Psychology’s Newest Joke: Not Very Funny

(Article changed on January 24, 2014 at 08:43)

by self

There are quite a few jokes out there about members of
my profession. Perhaps the most familiar of all is this one: "How many
psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?" Answers that usually elicit
at least a quiet chuckle include "Only one, but the light bulb must genuinely want to
change" and "None,
the light bulb will change itself when it's ready."

But this week
there's a new psychology joke making the rounds, a simple one-liner. Rather dark,
more than a bit absurd, and relying on a healthy dose of incongruity between
reality and pretense, it goes like this:

"APA will not tolerate psychologist participation in torture."

If that doesn't
immediately strike you as funny, perhaps it's because context and timing are
often key for effective humor. So in terms of context, the words belong to Rhea
Farberman, the American Psychological Association's director of public
relations. And in terms of timing, she was responding to
The Guardian's Spencer Ackerman
about the APA's recent decision not to take disciplinary action against
John Leso, a psychologist who had been involved in the brutal treatment of U.S.
"war on terror" detainees at Guantanamo Bay. If Ms. Farberman's comment still
doesn't bring a wry smile, the sort an utterance from an Alice in Wonderland character
might produce, then some further background about Dr. Leso's actions may help.

According to a 2008 report from the Senate Armed Services
while leading the first Behavioral Science Consultation Team at Guantanamo in
2002, Dr. Leso co-authored a counter-resistance strategies memo and recommended
a range of coercive techniques for "high value" detainees. The list included isolation
for up to 30 days without visitation rights by treating health professionals or
the International Committee of the Red Cross (with additional month-long
periods if authorized); removal of "comfort items" such as sheets, blankets,
mattresses, wash cloths, and religious items; daily 20-hour interrogations;
removal of clothing; exposure to cold; and stress positions. Many of these recommendations
were subsequently applied to Mohammed al-Qahtani, who was held in solitary
confinement for over five months and subjected to almost daily 18-20 hour
interrogations over a two-month period. A leaked interrogation log confirms that Dr. Leso
was present for at least some of the sessions, and that he provided guidance to
the interrogators.

In addition, a 2005 report from Army
found instances of interrogations where Mr. al-Qahtani was forced to
wear a woman's bra and had a thong placed on his head; was forced to stand
naked with women present; was held in place while a female interrogator
straddled him; was tied to a leash and forced to perform dog tricks; was
confronted by growling and barking military working dogs; and was prevented
from carrying out his prayer obligations as a Muslim. The Army report concluded
that these techniques were abusive and degrading. Judge Susan Crawford
subsequently declined to refer Mr. al-Qahtani for
prosecution because his treatment met the
legal definition of torture.

obviously nothing even remotely humorous about any of that. But despite the convincing
evidence of Dr. Leso's wrongdoing, late last month the APA decided that
no formal action
should be taken against him for ethics violations. That's
why I assume Ms. Farberman must be joking when she says, "APA will not tolerate psychologist participation in torture." It's kind
of like the time several years ago when Stephen Behnke, the director of APA's
ethics office, pulled our legs and promised, "When we have the facts,
we will act on them. And if individuals who are members of our association have acted
inappropriately, the APA will address those very directly and very clearly." 

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