I’ve now seen the argument a couple of times that compliance training (meaning, “therapy” or “teaching” that ignores the clients/students’ feelings and interests, and teaches them to do things on command and follow orders more than it teaches them any useful information or skills) is bad because it leaves people vulnerable to abuse. If the authority figures in your life teach you to do what you’re told without hesitating or arguing, even if it makes you uncomfortable– then how do you know how to speak up and say no when someone unscrupulous (the stranger who wants you to get in their car, drink their alcohol, etc.) makes you uncomfortable?
And that’s true.
But I feel like stopping there is making the easy argument and then giving up.
Compliance training is wrong, in itself.
Even if the things it trains people to do aren’t bad for them. Even if it doesn’t use force or obvious cruelty as part of the training.
Treating someone as if their thoughts and feelings don’t matter– and there are trained therapists who will literally tell you that this is what you SHOULD be doing, that you should ONLY consider behavior and tangible environmental things that might cause it, that asking “what is my student/child/etc. thinking and feeling when they do that?” is a waste of time– How explicitly do I have to connect the dots, here?
Treating someone as if their thoughts and feelings don’t matter —> Treating them as if they aren’t a full human being with their own thoughts and feelings —> Dehumanizing them.
There are times when it’s unavoidable. Once in a while there are times when, for your own safety and mental health, you can’t, practically speaking, engage with someone and be sympathetic to them and try to understand their feelings. Sometimes, some people, if you try to do that, they’ll just drag you down into a pit you’ll never get out of. And sometimes the other person may not be doing anything broadly harmful, but you just don’t have the energy to spend on them.
But when you’re a therapist or teacher and you have an advanced degree and a large paycheck in engaging with people like this person and trying to help them— that’s not one of those times. You don’t get to give up then, I think. Not and expect to keep getting paid, at least.
Giving up on recognizing the humanity of someone under your power, the way a student, patient, or child is, is also very different from giving up on your rude neighbor or bigoted cousin or manipulative coworker. Children, especially children with disabilities, have their lives almost completely controlled by a fairly small number of people– their parents, their teachers. They have very little power with which to demand what they want or need. Their control over their own lives is almost entirely contingent on whether their caregivers choose to listen to them.
When you have that much control over someone’s world, if you ignore their feelings, their desires, their choices, it might as well be the entire world that’s ignoring them. If all the people who control their world– therapists and teachers and parents all working together with the same plan– consistently and repeatedly treat them this way, how can they not learn that their feelings and desires and choices aren’t worth anything?
I’ve read about programs that, in the name of speeding up a child’s progress, make every part of their life into therapy. Anything the child likes is only available as a reward for doing something right. Every opportunity for conversation is an opportunity to practice using vocabulary words. How can you make someone’s life into a series of tests and judgements, and expect them not to feel inferior to those around them?
How can you embark on a plan whose premise and subtext is that we need to be constantly judged and tested and fixed, that we must always, always do what you tell us we should do, never what we choose to do, and expect it to help us become independent?
Abuse doesn’t only mean physical violence. It doesn’t only mean sexual assault.
And it isn’t something done only by strangers, or only by people who don’t say they love the person they’re hurting, or even genuinely believe that they love that person and are doing what’s best for them.
Anything that can rightly be called compliance training is dangerous, and much of what people discuss as compliance training is abusive. It’s not a question of whether it’ll do harm, but how much.