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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Filed under Psychology, Psychology profession, Public affairs

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