Values and Power
By: Tom Gilson|Published: September 2, 2010 8:41 AM
Jennifer Keeton, a graduate student in the counseling program at Augusta State University in Georgia, has been told she must drop her Christian beliefs or be expelled from the program.
On Wednesday, July 21, represented by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), she filed suit against the university.
For what reason? According to the university’s remediation plan as quoted in the complaint filed by the ADF, it is because of questions concerning
Much could be said about this, and Christian blogs have been abuzz. Collin Brendemuehl compares it to Soviet reeducation programs. While Keeton’s treatment at Augusta State does not rise to Gulag level, the difference (if the facts are accurate as reported) seems to be one of degree rather than of kind: change your beliefs or (professionally) die! The intolerance expressed in this has proved all too easy to satirize.
But there is a larger issue: truth in American public discourse. Augusta’s local newspaper, seeking a perspective from the broader counseling profession, interviewed Edward Delgado-Romero, associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Georgia. Though he was not familiar with the Keeton case, he had this to offer:
"All programs that are training professional counselors have guidelines, not in terms of belief but in terms of behavior during training and treatment.... A student saying 'I personally have religious beliefs against this group, and I will convince my clients to believe this' would be a conflict."
Delgado-Romero said that UGA's faculty would not force a student to change their beliefs, but there would be discussions on how personal beliefs should not affect treatment of clients.
Note the language. Delgado-Romera frames it as “I personally have religious beliefs against this group.” This makes it inherently political, a matter of intergroup animosity rather than (as Christians rightly view it) moral beliefs regarding certain behaviors.
More interesting yet, though, is that he thinks “personal beliefs” should not affect a counselor’s professional behavior. So if Jennifer Keeton believes (as she has said, as noted in the complaint) that gender is a matter of genetics rather than social conditioning, that may be fine; but it would be wrong for her to act as if it is true. If (as she has also said) she believes sexual behavior is a matter of accountable personal choice rather than deterministic influences, she must act as if it is not. Augusta State University says Keeton must change her beliefs, but Delgado-Romero’s position is, if anything, even more insidious. Speaking on behalf of the professional counseling profession, he is willing to allow someone like Jennifer Keeton to continue as a counselor--as long as she is willing to deny her own beliefs in practice. Her beliefs are fine as long as she agrees to live a lie.
Or, perhaps, she can be a counselor as long as she’s willing to accept that “beliefs” have nothing to do with how one acts in the world; for after all, they are personal beliefs. I suspect this is what Delgado-Romero really had in mind. If so, it is a textbook example of the all-too-common fact-value dichotomy described by Francis Schaeffer in The God Who Is There, and more recently by Nancy Pearcey in Total Truth. There are facts, and there are values; there are items of knowledge, and there are beliefs. Only facts or items of knowledge are to be allowed out in public. What determines something’s status as a fact or item of knowledge is (most commonly) its being scientifically verifiable.
Values and beliefs, in contrast, are personal things; to parade them publicly is quite an unseemly thing to do, like clipping one’s fingernails during a business meeting. Pearcey and others have documented how this dichotomy has come to rule public discourse. But it is an odd rule; for what fact, what item of scientific knowledge, is it that makes it inappropriate to clip one’s nails during a business meeting? It can be shown that clipping one’s nails at the wrong time bothers people; but why? It bothers them because of their values.
Keeton believes (according to the complaint) that “sexual behavior is the result of accountable personal choice rather than an inevitability deriving from deterministic forces.” That’s a statement about human nature. Apparently the university holds that human behavior is shaped entirely by external forces rather than by personal choices. I do not have space here to outline the arguments concerning determinism, so suffice it to say that behavioral determinism has never been proved scientifically. Many in the mental health professions (including the broader field of brain sciences) assume it to be true, but its truth or falsehood is utterly beyond the reach of scientific testing. It is a philosophical position, not a scientific one, flowing out of a metaphysical belief that nature and its laws are the only causal forces that exist. Thus by the supposedly scientific terms of the fact-value dichotomy, it doesn’t rise to the level of a fact. In fact, from a philosophical perspective, determinism is self-defeating, meaning that it’s impossible for it to be true.*
Augusta State apparently takes it that Keeton’s position is morally wrong: that she shouldn’t demean homosexual practices, or that it’s wrong to regard persons as accountable for their sexual behavior. That’s a moral position, too. Here the fact-value dichotomy shows its ugliest face. The school is expressing values just as much as Keeton is. Why should its values should prevail over hers? Is it because the school is following scientific standards? We have already seen that values are not for science to determine. Perhaps one might say it’s because these values have been validated by the counseling profession. That seems solidly proper and professional, doesn’t it?
But values are values. A group’s values (including a school’s or profession’s) reflect the personal values held by the group’s most influential members: the power-holders. This is where it gets ugly. Values still surface in the public square, frequently in conflict with other values. If it is true that all values are “personal,” divorced from truth, we have no basis for asking which is more true or right. If then the competition cannot be between truth and error, where does it lie? When beliefs or values are taken to be just “personal,” they do not just meekly exit the public square; for a vacuum of values is simply impossible. What’s forced out is any truth to which they could be connected.
But when truth leaves, a vacuum of a different sort results; and what rushes in to replace it is power. One side cannot rationally persuade the other of its superiority, for (on this view) neither is more or less true than the other; but one side can out-shout, out-PR, or out-legislate the other. Or if one side holds real power—a university over its students, for example—it’s even easier. As Jennifer Keeton knows better than anyone, it can just expel those who disagree.
*More technically, it’s impossible for it to be known to be true, but that’s close enough.
Tom Gilson is director of strategic processes in the Operational Advisory Services team for Campus Crusade for Christ. He maintains a blog at www.thinkingchristian.net.
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