Critics of the therapeutic have charted its ascension over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when it joined forces with consumerism in heaping attention, new in both degree and kind, on the needs and wants of the individual. Together, these powerful mentalities—it can be hard to tell where one ends and the other leaves off—have pervaded nearly every sphere of life. The emphasis on what seems therapeutic for the individual validates and rewards excessive self-concern—combining both meanings of self-regard and self-interest—and encourages extreme forms of emotional unleashing. Other critics trace the problems into the heart of American society and culture, where they observe a new Gnosticism, a culture of narcissism, or even a crumbling of culture itself.
The stakes are higher than they might appear. In leisure and entertainment personal preferences seem innocuous, and in politics even salutary, where the right of the individual or group to dissent provides the basis of our liberty. But in the absence of appeals to shared principle and basic checks and balances for some forms and degrees of self-assertion, such as aggression and antisocial impulses, emotivism can bring the erosion of those very rights and freedoms. Without solid foundations for our higher principles, appeals to justice, truth, and humanity can give way to assertions of raw power and desire by the few. Techniques of manipulation of feeling provide legendary assistance.
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