In 1998 I was involved in lobbying for the protection of an ancient timber circle that had emerged from the sand and peat of a Norfolk beach. Seahenge provoked strong feelings and I got a number of phone calls from people objecting to my opinions. Some calls were silent and constant, some were loud and abusive and a few of them were death threats. I was confused to begin with, then shocked and when my then 6 year old daughter picked up the phone to a couple of these calls I got hold of a very loud whistle.
In 1990 I did a two minute piece on Channel 4 about the Poll Tax Riots and twice my phone calls were played back to me over my own phone. That was frightening.
It’s a given that anyone who stands up and has something to say will attract negative attention and a minority of that negativity is likely to be extreme. Although it’s important to challenge this behaviour it’s never going to be wiped out, it’s an ugly part of human nature observable across history.
Less clear cut but just as inevitable is more subtle abuse. It’s less Flashman using his superior strength to torture someone, more Jane Eyre’s female cousins running to mamma to tell on Jane for retaliating after their brother physically abuses her. This “Take Her, Not Me!” reaction is often used by people anxious about their own status, backing the powerful against the less powerful.
In recent years there have been accusations of bullying from people who work for BACP, most notably Andrew Reeves who gave an account of receiving a letter which accused him of smelling of fish. Having been in the same room as Mr Reeves I can confirm that he does not smell of fish and that this attempt at insult is as powerful as Monty Python’s “Your Mother Smells Of Elderberries.” Of course, no one deserves abusive correspondence, Mr Reeves is absolutely entitled to any feelings this correspondence elicited in him and to write anything he wants about that experience. What happened, however, was that this article was interpreted as a man being viciously attacked by people who were critical of SCoPEd.
The narrative of anti-SCoPEd therapists being bullies, and BACP-affiliated people being frightened of that abuse while bravely standing up for the truth has taken root. This weekend, The Legend Of The Bullying Of Andrew Reeves was referenced yet again by an institutionally powerful person as the reason they were so anxious about publishing an article encouraging BACP members to stand for election to the BACP board. It had, apparently, taken them "ages" to summon up the nerve.
Every time I hear this story I think of a person on Twitter who became a contributor to the SCoPEd debate: they were diagnosed with a rare metabolic condition colloquially known as ‘Fish Odour Syndrome' which means that that sufferers actually smell of fish. This problem caused their life to collapse. A bitter irony is that they met a BACP registered therapist in a high status role who dismissed their medical condition and made a psychiatric diagnosis that he was not qualified to, which resulted in a cascade of life-changing harm.
Therapists are not separate from society and we’re all living through a period of history where polarisation and conspiracy theories have become mainstream responses to profound anxiety, confusion and a powerful desire for certainty. We’re at a place where if I don’t say “no one deserves abusive correspondence, Mr Reeves is absolutely entitled to any feelings this correspondence elicited in him and to write anything he wants about that experience,” some people will assume that I think Mr Reeves deserved abuse, wasn’t entitled to his feelings and shouldn’t have written about them.
I’m referencing Mr Reeves not because I think he’s a terrible person or because I want to bully him, this has very little to do with Mr Reeves as a private individual and is everything to do with illustrating the dynamics of power playing out in groups. His article was a pivotal moment in the SCoPEd debate when the myth of anti-SCoPEd therapists being bullies was firmly set and when polarisation occurred almost instantly: who wants to be on the side of abusers?
Mr Reeves later clarified that there was no proof at all that therapists who opposed SCoPEd had anything to do with the abuse sent to him, but that was like the Sun apologising for a bogus story 3 weeks after publishing it, at the bottom of page 18. A small number of prominent people were assumed to be behind targeted abuse and a simplistic fiction of frightened but determined goodies standing bravely against insolent, malicious baddies leaped, fully formed, into being. Appealing to emotion is an old political manoeuvre, kissing babies, telling people that you can make their interests great again, that they’re victims surrounded by wicked enemies, “shining like the sun in the dark.” (Yes, really.)
Dan Olweus, considered a pioneer in bullying research, defines bullying as “repeated negative behavior, both verbal and physical, that occurs within an asymmetric power relationship.” (My emphasis.)
The narrative is of therapists with institutional power feeling bullied by an unspecified group of therapists who have no institutional power. A sub-narrative has emerged, of therapists with no institutional power feeling bullied too. As all therapists know, feelings are vital information but not always the best guide to objective truth.
Who are these bullies? What are their methods of bullying? Are they calling people at home to offer people preferential treatment if they shut up or to tell them to stop complaining? Are they sharing personal information with each other about the people they’re attacking? Are they using Twitter to contact a therapists’ professional body, to publicly name and accuse them of egregious behaviour? Have they openly diagnosed people with mental illnesses? Do they accuse people of wanting to harm clients? All this, and a great deal more, has happened to the 5 or so people - all women, none with any institutional power or personal elevated status beyond being White - who’ve most publicly opposed SCoPEd. DARVO anyone?
BACP, UKCP and BPC have a huge membership and ruling authority over therapy. BACP alone has 50,000 members and pays its executives, some of whom have backgrounds in the corporate world corporate salaries. That’s real, undeniable power and status. Each individual person working for BACP, paid or unpaid, may not feel personally powerful but whether they want it or not (and if they don’t want it why have they asked for and accepted it?) they have power, authority and massive influence.
Therapists Connect’s event on Monday discussing SCoPEd has not been able to find one person who wants to speak in support of it, despite BACP, UKCP and BPC having paid staff dedicated to it. Hanging in the air, inflamed by those tweets about having to “summon up the nerve” to write in defiance of bullies, is the unspoken “We’ll only be abused.”
Disagreement is not abuse. Asking legitimate questions is not bullying. Illuminating inconsistencies is not an attack. SCoPEd will have a seismic impact on the therapy landscape, on therapists’ already pitifully limited opportunities to move beyond unpaid work: are therapists really expected just to sit back and let their betters get on with it? If it’s such a brilliant project it should be a cinch to explain and defend it. There may be circumstances that we’re not aware of which mean that not one single person feels able to advocate for SCoPEd, but bullying is categorically not one of them.
Olweus, Dan. Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do. Blackwell, 1993.
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