Wednesday, July 22, 2015

APA and Torture: Fallout From the Hoffman Report Begins

Earlier this month, the Hoffman Report, an independent review of the American Psychological Association (APA) and its role in facilitating the practice of torture, was published. Needless to say, it's a huge document that takes considerable time to digest. That notwithstanding, there have been plenty of APA critics who had been keeping the public as informed as possible with regard to a number of serious ethical breaches that in addition to the resulting well-documented harm inflicted on those unfortunate enough to get thrown into any of a number of sites like Guantanamo Bay, has done serious damage to the legitimacy of the APA. I would certainly invite you to read the most recent post by Jeffrey Kaye for a summary of the findings, as well as the initial comments by Stephen Soldz and Steven Reisner about the document, its meaning, and some ways for the APA to move forward if it is to have any hope of rehabilitating itself. Indeed, rehabilitation for the organization may be a tall order. Time will tell. Back around seven years ago, a included a statement on my Social Psychology Network profile urging my colleagues to boycott the APA (i.e., withhold membership dues). Although I removed that statement some time ago, after the Withhold APA Dues campaign ran its course, I have no intention at this time of rejoining unless at bare minimum the conditions Soldz and Reisner recommend for reform are met.

At this point, the fallout is still somewhat unclear. We do know that the findings in the report were sufficient to cause a handful of APA senior officials (including Norman Anderson, the CEO) to lose their positions, not long after Stephen Behnke (APA ethics chief) was let go. Whether they are merely the sacrificial lambs or their "resignations" and "retirements" are a harbinger of a bigger shakeup remains to be seen. We do not know if some of their current leadership's statements are merely attempting to come across as anti-torture as a form of damage control or if an earnest reexamination is forthcoming. We don't yet know if those psychologists who enabled the DoD and CIA to engage in torture will themselves face criminal charges, although it is a possibility. We do know that apologies to those who criticized the APA from within, and who were essentially bullied because of it, will require more than apologies after the fact.

What we do know is that psychology in the US and abroad will never be looked at in quite the same way, and reestablishing faith in the field will take considerable effort, as others have duly noted. Whether APA is truly up to the task is questionable. The organization has experienced a sharp decrease in membership over the last half decade, and it is an open-ended question as to whether they will return. After all, there are other national and international organizations that serve sufficiently similar purposes, and many APA divisions are at least semi-independent. One can, for example belong to the Society for the Study of Personality and Social Psychology (aka Division 8) without being an APA member. For those of us whose specialties are more research-based, the Association for Psychological Science is a viable alternative without APA's baggage. Those of us who moved on, may have done so for good.

If what comes out of this whole human rights nightmare that a once-respected professional organization allowed itself to become entangled is a much more clearly defined set of ethical standards for those in both research and practitioner settings, perhaps some good will come of it. We're a long way from that particular happy ending, however. Rather, it is a work in progress, and one requiring the continued critical eye of the watchdogs who served us well (e.g., Kaye, Soldz, Reisner, and Arrigo, to name only a few) this past decade. What I do know is that we as a profession are much better than the actions of the APA leaders and members who are implicated in the Hoffman Report.

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