Erasure, intersectionality, and neutrality

The key question raised in this article is: What is the role of the group analyst in responding to societal injustices, othering, and negation as they arise within a therapy group? For our purposes we might ask: What is the role of the consultant, researcher, teacher, or manager in responding to the same? Further, can we have any role at all if we have not reflexively examined and fully articulated the intersectional nature of our own positionality? And, what is the cost if we don’t?

The author highlights the aim of group analysis as providing “a social context where relational styles that are problematic can be worked out in a context that sustains them, enabling an increased ability to socialize and to mature” (p. 504). This is something we cannot do, they might argue, if we defensively maintain the classical position of neutrality.

Instead, we must understand our position relative to the psychosocial unconscious, the position of the individuals within the group, and the position of the group as a whole. A key feature of this understanding is the intersection of multiple identities within one’s own, and others’, standpoint – and the subjective experience of “multiple othering” (p. 499). These twin ideas, positionality and intersectionality, form the basis for the author’s critique of analytic neutrality (p. 500). The argument is that “clinical positionality is inescapable” (p. 504) and our theories and techniques are necessarily value laden. 

The author states, “…it is essential for group analysts, and indeed all clinicians, to examine the discrepancies between their positionality, theoretical paradigm and practice. Institutional societal structures organize the lives of people from particular groups…this extends to the practice of social work, psychotherapy, group analysis and the development of all of the psychological theories in general” (p. 511). So, failing to examine such discrepancies, limits our capacity to lead, the capacity of group members to follow, and may damage individual selves and interpersonal relationships within the group.

Two vignettes paint a picture of what it means to intervene, and to not intervene – limitations and possibilities. The first illustrates the pain of being othered, rendered invisible – and the need to be seen. The patient’s need to be seen is disavowed and turned away from by group members – he is erased and the shame along with it. This “clinical erasure” involves a refusal to bear witness, “turning a blind eye” (p. 505), and above all, voiding the experience of a traumatized other in the act of turning away. In this instance, the group cannot do other than insist that we are not like them (the white supremacists). “Cultural erasure” (i.e. suppressing the evidence of perpetration) is most prominent in organizations as “color-blindness” (see Eikenberry et al., 2019)

The second vignette aptly illustrates the paradoxical experience of being both a victim and a perpetrator, perhaps compounded by being a witness. The defense appears… “all lives matter”. And when all lives matter, no one is really all that special. You are no different than us, yet we cannot tolerate your presence.

The author argues that if the analyst does not address the issue of erasure, of replicating societal dynamics within the group, “she cannot realistically assume that anyone else will” (p. 510).

The intervention demonstrated encourages mutual recognition, relating through perspective-taking, and self-recognition through articulating one’s own positionality. A reflexive knowing of the self that ruptures, surfaces, and integrates – making it possible to navigate both shame and guilt, and leading to repair. For me, this reads as a method of maintaining rather than abandoning analytic neutrality, because we cannot be neutral if we do not recognize the features of our identifications, disavowals, shame, and guilt.

How do we transport such ideas into the classroom, the organization, and society? It is true that we cannot truly be the “outside objective” perspective on organizational culture, process, and strategy. Yet, can we not remain neutral as we articulate our positionality in relation to the group?

I wonder, if we can begin the reflexive process suggested in this article by writing our own positions and recognizing how they intersect in our lives, our subjective experience, our work, and our theorizing? Is so, how would you begin?


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