A TLA Ethic

A TLA Ethic as Conscious, Connected, and Creative Action

James Sparrell, Copyright 2009

There has been a pile of dirt in my driveway for about a year and a half. No, it’s bigger than you’re picturing – probably the size of a truck without wheels and covered by a huge luminescent blue tarp. It wouldn’t pass as an art project and was probably more of a monument to good intentions in the garden. But through two complete gardening seasons I had not had time to distribute it in all the good places I wanted new rich loam.

I suppose somewhere inside it was my protest against the inflated housing market in town, which would preclude my moving here, if I tried to today. I used to live next to people who fished for a living; people who had only been out of the state once (and the Maine border is only a five-minute walk away); and people who worked their whole lives at the nearby Naval Shipyard. Now I live next to a physician, a retired physicist, and well-to-do business officers and owners. My cold frame, for starting vegetables in spring was once a springboard for all sorts of gardening conversation with the neighbors and mail carrier. Now it is a sort of blight of embarrassment in the yard.

Yet I must say that not one person has complained about the big blue pile of dirt in the driveway. The physician, who recently moved in, did stop by and chat about the critical importance of “keeping property values up,” but I could easily ignore that. What got me stuck on my relationship to that big blue pile was contemplating writing an essay on ethical practice. I began to think about what it means to be a good neighbor, and the physicist who is trying to sell his home and needs to move to a retirement community, whose windows look right on that pile of dirt. I no longer felt comfortable in making my gardening and deflationary statement in his face. So on the second day of fall I spent a day pushing a wheelbarrow and dodging wasps and the pile is gone. The tarps are folded and stored in the shed.

What struck me is that I began to see the dirt pile in a way I hadn’t seen it before. If I believed in affordable housing in my community, my big blue pile was not serving for much more than a rationalization for being too busy to do the work, and there were infinitely better ways that I could work toward a more socially equitable community, better ways to make a political statement. In the process of this shift in my relationship to the dirt, there was a change in my consciousness of it, a challenging of my own assumptions and beliefs, and a possibility of new and creative ways of participating in community. It is often the way in which we pose the questions that limits our thinking and reasoning about what are ethical answers, and keeps our social reasoning vacillating between the false dichotomies of parallel ruts in a well-worn road.

It is my opinion that we are animals first, and animals with big brains second, and that much of the time our big brains are spent in rationalizing what our more animal aspects have guided us to do. The spirit of ethical thinking is to use those big brains like a flashlight in the dark, directing our actions, directing our thought in conscious ways as to how we want to relate to others and to the natural world.

It is not possible to ask questions that we have not been able to form. As professions develop ethical codes, they function to suggest common questions that practitioners ought to be thinking about; to raise consciousness regarding the consequences of practicing in a particular way. Codes are constantly in a state of flux and evolution, which is an exciting thing. Unfortunately as ethical thinking moves into ethical codes there is sometimes a tendency to discard the reasoning aspect and focus on a sort of legalistic adherence to the code.

In the world of Western psychology ethics have had a good hundred-year history of debate and development and at times are bewilderingly complex. For example, the APA (American Psychological Association) guidelines at this time may deem it acceptable for a psychologist to assist in the development of strategies to aid US forces in psychological torture of “detainees,” while it might be considered unethical, as a violation of confidentiality, for a clinician to greet a client in a grocery store (Mayer 60-71). I don’t say this to imply that ethical guidelines are without merit or so confusing that they are not worth attending to, but to suggest that they deal with complicated life situations, reflect social, political, and religious beliefs and values, and are constantly in a state of flux and development.

For the world of TLA, a relatively new area of study and practice, the ethical questions and development of ethical guidelines are in their early stages. And there is much to glean from the work of other disciplines and practices including education, journalism, social activism, expressive arts, and psychology, as well as other disciplines and practices. A preliminary code of ethics for TLA has been developed by Mirriam-Goldberg and is presented in Table 1.

Several major ethical themes can be seen to emerge from these principles. A number of items focus on the general theme of competence, either by developing or improving areas of expertise or creative practice (writing, artistic practice, research), or practicing within areas of competence, doing what you know, and also seeking to provide evidence that TLA practices are effective in meeting their purported goals and objectives. In this sense, there is also comfort with the idea of not-knowing, and not having all the answers, but being open to learn and listen from clients or participants. Competence also implies a knowledge of how and when to refer an individual for other forms of education, medical care, psychotherapy or other potentially necessary or beneficial services. This touches on a related theme of doing no harm which acknowledges both the powerful benefits and the limits of a TLA practice in providing help and fostering social or personal change, again necessitating the likelihood of referring participants to other kinds of community care when needed. Doing no harm also involves non-exploitation of individuals, nondiscrimination, and providing a context that seeks to ensure that participants will be respected and able to work in a climate of safety and trust.

The principal of respecting individual autonomy is evoked in the process of obtaining informed consent for activities, obtaining permission for the use of client materials in other contexts or for participation in research activities. Individuals are viewed as being competent to make wise judgments regarding what they choose to do or not do, but need truthful, accurate information on which to base their decisions.

An underlying value implicit in the ethical code for TLA is that TLA is reflected in a practice of connection and community. In this regard, practitioners of TLA seek to remain related to a wider community of those engaged in TLA work to hone their skills, provide support, critique process, evaluate methodology, share techniques and ideas, and to provide consultation on ethical dilemmas that will arise. Community engagement is also evident in the TLA practitioner seeking to know other kinds of therapists, educators, spiritual advisors, artists, writers, activists, and professionals in their geographical area so that referrals can be made in an informed, supportive way, not just from a phonebook. TLA practice works to resist community fragmentation.

Implicit in these guidelines are also the principles of beneficence and justice. The spirit of this work is tied closely to principles of progressive, democratic education which seek to acknowledge injustice and work toward positive social change. In that sense the work is not neutral with respect to social values. And TLA ethics are not just about not doing “bad” things, but to be affirmatively and actively engaged in work that challenges violence, injustice, ignorance, exploitation, oppression, and other societal ills.

Consciousness and self-knowledge are essential to the implementation of ethical principles in actual practice. It is vital that practitioners be able to identify themselves within the TLA work, in terms of their own potential capacity to hurt or harm, even unintentionally, and also to identify themselves with respect to their power in the TLA work, and potentially harmful consequences of that. Power dynamics cannot be eliminated even if attempts are made to minimize them. Bird does a wonderful job of discussing the political dynamic present in narrative therapy, which like TLA, seeks to acknowledge and challenge dominant cultural paradigms. She describes the importance of exposing and negotiating elements of power within the work, and acknowledging that the practitioner almost by definition comes from a position of the insider or one reflecting power in the relationship, e.g. teacher-student. It is vital to recognize that any attempts to address this inherently have costs and benefits. For example, some people use self-disclosure as a strategy for minimizing power over another person and to reflect a commonality. I recall in my own psychotherapy, my wonderfully supportive, infinitely patient and wise therapist telling me about traveling to her son’s graduation from Stanford with a Ph.D. in literature, just as I was finally completing my Ph.D. and deciding that I would not attend, knowing also that none of my family would be able to attend either. My experience involved both an enjoyable sense of her pride and a shift toward equalization of power, as well as one of irritation and abandonment. Self-disclosure is a useful but complex tool, not unlike a shotgun.

Ultimately, ethical practice in a TLA context will likely result in coming into relationship with the community and the local world in new and unexpected ways. Rather than simply imparting (or bestowing) knowledge, TLA practice seeks to pursue understanding and discovery so that both the TLA practitioner and the relevant community will experience change and construct new understanding. The flashlight shines on the blue tarp and the pile of the dirt that lies underneath, and calls for a different vision, a creative understanding of relationship that may involve some difficult work, a shift in perspective or even heavy lifting.

It has been some months but I did notice that the physicist’s condo sold within days of my having moved the dirt pile. The doctor doesn’t come by or speak anymore, and I noticed that the city counseling is considering several proposals to provide more affordable housing in town. Consciousness comes with a price; ethical questions resist complacency and acknowledge the complexity of life and the emptiness of simple answers. In the words of Greg Brown,
“Life is a thump-ripe melon,
so sweet and such a mess.”

Works Cited

Bird, J. To Do No Harm: Keynote Address. Pan-Pacific Family Therapy Conference. Melbourne, Australia. 6 Nov. 2006.

Brown, Greg. “Rexroth’s Daughter” Covenant. Red House Records, 2000.

Mayer, Jane. “The Experiment.”The New Yorker 11 July, and 18 July 2005: 60

Mirriam-Goldberg, Caryn. Transformative Language Arts Handbook: Social and Personal Transformation Through the Spoken and Written Word.  Goddard College: Plainfield, Vermont, 2006.

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