Category Archives: Psychology profession

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 John Grisham wrote “The Association”

Recently, psychologists have been shocked to learn that we have been misled for many years by our main professional organization, the American Psychological Association.  I count myself among the swindled.

For nearly a quarter of a century, psychologists in clinical practice who were seeking to maintain their membership in the APA have been charged an additional fee, generally amounting to about half the basic membership rate, to support “professional practice advocacy.”  (The latter supposedly helps practitioners have some kind of “advocates” among the lobbyist-infested halls of Congress, etc.)  The main point being, whether or not you wanted to support that lobbying, or could comfortably afford it (our profession not being as lucrative as, say, psychiatry, or selling Mary Kay products), you were told that this was a “mandatory” part of your annual dues.  Since membership in our professional organization is supposedly a good thing, and even sometimes a job requirement (such as when we teach in APA approved graduate programs), we had no alternative but to pay this fee.  Nearly $150 or so a year, added to our dues.

Well, as Gomer Pyle used to say, “sur-praaaze, sur-praaze, sur-PRAAZE!”  As the result of a recent accidental discovery by a curious member, we find that this fee was never actually required for membership in the APA. Rather, it bought us an additional membership in a separate organization, something called the  “APA Practice Organization.”  Supposedly a lobbying group that has worked hard to make sure that… well, I have no idea what they actually do.  But as a non-card carrying member for nearly 25 years (because nobody issued cards, you see — or letters, or even decals to stick on our bumpers), I can state that nobody ever informed us that the vig was really to buy us a membership in this organization.  Nor that the only thing that was truly “mandatory” about the fee was that you had to pay it to be a member of the APAPO — not the APA.

I’ve had years when not having had to pony up an extra C-note and a half would have been helpful.  More to the point, I find myself  resenting that the same organization against which we had to mount protests to make stop supporting the prisoner torture of the Bush administration, has been lying to its members about what, exactly, it took to stay a member.  Essentially, from everything we are hearing, we’ve been deliberately overcharged and (I don’t know what other word to apply here) defrauded for a quarter of a century.  To the tune, collectively, of millions of dollars.

I have heard there is at least one class action suit simmering about this, and if so, count me in.  I want my money back, with interest, and then some.  Not because I’m opposed to some kind of professional “lobbying” or whatever, but because I’m opposed to an organization that purports to stand for, and even to take on itself the mantle of being the arbiter of what is ethical behavior by psychologists, then turning around and pulling stunts like this.  And “aw, gee, it was a mistake” won’t cut it.  If we did this to our patients, we’d have the APA Ethics cops all over us like a cheap suit.  (The bulky kind, not the kind that is too tight and splits when you bend down to pick up a quarter.)

I’ve wondered about sending a little note off to someone.  Like, say, the US Dept of Justice.  Of course, those are the same guys who won’t prosecute war criminals, not “well placed” ones, anyway.  But so you see the problem.  Institutions seem to be kind of unreliable these days.  Especially when it comes to good old fashioned institutional boat-rocking — the kind of rocking that our 20-somethings expected Obama to do, the kind that they blame the “boomers” for having not done, little realizing that they’re now living through exactly the kind of things we did, when our hopes for a better, more empathic, more ecological, more, I guess, Swedish society were trampled on by the Reaganauts (the Tea-Partiers of the 1980s.)

At times like this one turns for solace to fiction.  So I find myself imagining …. (screen goes hazy here… harp music trills…)

It’s Tom Cruise in “The Firm.”   And it’s late in the flick, the scene where he shows up in the clinic where there’s  a bunch of us psychologists, thuggish folks all.  All with our foamy bats which we are about to use to pound on him, for the same cathartic reason, whatever it is, we’ve been chasing the kid all through the film. (Go watch the movie.)  So now we’ve got him cornered, right here in our little clinic… but instead of quaking in fear and begging that we not “interpret the transference” all over his sorry ass, he opens his briefcase.

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From Timothy Leary to timid and leery?

A cool bit of “psychological realism” in the Biblical story of Moses is that when he’s asked by the Voice to go speak to the head of the society he’s grown up in, he balks. He’s in fact terrified. What’s real about that is that it fits the story of his having grown up inside the “establishment” — we’re not talking lice-infested, could-give-a-shit desert prophet here, but a guy who had internalized his society’s expectations, norms for what it was “okay to say,” and so who choked when challenged to tell some truth that violated that society’s inner “templates.”

This kind of thing has been on my mind a lot recently as I’ve been enjoying my transition from working as a “licensed psychologist” to being mainly a “free range writer.” Not sure if I’ll resume psychology practice when I can finally sell the house and get to Vermont, but there is something very freeing about being in a position where self-expression is more permitted.

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