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An Interview with Dissident Psychologist Bruce Levine

“They Can’t Marginalize All of Us”

by MARCOS GUGLIELMETTI

Bruce Levine is an American clinical psychologist, often at odds with the mainstream of his profession. He has practiced in Cincinnati, Ohio for nearly 30 years. Levine is the author of Get Up, Stand Up. During our talk, we explore the roots of the mechanisms that maintain the suppression of the potentially more rebellious, revolutionary and democratic sectors of society.

I first encountered your ideas in article published in July, 2011 on Alternet. Can you explain in a clear and convincing way why you think  U.S. youth does not rise massively against the abuses of authoritarian systems. Do you think that the reasons why people are in this state of inertia regarding authoritarianism could apply to any youth in the industrialized consumer world?

While some of what I describe in that article applies to any youth of the industrialized-consumer world, some of the reasons for passivity apply especially to young Americans.

For example, my first reason, student-loan debt. At the time I wrote that piece in 2011, such debt averaged $25,000 but is now up to close to $40,000, at least according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. While some other nations in the industrialized world also have young people with large student-loan debt, many other young people in the industrialized world, even in Europe, can go to excellent public universities for free or for very low cost and need not incur debt.

Also, the reason “psychopathologizing and medicating noncompliance” is true for some young people outside of the U.S., but much of the industrialized world is not psychiatrically medicating its rebellious young people anywhere near the extent that the U.S. is.

But yes you are right that the use of schools and fundamentalist consumerism and religion as way of pacifying young people occurs throughout the industrialized world.

You’ve said: “Fundamentalist consumerism destroys self-reliance, creating people who feel completely dependent on others and who are thus more likely to turn over decision-making power to authorities, the precise mind-set that the ruling elite loves to see. (…) Fundamentalist consumerism also promotes self-absorption, which makes it difficult for the solidarity necessary for democratic movements.”  How does consumerism destroy self-reliance?

The essence of fundamentalist consumerism is that one must purchase something in order to have pleasure, eliminate pain, and survive. Fundamentalist consumerism tells us that relying on something other than money — ourselves or community — is often an inefficient use of time compared with using one’s time to make money and then paying others who can more quickly and expertly meet one’s needs. Fundamentalist consumerism teaches, for instance, that it is inefficient to use one’s time to grow one’s own fruits and vegetables when one could have more money by working at a decent-paying job and paying for produce. Fundamentalist consumerism instructs us to view not just food growing but everything in this manner.

In modern American society, an increasing number of people –women as well as men — cannot cook a simple meal. They will never know the self-respect and the anti-anxiety effects of being secure in their ability to prepare their own food, grow their own vegetables, hunt, fish, or gather food necessary for survival. In a consumer culture, such self-reliance makes little sense.

But at a deeper level, believing that you are totally dependent on others undermines your sense of self. People who feel completely dependent on others are likely to turn over decision-making power to those others, the precise mind-set that corporate and government elites most love to see. People who

lack the confidence of even a small amount of self-reliance know that should they lose their incomes, they have no ability to survive. This creates enormous fear, which breaks people.

“Have pleasure, eliminate pain, and survive”, this is very similar to the concept of comfort. There is an Argentine philosopher named Christian Ferrer that believes that “comfort technologies meet damping functions. But someone pays the cost: eighteenth century Europeans sweetened his coffee tasted at the expense of slavery in Haiti (…) and we are maintaining our consumerist happy with smart cell phones guaranteed by Congo strategic minerals that are essential to operate, minerals extracted by means of slum dwellers in civil war. In any case, comfort is not a right but a mirage of an army of consumers.” And the topic of consumerism leads us directly to computer technology: it seems that we could not survive without PCs, notebooks, netbooks, tablets, phones or gps. When does information technology appease the rebellion of the people, and in which cases could it help raise awareness? Would it be better to stop using any computer technology? 

Computer technology, like all technology, is a mixed bag. Certainly when a technology controls our lives, it can become oppressive. But we are communicating right now with computer technology, and for the purposes of this interview, it works. Although it would be better to talk to each other in person, given the cost of travel, that’s not possible. So, email and some computer technologies can be helpful, but we must keep in mind how dangerous it is for computer technology to take over our lives.

For example, the Facebook/Twitter universe gives us a false sense of connection and an illusion of “friends” and “community,” but not the kinds of friends and community that we really need for emotional health and also to battle oppressive forces.

My personal experience — as well as the research-shows that e-correspondence is often a bad medium to sort out differences. When one is disagreeing, one needs to see and feel the other person’s goodwill, affection, and respect, or such disagreements can easily feel like ego trips, hostility, and disrespect, and can create needless antagonism that can end relationships. Without the interpersonal glue that comes from a face-to-face encounter, one must take special care in e-exchanges so as not to create conflict that can easily be misinterpreted. If one is excessively cautious, relationships never fully develop; if one is not so cautious, relationships end.

The bottom line is that we have many more isolated and lonely people, especially in the U.S. A major study the American Sociological Review in 2006, reported that by 2004, 25% of Americans stated they had no confidants in their lives. There is nothing more important in breaking people from their capacity to resist oppressive forces than creating a society of isolated people. And it appears to me that a reliance on computer technology may give you Facebook “friends” but not real friends, and certainly not real confidants — and this is destructive not only for our emotional health but subverts the solidarity necessary to battle societal injustices.

What is your opinion of the achievements of the philosophy of free software? I mean Wikipedia, GNU/Linux, Firefox and other tools that encourage collaboration. 

Tools that encourage collaboration are certainly a good thing. Even the Luddites were not against technology per se — they in fact used technology. The Luddites, like all intelligent human beings, were just against a new technology that would erase their autonomy, create boring work, lower their standard of living, and diminish the quality of their lives.

What we need to rebel against is the WORSHIP of all new technologies, which is part of the modern religion of fundamentalist consumerism. However, that does not mean we should be afraid of technology. But we should analyze and not worship new technologies, and reject those technologies which destroy our autonomy, community, and humanity.

Once we have the diagnosis of why the youth in general does not rebel against injustice and oppression: what can we do to solve the problem? What are the keys to get out of this nightmare that put at risk the world’s peace again? (I’m talking about Syria, etc.).

I cannot speak for the rest of the world, because I think young people in much of the world — especially the Middle East, South America, and even parts of Europe have not been anywhere near as pacified as American kids. For example, young people in France, Mexico, and other nations take to the streets when their university tuition and fees are raised, but American kids just passively take it.

So, it appears to me that, with some wonderful exceptions of courage, young and old Americans have succumbed to the “psychology of oppression,” which is a sort of fatalism and defeatism.

Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and Ignacio Martin-Bar, the El Salvadoran psychologist and popularizer of “liberation psychology,” wrote about this phenomenon. So too did Bob Marley, whose songs have inspired millions of people. Many Americans are embarrassed to accept that we too, after years of domestic corporatocracy subjugation, have developed what Marley called “mental slavery.”

This psychology of oppression or mental slavery is essentially an abuse syndrome. In order to heal from abuse syndromes, we must first move out of denial. In the case of corporatocracy abuse, this means accepting that we have become a subjugated people like many other colonized societies in the world. Part of healing from the humiliation of oppression is letting go of the shame for being duped. There is dignity, humility, and strength in facing the fact that while we may have once bought into some lies, we no longer do so. We need to forgive ourselves for accepting the abuser’s lies. We must remember the liars whom we face are often quite good at lying. Forgiving ourselves creates greater compassion for our fellow Americans who continue to buy into lies, and this compassion makes us more effective activists. It also helps to have a sense of humor. The subject of my last book, Get Up, Stand Up is how we Americans have been broken, and how to how to heal from corporatocracy abuse and regain wholeness and strength.

 I have an American friend who is a father of a boy of 19. He said that there is the problem of the pills. He fought the system to prevent his son to take control pills, and after 4 years, he lost that war, so his son began to take pills to moderate his personality and become docile. He is 19 years old, never been out with a girl and never tries to. He does not have friends in college, or at work. He took the pills to survive school, and it worked as result of taking them. Before the pills, he was perpetually on the brink of failure but, then, became an almost perfect student. He walks with his head to the floor and shoulders lowered in a submissive posture. It’s like a cow or a sheep, completely and totally docile, empty, hopeless, an automaton. It is very sad, and they don t know what to do. What should they do?

Yes, this is very common. Robert Whitaker, the investigative journalist, has written about this phenomenon in Anatomy of an Epidemic in which mild and episodic problems are transformed by psychiatric drugs into serious and chronic problems.

The good news is that among the many people who have suffered this fate, many have become “psychiatric survivor” activists. One excellent psychiatric survivor organization is MindFreedom at mindfreedom.org. An excellent web site where both dissident mental health professionals and psychiatric survivors blog is called Mad in America at madinamerica.com, and readers can get good ideas here about others have recovered from psychiatric drug abuse, oppression, and isolation.

While there are a handful of dissident mental health professionals who can be helpful, more people in your friend’s son’s position get their lives together with peer support. One good place to start is the Resource link on Mad in America.

– These organizations seem very promising. Glad to know they exist. Finally, Bruce, I wanted to know if you can give us an idea about how you got yourself to be a “system error” in a highly controlled society like the USA.

“System error”– well, I’ve been called a lot of things, but never that one before. I guess you’re asking how I slipped through the mental health professional selection and socialization process, a process which is really about learning to be, in historian Howard Zinn’s terms, “a guard in the system,” someone who maintains the status quo by pathologizing rebellious people. I slipped through with a lot of luck. Among my peers in training, many of the most critically thinking and best therapists quit in disgust, and I probably would have quit as well if I I had been from the upper class and had multiple opportunities. But when I was in my training in my early- and mid-twenties, I had limited options. So, with a lot of anger and depression, I stuck it out. Part of how I stuck it out was that I hoped that I could make my misery with my training and professionalization process meaningful by writing, informing the world of the goings on in the mental health profession. So, ironically, because I have a Ph.D., I am taken more seriously by the media, even though the process by which psychologists and psychiatrists get their advanced degrees should give them less credibility — unless they have put a great deal of energy rebelling against it. While American society is very good at marginalizing most who rebel against illegitimate authorities, I guess they can’t marginalize all of us.

Marcos Guglielmetti is a journalist in Argentina.