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How Psychologists Subvert Democratic Movements

By the 1980s, as a clinical psychology graduate student, it had become apparent to me that the psychology profession was increasingly about meeting the needs of the “power structure” to maintain the status quo so as to gain social position, prestige, and other rewards for psychologists.

Academic psychology in the 1970s was by no means perfect. There was a dominating force of manipulative, control-freak behaviorists who appeared to get their rocks off conditioning people as if they were rats in a maze. However, there was also a significant force of people such as Erich Fromm who believed that an authoritarian and undemocratic society results in alienation and that this was a source of emotional problems. Fromm was concerned about mental health professionals helping people to adjust to a society with no thought to how dehumanizing that society had become. Back then, Fromm was not a marginalized figure; his ideas were taken seriously. He had bestsellers and had appeared on national television.
However, by the time I received my PhD in 1985—from an American Psychological Association-approved clinical psychology program—people with ideas such as Fromm’s were at the far margins. By then, the focus was on the competition as to what treatment could get patients back on the assembly line quickest. The competition winners that emerged—owing much more to public relations than science—were cognitive-behavioral therapy in psychology and biochemical psychiatry. By the mid-1980s, psychiatry was beginning to become annexed by pharmaceutical companies and forming what we now have—a “psychiatric-pharmaceutical industrial complex.” Increasingly marginalized was the idea that treatment that consisted of manipulating and medicating alienated people to adjust to this crazy rat race and thus maintain the status quo was a political act—a problematic one for people who cared about democracy.
My Tactical Withdrawal
After graduating, it seemed clear to me that academic clinical psychology and psychiatry departments, hospitals, and the mainstream clinical institutional worlds were going to depress, damage, and enrage me more than I was going to make a dent in reforming them, so I made a “tactical withdrawal” into private practice. Only several years later, in the late 1990s, did I begin to go public—writing articles and books, giving media interviews and talks about the problems in the mental health profession.
A major motivation for going public was that I was embarrassed by the direction of my profession and I wanted to separate myself from it. I remember thinking, half seriously, that when all these kids who were having a difficult time fitting into dehumanizing environments and who were getting increasingly drugged—first with psychostimulants and then with antidepressants and antipsychotics—grew up and figured out what had happened to them, they would get pretty enraged. If ever there was a revolution and it resembled the French Revolution, then instead of kings, queens, and priests’ heads being placed in guillotines, it would be shrinks’ heads; and I thought that if I spoke out, maybe I might get spared.
Over the years, I discovered a handful of other psychologists—and even a few courageous psychiatrists—who were also speaking out against mainstream psychology and psychiatry. Most of them had paid the severe professional price of marginalization. I also came across psychologist authors who were not routinely discussed by mainstream mental health professionals, but whom I respected. One such psychologist author/activist was Ignacio Martin-Baró, a social psychologist and priest in El Salvador who popularized the term “liberation psychology” and who was ultimately assassinated by a U.S. trained Salvadoran death squad in 1989. One observation by Martin-Baró about U.S. psychology was that “in order to get social position and rank, it negotiated how it would contribute to the needs of the established power structure.” We can see that in many ways.
Meeting the Needs of the Power Structure
On the obvious level, we can see psychologists meeting the needs of the power structure for social position and rank in the recent policies of the American Psychological Association (APA). For several years, the APA not only condoned but actually applauded psychologists’ assistance in interrogation/torture in Guantánamo and elsewhere. When it was discovered that psychologists were working with the U.S. military and the CIA to develop brutal interrogation methods, the APA assembled a task force in 2005 to examine the issue and concluded that psychologists were playing a “valuable and ethical role” in assisting the military. In 2007, an APA Council of Representatives retained this policy by voting overwhelmingly to reject a measure that would have banned APA members from participating in abusive interrogation of detainees. It took until 2008 for APA members to vote for prohibiting consultations in interrogations.
At the tip of this iceberg, are the efforts of perhaps the most famous academic psychologist in the U.S., who is also a former president of the APA, a man who once did some worthwhile work with learned helplessness. Of course, I’m talking about Martin Seligman, who more recently consulted with the U.S. Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program—this for not only social position and rank but for several million dollars for his University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, which quoted Seligman saying, “We’re after creating an indomitable military.”
To give you an example of how positive psychology is used in this Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, in one role play, a sergeant is asked to take his exhausted men on one more difficult mission and the sergeant is initially angry, saying, “It’s not fair”; but in the role play, he’s “rehabilitated” to reframe the order as a compliment, concluding, “Maybe he’s hitting us because he knows we’re more reliable.”
This kind of “positive reframing” and the use of psychology and psychiatry to manipulate and medicate people—one in six U.S. armed service members are taking at least one psychiatric drug, many in combat zones—so as to adjust to dehumanizing environments has concerned many critical thinkers for quite some time, from Aldous Huxley in Brave New World to Erich Fromm in The Sane Society to, more recently, Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided.
How Psychologists Subvert  Democratic Movements
One major area that concerns me is the everyday pathologizing and diseasing of anti-authoritarians. This is quite scary because anti-authoritarians are absolutely vital for democracy and democratic movements. I want to talk about how this is being done, but first let me define authoritarianism and anti-authoritarianism
Authoritarianism is unquestioning obedience to authority. Authoritarians in control demand unquestioning obedience and authoritarian subordinates give them that unquestioning obedience. In contrast, anti-authoritarians question the legitimacy of an authority before taking it seriously. Does the authority know what it’s talking about or not? Does it tell the truth or lie? Does it care about the people who are taking it seriously or is it exploitative? And if anti-authoritarians assess an authority to be illegitimate, they then challenge and resist it. By pathologizing and “treating” anti-authoritarians, psychologists and other mental health professionals are taking them off “democracy battlefields.”
I began to think about this problem of psychologists pathologizing anti-authoritarians when I was in graduate school in the early 1980s. In the 1970s—when mental health professionals were moving forward instead of backward—psychiatry, in response to the pressure of gay activists, removed homosexuality as a mental illness from their diagnostic bible, the DSM. But 1980 was a sad year—Erich Fromm died, Ronald Reagan became president, and DSM III was published in 1980, my second year of graduate school.
DSM III had a huge expansion of psychiatric disorders, with many more child and adolescent diagnoses and I immediately noticed that DSM III was pathologizing stubbornness, rebellion, and anti-authoritarianism. Some of these new diagnoses subtly pathologized rebellion, but one diagnosis was an in-your-face obvious pathologizing of rebellion—“oppositional defiant disorder” (ODD).
ODD kids are not doing anything illegal. ODD kids are not the kids who once were labeled “juvenile delinquents”—that’s “conduct disorder.” Rather, the official symptoms of ODD include “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules” and “often argues with adults.”
When I discovered ODD, I told some of my professors that I was already a little embarrassed by the profession, but now I’m really embarrassed—didn’t psychologists realize that just about every great American activist from Saul Alinsky to Harriet Tubman to many great artists and scientists to scientist-activists such as Albert Einstein would have been diagnosed with ODD? In response, they diagnosed me as having “issues with authority.” I definitely do have issues with authorities who don’t know what the hell they are talking about. This was another reason that I withdrew from the mental health professional world.
So, I went into private practice, where I received many referrals for teenagers diagnosed with ODD from colleagues who were uncomfortable with these kids. As I worked with the kids, I found that not only did I like most of them, but I also respected the vast majority of them, as they had real courage. They don’t comply with authorities whom they consider to be illegitimate and, most of the time, I concurred with their assessment. If they do respect an authority, they aren’t obnoxious and usually they clamor for adults whom they can respect and who genuinely respect them. Not only are these kids not mentally ill, many of them are what I consider to be the hope of the nation.
Over the years, I have worked not only with ODD teens, but also with adults diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder, and substance abuse, and with psychiatric survivors who have been previously diagnosed with various psychoses. What’s impossible to ignore is how many of the individuals diagnosed with mental disorders are essentially anti-authoritarians. This was potentially a large army of anti-authoritarian activists that mental health professionals are keeping off democracy battlefields by convincing them that their depression, anxiety, and anger are a result of their mental illnesses and not, in part, a result of their pain over being in dehumanizing environments.
Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for AlterNet called“Would We Have Drugged Up Einstein?” about why anti-authoritarians are diagnosed with mental illness. I received a huge response, including many emails from people who have been diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder who positively resonated with this particular sentence: “Often a major pain of their lives that fuels their anxiety and/or depression is fear that their contempt for illegitimate authorities will cause them to be financially and socially marginalized, but they fear that compliance with such illegitimate authorities will cause them existential death.”
So, over the years, I have become increasingly confident that there is a huge group of anti-authoritarian activists who are being pacified by the mental health profession and taken off democracy battlefields. I think this is one important reason why the number of Americans actively involved in democratic movements is so low.
Psychologists’ Unavoidable Political Choice
If you look at the history of hierarchical civilization, the reality is that there have always been power structures. There has been the ruling power structure of the combination of the monarchy and the church. Today in the U.S. and many other nations, the ruling power structure is the corporatocracy—giant corporations, the wealthy elite, and their politician collaborators.
All power structures throughout history have sought to use groups of people, especially among so-called professionals, who will control the population from rebelling against injustices. Power structures have used clergy—that’s why clergy who cared about social justice and who were embarrassed by their profession created “liberation theology.” Power structures have certainly used police and armies, as has been done throughout American history to try to break the U.S. labor movement. The U.S. power structure now uses mental health professionals to manipulate and medicate people to adapt and adjust and thereby maintain the status quo, regardless of how insane the status quo has become.
So, mental health professionals have a choice. They can meet the needs of the power structure by only focusing on adjusting and adapting to what I think is an increasingly insane U.S. society. By insane, I mean multiple senseless wars that Americans don’t even know why we are fighting. By insane, I mean prisons-for-profit corporations such as Correction Corporation of America buying prisons from states and demanding in return a 90 percent occupancy guarantee (this actually occurred recently in my state of Ohio). And so on.
Mental health professionals can act very differently. Clinicians can recognize that many among their clientele diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder, and substance abuse are not essentially biochemically ill, but are essentially anti-authoritarians. Not all of them are anti-authoritarians but many of them are. And that self-destructive behaviors are fueled by a variety of pains, with one such pain being the direct and indirect impact of illegitimate authorities at all kinds of levels in people’s lives. And pained anti-authoritarians can be exposed to the idea that throughout history many people—famous and not-so-famous, from Buddha to Malcolm X—have transformed their pain and their self-destructive behaviors to constructive behaviors through art, spirituality, and activism.
Once anti-authoritarians have their pain and their anti-authoritarianism validated and feel more whole, they are likely to become less on the defensive and more secure. That’s when the real fun begins, as we can move to the next level—we can learn to get along with one another. When anti-authoritarians regain the energy to do battle with the corporatocracy and learn to get along with one another—we might actually achieve something closer to democracy in the United States.

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