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Are you emotionally literate?

'Emotional literacy' is the new language of a society of self-absorbed, atomised individuals, argues Linda Ryan

According to a survey commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation and published in January, around one in five children and teenagers suffers mental health problems. Children experiencing increased stress at home and at school are manifesting anxiety, disruptive behaviour, attention deficit, developmental disorders, bed-wetting and substance misuse. Attempted suicides are said to be on the increase among teenagers. The report, entitled 'Bright futures', claims that children are failing to thrive emotionally, and suggests that we all face a grim future unless they are taught the skills of 'emotional literacy'.

Emotional literacy - coming shortly to a school near you - is the latest manifestation of the trend to extend the counselling culture from cradle to grave, to every area of the life of society. While it is likely to exacerbate the problems it aims to tackle, its popularity provides some insights into the scale of the loss of nerve of contemporary society.

'Emotional literacy will not bring about Utopia, but it may bring about a situation where there is less fear and more joy', declares Frances Wilks in Intelligent Emotion: how to succeed through transforming your feelings (Heinemann, 1998), one of the numerous psychological self-help manuals that seem to be outselling most popular fiction. Wilks' ambition 'as we approach the millennium' is that emotional literacy will help to 'tip the scale in favour of sanity, insight and joy'.

By contrast with past millenarian visions of salvation or transformation, contemporary aspirations are notably sober, if not explicitly pessimistic. The forthcoming millennium coincides with a widespread despair of the possibility of real social change, provoking fears of impending doom; it is regarded more as an ending than as a beginning. Today, survival and security seem to be the highest hopes for the future.

In her epilogue, 'The cultivation of joy', Wilks makes a significant distinction between the goals of 'happiness' and 'joy', which is worth quoting at some length:

'Joy is a form of grace which comes upon us when we are engaged in something...Happiness, on the other hand, is an emotion which is triggered by a favourable outward state of affairs...Joy shows us our creative and transformative potential while happiness connects us in relationships to people and things in the world...

'We will never stop longing for people and things to make us happy. That is part of the human condition, but the cultivation of joy makes the quest for happiness more fun and more light-hearted. We can become less attached to our goals because we are enjoying the path to them more.'

The notion that 'I only want to be happy' is the zenith of human aspiration is part of the legacy of the hippies of the 1960s, which has gradually won mainstream approval in the intervening decades (see Andrew Calcutt, Arrested Development: pop culture and the erosion of adulthood, 1998). At the time this sentiment was widely condemned as an individualistic and self-indulgent retreat from the wider engagement with society that has always been regarded as crucial to a civilised existence. Yet this narrowly hedonistic outlook has increasingly displaced commitments expressed in terms of religion or politics.

Wilks' replacement of happiness with joy as the goal of human endeavour marks a further regression. Her students must accept that it is unrealistic to expect to achieve fulfilment through 'people and things', through 'outer-directed' activity. Instead they should settle for the compensation provided by momentary pleasures experienced in the 'inner-directed' process of self-discovery and self-expression. Whereas the hippies retreated to their communes and later seekers after personal happiness withdrew into the private sphere of family life, the logic of emotional literacy suggests a return to the pre-school playgroup. Next stop - the womb.

The lowering of horizons in pre-millennial society is the key to understanding the remarkable rise in the influence of emotional literacy and other manifestations of the counselling culture. A number of factors have converged over the past decade to create a unique sense of individual vulnerability, which is highly susceptible to such psychotherapeutic interventions.

Last year's declaration by billionaire financier George Soros that the capitalist system was in danger of self-destruction reflects the loss of confidence of the capitalist elite. Though the collapse of alternatives appears to have confirmed the capitalist market as the only conceivable mode of organising productive activity, its leading exponents are preoccupied with its instability and its corrosive effect on vital social structures, from the nation state to the family, and on the environment. Instead of pursuing the logic of capitalist expansion, entrepreneurs are now taking up the causes of sustainable development and ethical investment, and appear more concerned to impose limits and restraints. In the world of politics, the Third Way of Clinton and Blair signals the acceptance of the diminished possibilities offered by a society in which far-reaching change for the better is no longer considered feasible.

A lowering of expectations and a loss of nerve are apparent at every level of society. Those in leadership positions in industry and services and in the professions are inclined to look to external sources of authority - management consultants, auditors, regulators, facilitators - to share responsibility for taking decisions and to deal with problems and conflicts that may arise. This trend is most dangerous in relation to the family, which has already been seriously destabilised by the economic and social changes of the past 30 years. Parents who experience difficulties with their children are now expected to attend parenting classes and to consult numerous professional experts on how to deal with them. Such initiatives, particularly when combined with helplines and other agencies to which children can refer domestic disputes, can only further undermine parental authority and individual autonomy.

Though these trends have been apparent for some years, they have converged powerfully over the past decade, when countervailing forces (like social class, collective organisations) have been dramatically weakened. The result is a uniquely atomised society, in which the process of individuation has created a virtually universal sense of enhanced individual frailty. This is expressed in the range of disorders reported in the survey of teenage mental health quoted above, and in their adult equivalents of anxiety and depression, stress and chronic fatigue syndromes, and general hypochondria. The growing chorus of demands for state protection against stalkers and bullies, and diverse forms of abuse, extending to offensive words as well as deeds, indicates the pervasiveness of a sense of great vulnerability.

The intense absorption with the self, and the preoccupation with increasing 'self-awareness' and 'self-esteem' that underlies the drive for emotional literacy, reflects the widespread sense of loss of individuality. But can training in emotional literacy help to restore the impaired individual of our times?

The new-fangled, but already well established term 'emotional literacy' implies that children can be taught about the inner world of the mind in the same way that they can be taught the three Rs. The immediate problem here is that little is really known about these processes even by the most eminent authorities on the subject. Far from inhibiting the promoters of emotional literacy, this allows them to fill the space with an edifice of speculation and dogma. Yet, while their teachings are for the most part merely banal, because of the intimate character of the subject they may be experienced by some as intrusive and distressing.

The major defect of emotional literacy is its assumption that the problems of damaged individuality can be resolved at the level of the individual (and his or her most intimate relationships). But these problems are the result of a range of wider social forces. Given the already fragile state of many individuals, the voyage of self-discovery is more likely to lead to a further involution than it is to personal growth. Given the fragmentation of the family, training in self-expression and assertiveness is destined to intensify conflict.

Returning to Frances Wilks' contrast between the goals of joy and happiness, she emphasises that the quest for joy is both 'inner' and 'independent', whereas that of happiness is 'outer' and 'dependent'. Her point is that the individual can pursue the goal of joy in isolation and without any need for things or people. The problem with this approach is not only that it is likely to lead people towards a closer encounter with the inner emptiness of contemporary individuality, and hence to deeper demoralisation. It also opens up the inner life of the individual to the inspection and surveillance of the teacher of emotional literacy, and, more generally, to the massed ranks of therapists and counsellors.

The modern individual is more independent of ties of family and traditional institutions, but more dependent on professional psychotherapeutic personnel (often provided by the state or the employer). Whereas in the past conformity to the father or the priest could be offered in public but reserved in private, today conformity is required - in mind, body and spirit.

Reproduced from LM issue 118, March 1999



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