August 20, 2015
Thanks to the generous support of a Division 48 Student Travel Award, I was able to travel to the Annual APA Convention to present my paper, entitled “Evidence of Torture: Building Skills in Psychological Assessment of Torture Survivors”. However, when I arrived in Toronto, my central preoccupation was the Hoffman Report.
As a doctoral candidate, and as someone who has worked for over a decade with refugees and indigenous people in Canada and in international communities affected by political violence, my identity as a psychologist-to-be has been strongly shaped by a commitment to peace and social justice. And as a Canadian, I agree with Drs. Kaslow and McDaniel’s statement in their letter to International psychologists, that “although the disturbing and painful findings in the report concern actions of U.S.-based psychologists and of APA, a U.S.-based psychology organization, we are strongly aware that these events have cast a pall on psychology and psychologists in all countries, with the potential to negatively affect perceptions of the integrity of our discipline worldwide.”
So I went to Toronto determined to try to understand what had happened within the APA, and to seek out others who also viewed this crisis as an imperative for a profound and meaningful re-visioning of our ethical commitments as psychologists. Division 48 and Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR) provided a home for me from which to pursue these goals. Hearing the strong voices of Division 48 members at the PsySR Town Hall and the Council of Representatives Meeting were the highlights of my convention experience.
On the Thursday evening, a Town Hall event was organized by PsySR at St. Andrews church in downtown Toronto. Along with numerous APA members and interested members of the general public, as well as local and international media representatives, I heard how a decade of grassroots organizing by a group of determined psychologists – many of whom are Division 48 members – lead to the Hoffman Report. Brad Olsen declared that APA and the profession of psychology are at a critical turning point. First and foremost, he suggested, for this to be a turn in the right direction, trust must be repaired, both between the APA and its membership and between professional psychology and the public. Steven Soldz explained that the APA has had its ethical roots in risk management, but that for us to begin the process of re-building trust, we must open a broader debate on “what makes psychological work morally unique” and fundamentally reconsider what we do, and what we should never do, as psychologists. Joseph Brody asked us to reflect upon this moral and existential crisis as an opportunity to transform APA and US psychology from a “systemic violator of basic human dignity, complicit in war crimes, into a true moral leader among heath professional groups on issues of human rights and environmental justice”. At this meeting we were told of the Council of Representative Meeting that was to occur the next day at 8 am to vote on whether to pass Resolution 23B, that would ban psychologists from participating in military interrogation. The speakers at the Town Hall were not fully confident that the resolution would pass, so we were invited to attend as observers in the hopes that our presence would lend moral authority.
I was at the Royal York Hotel, bright and early Friday morning, and took my place in the observation gallery with students, early career psychologists, and numerous seasoned and impassioned psychologists, many wearing t-shirts and buttons proclaiming “First, do no harm”. It was very inspiring to witness our Division 48 representatives as they took principled, courageous actions throughout the Council of Representatives meeting. Speaking in support of Resolution 23B, Steven Reisner demonstrated a clear analysis about the meaning of torture and the wide-ranging harm of this particular form of political violence. In an emotionally charged atmosphere, a Roll Call vote was proposed by Jean Maria Arrigo, and the APA’s governing Council of Representatives overwhelmingly approved Resolution 23B by 157 to 1.
The vote was a critical first step. In my experiences throughout the convention, in the general members Town Hall, in numerous presentations, at social hours and in private conversations, there was a lot of discussion about the need for self-reflection and reform of the organization. This is imperative and I trust there are numerous members of Division 48 who will continue to pursue transparency in this regard. Personally, however, I am most concerned about the damage these years of collusion have done to survivors – both those directly affected by APA psychologists in US interrogations, as well as the countless victims of torture throughout the world who could not count on our allegiance. I am also concerned about the impact this has had and will continue to have on public trust. When we lose our ability to form a trusted alliance, we lose our capacity to function as psychologists. It is very painful to confront the fact that this professional association has so damaged our potential to provide the healing services that we have worked so hard for the privilege of being able to offer – with the result that suffering people will go on suffering for lack of trust.
In my opinion, repair must begin by addressing – through legal means – the human rights abuses that were committed. We simply cannot move forward in a climate of impunity. Then, APA must concretely and practically address the harms that were done to individual survivors with the participation of APA psychologists. This could be done, for example, by establishing a truth commission that is empowered to hear testimony and make reparations to individual victims and their families for the lasting damages sustained as a result of our policies and actions. APA can also demonstrate its sincere and on-going commitment to survivors of torture and to the international anti-torture movement by providing sustained support for the treatment of survivors, prevention of torture, and the ending of impunity through research, program development, forensic assessment and advocacy. Finally, I think it is important that graduate-level ethics instruction includes discussions about what happened at the APA, situated within a critical understanding of the history of psychology and the broader moral landscape that the discipline confronts.
In conclusion, I believe this crisis opens the way for new opportunities to re-envision the direction of professional psychology in North America. Many bold statements were made in Toronto about the APA’s commitment to leadership in human rights. I have witnessed the determination and conviction of so many Division 48 colleagues to ensure that the APA makes good on these promises. It would be my pleasure to join you.