional responsibility of psychologists to address social injustice.”81 But lack of specific social justice language in existing ethical codes is a moot point—activists see it there anyway. Courtland C. Lee and Roe A. Rodgers adamantly proclaim:

From an ethical perspective (American Counseling Association [ACA], 2005), counselors must be willing to assume an advocacy role that is focused on affecting public opinion, public policy, and legislation. Although such action is not client specific, it is based on using one’s professional competencies to act on behalf of client groups who are marginalized or oppressed at the macrolevel.82 (Emphasis added)

With what activists perceive as a moral mandate at their backs, they may also continue to use discriminatory and bullying behaviors toward those who oppose them. At the very least, they will probably dismiss criticism, since typical activist response to resistance or criticism involves what Michael D’Andrea and Judy Daniels refer to as “dealing with ‘anti-social justice’ perspectives.”83 This essentially amounts to using a set of strategies for defending the social justice agenda instead of responding to critics in meaningful ways. Activists also claim that those resistant to the social justice agenda employ “defense mechanisms…[including] xenophobia, unexamined privilege, and pseudointellectual resistance.”84 In the face of such responses to criticism, it seems necessary to conclude that social justice activists believe themselves and their agenda to be above any and all critique.

Finally, it must be said that the social justice movement elicits a troubling sense of déjà vu. When the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development’s Multicultural Competencies were being advanced for adoption by professional associations in the early 2000s, Stephen G. Weinrach and Kenneth R. Thomas made the case that these guidelines lacked an empirical basis and therefore should not be adopted prematurely.85 Their argument failed to carry the day, and the Multicultural Competencies were officially adopted without sound research support. (Despite this, and as I have indicated above, I am a believer in multicultural competence in the sense that it can be thought of as being focused on individual rights, rather than on what social justice activists think all counselors should do for whole minority groups.) As mentioned, the same thing happened with the ACA’s Advocacy Competencies in 2003. Fortunately, no social justice competencies have yet been adopted, though they are proposed.86

The fact of the matter is that a wholesale adoption of the social justice agenda would be much more sweeping than anything contained in existing or proposed lists of standards or competencies. The consequences could include:

  • professional mandates that require clinicians to operate solely from a far left-wing perspective

  • the drumming out or (at minimum) the marginalization of those who oppose the politics of social justice, including trainees and practicing professionals

  • mental health services that are inhospitable to large numbers of clients—conservative and otherwise—who have views contrary to the social justice agenda

  • training programs that produce political activists instead of professionals who can provide competent clinical services

  • exploitation of the tradition of multicultural competence for political purposes

  • the transformation of an entire field of study and practice into a political apparatus

To invoke Speight and Vera’s language, whether counseling professionals are “ready, or not,”87 the social justice movement and its powerful activists are pursuing just these sorts of changes. Critics of the movement must respond now or struggle against the likelihood of many alienating changes to come. In addition, professional psychology and counseling organizations have an ethical obligation to be more critical of the movement’s exclusive politics and more wary of efforts to institutionalize the extremely dubious social justice agenda.

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