Re: My Profession’s Role in Torture

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I’m a professor of psychological and cultural studies.  Gary Snyder is a poet and essayist.

In an interview in the Paris Review, Snyder spoke of writing as his work.  He spoke about integrity – in his work as a writer, and to my mind, immediately relevant to my profession – Psychology.

This is what Snyder’s interviewer asked:  You’ve written, “Changing the filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dip stick, don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits.” What does this mean for a writer who would feel that her or his “real work” is the writing, and that all these other things are overwhelming?

Snyder’s response:  If one is a nonfiction prose writer or a poet, one is apt to be much more closely engaged with daily life as part of one’s real work, and one’s real work actually becomes life. And life comes down to daily life. …  If you learn how to take care of the kitchen and the dining room, you’ve learned about the household. If you know about the household, you know about the watershed. Ecology means house, oikos, you know, from the Greek. Oikos also gives us economics. Oikos nomos means “managing the household.” 

Just now, a colleague of mine forwarded an official email to the membership from the outgoing  American Psychological Association president, Nadine Kaslow.  I’m a member of APA, but I’d missed this.

This fall, two events called into question our discipline’s central commitment to human rights. In October, The New York Times reporter and author James Risen alleged in his book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War? that APA colluded with the Bush administration to support enhanced interrogation techniques that constituted torture. Mr. Risen’s allegation is a serious one. It demands definitive and independent review. Toward that end, in November, APA hired outside counsel, David Hoffman, of the law firm Sidley Austin to conduct an independent review of the allegation.

Second, this month’s release of the summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on the CIA’s interrogation program revealed new information showing the extensive involvement of two psychologists in the torture of detainees. This was a horrifying revelation for psychology and for me personally. I know you were outraged that psychologists could be involved in such abhorrent behavior. Working with the Board of Directors and APA staff, we moved quickly to communicate our outrage at the behavior of the two named psychologists and state clearly and publicly that if the allegations are true, Drs. Mitchell and Jessen violated every principle of the discipline’s ethics and professional obligations. The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times published my letter to the editor stating that the two psychologists involved in the CIA torture program should be held accountable for violations of U.S. and international law. …  [And] to the extent the organization should have acted differently with regard to interrogations issues, it is our obligation to identify what went wrong, take any appropriate actions and learn from the experience.

We who are psychologists need to know this.  We need to form opinions and take stock of our actions based on the fact that our profession has been a part of any practice of political torture.  Along with that, we each need to pay close attention to any disconnect we maintain between our thoughts and actions, or as Snyder put it, between our real work and life’s overwhelming details, be they domestic or – say – torture.

Beyond looking to the chain of command to enact laws and ethical principals, psychologists need to take heed and commit again and again to the rigor of acting with integrity in our work as individuals, members of professions and citizens of families, communities and our planet.  It is with action rooted in integrity that we as professionals of any discipline – as citizen of any locale – enact oikos nomos, care for our households.

It is up to each of us to turn our attention to the nurture and thriving of peaceful, generative and sustainable community – to the household of which all of us are irrevocably a part.  Torture does not arise from integrity.  It arises from hatred.  Hatred set loose by superiority and its twin agents control and fear.

While it is easy(est) to read Kaslow’s letter as another description of bad people with the attendant modifier, and I’m not a bad person .. I would never torture, please take the opportunity to consider how those responses passively enable the problem – the torture.  Every person in my profession or any profession is responsible for living in ways that render the idea or impulse to torture exclusive to the realms of fantasy.

Yes, this is the end-goal.  And, yes, torture would become extinct with the establishment of a deeply enculturated, “of course” priority on tending to the health of our interdependence.

We are not there.  Yet.

Nonetheless, for your part, please also consider how holding onto any version of I/We’ll stop when they do, IS the problem.  Now is the time both to reclaim and to commit everyday action to the integrity of oikos nomos – caring for the place and people with whom we live.

In the end, that’s everyone, because each of our circles of family, neighborhood, community and land overlaps with lots of other circles.  We are unavoidably interwoven across the entire stretch of our planet.  Then, the question is whether torture has any place this weave.  That’s for you to investigate for yourself.

If torture horrifies, if torture is outside your sense of what is responsible and right, then it is time to check out the composition and growing edge of your own integrity.  With that, each of us has the assignment, professional and personal, to know our integrity and to live it.

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