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An Old Guard Psychologist Inspires a Chill on Academic Freedom

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Will a former APA President suppress published guidance on how to teach the psychologists-in-torture scandal?

University of Colorado professor Michell Handelsman has found himself in the middle of a battle over whether and how to remember the American psychology profession's disgraceful collusion with torturing U.S. government forces after 9/11. And he is paying dearly for it. Handelsman's crime? Being one among very few psychologists who have published or taught about this collusion scandal. The collective inattention by the most influential psychologists of the profession has nothing to do with the scandal being uninteresting or irrelevant.

The widespread reticence arises instead from a low-level fear that blunts and retards critical and historically-conscious thinking throughout the profession. Other psychologists who set the tone for the field have tried either to miss the memo about this scandal due to their oh-so-professional busy-ness, or to forget about it as quickly as possible afterwards. Mitch Handelsman decided not to give into this fear, and so wrote about how to teach this grim period in the profession's history. Like many individuals who refuse to grovel in fear, Mitch Handelsman was swiftly punished. And his punishment is one that, if left unchallenged, could tighten this noose of fear even further around the neck of the profession.

If you haven't heard about the scandal, the psychology profession's collusion with torturing U.S. government forces, here is the short story. Key leaders in the American Psychological Association (APA) consulted with the Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Defense on what kinds of ethics policies these agencies wanted the psychology profession to have in the post-9/11 era. These APA leaders then made sure that the CIA and DoD got the policies they wanted, specifically an ethics policy encouraging psychologists to take part in "legal" (by U.S. law) interrogations of detainees in national security settings-settings like Guantanamo Bay prison, Bagram air base, Abu Ghraib prison and CIA black sites.

Memos from the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice had stamped the "enhanced interrogations" (EIs) as legal at the time. These EIs included waterboarding, sexual humiliation, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, and stress positions. So empowered interpreters of U.S. law had rendered a number of torturous acts "legal", and what was legal by U.S. law was made "ethical" for psychologists. So a psychologist could look ethical (not ethically torturous) by doing something that looked legal (not legally torturous), and yet still be torturing people according to the definitions of torture that any morally sane person would use. Thus the PENS report could condemn "torture" in name while facilitating it in practice. A clever trick, and one that worked for about 10 years until it all blew up in the APA's face in 2015.

Very few king-making psychologists have insisted on remembering or even referencing this scandal. Try asking public intellectual psychologists like Jonathan Haidt or Steven Pinker about it and you'll get a we-didn't-know-said-the-Burgomeister response, or, more specifically:

Such a lapse in accountability and ethics may be an organizational hazard of a guild as sprawling as the APA, with its 80,000 members and associates, five hundred staff, and fifty-six divisions (embracing everything from mathematical psychophysics to couples therapy).

Haidt is more concerned with the threat to academic freedom of psychologists being predominantly liberal, and Pinker's 832-page tome on violence (including torture) declining in the world is mysteriously without the word "Guantanamo" in its index.

With moral leadership like this at the top, many psychologists have taken the hint to shrug and move on too. The ethics sections of popular psychology textbooks have consistently left out the decade-long controversy over psychologists assisting interrogations (during an era in which those interrogations typically involved torture). Even with media attention to the collusion scandal reaching a very salient peak crescendo in 2015, publishers will likely continue their effective black out on this important period of the psychology profession's history until grass roots pressure forces them to address it.

Mitch Handelsman probably did not think he was striking a blow for the grass roots. He was just trying to be a good scholar attentive to appropriate matters of interest. He wrote his article--"A Teachable Ethics Scandal"--in a way that accomplished two important goals. One was to use the scandal as a vivid historical illustration salutary for understanding key psychology and ethics concepts (like groupthink, obedience, terror management theory, ethical fading). The other was to elaborate pedagogically on the scandal so as to better preserve in collective memory the profession's very creepy recent history. Handelsman's article was clearly too effective at accomplishing both of these goals, however, and so a certain powerful individual has lobbied to retract it under very dubious and disturbing circumstances.

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Ian Hansen is an Associate Professor of psychology and the 2017 president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

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