Changing Ourselves while Changing Society

dennis fox

Social competitiveness as one of the basic features of capitalism is often merciless. Living in the society in which we are left to ourselves and meaningful relationships are rare, it is crucial for us to learn how to cope with the situation and to transform it for individual and collective benefit. In this exclusive interview for Freedom Fight Info Dennis Fox, professor at the University of Illinois, reveals how much are we in need for more alternatives and solutions. Beside its various meanings, critical psychology is one of the viable ways that can help people deal with authority and acquire critical thinking skills.

Interview with Dennis Fox

By Milan Srećković, FreedomFight.net

Can you tell us something about mainstream psychology and its role in today’s society, use and misuse?

This of course is a significant question, going to the heart of analyses raised by a wide array of critical psychologists and others who have looked at psychology’s role in society. By “mainstream psychology” we generally mean at least three things – the formal discipline of psychology as presented by organizations such as the American Psychological Association; the everyday work of psychologists and other professionals trained as therapists and also academic psychologists who generate research data relevant to this professional “psy complex”; and the cultural presentation by popular writers and speakers who offer one variation or another of self-help approaches more or less in line with psychology’s professional research and practice.

All three of these branches of mainstream psychology generally share a perspective that views “psychology” as something internal to the individual rather than as a reflection of both individual and society. Although most psychologists believe they are working to help individuals either through therapy or research or other efforts, critics of the field believe that even when psychological work does help individuals with their immediate concerns, at the same time it reinforces the cultural belief that our problems – and thus possible solutions – are entirely individual. This cultural value on individualism is used on the political level to justify a competitive capitalist economy and the cultural institutions and norms that support it. By reducing system-wide problems to individual problems, psychology as a discipline inhibits efforts to foster community responses to widespread problems.

For example, many people seek therapists to help them deal more effectively with stresses caused by poor working conditions. Mainstream therapists typically offer a range of options from learning stress-reduction techniques to exploring long-time responses to stressful situations to considering looking for a new job. Yet they typically do not suggest that the client connect with hundreds of thousands of other workers facing the same kinds of stresses in order to work for changes in the workplace or even in the larger economic system. This focus on what the individual can do alone is a hallmark of mainstream psychology.

You said that psychology is used for pacifying people and that anarchists rightfully reject it. Is there a way to oppose this misuse and are there better ways to help people that are feeling helpless in this kind of society?

A variety of groups have arisen that object to mainstream psychology’s business as usual. Some are frankly political, seeking to organize opposition to some of organized psychology’s positions – for example, in the United States activist psychologists have worked to push the American Psychological Association to clearly distance psychology from military interrogations. Others work to oppose psychology’s increasing medicalization of mental distress or to support survivors of forced psychiatric treatment.

What we need more of are efforts to create alternatives to mainstream approaches – not just to oppose what exists, but to develop alternatives, for example supportive community structures as alternatives to medication; these do exist but not nearly in enough numbers.

In what ways is psychology used to train children to be obedient to authorities? What is the role of some disorders, for example ADHD, and all sedatives and drugs used?

Of course, this is a primary method of using psychological knowledge to reinforce mainstream views of what it means to be a “normal” or “healthy” child and then adult. “Respect for authority” is a prime mainstream value, and teachers routinely use methods often based on research data provided by psychologists. It’s worth noting that psychology rose as an independent field in the late 1800s, around the same time that public schooling expanded with a clear intention to create a docile work force, during an era when Social Darwinism was at its peak, advocating the view that life is simply a competitive war and individuals must learn to look out only for themselves since no one else should be obligated to help.

Psychiatry is a medical field, but much of its data come from psychology. Psychiatry’s turn to medication helped change public perceptions of mental illness and the kind of options that might be useful. With every stress now being defined as a medicalized mental illness, it’s common for schools to medicate children who resist conforming to preferred education styles. This is very dangerous.

Tell us something about critical psychology and how it can help to people to get done with authority and achieve egalitarian society.

Critical psychology is the term used for a variety of approaches sharing the view that mainstream psychology in essence helps maintain an unsatisfactory status quo. It parallels critical approaches in other fields – critical sociology, critical legal studies, critical education – that look to uncover biases in mainstream assumptions and practices that sustain things as they are. Critical psychologists offer critiques of mainstream psychology and, increasingly, advocate alternative forms of research and practice. Critical psychologists have often moved away from doing individual therapy in favor of community psychology and other approaches that explore how psychology might support community and societal efforts to change institutions rather than simply try to change individuals.

What are the activities of Radical Psychology Network?

The Radical Psychology Network (RadPsyNet) began in the summer of 1993 as a discussion among a small group of psychologists and students who objected to the mainstream’s values and norms. In the 20 years since then, we’ve had a range of activities, from organizing meetings on the fringes of psychology conferences to a newsletter, a journal, a website, and a listserv. Back in 1993, there was very little ferment among psychologists. Since then, critical work has expanded in some useful ways, and RadPsyNet’s role has become less crucial. Today our main project is a listserv serving participants around the world who can now communicate with one another about projects and ideas. The website still functions and draws new people but is not currently an active project (http://radpsynet.org).

What’s your view of human nature? There are recent attempts from guys like Steven Pinker to show that we live in a least aggressive society to this day, and to paraphrase him that Hobbs was right and Rousseau was wrong.

You do ask big questions! My sense of human nature is that it’s pretty malleable and how we turn out reflects both our upbringing and our circumstances. We’re all capable of a broad range of behaviors, some of which might horrify us until we’re faced with the circumstances that bring that out. On the other hand, most people are pretty decent with most people they interact with, most of the time; even evil people have more ordinary interactions every day than evil ones. So I tend to believe that our more cooperative side is more basic, a view that’s consistent with what I’ve learned about anarchist thinking. For anarchists, arguably the most significant book has been Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, an argument that the development of human society has depended more on cooperation than competition. Hobbes’s views reflected a poor understanding of history as well as a biased view of what existed even in his time.

Nature vs. nurture or there’s something deeper and more complex?

Both at the same time….

Human beings cannot exist alone because without nurture we would not survive. Without nurture we would never interact with others, the primary marker for me of what it means to be human. So speaking of who and what we might be in the absence of nurture seems to me an impossibility.

Social psychology, of course, is the field that developed within psychology and sociology to reflect this understanding that who and what we are is a reflection of what’s inside us and what’s around us. That mainstream social psychology has moved in narrow, technocratic directions should not detract from its fundamental dual focus.

How important is the role of educational system, pop culture, and media propaganda in maintaining present economic system? What is necessary to do in order to educate young people and equip them with critical thinking skills?

These are crucial components of training young people not just how to survive in the system but how to justify a system that makes it so hard for them to navigate. The power of Western society is not just its military but its successful shaping of a public that endorses things as they are. So yes, education, pop culture, the media – all these and more have been shown time and again to be inherent sources of elite control. If the public believes inequality is natural, after all, the goal is not to end it but to climb over others to reach closer to the top.

Teaching critical thinking skills is crucial, but it’s a mistake to expect that to happen in ordinary schooling. Modern societies do need people who can think critically, but they don’t want everyone doing that. So children of the rich are more likely to get higher-level training while most children get whatever training they need to meet changing corporate requirements. Of course there are many exceptions, but it’s good to remember that public education is designed to create a docile public. If we want our children to learn something else, we need either to create alternative schools or take our children out of schools altogether.

You are specialized in psychology and law. Please, tell us more about that field.

“Psychology and law” began as a recognized subfield in the 1970s as part of a broader effort by mostly young psychologists who, like many others coming of age at the time, opposed many injustices in society. Optimistically, they believed that psychology could help counter trends towards inequality and injustice. With a focus on the legal system, they searched for ways to uncover institutional biases and to suggest alternative methods relevant for decision making by judges, lawyers, police, and others who have power within the legal system. Legal psychologists, for example, did research showing that eyewitness testimony during trials is often inaccurate and proposed new methods to increase reliability; they studied how juries make decisions; and they examined written opinions by judges to identify mistaken assumptions about human behavior.

These are still major interests within psychology and law, but the field’s initial interest in justice has become far less central. Many psychologists now work within the legal system instead of critiquing it from the outside, thus dulling their criticisms. There is insufficient attention to the law’s role in enforcing injustice, as in much work on “procedural justice” that pays more attention to procedures than to substance. In my own work I’ve tried to demonstrate how legal values and methods contribute to injustice – that the problem isn’t bad judges or bad laws but the very nature of legal thinking, which in my view tries to bureaucratize human relationships. There is much more about this on my website (http://dennisfox.net).

Tell us something about the nature of the law and its origin. Is the law designed in the way to keep economic system and political elite in rule?

Not surprisingly, how law began is a controversial topic, in part because there’s no single definition of law. Some argue that every set of rules or norms is “law” and thus see law everywhere. Others – and I share this view – use “law” to refer to a method of centralized control, where only some people have the authority to interpret rule violations and impose punishment. In this view, “law” began as ancient small-scale societies grew larger, often by forced incorporation into larger polities; centralized control required replacing age-old local customs with formal rules imposed by elites. Law, thus, replaced face-to-face community decision making with elite-friendly rules and elite-controlled agents.

Although it’s often obvious that legal institutions and specific laws are designed to maintain elite power, it’s also the case that to some extent law attains a certain degree of autonomy from political rule – generally consistent with it, but a separate source of power. This is why even in countries where they truly are independent of government officials, judges mostly make rulings consistent with governmental interests. Law in this sense is independent, but it’s an independence of like-minded judges whose sense of rationality and legal reasoning and underlying assumptions about the proper nature of society easily co-exist with elite control. Law has a logic of its own, and so long as the underlying taken-for-granted assumptions are not challenged, it leads inexorably towards bureaucratization, categorization, and generalization, applying overarching principles to specific cases even when the result is unjust.

You are involved in Occupy Boston, tell us more about Occupy movement. To what scope they can bring change?

I was heavily involved in Occupy Boston from its start in the fall of 2011 until the summer of 2012. Occupy was an exciting effort to build a movement opposed to growing inequality and injustice. Building on earlier movements from the 1970s anti-nuclear power movement to the 1990s anti-globalization movement, Occupy sought to bring together activists from many places on the political spectrum united by the sense that traditional mainstream and liberal/progressive politics had yielded little of substance.

Occupy began with a set of principles taken directly from anarchist politics such as mutual aid, nonhierarchical decision making, and direct action rather than appeals to authorities. These principles gave Occupy much of its energy and power to capture the imagination. They also led to much internal struggle, since most Occupy participants were not anarchists and had little understanding of the rationale for these principles. Thus, when police repression and other forces strained the movement’s abilities, the lack of principled agreement made it difficult to work through internal conflict and create new unifying agendas.

Still, I do think Occupy accomplished two things in particular: It focused public attention on inequality in a way that had previously been difficult; and it radicalized a generation of young activists who came to see firsthand how so many difficult issues are related to a system of elite control and how direct action can help sustain a movement. I think both of these are valuable.

What methods are you using in a decision making process? Describe how that process looks. Is it possible that consensus decision-making process functions on a larger scale in some future antiauthoritarian society?

If you mean Occupy here, I was not enthusiastic about Occupy’s methods and tried, without much success, to suggest alternatives. The method in practice used the rhetoric of consensus but the reality was much more confused.

Consensus works well, I think, in small groups of relatively like-minded or especially principled people. I’m not sure it works well on a very large scale, especially when the group includes people with opposing principles, values, and goals. I’m not sure how consensus became the expected norm among anarchist groups, and I’m not sure it’s a useful direction to go.

Few words about economy today, for example, in Serbia unemployment rate is 30% and we had transition from worker’s self-management to capitalism. As a psychologist, can you describe what’s the impact on a person when it lives in uncertain society, when there is no economic safety and when the job can be lost any day? In last 20 years there is a noticeable increase of sedative using in Serbia.

You make an interesting point about increased sedative use since the turn to capitalism. Clearly capitalism’s dog-eat-dog expectations guarantee that many who struggle will be unable to survive, so that medication and other forms of pacification become increasingly necessary. Uncertainty by itself might be manageable in a society whose members work together to achieve safety and security, but in a society where everyone is alone the stress can become overbearing.

I want to say, though, that while capitalism enshrines individualism at the expense of mutuality, some forms of state socialism have enshrined collectivity and central control at the expense of individualism. For me, and I think for many anarchists, the goal is neither complete autonomy or complete immersion in the collective, but a society that seeks to maximize both autonomy and mutuality.

What are your plans for activism in the future?

Ah, the future is the future. As I write this I’ve recently left Boston, where I’ve lived for the past 15 years, and am now wandering across the US and perhaps further, exploring communities and projects of many kinds. It would be nice to see a resurgence of something like Occupy, but I also gravitate towards community creation and hope to spend time working on that. Mostly, though, I’m envisioning learning about whatever communities I settle into and meeting those who are already working to expose injustice and foster alternatives. These specifics vary from place to place, but are necessary everywhere.

One thing on my mind especially in the wake of Occupy is the need for activists to develop better skills in working through group and interpersonal tensions. The lack of skill was a significant problem in Occupy, as well as in many other groups I’ve been part of over the years, including anarchist groups. I’ve suggested elsewhere that anarchists would be more effective if they learned better how to communicate more clearly with less antagonism, not just how to run better meetings but how to interact better one-on-one. We should acknowledge that growing up in hierarchical capitalist materialist society has shaped us in sometimes sorry ways; anarchists have traditionally advocated changing ourselves as well as our society. We need to learn to try to do both at the same time.

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