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How the Occupy Movement Helped Americans Move Beyond Denial and Depression to Action

The spirit of liberation psychology--a tradition from Latin American protest movements--has been embraced by U.S. Occupy participants.

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Liberation Psychology versus Mainstream Psychology

Mental health professionals, whether they realize it or not, who narrowly treat their patients in a way that encourages compliance with the status quo are acting politically. In the “adjust and be happy” sense, there is commonality among all mainstream mental health professionals, whether they are drug prescribers, behavior-modification advocates, or even some “alternative” proponents. Though their competing programs may vary, they are often similar in that they instruct people on how to adjust to any and all systems.

While mental health professionals are trained to believe in the political neutrality of prevailing psychological theories, these theories are not politically neutral. Martin-Baró astutely observed that many mainstream psychological schools of thought—be they behavioral or biochemical—accept the maximization of pleasure as the motivating force for human behavior, the same maximization of pleasure that is assumed by neoclassical economic theorists. This ignores the human need for fairness, social justice, freedom, and autonomy as well as other motivations that would transform society. 

In Writings for a Liberation Psychology , a compilation of Martin-Baró’s essays, editors Adrianne Aron and Shawn Corne point out that liberation psychology looks at the world from the point of view of the dominated instead of the dominators. Martin-Baró criticized the prevailing psychology that promotes an alienation of working people by serving the needs of industry. He saw a mainstream psychology that either ignored or only paid lip service to social and economic conditions that shape people’s lives. In his essay “Toward a Liberation Psychology,” Martin-Baró pointed out:

What has happened to Latin American psychology is similar to North American psychology at the beginning of the twentieth century, when it ran so fast after scientific recognition and social status that it stumbled . . . In order to get social position and rank, it negotiated how it would contribute to the needs of the established power structure.

One example of how mainstream psychology has strived for social position and rank by contributing to the needs of the established power structure was detailed in  Project Censored in 2009. When it was discovered that psychologists were working with the U.S. military and the CIA to develop brutal interrogation methods, the American Psychological Association (APA) assembled a task force in 2005 to examine the issue. Project Censored notes: “After just two days of deliberations, the ten-member task force concluded that psychologists were playing a ‘valuable and ethical role’ in assisting the military.” In August 2007, an APA Council of Representatives retained this policy by voting overwhelmingly to reject a measure that would have banned APA members from participating in abusive interrogation of detainees. It took until 2008 for APA members to vote for prohibiting consultations in interrogations (though over 40 percent continued to support psychologists’ participation in interrogations). By then even Barack Obama, though ultimately reneging on his promise, was campaigning on shutting down the Guantánamo detention camps, and so psychologists in 2008 were not exactly in front of this issue. Today, mainstream psychology continues to support the status quo; for example, the vast majority of mainstream psychologists support the psychopathologizing, behavior modifying, and medicating of disruptive children rather than fighting to transform societal sources for their disruptiveness (for example, schools that are boring and alienating).

Liberation psychology arises when the majority of a society senses that the status quo is unjust and dehumanizing, and that it is immoral to help people adjust to it. Adjusting to oppression and exploitation creates apathy and defeatism; so, liberation psychology delegitimizes those authorities and institutions that are maintaining an unjust society. Ultimately, liberation psychology is about helping create self-respect, respectful relationships, and empowerment. And it is about helping people reject the role of either victim or victimizer not only in their personal relationships but in their societal ones as well.