Monday, April 4, 2011

Question Your Assumptions

I recently came across a blog post that considered the question of what tool should be in every scientist's tool box. Jullian McNally offers up awareness of assumptions as a tool worth having in the tool box. McNally defines assumptions as beliefs that are "powerful, automatic, invisible, and can be created by an act of will."  Should you want to read his whole blog post check it out here.

While reading this post I got to thinking about the assumptions psychologists make every day. Sometimes they are obvious to me. Recently, for example, I saw a discussion on LinkedIn about the Koran a pastor burned in Florida. The dialogue was heated.

Some took a standard multicultural viewpoint taught in psychotherapy programs (let's all respect each other, can't we just get along). I usually find those sorts of approaches uninspired, lacking in an awareness of nuance, and generally ineffective.

Other's took a particularly interesting point of view. Defining themselves as Christian, they called Islam a cult (offering evidence from the Bible) and went on to say that Islamic people need to be saved from the cult. I didn't find this approach very effective, either.

I couldn't resist adding my own two cents to the dialogue. I encouraged the therapists to look at their own assumptions and biases. I encouraged the therapists to consider this when considering working with a patient. Not a single person responded to my comment. No one. It was as if the notion of knowing our own biases and assumptions wasn't germane to a dialogue among psychotherapists.

As a profession, we have failed in teaching diversity. We have failed to adequately prepare therapists-in-training how to encounter diversity. We have failed our patients. We have failed to provide ourselves with the one powerful tool we need: the ability to question our assumptions.

The LinkedIn dialogue was filled with assumptions. All Muslim people are violent. All Christian people are peaceful. All Muslim people would kill someone if the Koran is burned. No Christian people would kill someone if the Bible is burned.

In my eyes these are ugly assumptions. All of them. They lump populations of people into tiny little bands of behavior that cannot be true for an entire population. They are nothing more than examples of distorted thinking.

As an aside, in a moment of annoyance when the whole Koran burning propaganda ploy started in Florida, I blurted out one of my more memorable irreverent comments. "I wonder what would happen if I dressed in a burqa, wraped a Bible in an American flag, and burned it?"

I'd be very afraid. Very.

Back to my soapbox. While these are examples of assumptions, they aren't what I'm getting at. The kind of assumptions psychotherapists and psychotherapists-in-training are most in need of exploring are the invisible assumptions we have about the world.

Our cultures provide us many fountains of unexamined assumptions. Faith, social values, educational systems, economic systems, constitutions and styles of government--all provide us with an invisible fountain of assumptions to consume.

What happens when we encounter someone who drinks from a different fountain? Koran burning is one result. War is another. Failed therapies is yet another outcome.

How can we learn to make these invisible fountains visible? How to we develop practices of dialogue to encounter these differences rather than engaging in battles about who is right? How can we teach our students to do the same?

Care to explore an assumption or two today? I'm thirsty.

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