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Because we’re so evolved….

April 27, 2010

Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!  You put me in a bind.  I want to forgive you for your little slip-up in your Cognitive Behavioural Therapy manual, but first I must draw attention to it as I think few people will have noticed it.  I’m thinking of contacting you and the fine folks at Guilford Press to see what can be done….

First, let me restate my appreciation of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).  Say what I will about the paucity of service in Grey-Bruce, at least we have this going for us.  The group I belong to uses DBT in conjunction with mindfulness meditation exercises not just to unpack our emotional responses, but to reframe our thoughts and to find ways to act apropriately rather than react heedlessly.  Best of all, DBT covers a lot of bases.  It’s a non-medicinal approach which is both very commonsense (however you define it) yet which is also very appealing to the spirit (however you define that).
Imagine my dismay, then, at finding some extremely regressive writing in the text we use in our DBT groups.  It’s the workbook that accompanies Marsha Linehan’s Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder (1993 The Guilford Press).
I would ask you to read the top box.  The context is a simple one.  Those of us who are conscious of the inappropriateness of our emotional responses or our difficulty at self-regulating often need to be reminded that all our emotions have a purpose, have validity, and that such things as powerful rage, lust, etc., are in themselves not wrong, and are invariably communicated through a complex system of paralinguistic cues and signals.  As the document is a workbook addressed to a very general readership, we can expect broad terms of reference.
But the lexicon used by Ms Linehan give me pause.  Return to the very first bullet point in the box.  We have on the one hand ‘primitive societies’ and animals, on the other ‘modern societies’.  Where to begin?  First, what in God’s name is a ‘primitive’ society?  Next, in what ways would its members be closer to animals than to us presumably ‘modern’ people?
This is not a teapot tempest.  As a trained historian, I can testify that no self respecting social scientist would ever employ the term ‘primitive’ to refer to another culture.

Popularly, folks often think of societies as ‘primitive’ if they are principally oral rather than literate, or employ manual technology with a comparatively simple toolkit rather than a vast array of complex mechanical or electronic devices.  Yet this is utter nonsense to contemporary anthropologists, for we do not qualify cultures in relation to their putative levels of technological ‘progress’, as if there were but a single avenue of technological change and Moore’s law constituted some sort of mandatory checklist.
Further, seeing as there is currently but a single species of hominid on Earth (Homo sapiens sapiens), how could it be that physical evolution is working more slowly on those poor ‘primitive’ groups than on us (let’s face it–Western) ‘modern’ sophisticates?  Everybody alive today has pretty much the same few lbs of goo in our skull, and it works the same way everywhere and for everyone–be she an Inuk (who, in her ‘primitiveness’, has learned to thrive in the most inhospitable environment ever settled by humans) or be he an urban Westerner (who in his ‘modernity’ has taken paradise and rendered vast swaths of it unfit for habitation).
This last opens up whole new worlds of debate.  For if we value and respect how cultures differ, and that what constitutes mental, cognitive, communicative or psychological illness for a person is both a function of individual neurobiology and cultural construction, we will be wary of imposing our Western notions of illness on people who have a completely different story.

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