What Would Make Me Want to Rejoin the American Psychological Association?

By Neil Altman

Policy vs. Ethics

Enter a caption Demonstrators dressed like Guantanamo detainees protest outside the Department of Justice in Washington, DC on January 2013. Photo: Witness Against Torture

A recent article in the NY Times reports that the Department of Defense is asking the American Psychological Association (APA) to make its position against psychologist participation in national security interrogations a matter of policy, not of ethics. This leads to some reflections on the possible foundation on which such a policy would rest, if not on

an ethical basis. Policies can change with the prevailing political winds or public opinion; ethical principles are more deeply rooted in values, in a sense of what matters in human life. I would be pleased if the APA were to make explicit that its policy about psychologist participation in national security interrogations were based on ethical principles, along with a statement about what those ethical principles are, and how they relate to what happened, and continues to happen, at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. But such a statement from the APA would not be enough for me to rejoin the organization, from which I resigned some years ago in protest against its collusion with human rights abuses. I would need the APA to do some soul searching as to how this ethical lapse happened within the organization, not to affix blame, but in the interest of learning from the experience. More importantly, in order to rejoin I would need the organization to build on its own soul searching to encourage public self-scrutiny in the service of learning about fear and violence, specifically how we all are prone to getting caught up in destructive cycles of hatred when we are threatened and afraid. Finding a few bad apples and firing them doesn’t accomplish these goals; in fact, such actions allow the rest of us to continue our collusion with and participation in destructive cycles undisturbed by self-reflection. In fact, finding bad apples out there is a large part of what fuels cycles of hatred and violence. I want the APA to take the lead in assuming responsibility for its own destructive behavior, to be a model in society for acknowledging when we have failed to live up to our ideals, for trying to understand how that happened, and how we can try to prevent such lapses in the future. Changing a policy, even changing an ethics code, is only the beginning, and the easiest part at that.


What Might Be Learned?

I do not expect from an organization, or from myself and my colleagues, that we always live up to our ideals. No one does. Human fallibility being what it is, what matters is being open to acknowledging and learning from our lapses.  In my view, what can be learned from the history of the APA’s recent involvement with national security interrogations falls under two headings: the first has to do with how prone we are to violent and destructive behavior when we feel threatened and afraid. The attacks of 9/11/2001 made people in the United States feel helpless, and vulnerable. We tried to restore a sense of security and power by carelessly and hastily identifying and detaining alleged perpetrators, then subjecting them to cruel and inhuman treatment with the misguided rationale that we would thereby acquire information that might keep us safe. Psychologists, it turns out, were at the center of this ill-conceived project.

The second point that can be learned, or relearned, is that guilt is hard to bear. When we engage in destructive behavior, we will go to great lengths to rationalize our actions as well-motivated if not actually helpful and constructive.

What Makes it Especially Difficult for Psychologists to Learn from this Experience?

The field of psychology, led by its professional organization, has evolved in a way that makes it particularly difficult to recognize the psychological underpinnings of its collusion with the military.   With public relations and the marketing of psychology having taken center stage, psychology puts forth, to the general public and to psychologists themselves, an over overblown image of expertise. Being open to learning about ourselves fits better with a professional image of psychology as a field of inquiry rather than answers. Critical self-reflection is discouraged when too much attention is placed on convincing others, and ourselves, that we already know what we are doing.

In a related way, so-called positive psychology and the emphasis on cognition as opposed to emotion discourages critical self-reflection on the role of fear, anxiety, and rage in influencing what we do. Psychologists are encouraged to see themselves as “can do-ers”, as problem solvers, with transparently benevolent and helpful intentions. There is less attention paid to the longer term positive effects of being tuned in to our less than benevolent motives, or the unanticipated destructive consequences of our well-intentioned actions.

Adam Smith’s idea of the Magic Hand, that each person pursuing his or her self-interest leads to the benefit of all leads to a sort of ethical complacency in society at large about market economies. One can see this complacency in the way economic inequality becomes a marginal concern in U.S. politics, even as a huge number of economically deprived people are looking for scapegoats (immigrants) to blame for their economic suffering. The background assumption, rarely if ever formulated, that the pursuit of self-interest is ethically neutral if not positive contributes to the inattention paid within the APA to the ethical implications of its pursuit of economic advantage through alliance with the military around national security interrogations.

From these considerations it seems clear that the APA would have to go a long way to acknowledge, to become concerned and curious about its collusion with the military, to regard it as an ethical lapse. It is much easier simply to shift gears, to change policy, rather than to take responsibility for having done something that violates central values of the organization. But that is precisely what the Department of Defense is asking the organization to do: to get ethics, and the Ethics Code, out of the equation.

I see that I am ending this series of four contributions to the Section 9 newsletter on a glum note as far as APA is concerned. As a psychoanalyst, I have been trained, and I aspire, to look anxiety and shame in the face and at times to espouse unpopular opinions. We have all been trained this way.

It is fitting that psychoanalytic psychologists have, by and large, been the ones to call for soul searching on the part of APA in these dark days of fear and demonization of others. Section 9’s contribution is indispensable, now more than ever.



One comment

  1. Dr Altman you remind me of why I wanted and am a psychiatrist. Thank you for being brave to speak truth to injustices. We must be witness…it is our duty to our Humanity.

    Dr Mariposa McCall

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