Censorship and Other Troubles at Counselors for Social Justice

Robert C. Hunsaker

The counseling field today places great emphasis on “social justice counseling,” an approach in which counselors endeavor to act as activists. The goal is to work on behalf of historically oppressed minority groups. Social justice counseling encourages out-of-office lobbying and other non-traditional counselor activities in order to address what are seen as oppressive conditions and social inequities.  Lobbying on behalf of ethnic minorities or LGBT people—to highlight but two of the groups important to social justice activists—requires a certain political orientation. For example, liberals might find it acceptable to advocate for affirmation action or gay rights while conservatives might not. Unfortunately, social justice activists typically dismiss or ignore the fact that their agenda is problematic for religious or political conservatives. For this reason and others, I’m a critic of social justice counseling.

I've published some of my criticisms.  In turn I’ve been criticized, particularly in relation to what I’ve written in Counseling Today, the American Counseling Association’s monthly magazine. I have no problem with critical feedback. But I’ve recently experienced something altogether new. I’ve been censored. Here’s the story: For the past two years or so, I’ve been participating on the Counselors for Social Justice (CSJ) listserv where members of CSJ discuss what’s important to them (CSJ is an official division of American Counseling Association). A listserv is a group email discussion forum. I signed up for CSJ’s listserv because, as a critic of social justice counseling, I wanted to stay in touch with conversations among CSJ members and occasionally offer input myself. But in late November, 2012, I noticed I was no longer receiving CSJ emails, which come often, and eventually discovered that I had been removed from the list—no warning, no reason—just removed.

For the majority of my time on the listserv I simply noted what its members wrote. In fact, my first major posting was in May, 2012. It was in response to a message from Allen Ivey, a well-known figure in our field and the keynote speaker, along with his wife, at the upcoming 2013 ACA Conference & Expo in Cincinnati. Mr. Ivey sent a photo of an anti-Obama bumper sticker that read “Don’t Re-Nig in 2012.” He followed the picture with this statement: “disgusting, but this seems to be the mindset of one of the parties running for the next election.”

Of course I was put off by the racist bumper sticker, but I was also troubled by Ivey’s message, because there are only two ways to interpret it: he was either saying that Mitt Romney’s “mindset” was in line with the sticker, or that it matched the Republican Party’s as a whole. Bengu Erguner-Tekinalp, Assistant Professor of Counselor Education at Drake University, was one of the first to reply to Ivey. He wrote: “Dear Allen, It does not represent “one” of the part[ies] entirely. Aren’t we teaching our students that they should not generalize. I know many people who are republicans but would not approve such a message.” Ivey never responded.
I felt Ivey couldn’t be let off the hook, so I posted a response of my own. I was pretty sure it would elicit something in return. I wrote:

Mr. Ivey, I often marvel at the number of people on this listserv who sign off with slogans referencing peace and justice and love, but who often seem to fall quite short of those ideals. You, at least, drop the niceties. But it is messages like yours that do nothing to foster communication and understanding between people of diverse political perspectives. And you are even a person of some repute in the multicultural/social justice arena. Too bad. Thinly veiled as it is, I'm forced to interpret your message because you seem to lack the courage to say what you really mean. When you refer to "the mindset of one of the parties running for the next election," you mean either Mitt Romney or the Republican Party in general. You must be on close personal terms with Mitt to know his mind so intimately. I can only hope you're not referring to the entire Republican Party and its millions of members. Claiming to know the minds of so many people would mean you're seriously mentally ill.

Ivey responded thus: “Well, I'm sorry that I generalized. The bumper sticker sent me into orbit--and I'll admit that it made me a bit crazy, and I pushed the send button too quickly. There was no need for any comment—the bumper sticker speaks for itself.” His apology was followed by a fire-storm of other responses, almost all of which were in defense of Ivey and his statement, even though he had acknowledged his wrongdoing. I was a very unpopular person indeed. But the moral of this story is that many folks in the social justice arena have serious bias problems, and they don’t react kindly to critics who call them on it.

Back to the present. When I noticed I was no longer receiving CSJ email, on November 20, 2012 I wrote to Edil Torres Rivera, current CSJ listserv manager, to ask whether I’d been removed. His response was: “Rob — you will need to address this question to Rhonda Bryant — I just follow the guidelines of the officer of the organization.” I have addressed it with Bryant, the current CSJ President. In the beginning and for quite some time, she was unwilling to be forthright with me. I had something of an email wrestling match with her over a period of more than two weeks. I asked questions such as Why was I removed from the list with no warning?; Who was responsible for having me removed (even though Mr. Torres Rivera’s response gives this answer, I wanted to hear it directly from Bryant)?; and How can I get back on the list?

Bryant stalled and stalled until I finally implemented the strategy of copying other members of the CSJ listserv. Michael D’Andrea, an outspoken social justice activist, responded forcefully:

Colleagues: There is nothing in the posts I have read from Rob Hunsaker that I agree with......nothing......My personal views about his posts are that they represent an oppressive mind set that is anchored in unbridled White privilege.

Despite my personal thoughts, feelings, and opposition to Rob's views, I support his right to express his perspectives on the CSJ listserve if he is, in fact, a dues paying member of CSJ. Censoring people for their divergent views is a fundamental injustice that contradicts the establishment of CSJ....and if the President or Board members of CSJ support this injustice by arbitrarily treating Hunsaker in a differential manner than other people on the CSJ listserve ... that decision needs to be unveiled and addressed by the members of CSJ.

As I have stated previously, I believe the CSJ Board of Directors and the CSJ president have and continue to operate in ways that contradict the democratic principles upon which CSJ is founded. However, it is to the current controversy about the deletion of Rob Hunsaker from the CSJ listserve that I direct concerns that numerous people are expressing about this situation.

So that we can all avoid making final judgements about the present conflict that Hunsaker has brought to our attention, I am asking Rhonda Bryant, the current president of CSJ to respond to the following questions for greater clarificaiton:

1. Who made the decision to delete Ron Hunsaker from the CSJ listserve?

2.What was the reason for deleting Rob from our listserve?

3. Has a policy been established that sets the criteria for deleting persons from the CSJ listserv and if so, when was that policy passed by the CSJ board?

4. Has the CSJ members been made aware of the conditions to be included or excluded from the CSJ list serve?

5. If Rob Hunsaker was removed from the CSJ listserve because he is not a member of CSJ, has there also been an effort to check for other persons on the list serve that may not be CSJ members and have they been removed....or has there been an arbitrary decision to only remove Rob because of his expressed views?

6. Was Rob properly informed that he would be removed from the CSJ listserve unless he became a member of our organization so he could make an informed decision about becoming a member of CSJ or did the President and/or Board of Directors make the decision to censor him without notification?

Rhonda, when I have submitted requests to you and CSJ Board in the past, I have not always received responses to various requests and expressed concerns. I have found this to be a disrespectful and inappropriate way for CSJ to operate. I am hopeful that you and the Board will respond to the above stated questions and other questions/requests other people have made in the past so that our membership can gain insight into expressed concerns.

Obviously, D’Andrea saw an opportunity not only to address free speech in relation to me, but also to voice concern about other facets of Bryant’s leadership. Shortly thereafter and because Bryant hadn’t answered the questions he had posed, D’Andrea sent her this:

As you are aware....I have listed a number of questions relevant to the conflict you and Rob experienced…. I am again requesting that you answer the questions listed on the previous email to the CSJ listserve. The questions I included in the email that was sent to yourself, the CSJ Board and the CSJ listserve have come, in part, from 3 members of the CSJ who have expressed concern that you and other board members might somehow retaliate against them in some way. Given this irrational fear (my words), they asked me to advocate for them by including their questions in that email I sent you and the CSJ listserve.

Apparently, all is not well under Bryant’s tenure. Though I can’t speak to what other problems may exist, it is helpful to know that others—advocates of social justice—are uneasy with her CSJ presidency.

Eventually, after all our going back and forth, Bryant finally admitted that she had had me removed from the list without warning me. Along the way she had written such things as: “…I sent previous emails prior to your removal from the listserv and I certainly was concerned that you didn't get them;” “Honestly, I tried to reach out to you via email prior to this and left a message on your work phone. I can see how you might view this a[s] punitive, however this is not the case;” and “You didn't get my previous emails about this action and I told you previously that this was not my preference or intent.” It was only in her very last message on the subject that she finally confessed: “I have gone through my emails and have not found any emails to Rob that inform him of the decision to remove him from the listserv... I thought that I had done a better job than this and regret that I did do a more thorough job in alerting him about the exec committee's decision.”

Removal from a free speech forum without notice is censorship. As Michael D’Andrea concluded, “I[t] appears that having Rob being the only person to date deleted from our listserve seems like his different perspectives ---- which I do disagree with - are the real basis of the genesis of this fiasco.”

As I have written elsewhere, social justice counseling activists are often victims of their own ironic actions. Just prior to my removal from the CSJ listserv in late October, 2012, President Bryant wrote this message:

Many recent gains have been accomplished through dialogue, mutual consideration in the face of disagreement and opposing viewpoints, and strategizing. There is not one voice that cries for social justice in our division; our unique voices make us strong and give us power. I see the future for social justice advocacy in ACA and CSJ as bright, full of opportunity for change, and promise. Yes, challenges will always exist; however, we have key allies across divisions, in leadership, and general membership. Where we may not have allies, we do not necessarily have enemies. While some may not agree with CSJ's mission, the division's in-reach over the past few years has opened new avenues for dialogue and change. I encourage us to focus on possibilities and positive change. It is important that we are drum majors for social justice and that we embody social justice in action. Effective action requires introspection, reflective practice, empathy, and genuineness. These are the hallmarks of social justice.

Isn’t it ironic that censorship, as well as the other undemocratic actions referred to by Michael D’Andrea, have now become hallmarks of social justice for Bryant too?  For me, Bryant’s action is part and parcel of the actions of many people who support social justice efforts. “If you’re not for us, you’re against us” seems to be the message that critics of social justice so often receive. For now, I plan to leave President Bryant and the members of the CSJ listserv to their own devices.

Image: "silence" by Rebecca Barray // CC BY-SA

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