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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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 While the term liberation psychology is less commonly known in the United States than in Latin America, the spirit of liberation psychology has been embraced by U.S. Occupy participants.

Liberation psychology, unlike mainstream psychology, questions adjustment to the societal status quo, and it energizes oppressed people to resist all injustices. Liberation psychology attempts to discover how demoralized people can regain the energy necessary to take back the power that they had handed over to illegitimate authorities. 

The Occupy movement has tapped into the energy supply that many oppressed and exploited people ultimately discover. We discover it when we come out of denial that we are a subjugated people. We discover just how energizing it can be to delegitimize oppressive institutions and authorities. And when these oppressive authorities react violently to peaceful resistance, their violence validates their illegitimacy—and provides us with even more energy.

With liberation psychology, we no longer take seriously the elite’s rigged games that had sucked us in and then sucked the energy out of us. We move beyond denial and depression that the U.S. electoral process is a rigged game, an exercise in learned helplessness in which we are given the choice between politicians who will either (1) screw us, or (2) screw us. We begin to engage in other “battlegrounds for democracy.”

Corporate-collaborating journalists, politicians and other lackeys of the elite ask, “What are the goals of the Occupy movement?” They are deaf to the answer no matter how loud we yell. If they did understand, they would then have to stop being lackeys. But their elite bosses do understand that the Occupy movement is a demand for economic fairness—a frightening prospect for the elite. The elite then divide into two camps: (1) throw the demonstrators a bone so they go away, but give them no power; or (2) give them nothing, just destroy them. This is not news to liberation psychologists.

Origins of Liberation Psychology

Ignacio Martin-Baró (1942–1989) was both a Jesuit priest and a social psychologist in El Salvador, and it is he who should be given credit for popularizing the term liberation psychology. As a priest, Martin-Baró embraced liberation theology in opposition to a theology that oppressed the poor, and as a psychologist, he believed that imported North American psychology also oppressed marginalized people throughout Latin America.

Martin-Baró’s liberation theology, his liberation psychology, and his activism for the people of El Salvador cost him his life. In the middle of the night on November 16, 1989, Martin-Baró, together with five colleagues, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter, were forced out to a courtyard on the campus of Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas, where they were murdered by the US-trained troops of the Salvadoran government’s elite Atlacatl Battalion.

Many liberation psychologists, including Martin-Baró, have gleaned much from Paulo Freire (1921-1997), Brazilian educator and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire stressed the importance of conscientização—critical consciousness and awareness of the effects of trying to operate within an alienating and dehumanizing social structure. Freire recognized a certain psychology of oppression in which the downtrodden become fatalistic, believing they are powerless to alter their circumstances, thus becoming resigned to their situation. 

With critical consciousness, individuals can identify both external oppression and self-imposed internal oppression. Critical consciousness is aimed at ending fatalism so that one can free oneself from self-imposed powerlessness. It is a process in which changes in one’s internal world result in taking actions to change one’s external world, and taking actions changes one’s internal world.

Critical consciousness cannot be learned in a top-down manner. It is essentially a self-education process among equals. Liberation from fatalism and powerlessness is a process in which participants are not mere objects of instruction or of treatment. Instead of being acted upon, they are taking actions, learning, and then taking even more powerful actions. These are defining characteristics of the Occupy movement.

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. 

Bruce E. Levine, a practicing clinical psychologist, writes and speaks about how society, culture, politics and psychology intersect. His latest book is Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite (Chelsea Green, 2011). His Web site is  www.brucelevine.net .