Thoughts on the APA leadership’s role in torture

(Note: these comments were just inserted into a discussion — a very worthwhile read — on the American Psychological Association’s website, dealing with the recent revelations on the leadership’s collaborative role in the Bush torture/war crimes business. More information is available on the Psych Central website.)

As I struggle, as do many psychologists, with the decision as to whether to resign APA, I keep having a few troubling thoughts. One occurred to me as I read through comments on an APA division’s listserve, which initially contained comments by a lot of angry and upset psychologists about the APA leadership’s support of torture.  But then, a sort of patronizing attitude seemed to surface by one or two of the writers… and a number of others joined in. (Many of these people were consultants to government agencies and corporations and such.) The basic message being sort of “well, a bit of catharsis is good, but now let’s have an adult perspective about all this.” This was followed by a sort of faux-mature, “bygones be bygones” attitude, a sort of realpolitik-y notion that of course we have to be involved in helping with all the people who have to handle the “real world adult responsibilities” of torturing and maiming and droning. It felt dismissive, of course, but more troubling to me was that it felt like exactly the kinds of rhetorical fraud that is always used to rationalize the worst of war crimes, genocide, slavery and so on.

This impression was linked in my mind with another. Recently reading a piece on relational networks online (someone making the point that the British would have easily pre-empted Paul Revere’s’ ride if they had mapping data on who was connected to whom in the colonies as he had zillions of connections to rebellion leaders – e.g. also here), I realized that of course, many of these writers likely had links to the APA leaders whose names emerge as part of this unholy mess. And that really, the leadership whom we want to resign would all, on a “network map,” have far, far more connections with unnamed sympathizers than we at first imagine.

In other words, we should be careful of our implicit mental model in diagnosing this kind of problem. We tend, often, to use a sort of “tumor” model — that if we can only excise a few bad cells, the body will then be healthy. In fact, a better analog is of a network — that the individuals whom we see as the offenders are actually central nodes in a vast network of people, many of whom are no doubt “riding this cathartic storm out” in preparation for later emergence as leaders who imagine that they will make “sanity prevail” after us kids get done with our tantrums.

My final thought is what this all is really about. APA feels to me more like a slick corporation that incidentally gets dues from a bunch of subscribers to whom it markets itself, but whose real agenda is more self-aggrandizement than service. It has its Very Important Leaders, its Very Important DC Headquarters (why aren’t we headquartered in Berkeley or Harvard Square if we are actually a group of scientists and health care experts?), its lobbying arm to whom we (clinicians) paid dues for years while being told that doing so was a requirement of membership (it wasn’t – there’s a settlement)… and while dissenting voices to its collaboration with the Bush war criminals were silenced.

We know a few truisms from social and organizational psychology: organizations eventually exist primarily to perpetuate themselves; and organizational cultures are generally highly resistant to change unless you do the full forty years in the desert so the bearers of the infection can all die off or disappear. I’m not optimistic about change happening in APA. It makes it hard to hold on.

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If They Get You Angry, They Control You


Elias Isquith has written in that the Ferguson MO announcement was deliberately provocative because riots distract people from questioning the racism and the unfairness of the system.

The conspiracy this time was not to protect Officer Darren Wilson from standing trial for the killing of Michael Brown, though that was certainly related. This time, the conspiracy was to organize the announcement of Wilson’s exoneration in as provocative a way as possible. The ultimate goal was to manipulate the public and the press into forgetting the real story of Ferguson — of police brutality and racial injustice — and bickering about the morality of rioting instead…

All they wanted was to improve the Ferguson power structure’s battered images — not by doing good, but by making the protesters look even worse.

My first reaction to reading that was to wonder if that might be just a bit too paranoid. I mean really, it seems like a pretty convoluted argument, verging on the “tin foil hat” sort of reasoning that is easy to mock. After all, most people are just middlingly competent at organizing the office holiday party, much less at orchestrating other groups to respond like angry swarms of bees.

But then I think about it some more. As a psychologist, my expertise is in helping people manage their emotional reactions. Teachers, preachers, nurses and moms share the same basic skill — managing people’s emotions and behaviors — to help them calm down or get inspired or follow a diet or study their math, to get them to react and behave in certain ways. And this is done with the aim of being a source of good to the other.

On the other hand, politicians, marketers, and their consultants’ expertise is also provoking the emotions and behavior of others. It’s what they do — what they spend many years learning to do. They are professionals in a different psychology of influence.  And their goals are not necessarily helping you. Their goals are generally about getting or holding onto power. Or making money for themselves by, in one way or another, getting it out of your pocket.

There are armies of experts in manipulating your emotions in the service of selling unnecessary products (“Black Friday, anyone? Love that name – suggests something both economic and partaking of a great darkness of soul)… in getting votes, consolidating power, getting you to argue over selected things and so distracting you from other thoughts. It’s been said that the main function of all the hysterical Ebola coverage before the last election was to crank up the fear level of voters. Why? Because it’s known that that when people are scared, they tend to vote Republican. (Seems that Ebola magically disappeared from the news the day after the election, didn’t it?)

Isquith is basically saying that in the case of Ferguson, the magic formula may have been “riots = distracting people from all the recent coverage of how corrupt the Ferguson power structure is.”

If they don’t want us discussing a corrupt political and legal system, what better way to control our hyper little minds than to grab headlines with the self-confirming drama of “those violent Negroes rioting again…just the same thing Michael Brown was doing…” So make the grand jury announcement at night, show footage of the police, deliberately provoke the crowd.

Or more simply (in the language of our reptilian brains): “Dangerous bad black people in T-shirts in the dark with flames. Safe good white police and politicians in suits and neatly pressed uniforms.”

Maybe not so paranoid? I don’t know now. But whether the Ferguson powers-that-shouldn’t-be are that clever or not, it’s certainly a powerful reminder of an important psychological fact:

If they can get you to react out of anger and fear, they can control you.

It’s well worth reminding yourself every day that controlling you is big business. Whether it’s called “PsyOps” or “marketing” or “Fox News,” whether it takes the form of the “psychological violence” of “news” shows such as “Crossfire,” or kissing babies at the state fair, every time someone in a suit talks in front of a camera, they are trying to influence your heart and mind. (Never trust anyone in a suit.) And just maybe, they are trying to get you to join a swarm of people intent on burning down a town. Or bombing a country.

Or just breaking down the doors at Walmart and depleting your bank account tomorrow, on “Black Friday.”

But if you can feel the anger or lust or desire, and still maintain control of your thinking and behavior, take a breath to get grounded, develop the skills of mindfulness, wisdom and strategic thinking, you may be able to resist the urge to join the swarm.

And that way, you may help change the world into something less horrible, violent, greedy, and cruel.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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November 22nd


Today is the 51st anniversary of the assassination of JFK.  And I’m old enough to remember the day.

The first hint of something big happening occurred when we caught glimpses of teachers standing together, heads bent close so they could hear something on a portable transistor radio (look it up…they were quite big at the time.) A short time later, a teacher came into the room and I remember her announcement. (Odd that I can’t remember who she was but her words still are lodged in my head.) “Children, we have some very sad news…”

They sent us home from school early. And I remember the whole long weekend of grief, the families being together, the funeral on TV, an entire nation in grief. I think the children learned how to feel from the adults, and what we mainly learned was that in this case, the adults didn’t seem to know how to feel either. Except that they were in shock. Something we did not understand, nor did they, but it got under our skin and stayed lodged in our minds, a critical dimension of the event. “Even our parents were crying!..”

It was my own first experience of grief, of something this powerful. I don’t think I ever got over it, or that many of us did. Later catastrophes that “everyone remembers where they were” for, pale in comparison. Perhaps after the first really bad one, your capacity for that kind of numbing shock is altered. Because it’s the first one that teaches you something you never knew before: your world can alter suddenly, irrevocably, even horribly.

After that time, you just know it. That awareness is forever part of you.

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Weekly book review: The Swerve

Every so often a book comes along that helps to organize a great deal of what we’ve learned about the world. Such books show us how news events, historical shifts, wars, peace, technological changes, literature all occur and influence each other, showing that what Walter Cronkite used to call “the way it is,” is actually a pretty complicated and interconnected network of ever-shifting things. I took a course in college co-taught by faculty from various departments including history, literature, philosophy, and they taught us how the science, art, and politics of the Elizabethan world all influenced each other. Steven Johnson’s work, particularly his virtual trilogy, The Ghost Map, The Invention of Air, and Where Good Ideas Come From, (I reviewed the latter book here) is another example of that kind of integrative work that makes one gasp for air in delight.

ImageStephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011) is that kind of book. It is beautifully written, erudite, and informative. Most important, it’s very relevant to our own polarized times, when “Christian” fundamentalists seemingly want to wage permanent war against every other kind of fundamentalism and science, in a time when, faced with cataclysmic climate change and other urgent problems,  we are once again witnessing a stupid, time-wasting War of the World Views.

The Swerve is the story of how an Italian scholar and humanist, Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, managed to find and get back into circulation a famous ancient book that had disappeared from history, Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. Greenblatt shows how this long lost book, a philosophical treatise on the physical world and the implications for how one lives, became, after its rediscovery, a key source of ideas that propelled us into the modern world. How, in short, a book you’ve probably never read and never heard of, had a massive effect on not just the world you live in, but on how you view and understand that world — and yourself.

I enjoyed this a lot; started reading it idly in spare moments on my iPhone’s Kindle app, and it soon forced its way past other things I’ve been reading and became the main thing on my mind. The kind of book that you find yourself thinking about when you should be doing other things.

It wasn’t quite balanced the way I expected from the reviews, in that it’s largely a biography of Bracciolini, the guy who managed to find and copy and get Lucretius’s book back into circulation; but I later decided that understanding the intellectual, political and practical world Bracciolini lived in was background I needed, in order to grasp the importance of the book in his world and time. This was blended with a fascinating discussion of the clash between the outlook of Lucretius and the Epicureans, with other established views, both in ancient times (culminating eventually in the suppression and deliberate destruction of such works by the early and already intolerant and violent Church), and during the entire period leading up to and through the Renaissance, the Reformation, and beyond.

Greenblatt’s book shows how the basic scientific concepts of the ancient philosophers led to the ethical and psychological implications of their world view.  For if “the nature of things” or “the way it is,” is that all of reality, including us, is composed of atoms and nothing else; if even our “souls” (or we might say, “minds”) are made up of, and organzied by those ever-moving atoms, then the belief structures, ancient and modern, involving the fear of hell and fantasy gods, has no reality basis, and is both unnecessary, and unnecessarily harmful. In which case, the only sane thing would be to ditch the scary old gods and repressive theologies, and to find ways to appreciate and enjoy our brief time alive. (I personally don’t believe one has to do without a mystical or religious view of reality to accept and learn from such a philosophy, but perhaps I shall indeed order that hot tub!)

Greenblat shows how the blowback by the Church from Lucretius’s ideas helped fuel the fires of the Inquisition, and how the book and its outlook was a challenge both to the Church, the established political powers, and to probably, the dark, fear-based world views of many ordinary people. He finally discusses the importance of the book in helping to launch the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, all the way through (in an astounding ending) the nearly certain reference to Lucretius and his Epicurean philosophy in the Declaration of Independence, where Jefferson (who considered On the Nature of Things to be among his favorite books) declared that a main purpose of a government is to assist its citizens in their “pursuit of Happiness.”  (That was not, and at the time of the writing of the Declaration could not possibly have been a goal listed by a “Christian” Continental Congress, at least not one as fantasized by modern right-wing evangelicals.)

As a psychologist, this book represents the retrieval of an important chunk of my profession’s “intellectual history.” As a human being, it’s simply a wonderful tickle and challenge to one’s outlook if one grew up “churched” and still finds oneself pondering, as the world turns to desert and the darkness looms, about one’s life, what it all might mean, and whether leasing or buying a hot tub makes the most sense. At the very least, hot tub or not, it certainly inspires me to read the original source of all these fireworks, Lucretius’s Nature of Things.


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