The Immoral Misuse of Psychology in Support of Empire

Photo by liz west | CC BY 2.0

The baby boom generation that came of age in the 1960s produced legions of psychologists. If readers happened to be fortunate enough to attend college in the sixties, then it will be easy to recognize this phenomenon of academic concentration and career choice. We wanted to be of use and to help. We wanted to change the world. It was as simple and as complicated as that and psychology was one of the means of doing that. It was, and is, one way of ameliorating emotional turmoil, not enhancing that turmoil.

But psychology always had internal conflicts and unfinished business. Sigmund Freud, a genius, studied a small sample of people on which he based much of his writing and the “talking cure” (psychoanalysis) he founded was never meant for the poor schmuck on the street trying to survive in a hostile world.

The medical model of psychology and psychiatry was built upon and tweaked by the behavioral and humanist movements in both fields of study. Unfortunately, they had their shortcomings, too. Read B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two for a dystopian view of how behavioral psychology could turn out, or Abraham Maslow’s description of his hierarchy of needs (Motivation and Needs). If memory serves me correctly, Maslow disdained sixties radicals while providing seminars in self-actualization for some of those in command of lethal military forces.

But it wasn’t until the endless War on Terror that psychologists were enlisted to actually turn interrogation techniques on their head and propose and carry out programs of torture. Psychologists and other professionals had always been available to service the needs and dictates of empire in lending a hand in wrongdoing, but it was the War on Terror that released some to do deeds that documents of international law, once followed by many nations at least in spirit, such as the Geneva Conventions, strictly forbid.

In August 2017, the psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen reached a settlement in a suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union for three former CIA detainees who had been tortured through a CIA torture program put in place following the September 2001 attacks. Their consulting company made “tens of millions of dollars…”  “… designing, implementing, and overseeing the CIA’s experimental program of torture and abuse” (“Psychologist are facing consequences for helping with torture. It’s not enough,” Washington Post, October 13, 2017). Their attorneys argued that the psychologists were not culpable for the offenses outlined in the settlement.

The psychologist, Roy Eidelson, the author of the Washington Post article (and a frequent CounterPunch contributor), is a strong proponent of ethical guidelines for psychologists. Still, a substantial minority within the psychological community maintain support for work within the military and intelligence agencies that produced the CIA torture program, or what are euphemistically referred to as enhanced interrogation techniques such as slamming detainees against a wall, waterboarding, sleep deprivation, extreme exposure to sound, and changes in the detention environment such as exposure to cold or immersing people in cold water, among other techniques. As has long been known, even outside of the ivy walls of academia and intelligence agencies, torture simply makes detainees say whatever the interrogator wants them to say. Torture is not only immoral: it is counterintuitive.

And if this grotesque wrongdoing was not enough, the American Psychological Association actually spent a significant amount of time arguing the merits of the torture program before issuing a final condemnation of it.  The American Psychiatric Association had no such qualms and unequivocally condemned torture.

Those in the U.S. are divided about accepting the use of torture techniques. The latter is perhaps partly due to the September 2001 attacks, but also may be related to the acceptance of war in general and is one of the many outcomes of a predatory economic and political system where force is the final arbiter of the dictates of the state. In a way, it is a kind of extension of the myth of the open frontier with its acceptance of violence. In another way, it also has to do with the myth of American Exceptionalism: If the U.S. does it, then it must be right and moral.

An educated guess is that most psychologists are ethical in their view of people and in the way they conduct themselves in their profession. Psychologists operate under the same principle as physicians do with the admonition and guideline to “First, do no harm.” It’s one of the so-called helping professions. But the dictates of empire, and how those dictates warp the rules of war that come down to us from ancient societies, including ancient India, Greece, and Rome, have been ignored in the service of empire and personal aggrandizement. Some psychologists may even feel that they are doing a lesser evil or good by helping to attack a perceived greater evil (terrorism), but the fact that two presidents, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, have endorsed and perpetrated, in the case of Bush, acts of torture in the name of empire is more than telling. That many others follow the dictates of empire, no matter how wrong or evil, is also quite telling.

Somewhere around 45 million people, including many millions of children, are either near or below the poverty line in the U.S. There are few good jobs. Yet, there are some who make big bucks kowtowing to this system. Some of those people have read Freud, Skinner, Maslow, Erikson and others, but they missed learning right from wrong and they wouldn’t recognize the laws of war if someone subjected them to the torture plans they design and implement or approve.

When and if the dust clears from the torture debate, perhaps mental health professionals will seriously turn their attention to how both psychiatry and psychology have in some cases been the enablers of empire. How many children and adults who are exposed to the horrors of poverty in this predatory and racist economic, political, and social system have the slightest chance of ever seeing a mental health professional on a serious basis? There are many competent and caring people who attempt to be of use with daunting societal problems, but that has not always been the thrust of where these professions have focused resources in the past and will use those limited resources in the future.  Sometimes the fault is neither in our stars nor in ourselves, but rather in the systems of the society that surround us.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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