Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Exclusive Interview with Roy Eidelson, President-elect of Psychologists for Social Responsibility

A few weeks ago in a piece that I posted, I reacted to an article entitled "How Americans Think About Torture - and Why" written by Roy Eidelson. In his piece, Eidelson discussed the psychological tactics that the Bush Administration used to not only sell the public on torture, but also the war in general.

In order to further examine these points and dive deeper into this issue, I contacted Roy Eidelson to ask him a few questions on this topic. Below is the interview:

Roy Eidelson, Ph.D., is a psychologist who studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. He is president of Eidelson Consulting and president-elect of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

CJ: Can you begin by giving some background on yourself and some of your most recent work?

RE: I am a clinical psychologist who studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. Prior to my current independent consulting practice, for much of the previous decade I was executive director of an interdisciplinary center at the University of Pennsylvania that focused on ethnopolitical conflict. I have also spent many years as a licensed psychologist conducting therapy with individuals and couples.

Much of my own work these days involves applications of my “dangerous ideas” framework. I’ve identified five core issues--vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness--that represent key concerns underlying individual and group behavior. They powerfully affect the way we make sense of the world around us. To oversimplify a bit, individually and collectively we evaluate situations and make judgments (sometimes correct, sometimes not) about whether we’re safe; whether we’re being treated fairly; whether we can trust the people we’re dealing with; whether we’re “good enough” or better than others; and whether we can control what happens to us. Because these five concerns are so important, they are prime targets for those who seek our support or want to influence the decisions we make. For those who might be interested, on my website is a brief video entitled “Resisting the Drums of War” that applies this framework to describe how the Bush administration promoted the Iraq war.

CJ: There has been much conversation on the role of the media in the post September 11th world, most notably of the media's failure of critical coverage in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. During that period of time, how do you think the media's role contributed toward the overall public perception of issues surrounding going to war? Are there historical parallels that you have found?

RE: I think an independent, responsible, and vigilant media is crucially important because an effective democracy requires an informed and engaged public. Unfortunately, I believe in the U.S. we have moved away from this ideal since the most powerful media outlets have become part of even larger corporate enterprises closely connected to the political elite in Washington, DC. The mainstream media’s willingness to embrace the role of cheerleader in regard to the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a tragic failure, in my view. There were of course admirable exceptions to this tendency as well, but these voices were drowned out by the much larger chorus I’ve described.

CJ: Do you think the media has learned any lessons from this period of time or did this type of collective behavior lay the foundation for where we find ourselves today?

RE: We’ve learned some valuable lessons from this period, but it’s also difficult to measure how much things have changed. Who would have thought that only a few months into a new administration we’d be looking to significantly increase our military engagement in Afghanistan--again with surprisingly little debate, probing, or skepticism from the media or the public. It’s also interesting to me how, regardless of how embarrassing their track record might be, the same analysts and commentators continue to hold sway on TV and in the press. It feels as though celebrity has become a virtue that too often outranks all others (including wisdom, reliability, and integrity).

CJ: You recently wrote a piece entitled "How Americans Think About Torture - and Why" in which you discuss the Bush Administration's campaign in the selling of torture to Americans. Can you give an overview of some of the persuasive tactics that were used?

RE: My recent essay “How Americans Think About Torture--and Why” was an attempt to explain how we came to be so comfortable with the way detainees in the “war on terror” have been treated. I think there is no question that the Bush administration employed torture as commonly understood and as defined by international and U.S. law. But “torture” was replaced by euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Yet there’s no denying that these very same techniques--take waterboarding as an example--have long been viewed as inhumane and criminal when used by others.

The Bush administration’s persuasion campaign to garner public support for torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners is actually a good example of the “dangerous ideas” framework I described earlier. Consider these five components. They promoted our fear of another terrorist attack (vulnerability); without evidence, they emphasized that these horrific techniques were effective and necessary (helplessness); they encouraged us to see the detainees as “the worst of the worst” wrongdoers and therefore deserving of what was done to them (injustice); they claimed that their interrogation techniques served a higher moral purpose (superiority); and they painted opponents of this interrogation approach as misguided and untrustworthy (distrust).

CJ: Lately, with former Vice President Dick Cheney leading the charge, we have seen a number of people go on national television and openly advocate their support for so-called "harsh interrogation techniques". One of the results of this has been that the topic of torture seems to have been made into a political issue. How do you interpret the national conversation on torture and the impact that both media coverage and these various figures have had on this conversation? and also, do you feel that we have passed a point in time where we will be able to have a serious discussion on the issue of torture without being constrained to the framing that was put in place by the Bush Administration?

RE: It seems that there’s little that has not become politicized in this environment--and questions about torture are no exception. A “national conversation” about torture could be a very good thing, but I don’t think it’s unfolding here, or yet. One major obstacle is that we don’t have all of the information, there are conflicting accounts, and so on. That’s why something along the lines of a congressional “truth commission” has the potential to be so valuable. But the second big obstacle is that this is not an abstract issue. Rather, we’re potentially talking about very real and very serious crimes, so we can’t expect an open exchange of ideas. People’s lives and reputations hang in the balance (as they should). The ideal time for open discussion and debate would have been before pursuing the path of torture--and that did not happen. So now we have to do the best we can in a situation where sides are drawn and positions are entrenched. As an example, and to again oversimplify, how are we to know the extent to which former VP Dick Cheney’s recent statements on the subject are influenced by his self-interested desire to avoid criminal prosecution?

CJ: The group Physicians for Human Rights has recently called for an investigation into the role that the American Psychological Association played in the torture of prisoners in U.S. custody. Physicians for Human Rights claims that newly released documents indicate that the APA's ethics task force altered their policy to adhere to governmental interrogation policies. Can you speak to the significance of psychologists playing a role in overseeing these interrogations?

RE: The role of psychologists in detainee settings is an issue of great importance to me. I support the call for investigations by Physicians for Human Rights. Indeed, as president-elect of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, I have contributed to PsySR’s issuing a similar call. The details surrounding the American Psychological Association’s involvement in the Bush administration’s detainee practices are complex and much of this story is yet to be told (six key questions that PsySR has posed to the APA are available at But at a very basic level, the ethical code of psychologists is built upon the principle of “do no harm”--and there is troubling evidence that this principle was ignored by individual psychologists working at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. As one instance, psychologists played a lead role in reverse-engineering the military’s SERE training program (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) so that it could be used instead for the harsh interrogation (and torture) of detainees. In the eyes of many psychologists, the APA has been too slow to take forceful action to curtail or prevent such abuses of psychology. Fortunately, a membership referendum last fall has recently led to a new APA policy prohibiting psychologists from working “in settings where persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law…or the US Constitution…unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights.” I believe this is an important step in the right direction.

CJ: At the conclusion of your recent piece, you express a hope that through the declassification of documents, high-level investigations, or congressional hearings, that the public may now be less wiling to buy the sales pitch that those who defend the policies of torture, will continue to feed the public. What gives you this hope? Do you believe we will truly be able to progress as a society if truth and accountability about these issues are not brought forth?

RE: In my recent essay on torture and public opinion, I did conclude by expressing some optimism that the public may be less susceptible to the manipulative selling of torture in the future. We do learn from our mistakes and, with sufficient evidence documenting the immoral and counterproductive nature of Bush era torture, I am cautiously hopeful that this will not be an exception.
But at the same time, as a psychologist I also believe that we will continue to be particularly susceptible to persuasion efforts that tap into our five core concerns (vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness). Depending upon the purposes for which these appeals and arguments are used, they can promote war and torture on the one hand, or peace, social justice, and human rights on the other.

Thanks to Roy Eidelson, President of Eidelson Consulting and President-elect of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

The video that Eidelson mentions in the answer to the first question above can be found by clicking here and I have also included the video below:

This is crossposted here.

No comments: