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An Open Letter to Psychologists and Mental Health Workers

Psychologists and War

by Dr. RICHARD LICHTMAN

While we live out our lives as students, staff, therapists and faculty, engaged in the activity that most interests and excites us, the United States is hurtling furiously toward war in the Middle-East. All the engines of government are harnessed to the goal of establishing subservience to authority at home, and terror and intimidation abroad. With the attack on the Trade Center in New York on September 11th of 2001, a perfect justification was provided the United States for a violent move to the right, an accelerating flight toward fascism and disaster. Some of you may find this language extreme and hyperbolic, but many of you did not live through the McCarthy period which now appears a prelude to a more monstrous distortion of American life both domestically and in international affairs.

This is not the time to review the history of the United States from the inception of the nation. But one tendency that cannot be overlooked is the contradiction between exalted American ideals and the reality of actual power. From its beginning, America has staked out land beyond its original borders and moved inexorably across the globe, gaining economic and technological power in the process, until today it stands as the most powerful nation on earth. But it is not yet satisfied with its position and the challenge of its own stagnation and the competition of other geo-political blocks in Asia and Europe mean perpetual competition for natural resources and particularly for oil. Hence the profound interest in Middle Eastern and the “desirability” of acquiring the fields in Iraq. Every effort is currently being made to draw Iraq in such a light as will justify an attack on that country and the inclusion of its natural wealth in the orbit of American power. So we were witness to the spectacle of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s flimsy and mendacious performance at the United Nations and Tony Blair’s theft of an outdated graduate student’s thesis on the Gulf War in a speech that was actually designed to persuade an intelligent audience. The more the administration blusters, the less it persuades anyone of the logic of its argument.

However, given the decency of America’s stated values, nothing so egregious can be undertaken abroad unless the American populace is terrorized and deceived at home. Whether or not the Administration had reason to believe that an attack was imminent before 9/11 it is perfectly clear that plans to curtain civil liberties were in effect (remember the process of removing supposedly prior felons from the election roles in Florida, a move without which the current administration would not have come to power) even before the tragic catastrophe in New York that bright and blue September morning. The Patriot Act was rushed through Congress with few members of that body, by their own admission, ever having had the time or temerity to read the document. Only one member of the congress, Representative Barbara Lee of Oakland, refused to give the President the near total power he demanded to destroy “evil” on behalf of “good.” And now it has been revealed that the Administration has been preparing plans for an extension of the original Patriot Act that would only serve to curtail such civil liberties as currently obtain. We are in serious danger of losing the freedoms that permit us to breathe and think and live as free human beings. To refuse to act now is to relinquish the responsibility we possess as human beings, and consequently, as psychologists and therapists.

But, it may be claimed, our responsibility is to our individual clients and not to some set of political ideals that separates us from each other and about which we will reasonably disagree. We are purportedly dedicated to objectivity and neutrality, and not to some political agenda to which we have never pledged our allegiance. Furthermore, it will be maintained, it is not a question of political position but of political terrain; many will seriously commit themselves to individual protest but eschew the same activity as an aspect of professional life. These views are intelligent responses and have a long history in American political and social life. But they are inadequate replies in these circumstances; they do not tell the whole story, which includes a dimension of commitment all of us have apparently claimed and generally forgotten. It is remarkably easy for professional people, psychologists included, to avoid risking the comfort and affluence of our individual success for the sake of a political demand upon our privilege.

Let us remind ourselves of the Ethical Principles of Psychologists of the American Psychological Association. A number of pronouncements call attention to themselves:

“Psychologists’….goal is to broaden knowledge of behavior and, where appropriate, to apply it pragmatically to improve the condition of both the individual and society. Psychologists respect the central importance of freedom of inquiry and expression in research, teaching, and publication. The also strive to help the public in developing informed judgments and choices concerning human behavior. (Preamble)

“Psychologists accord appropriate respect to the fundamental rights, dignity, and worth of all people. They respect the rights of individuals to privacy, confidentiality, self-determination, and autonomy….” (Principle D)

“Psychologists are aware of their professional and scientific responsibilities to the community and the society in which they work and live. They apply and make public their knowledge of psychology in order to contribute to human welfare. Psychologists are concerned about and work to mitigate the causes of human suffering.” (Principle F)

Now it will also be noted by those who wish to separate human from professional obligations that the introduction to the document makes reference to the proviso that

“This ethics code applies only to psychologists’ work related activities, that is, activities that are part of the psychologist’s scientific and professional function or that are psychological in nature. It includes the clinical or counseling practice of psychology, research, teaching…. social intervention….and other activities as well.”

But what exactly is not “psychological in nature?” And in circular fashion, defining the professional and scientific responsibility of the psychologist in terms of the need to “mitigate the causes of human suffering,” how can psychologists be excused not only from their human social responsibilities but from their professional responsibilities as well? And how can these be so neatly divided?

And, as The Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers claims regarding ” The Social Worker’s Ethical Responsibility to Society:”

“The social worker should promote the general welfare of society,” which requires that:

“The social worker should act to prevent and eliminate discrimination against any person or group on the basis of race, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, religion, national origin, marital status, political belief, mental of physical handicap, or any other preference or personal characteristic, condition or status.”

I will not cite the complete set of these provisos but simply add:

“The social worker should advocate changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions and to promote social justice.”

Some profound contradiction festers not very deep beneath the surface of these ideal pronouncements. Of course, we understand that the social function of these self-congratulatory exhortations is to grant the profession an ideal justification for its monopoly power while protecting it from the actual labors that its legitimization would impose on it.

Finally, even were the formal principles governing the activities of psychology and therapy not violated by the professional tendencies of its members, its moral intellect would still be clearly compromised. For it is obvious that no set of formal principles can direct concrete activity, either in the area of theory or practice. No code of conduct can determine the specific work that will be carried out, nor explain the recent paucity of studies directed to the understanding of propaganda, the authoritarian functions of “patriotism,” or the pathological consequences of alienated labor or social mystification. There was a time when these were regarded as essential aspects of any viable social psychology, but they now seem terribly absent. The prevailing work in psychology and therapy today seem mired in the privatized realm of individual functioning and mal-functioning, while the vast currents of war and domination are left to the work of others, who, of course, pass them on in turn.

The code of ethics bears the same contradictions to our larger society that were earlier alluded to: between a careful desire to protect one’s status and property, and the recognition that psychology, as an engagement with human beings for the sake of their well being and emancipation, individual or social, is primarily a “calling,” and only then, a profession. For we are not primarily psychologists but human beings practicing psychology. In this age of segmented humanity and technological manipulation, it will certainly appear “natural” to separate the two. But a psychology that is not clearly rooted in our deepest humanity will degenerate into a weapon of corporate and state bureaucracy. Psychologists have by and large abandoned a commitment to emancipatory inquiry, an understanding of the foresees in modern life and internalized personality that lead to destruction or liberation. It is too easy to immerse one’s self in career advantages and leave the ultimate obligation to human fulfillment uncared for. However, no body of workers should better understand the nature of denial, which is an essential ingredient in all defense, whether it be “individual” or social.

If this contention does not move one, consider how the present military budget starves the public realm of needed funds and services to the mentally impaired, a process that is only likely to suffer further disintegration. If psychologists cannot unite to oppose this government for the sake of a fuller humanity, certainly we should be able to organize for the sake of our professional interest in providing for our clients’ well being, in the narrower sense of that term. Furthermore, in this age of domestic repression, it may not be too long before the state will intervene in our purported privileged privacy to acquire the records of those who are held to be “enemies of the state.” The Patriot Act and its proposed extension point in this direction. The theft of the records of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychoanalyst at the time of his publication of the Pentagon Papers may well become official policy, with this exception; we may never be informed that this perfidy has taken place.

It should be obvious that the commitment of any teacher, psychologist or mental health worker to a social or political policy does not provide that person with any justification for compelling or coercing the action of others. Political positions are freely adopted or are worthless. Neither, however, can we remain silent in the face of an approaching catastrophe. We put forward a position that may be readily countered by the contrary positions of others. Psychologists are living human beings as are our students, subjects, clients and patients; we cannot appropriately deny our responsibility to our humanity, nor theirs. We understand that there will be disagreements among us. Such is the necessary condition of a democracy. So, we take the first and most basic step of human engagement; we initiate a dialogue, but a dialogue that is more than a casual conversation, since it occurs at a moment of history that is pregnant with the prospect of abysmal grief and irreparable waste.

Dr. RICHARD LICHTMAN is a philosopher who specializes in the relationship between the social and psychological dimensions of human life. His approach is broadly interdisciplinary: he has taught in departments of philosophy (University of California, Berkeley), humanities (San Francisco State University), sociology (University of California, Santa Cruz) and psychology (The Wright Institute, California School of Professional Psychology, etc.) and is currently a faculty member of the Council on Educational Development (CED) program at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books also indicate the range of his interests: Essays in Critical Social Theory covers a broad range of topics in economic, social, and political theory, while The Production of Desire is a detailed analysis of the works of Marx and Freud.

He can be reached at The Wright Institute, 2728 Durant Avenue, Berkeley, CA. 94704 or via email at: rlichtman@counterpunch.org.