How Psychologists Subvert Democratic Movements
2012-10-23 0:00

By Bruce E. Levine | Z Magazine

By the 1980s, as a clinical psychology graduate student, it had become apparent to me that the psychology profession was increasingly about meeting the needs of the “power structure” to maintain the status quo so as to gain social position, prestige, and other rewards for psychologists.

Academic psychology in the 1970s was by no means perfect. There was a dominating force of manipulative, control-freak behaviorists who appeared to get their rocks off conditioning people as if they were rats in a maze. However, there was also a significant force of people such as Erich Fromm who believed that an authoritarian and undemocratic society results in alienation and that this was a source of emotional problems. Fromm was concerned about mental health professionals helping people to adjust to a society with no thought to how dehumanizing that society had become. Back then, Fromm was not a marginalized figure; his ideas were taken seriously. He had bestsellers and had appeared on national television.

However, by the time I received my PhD in 1985—from an American Psychological Association-approved clinical psychology program—people with ideas such as Fromm’s were at the far margins. By then, the focus was on the competition as to what treatment could get patients back on the assembly line quickest. The competition winners that emerged—owing much more to public relations than science—were cognitive-behavioral therapy in psychology and biochemical psychiatry. By the mid-1980s, psychiatry was beginning to become annexed by pharmaceutical companies and forming what we now have—a “psychiatric-pharmaceutical industrial complex.” Increasingly marginalized was the idea that treatment that consisted of manipulating and medicating alienated people to adjust to this crazy rat race and thus maintain the status quo was a political act—a problematic one for people who cared about democracy.

My Tactical Withdrawal

After graduating, it seemed clear to me that academic clinical psychology and psychiatry departments, hospitals, and the mainstream clinical institutional worlds were going to depress, damage, and enrage me more than I was going to make a dent in reforming them, so I made a “tactical withdrawal” into private practice. Only several years later, in the late 1990s, did I begin to go public—writing articles and books, giving media interviews and talks about the problems in the mental health profession.

A major motivation for going public was that I was embarrassed by the direction of my profession and I wanted to separate myself from it. I remember thinking, half seriously, that when all these kids who were having a difficult time fitting into dehumanizing environments and who were getting increasingly drugged—first with psychostimulants and then with antidepressants and antipsychotics—grew up and figured out what had happened to them, they would get pretty enraged. If ever there was a revolution and it resembled the French Revolution, then instead of kings, queens, and priests’ heads being placed in guillotines, it would be shrinks’ heads; and I thought that if I spoke out, maybe I might get spared.

Over the years, I discovered a handful of other psychologists—and even a few courageous psychiatrists—who were also speaking out against mainstream psychology and psychiatry. Most of them had paid the severe professional price of marginalization. I also came across psychologist authors who were not routinely discussed by mainstream mental health professionals, but whom I respected. One such psychologist author/activist was Ignacio Martin-Baró, a social psychologist and priest in El Salvador who popularized the term “liberation psychology” and who was ultimately assassinated by a U.S. trained Salvadoran death squad in 1989. One observation by Martin-Baró about U.S. psychology was that “in order to get social position and rank, it negotiated how it would contribute to the needs of the established power structure.” We can see that in many ways.

Meeting the Needs of the Power Structure

On the obvious level, we can see psychologists meeting the needs of the power structure for social position and rank in the recent policies of the American Psychological Association (APA). For several years, the APA not only condoned but actually applauded psychologists’ assistance in interrogation/torture in Guantánamo and elsewhere. When it was discovered that psychologists were working with the U.S. military and the CIA to develop brutal interrogation methods, the APA assembled a task force in 2005 to examine the issue and concluded that psychologists were playing a “valuable and ethical role” in assisting the military. In 2007, an APA Council of Representatives retained this policy by voting overwhelmingly to reject a measure that would have banned APA members from participating in abusive interrogation of detainees. It took until 2008 for APA members to vote for prohibiting consultations in interrogations.

At the tip of this iceberg, are the efforts of perhaps the most famous academic psychologist in the U.S., who is also a former president of the APA, a man who once did some worthwhile work with learned helplessness. Of course, I’m talking about Martin Seligman, who more recently consulted with the U.S. Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program—this for not only social position and rank but for several million dollars for his University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, which quoted Seligman saying, “We’re after creating an indomitable military.”

To give you an example of how positive psychology is used in this Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, in one role play, a sergeant is asked to take his exhausted men on one more difficult mission and the sergeant is initially angry, saying, “It’s not fair”; but in the role play, he’s “rehabilitated” to reframe the order as a compliment, concluding, “Maybe he’s hitting us because he knows we’re more reliable.”

This kind of “positive reframing” and the use of psychology and psychiatry to manipulate and medicate people—one in six U.S. armed service members are taking at least one psychiatric drug, many in combat zones—so as to adjust to dehumanizing environments has concerned many critical thinkers for quite some time, from Aldous Huxley in Brave New World to Erich Fromm in The Sane Society to, more recently, Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided.


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