It was profoundly distressing to hear Donald Trump on the campaign trail vowing a return to abusing prisoners with “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Those thoughts threaten to reverse the work that I and others have done over the last decade to end torture as an official US government policy and to prevent health professionals’ participation in detainee abuse.
This piece originally appeared at Stat News on January 25, 2017.
It is re-published here with the author’s permission.
As a psychologist, I know the extreme damage that torture — the systematic infliction of severe pain and degradation — does to its victims and to its perpetrators. My colleagues and I helped transform the American Psychological Association’s policies, establishing a firm barrier between psychological practice and national security interrogations and forbidding psychologist involvement in detainee care at detention sites, like the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, which violates international law. As a result, a year ago the New York Times reported that Gen. John Kelly had ordered the removal of psychologists from all involvement with detainees at Guantánamo.
Since Trump’s election, signals on torture have been mixed. His national security advisor, Mike Flynn, has at times endorsed the used of torturous “enhanced interrogation” techniques. His new CIA director, Mike Pompeo, has not ruled out changing US laws to allow waterboarding and other torture.
Despite President Obama’s efforts to close Guantánamo, it remains open. The new administration is even considering expanding its population of detainees. And it is conceivable that additional detention sites may be opened to hold detainees in harsh conditions for extended and indefinite periods without trial.
During the George W. Bush administration, the US adopted interrogation techniques that our State Department had traditionally denounced as torture when used by others. The most famous of these was waterboarding, in which drowning is induced and then interrupted, inducing panic and terror. While waterboarding got the most attention, many of the other techniques, including excruciating stress positions, exposure to extreme hot and cold, and prolonged sleep deprivation in painful positions for up to 180 hours, were also deemed torture and had been denounced by the State Department.
Torture is so repugnant that virtually every country, even those that surreptitiously practice it, feel a need to disclaim it. The United Nations’s Convention Against Torture has been signed by 160 countries. For hundreds of years, opposition to the use of torture has been an important measure of a country’s evolution toward civilized values. The return to torture in the Bush administration set back that progress, not only in our country but also around the world, as other nations took it as a green light for barbarous practices.
While ISIS would no doubt engage in barbarities regardless of US torture policy, it is no accident that the prisoners they execute in gruesome videos are cloaked in orange jumpsuits.
The US is again in danger of becoming a country where torturous barbarity is publicly endorsed as official policy. To prevent this, it is vital that every institution of civil society speak out.
Among these institutions, the health professions have great leverage. They must use it, and their constituencies must demand they use it. Wherever there is systematic torture, there are often health professionals, vetting prisoners for further abuse and treating them afterward to keep them alive, at least until the torturers are done with them.
In the Bush era torture program, psychologists played special roles. In the CIA program, psychologists devised and administered the abuses, apparently even being present during waterboarding. At Guantánamo, which is run by the military, interrogators consulted with psychologists, reportedly using information in prisoners’ medical files to identify vulnerabilities that could be used to “break” them.
This involvement of psychologists and other health professionals was intentional. In the Bush administration’s “torture memos,” the presence of health professionals during torture served as a legal “get out of jail free card” for the abusers. If a health professional assured interrogators that their techniques would not cause severe long-lasting harm — the Bush administration’s defining characteristic of torture — the interrogator was protected from legal responsibility for any harm that occurred.
The Trump administration will also likely need health professionals as participants and as legal cover for any return to torture. We must deny them that protection.
Given the threat that the new administration may expand Guantánamo and return to torture, health professional and behavioral science organizations should reiterate their ethical opposition and maintain the bright line separating their professionals from national security interrogations. Other professions should follow psychologists in forbidding their members from involvement in detention facilities that violate international law.
But they must also go further. Professional organizations need to make it crystal clear that any credible complaint that a member has participated in detainee abuses or at detention sites deemed illegal under international law will be thoroughly investigated, and that discipline will be imposed if the complaint is substantiated. Not to act in the current climate would constitute a failure of the health professions carrying out their compact with society to protect and improve the health and welfare of all individuals, regardless of their legal status.
At this dangerous time, society needs the voices of health professionals, and our actions, to halt the use of torture.
Stephen Soldz, a clinical psychologist, is professor of psychology at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis and director of its Social Justice and Human Rights Program. He is a former president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, a cofounder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, and an anti-torture advisor to Physicians for Human Rights.
Unrest has exploded at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, as what began as a peaceful protest about rising tuition fees erupted into clashes between students and police. In television footage, students were shown throwing rocks and stones at police, before the police retaliated with tear-gas in a bid to dispel the protesters.
At the beginning of September the South African government announced a rise of up to 8% in 2017 tuition fees for university students – well above the inflation rate. This decision to push fees higher would drive many of the nation’s more impoverished (generally black) students, already burdened by debt, into additional debt that they simply could not afford. Anecdotal evidence shows many students would not be able to continue with their studies. This is not the first demonstration over the cost of university education in the country: the battle has been ongoing. The high cost of education in South Africa is prohibitive for many students (particularly many black students), meaning that regardless of their academic achievements, they are unable to achieve further education. What’s more, many middle class students (often referred to as the ‘missing middle’) find themselves in the difficult position of not being eligible for any grants or financial support to help them attend university, but unable to cover the prohibitively high costs independently. As a result, more and more people are finding they simply cannot afford to attend university than ever before, leaving them trapped at a social level that is unreflective of their potential. This highlights the enduring inequalities between black and white peoples in the country (which is the most industrialised in the continent) which have not dissipated, despite it being more than two decades since the end of white minority rule within the country. The social inequalities in South Africa continue to grow, and there seems to be no end point in sight where all peoples of the country will and can be treated equally. What on the surface began as a simple protest about tuition fees is, in reality, about so much more: it is about oppression, a lack of social mobility, and a desire for change. A heavy police presence remains at Johannesburg’s universities, as a result of the protests.
This time last year, protests about the rising costs of tuition fees lead president Zuma to freeze 2016 fees at 2015 rates: it is thought that this is what is driving the above-inflation increase in fees for 2017. But what does this mean for those individuals affected? Many of those protesting against the rising fees and the high cost of education in South Africa are academics, marching alongside their students. Racism, gender-based violence and oppressive working conditions for those academics working there, are all a dominant and enduring presence in South Africa’s universities.
What Benefit The ‘Talking Cure’?
Twenty years after South African apartheid in 1994, we are still dealing with a nation that is divided. The once-ruling minority still fill the majority of university places and the flames of this inequality continue to be fanned by the prohibitive costs preventing the most gifted black students, but without financial means, from accepting places and taking the benefits of education back to their communities. South Africa is very open about its problems, its corruptions, its endemic inequality. As a nation, it continues to talk about its troubled past.
The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up by the Government of National Unity to help deal with what happened under apartheid, providing those that were abused, oppressed, and otherwise affected with a place that they can open up and talk about their pain and their mistreatment. As psychologists we know that talking about our problems can be a hugely beneficial, cathartic experience that can help us to overcome negative things that have happened in a positive and productive way. The TRC is often used as an example of how governments whose predecessors have failed their peoples (or where civil war and unrest have dominated) can help the population to emotionally adjust and address the abuse and inequality that they had to deal with. However, despite its continued commitment to talk about its problems, and the continued shining beacon of the TRC, as a nation South Africa doesn’t seem to be learning from its past, or from the lessons being shared within the TRC.
Time for Social Change
Now is the time for change in South Africa, and liberation psychologists can help to drive that change. It is time for us to engage with blackness, with the concept of black femininity and black masculinity, in order to build healthy communities and finally put apartheid in the past. Many of South Africa’s academic institutions are still embedded in this past, and have not embraced the change that came after 1994. Now is the time to eradicate the colonial past from inside those institutions, to make Universities a safe learning environment for students of all creeds and colours, and to open up the wonderful possibilities of education to everyone.
This article was written bywho is based in North America. It benefited from comments by a South African colleague, but as ever we would welcome responses from those closer to the issues.
Psychologists from Britain challenge simplistic thinking on the causes of human misery
Update 16 Dec., Another letter from UK psychologists appears in The Independent – scroll down the letters here. A more detailed consideration and critique of the Layard et al. study has been provided by Psychologists Against Austerity
A recent article in the British newspaper The Guardian drew attention to a report by the economist, Richard Layard, which claimed that “Eliminating depression and anxiety would reduce misery by 20% compared to just 5% if policymakers focused on eliminating poverty”. It is a rather circular reasoning to say that misery is caused by depression and anxiety when these are labels for the same thing. The psychologists, in a response published in the Guardian, make it clear that reducing poverty and ensuring good mental health services are not alternatives, but both are needed. Poverty and underfunded health care are both consequences of current government austerity policies. In taking this initiative they are playing an important part in de-ideologising the nature and causes of human distress. The Guardian also published another article that also argued for the interdependence of poverty and mental health problems.
Richard Layard is promoting the idea that better provision of mental health services is more important than reducing social inequalities in promoting human happiness (Happiness depends on health and friends, not money, says new study, Guardian, Monday 12th December). This is a false dichotomy. Evidence suggests that austerity damages our collective health. Deepening economic and social divides, bullying, abuse, misogyny, racism, dehumanisation and consequent insecurity, trauma, social exclusion, neglect and despair underpin the current tsunami of desolation in the UK and beyond, specially in our children. These are largely economic and political matters, requiring cultural, social and political solutions. Psychological therapies, humanely delivered to those who want them, have a part to play in ameliorating human suffering, and we do need more flexible, kind and supportive services. But we must not pathologise those who are damaged by the injustices they experience. Degradation by the benefits system is now devastating many with long term illnesses in the UK. To imagine that therapy, rather than social transformation, can address or prevent the conditions that lead to despair is to be wilfully blind.
Annie Mitchell Clinical and community psychologist, Helen Beckwith Clinical psychologist, Jan Bostock Clinical and community psychologist, Anna Daiches Clinical psychologist, Suzanne Elliot Clinical psychologist, Danielle Gaynor Clinical psychologist, Carl Harris Clinical and community psychologist, Jennifer Marris Psychologist, James Randall-James Clinical psychologist in training, Eleanor Schoultz Clinical psychologist, Sarah Wolf Clinical psychologist in training, Sally Zlotovitz Community psychologist
Since the letter was sent off to the paper, a lot more psychologists have added their names, endorsing it. The full list (still being added to), including the original signatories, follows.
Annie Mitchell, Clinical and Community Psychologist
Jacqui Akhurst, Counselling and Community Psychologist
Tarick Ali, Clinical psychologist.
Thomas Allan, Service Manager
Cathy Amor, Clinical Psychologist
Kara Bagnall, Clinical Psychologist
Helen Beckwith, Clinical Psychologist
Jan Bostock, Clinical and Community Psychologist
Nina Browne, Clinical Psychologist
Mark Burton, Community and Clinical Psychologist
Tamsin Curno, Drama Therapist
Anna Daiches, Clinical Psychologist
Suzanne Elliot, Clinical Psychologist
Romana Farooq Community Psychologist
Gabrielle Farron, Clinical Psychologist
Colm Gallagher, Psychologist
Danielle Gaynor, Clinical Psychologist
Shreena Ghelani, Clinical Psychologist
Carl Harris, Clinical and Community Psychologist
Lealah Hewitt, Clinical Psychologist
Helen Johnson, Senior Lecturer in Psychology
Greg Madison, Applied Psychologist.
Jennifer Marris, Psychologist
Paul Moloney, Counselling Psychologist
Lucie Nalletamby, Clinical Psychologist
Steve Melluish, Clinical Psychologist
Ian Parker, Honorary Professorial Research Fellow
Cristian Pena, Clinical Psychologist
Gillian Proctor, Clinical Psychologist
James Randall- James, Clinical Psychologist in Training
Lana Renny, Clinical Psychologist
Eleanor Schoultz, Clinical Psychologist
Melanie Smith, Clinical Psychologist
Daniel Taggart, Clinical Psychologist
Lisa Thorne Clinical & Community Psychologist
Leslie Valon-Szots, Psychologist
Carl Walker, Community Psychologist
Jay Watts, Clinical Psychologist
Ste Weatherhead, Clinical Psychologist
Sarah Wolf, Clinical Psychologist in Training
Sally Zlotovitz, Community Psychologist
The Society of Indian (i.e. First Nations/indigenous) Psychologists in the USA has issued a strong statement on the blocking of a call for the APA to support the Standing Rock protestors against State violence. The APA decision was made behind closed doors and would seem to reveal a staggering degree of institutional racism.
The statement begins:
We are writing to express deep concern with the way that certain senior APA staff took it upon themselves to quash our efforts to entreat the APA for support in addressing the current circumstances of conflict and state-sanctioned violence against the Water Protectors at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
The senior staff in question elected to eschew making any kind of statement or to take any responsive action, to include further consultation with any of APA’s American Indian experts citing that: 1) it was a State, not a federal, issue (which of course Standing Rock sovereignty elevates such concerns to a federal level); and 2) that the issues raised by the situation at Standing Rock (environmental racism, community violence against an American Indians, health disparities, and historical re-traumatization) were not in line with APA direction and priorities.
Read the full Statement (pdf file)
“Apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People from the Australian Psychological Society. Disparities between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and other Australians on a range of different factors are well documented. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience much higher rates of psychological distress, chronic disease, and incarceration than other Australians.
“They manage many more stressors on a daily basis and, although suicide did not exist in their cultures prior to colonisation it is now a tragically inflated statistic.
The fact that these disparities exist and are long standing in a first world nation is deplorable and unacceptable.”
“We, as psychologists, have not always listened carefully enough to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We have not always respected their skills, expertise, world views, and unique wisdom developed over thousands of years. Building on a concept initiated by Professor Alan Rosen, we sincerely and formally apologise to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians for:
- Our use of diagnostic systems that do not honour cultural belief systems and world views;
- The inappropriate use of assessment techniques and procedures that have conveyed misleading and inaccurate messages about the abilities and capacities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people;
- Conducting research that has benefitted the careers of researchers rather than improved the lives of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants;
- Developing and applying treatments that have ignored Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander approaches to healing and that have, both implicitly and explicitly, dismissed the importance of culture in understanding and promoting social and emotional wellbeing; and,
- Our silence and lack of advocacy on important policy matters such as the policy of forced removal which resulted in the Stolen Generations.
“To demonstrate our genuine commitment to this apology, we intend to pursue a different way of working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that will be characterised by diligently:
- Listening more and talking less;
- Following more and steering less;
- Advocating more and complying less;
- Including more and ignoring less; and,
- Collaborating more and commanding less.
“Through our efforts, in concert and consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we envisage a different future.
“This will be a future where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people control what is important to them rather than having this controlled by others.
“It will be a future in which there are greater numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander psychologists and more positions of decision making and responsibility held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Ultimately, through our combined efforts, this will be a future where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people enjoy the same social and emotional wellbeing as other Australians.”
People have been attempting to alter the course of human society through writing for centuries. Charles Dickens arguably brought the attention of the world to bear on the plight of the Victorian poor in Britain, and the newly awakened social consciences of his audiences help to push through various reforms which improved the lives of street urchins, prostitutes, and those in the workhouse. Or so the theory runs. According to some social historians, the ‘Dickens Effect’ can’t be credited with nearly as much social reform as we tend to believe. So can writing really be a means by which a troubled communal psyche may be healed?
‘Talking Cure’, ‘Writing Cure’
As with everything, it probably depends upon how it’s done. We all know that ‘talking cures’ can be hugely beneficial to certain people struggling with individual psychiatric issues. Writing can also help these people. It helps to express what we’re feeling and, by so doing, work our way towards the heart of the matter. While such things won’t work for everyone, for some they bring about revelations, self-awareness, and reveal the path to healing. Such ‘talking cures’ have been attempted on a communal level with things like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which allowed people on both sides of the nation’s divides to come together and tell their stories – with no small degree of success in raising awareness of the other point of view, and healing rifts. However, it requires a good degree of self-awareness already on the part of the troubled society to set something like this up. Before we can reach this point, this awareness needs to be triggered. Some people feel that writing is a good way to go about this. And sometimes they’re right – but it has to be done properly…
Agenda VS Audience
A great many people have attempted to bring the fractures in a community’s psyche to the attention of those both within and without that community via writing about them. Fiction has since time immemorial served as a parabolic way in which to explore our personal and societal truths, foibles, and conventions. Indeed, many traditional shamans use the power of story and myth prominently in their healing ceremonies – by using well-known stories to illustrate the complexities of the human psyche, they can bring the unconscious into a state of self-awareness. And by using trusted characters as proxies for the suffering individual, they can guide the sufferer through their own psyche as they guide the character through the story. Some writers attempt to do this kind of thing on a wider scale through the power of agenda-driven fiction. The trouble with this, however, is that if the agenda is displayed too overtly, readers lose interest. Nobody likes to feel that they’re being accused, or preached to while they’re trying to enjoy a good book. A very skilled and popular writer may get away with wearing their agenda on their sleeve, but others will have to hone their craft to get their message across and raise societal self-awareness without alienating their audience.
Engage And Educate
Let’s go back to Dickens. Plenty of historians have, as we mentioned, pointed out that his influence upon reform may not have been as great as we assume. No single piece of reformist legislation can be traced back to him or his influence. However, we still believe him and his literature to have been a reasonably big factor in the social reforms of the nineteenth century. Why? Because his characters stick in our minds, as do his stories. The adjective ‘Dickensian’ is still used to describe a situation in which the poor are exploited and mistreated. Because of Dickens, we are aware of what went on back then, and fully believe in preventing such situations from arising again. While Dickens may not have directly influenced legislation at the time, he has certainly ensured that we are self-aware enough about the potential ‘Dickensian’ cracks in our societal psyche to defend ourselves against such horrors in future (or so we hope…). He did this by not only educating people regarding parlous situations about which they may simply not have known, but by weaving his social lessons into engaging stories borne by memorable (and loveable) characters. It is his style, and the ability of readers to engage with his tales and his characters which keeps them in the forefront of the public imagination – not the lessons he seeds them with. If, therefore, you wish to enact a ‘writing cure’ for your particular communal troubles, be sure that people are engaged enough with what you’re writing to develop that vital self-awareness you’re aiming for.
Former Leader of Guatemala Is Guilty of Genocide Against Mayan Group
Here is the link to the NYT article. We previously reported on this case – he was previously found guilty but that judgement then overturned. It is good to see justice at last. Note the involvement of psychologists in testifying for the prosecution case.
‘Adama Dieng, the United Nations special adviser on the prevention of genocide, said last month that the case was the first in which a former head of state had been indicted by a national tribunal on charges of genocide.
‘The “historical precedent,” and especially a guilty verdict, he said, could serve as an example to other countries “that have failed to hold accountable those individuals responsible for serious and massive human rights violations.”’
Three academics were placed in pretrial detention on 16th March, Muzaffer Kaya, Esra Mungan, and Kıvanç Ersoy. Ersoy teaches in the mathematics department at Mimar Sinan University and Mungan in the psychology department at Boğaziçi University. Kaya was recently dismissed from the social work department at Nişantaşı University for signing the petition. They were detained and then jailed by a court a day after President Erdoğan called for the crime of terrorism to be widened to include expression which he judges “serves the aims of terrorists,” and which would target professions such as journalists, politicians, and activists. His remarks came after the March 13 bombing which killed 37 people in Ankara’s city center.
The Turkish government and the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continue to oppress political dissent violently and illegally in Turkey. On January 11, President Erdoğan accused 1128 academics of treason for signing a call for peace in Turkey. In the call, the signatories stated that they would not be party either to the massacre against the Kurds or to Turkish’s state’s ongoing violation of its own laws and international treaties. Following Erdoğan’s speech, hundreds of academics who signed the petition were subject to disciplinary and criminal investigations, detentions and suspensions.
In response to this witch-hunt, we had signed a letter in support of academic freedom in Turkey and asked for ending the prosecution of Academics for Peace. The letter was submitted to MPs and MEPs in Europe and published in the media in January.
Yet the Turkish government did not heed the call for academic freedom and had intensified the witch-hunt against the Academics for Peace. As of 10 March 2016, the toll was as follows:
Public Universities Private Universities
Disciplinary investigations 464 43
Criminal investigations 153
Contract termination 9 21
Forced resignations 5 1
Furthermore, on 15 March 2016 three academics were incarcerated for signing the original call of Academics for Peace and announcing that they will start an ‘Academic Vigil’. The arrested academics are: Esra Mungan of Boğaziçi University, Kıvanç Ersoy of Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, and Muzaffer Kaya, formerly of Nişantaşı University.
A fourth academic and a UK citizen, Chris Stephenson of Bilgi University, was detained for holding a vigil outside the court in support of the three academics and for carrying a Newroz (Kurdish New Year) invitation from a parliamentary party – the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). On 16 March 2016, the case of Chris Stephenson, who has been resident in Turkey since 1991, was transferred to another court with the demand of being deported, and he had to leave the country.
We ask the international community and elected representatives to call on the Turkish government to stop the witch hunt against Academics for Peace, respect academic freedoms, free the arrested academics, and re-instate all the academics suspended or expelled during the persecution campaign with compensation.