Violence Bolstered by Professional Contradictions
by Rachel M. MacNair, Ph.D.
Director of CL’s research arm, The Institute for Integrated Social Analysis
I’d like to regale you with my adventures in what ought to be a stuffy professional organization but is actually a prime field for countering the push for some kinds of violence.
In his classic book about how a war of words shows remarkable similarities against different targeted populations — Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives – William Brennan observes:
“Contrary to popular belief, although despicable language is often primarily associated with crazed individuals or mobs in the streets, it is far more likely to emanate from highly educated, respectable circles. Eminent people throughout history rank among the most steadfast purveyors of demeaning expressions. In The Republic, Plato’s advocacy of infanticide (book 5) proceeded from a perception of handicapped children as ‘inferior creatures.’ Louis Agassiz, founder of the Museum of Natural History at Harvard University and a leading nineteenth-century scientist, called black people a ‘degraded and degenerate race.’ . . . The successful waging of semantic warfare on the contemporary unwanted unborn can likewise be largely attributed to the heavy participation of influential and respectable individuals and organizations.”
Thus we come to two task forces of the U.S.’s largest professional association in psychology, the American Psychological Association (APA). Both started around 2005.
Foundations of Torture
The task force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) was designed by its advocates to make interrogations “safe” and “effective,” but in fact was in collusion with the Bush administration’s push for “enhanced interrogation,” a euphemism for torture.With this and with behind-the-scenes secret activities, the administration got the needed professional expertise for pretending it had legal authorization. The report was railroaded through without proper procedure from the representative Council. Several years of oppositional activism ensued, some of which was successful in getting reforms, including a membership referendum and a substitute policy that rescinded the original PENS report. Yet none of them took care of the entire problem.
There was a large rally in 2005 to protest the PENS task force at its beginning at the APA convention in San Francisco. I naturally attended as an active member of APA’s Division 48, which covers peace psychology. At that rally, I passed out a leaflet pointing out the PENS parallels to APA’s recently-established abortion task force. A major parallel was that rather than having a proper balance of views, the group was select for having a conclusion that favored the APA’s position.
I later became the peace psychology division’s membership chair and then served as president in 2013, so I was privy to the actions against the PENS report over the years.
Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion
I volunteered and was accepted to be one of 20 reviewers on the abortion task force’s report. I spent a good 30 to 40 hours working on explaining why one argument after another was not sound. The second draft was much improved, but never went through another review by experts (though a later updated version published in the APA’s main journal did). In many places, where I had offered alternative explanations, instead of offering both ways of looking at the evidence, the point was simply dropped. I was left with the impression that my job was to let them know which arguments for their position wouldn’t fly.
The meeting where the report was approved was a sight to see. I thought it resembled a pep rally more than a sober scientific assessment. I saw a smirk on the face of the person who mentioned the letters of concern from various organizations – Consistent Life was one of many.
I had heard from several individuals that they knew how biased the report was, but no one other than me was willing to get up to say so. One person told me I was brave for doing so. In a psychology crowd, that should bring flashing red lights of alarm for “groupthink.” As it was, because I wasn’t a councilmember I had to ask for permission to speak; I think I got it only because I was already at the microphone and had started talking.
In another sign this roomful of psychologists had forgotten Psychology 101, they actually took the vote by a show of hands in front of everyone. Experiments showing conformity where people will agree to clear factual errors that the whole group is making should have made those psychologists know better. In fact, APA’s President-Elect at the time admitted as much to me in a personal conversation after the meeting, saying that they were going to change that procedure. Later.
So here’s the main conclusion of the APA report on abortion:
“The best scientific evidence published indicates that among adult women who have an unplanned pregnancy the relative risk of mental health problems is no greater if they have a single elective first-trimester abortion than if they deliver that pregnancy.”
My perception after reading the full report was that this was a foregone conclusion in search of a rationale, failing to find it, and asserting it anyway. There is plenty of evidence in the report itself that doesn’t fit it.
Note that they deliberately make no claims here about adolescent women, late-term abortions, or multiple abortions. And any claim that abortion would actually be beneficial to mental health has long since been abandoned.
I informed the APA Council that the press release announcing the Council’s decision to accept the report had already gone out the previous day. That’s how sure they were of the next day’s vote. No one said anything to indicate that they thought this was a problem.
Do we start to get a sense of the attitudes that allowed the collusion with torture to happen?
Down the Road
But here we go on divergent paths. In the case of the torture issue, reporter James Risen wrote a book called Pay any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War in 2014. It included a chapter on APA’s collusion with the Bush administration on torture.
While those of us who had been paying attention knew of the problem, the bulk of the membership paid little attention, and some APA officials regarded the protesters as hotheads. But with this new publicity, APA knew it needed to protect its reputation quickly. The American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association had both refused to participate in Bush’s program; they’ve had scandals in the past and so they knew better from bitter experience.
APA decided it would fund an independent investigation. Staff was sure this would clear APA of any charges of wrongdoing, and that would settle down any influence the hotheads had.
It didn’t work out that way. David Hoffman was hired, and so last July offered the Hoffman Report. It was explosive throughout the whole organization, with discussion lasting for months. People who were assertive about APA having done the right thing before are more defensive now, offering apologies and assuring us that the board of directors had been kept in the dark and didn’t know all this was going on. Various actions are being pursued to remedy this scandal and see to it that it can’t happen again.
Meanwhile, the APA’s report on abortion is still be cited in the media as evidence that the women’s voices that were precluded from a seat on the task force do in fact not count. That women grieve or are traumatized by abortion is still denied with the use of this professional report.
A more detailed chapter on the APA abortion report is in Achieving Peace in the Abortion War, a book in which Rachel MacNair applies peace psychology principles to the current abortion situation in the United States.