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(July 2020) Protest, Story Telling Rights, and Crossing the Rubicon

The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them. — Michel Foucault (Chomsky–Foucault Debate: On Human Nature)


PROTEST

I’ve been talking a fair bit with my twin daughter Hannah about Black Lives Matter, Dominant White/Class Privilege and Practices of Protest; Discussing ways white privileged persons like ourselves might best internalize protest, accountability, and stand alongside people of colour - for the long run. My daughter is aware of my history of protest. And how certain decisions I made around how I would protest led to my relationship with a mandatory legal procedure of being ‘paroled’ over the US border (through expensive 5-year waivers) each time I’ve crossed since 2001. Hannah is also aware that when customs officers yank me out of the airport line and put me ‘in the room’ for interrogation, the process of yanking and interrogation is not at all the same experience black and brown men experience in that same room. When I go to the airport to cross a US border, I go early and prepared because I have a legal and legitimate reason to be pulled over and interrogated by Custom Officers. This is because I intentionally broke laws and was consequently criminally charged. The majority of black and brown men I sit beside in the little surveillance interrogation room (and I have only the experience of sitting with men) have more often than not not broken anything. However, these black and brown men are also forced to go early and prepare for any number of unknown racist experiences at the airport in much the same way they prepare for any number of unknown racist experiences they encounter each and every day. Let’s be clear: Mine is a white legal experience. A privileged position. Black and brown men’s is a racialized experience. An under-privileged position. While we collectively sit and wonder and wait to see if we’ll miss our boarding times, I am usually the sole white person among the 6 to 8 other ‘suspects’ rounded up and held. This is not by coincidence. As my friend and pioneering African American family therapist Ken Hardy said to me over a beer one night 15 years ago, the process of racist identification is: “First we are coloured, and then we are coloured.” His meaning: Men are first profiled as black and brown and then categorized as what ‘type’ or ‘category’ of black and brown man they are viewed to represent. On a side note, I’d like to suggest we bring back the word underprivileged. Underprivileged directly questions the binary of power relations that support and make up this Underprivileged/ Privileged inequality, meaning the underprivileged are those persons who are not afforded privilege through specific governances and institutional/cultural power relations that maintain the operational status quo of privilege. I remember how my father Frank and his Irish Catholic working-class buddies helped open the first summer camp for ‘underprivileged kids’ in Toronto. In the 1970s there was a solid bar of privilege – you either lived over it, or you lived under it. And that bar was viewed as the poverty line. Hannah thought long and hard about the responsibility she felt she had to join the protests and possibly be arrested. She also openly considered how her inherited white privilege afforded a choice not to be arrested and thereby risk her work as the Charge Nurse on the COVID-19 team. What she eventually decided was to remain actively involved within discussions about the ‘racial reckoning’ of the present (and future) with her peers and nursing colleagues (she is the lone white nurse on her teams), and to donate her full two-week paycheque to Black Lives Matter. She then posted a ‘challenge’ on Instagram to “all my political and apolitical white friends” to match the funds she donated through her paycheque. The challenge raised a fair amount of money and sparked a variety of novel challenges, discussions and other forms of fundraising. I believe Hannah has felt this current wave of protests as the beginning and not an endpoint. I believe that she believes it is now up to her generation of early 20 somethings to move change much radically further. I believe her.

ONLINE CERTIFICATE TRAINING

Myself and therapists Helene Grau (Copenhagen) and David Rock Nylund (Sacramento) are moving on to our 13th VSNT.live Developing Therapeutic Questions episode this coming Friday, July 24th, 2020. The way the online series works goes like this: Prior to Friday's discussion VSNT.live members have complete access to a ‘pre-watching’ of my 12-minute couple therapy tape and its accompanying unaltered transcript of the session. This prepares the membership for Friday when we will all watch the couple therapy tape and go over the unaltered transcript together. Helene and David, two of the world’s top-ten Narrative Therapy therapists/supervisors, will then supervise the session transcript line by line, asking me questions about the position, intention, grammar, direction, purpose, politic etc. of each question I asked on the taped session. Members also take active participation in the supervision process through the raising of questions about my questions in relationship with the conflicted couples responses. Two current VSNT.live discussion series have given many of the VSNT training faculty excellent online ZOOM experience for the future. And this is well timed because:

For the first time in our 28-year Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy history, the 5-Day Foundations & 3-Day Advanced certificate training programs will be taught ONLINE, September 23-27, 2020.

**ALL training participants receive a free pass to VSNT.live.**

The September training is already 35% sold out.

The VSNT faculty will teach and train as they always do through:

  • Non-essentialist post-structural ideas/values,

  • Live interview demonstrations,

  • Close up analysis of their unaltered session transcripts,

  • Video tapes of their clinical work,

  • Engaged interactive discussions, and

  • Practice exercises.


Check out our:

  • Daily Training Schedules

  • Course Outlines

  • Faculty Bios and

  • Registration

UN-MASKING PHENOMENON

Resident VSNT philosopher Todd May and I have been hosting a regular Live Theory/Practice series on the VSNT.live site exploring the influence of Michel Foucault's ideas on Michael White’s articulation of narrative therapy practice. The series attempts to weave together continental philosophy, narrative therapy practice, and the politic of current cultural experience. During our recent #6 episode of the series, Todd highlighted an article he and African American philosopher George Yancey wrote for The Stone section of the New York Times on June 21st, 2020. Their writing offers the reader a different perspective on police brutality and the ongoing murder of black civilians. It is entitled: ‘Policing is doing what it is meant to do. That’s the problem. Blaming racist violence on “bad apples” misses the point’. Discussion #6 is organized through the New York Times article and the following quote by Michel Foucault: “We say that the prisons fail at their task, yet we keep them going. Perhaps we should be asking not why the prison fails but instead what it actually succeeds at.” As per usual, just before our VSNT.live discussions go live, Todd, a born and raised New Yorker, updates this west coast Canadian on the COVID-19/Trump week that was. Updates are always hilarious, vexing, and many times puzzling. The story went something like this . . . Todd (who is a Philosophy Prof at Clemson University in South Carolina) goes off on his monthly liquor run to the local liquor store close by. He greets the mask-wearing owner through the covered mask he himself is wearing. He proceeds to load up on necessary lockdown beverages. Standing at the cashier checkout line with the store’s owner, they turn towards the presence of someone coming through the front door that is presently pasted with ‘patrons must wear a mask’ notices. What they witness is a very determined mask-less liquor store customer exclaiming his individual ‘religious exception’ rights to mask wearing. A religious exception to sanctioned non-mask wearing is what Gregory Bateson might frame as ‘news of difference’. However, the religious exception to mask wearing during a worldwide pandemic is not so different enough to be disbelieved given South Carolina’s proximal closeness with anti-science + Evangelical + Trumpian faith based politics. I realize we Canadians can seem like a fairly pretentious lot looking down upon our southern neighbours. What would go a long way in curbing these Canuck enthusiasms is not only hearing the holler of ‘I know my rights!’, but to hear the completed phrase, ‘And I also know my responsibilities and obligations to my community of others locally and internationally.’ I do wonder about a culture supportive of persons crossing the not wearing a mask Rubicon and consciously deciding against protecting one's family members and community. I suppose the culture and context of this logic isn’t much different to past Popes' telling one billion Catholics to socially refuse wearing a condom on religious grounds during the worldwide AIDS epidemic.

THE ARCHIVE OF NARRATIVE PRACTICE AND THEORY

I’m proud to say that I have taken part in weaving together every single bit of text, every single course, module, quiz and lesson, every single edit of the 500+ narrative/justice videos edited, and every single live and interactive discussion now present on VSNT.live. 


What can I say? I don’t golf. Ha! 


VSNT.live is a true labour of love. 


I’ll spend an entire week editing Michael White video lecture clips. I watch them over and over again. His teaching grabs me so much that I notice myself developing an Australian accent in my work with couple relationships. Embarrassing.


The next week I move on to watching family therapy pioneers like Rachel Hare-Mustin, Ken Hardy and Karl Tomm. They’ve all supported and spoke at VSNT conferences through the years. And we video taped all of it. Amazing.


I begin another week learning and editing alongside a historical ‘who’s who’ of narrative therapy. Byrd, Dickerson, Jenkins, Madsen, Tamasese, Waldgrave, Zimmerman etc.


And I take all this historical narrative practice learning and re-membering into conversations, interactions and interviews with the world’s current best narrative therapists and supervisors (as well as the up and coming next generation). 


And yes I admit to having a tidy little list of who I believe to be the current Top 20 narrative therapist and supervisors world-wide. 


Does the Top 20 best narrative therapist list mean anything? No not really – but it does feel inspiring to have this list in the event the world decides to one day hold a Therapy Olympics. :)


The site is a clear demonstration of just how original, creative, political, non-individualist, brilliant, alternative and breathtaking our narrative theory and practice actually is and is becoming. 


99% of learning on VSNT.live are one-of-a-kind original discussions and live therapy sessions that you will not and can not find anywhere else.

For the last seven months the Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy team imagined how to best bring VSNT.live and the worlds largest collection of interactive narrative therapy, family therapy and mental health justice videos to Graduate Schools, Agencies and Non-Profit Counselling Organizations.


Well, we did it! Yes we sure did. 


We have created an all access Academic Licensure Membership


And with the Academic Licensure, VSNT.live Membership grants each Graduate student and Professor their very own personal Homepage that is now faster, smarter, friendlier, and much more interactive. It’s f*cking brilliant.


Entire programs - faculty and students - learning together side by side though the site.


For the undecided non-members of the narrative community – we invite you to view 6 free new videos and check out what our Academic Licensure has to offer. 

Watch Free VideosExplore VSNT.live Academic Licensure

NAMING AND STORY TELLING RIGHTS

In lieu of a cool cultural shift swirling into view and the possibility of historical changes regarding power, privilege and race, I’ve found myself returning to the well-worn phrase often attributed to colonialist Winston Churchill: "History is written by victors". I believe the intention of the phrase is to argue how it is the victors (through power, science, arts, religion, ideas, norms etc.) who overwhelmingly influence historical accounts. 


Martin Luther King Jr. appeared to agree with the statement when he wrote: “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” In today’s climate, the best result is watching how MLK’s sentiment has a shot at changing.


And if we agree the changing is in the naming then therapy and therapists are central to which direction the process of naming history and future goes.


Why? Well the power of ‘naming rights’ is something all of us know. Naming rights are a taken for granted rite of passage for whomever gets themselves a Graduate degree in Counseling, FT, Social Work or Psyche. Naming rights afford any and all of us the power to interpret the true and expert meaning of personal, familial and group histories, dysfunctions and norms. Naming rights tell people who they are and who they will become - First Nation homeless person, immigrant mother, adult child of an alcoholic, avoidantly attached, oppositional-defiant etc.


I address the topic of naming rights in a recent interview from a few days ago with Two Feathers Native American Family Services out of Northern California (you can now watch it on YouTube). I explain the foolishness and fear I felt during my mid-twenties when I was summarily awarded these naming rights following my first Graduate degree.


Fortunately, I was exposed and gravitated towards a value central to narrative therapy theory and practice regarding the questioning of a) What gets to be said, b) Who gets to say it, and c) With what authority. 

Questioning the value of this value leads us towards more questioning of: 1) how psychological histories are produced?; 2) who gets to produce and interpret the meanings of these histories?; and, 3) who gives the interpreter the power to produce histories of the patient and decipher their meanings? 


What remains, is the same important question I ever so carefully raised during my narrative therapy doctoral dissertation: “Who has the story-telling rights to the story being told?”


The question of story-telling rights remains relevant to our present day discussions on Race, Class, Gender, Sexualities, Abilities and Privilege. More importantly, story-telling rights question how and in what ways do current institutional structures of Counseling, Social Work, Family Therapy and Psychology participate and re-produce dominant cultural knowledges?


For example, the essentialist single storied psychological practice of classifying persons and writing their histories into historical documents (client files), through the template of “soft” scientific research and investigation, has, for narrative therapists, acted to re-produce set cultural and institutional norms. 


What gets re-produced within the psychologized name given to a person (or group) is not only a newly inscribed identity politic but also a verification (perhaps a valourization) that uplifts the legitimacy of scientific research and the status of the expert ‘helping’ profession itself. 


Within a name (e.g., obsessive-compulsive disorder, chronically depressed, borderline personality disorder), one’s body is ‘naturally’ inscribed by science and the privileged status given to the naming and writing context. 


Unfortunately, the everyday act of professional naming and writing on the bodies of persons into categories - is often a finalized, decontextualized, and pathologized - single-storied dysfunction focused version of who persons are and who they might become. 


Deciphering the person/problem named is usually a matter of interpreting and categorizing a scientifically prescribed etiology or  “cause” to explain the presenting dysfunction/problem. Certain expert counselling manuals or guide-books are qualified to offer professionals naming instructions. 


Within this model of expert scientific naming and writing, the body of the subject/client (you and me) is viewed as the passive tablet on which disordered names are written. 


Michel Foucault emphasized that power relations are never seamless but always spawning new forms of culture and subjectivity and new opportunities for transformation: where there is power, he came to see there is also resistance. 


Dominant forms of knowledge and the institutions that support them are continually being penetrated and reconstructed by values, styles, and knowledges that have been developing and gathering strength at the margins. 

CONGRATULATIONS ARE IN ORDER

And finally, I’d like to send out big congratulations to three women.


1)    To my friend and colleague Clayre Sessoms who was recently elected to the Board of Directors at The Vancouver Women’s Health Collective. 


2)     To my friend and super gifted colleague Helene Grau who’s 12 year old daughter won the Danish National Tennis Championship for her age group 2 weeks ago.


3)    To my friend and VSNT’s uber-talented, uber-funny & uber-competent Operations Director Robin Evan-Willis (MA, MCP) who is marrying her partner Chris on August 1st, 2020 in Vancouver. 


Feel free to write me directly at yft@telus.net.


Thanks so much everyone.


Take care and see you soon.


Stephen

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