I’ve been a member of the American Psychological Association (APA) for years, and a fellow for the past six or seven years. I sat on their Council of Representatives, which theoretically sets policy for the APA, for 3 years. I am just ending my term as president of the APA’s Society for Media and Technology, where I have met many wonderful colleagues. Yet, at the end of 2021, I decided to resign my membership in the APA. My concern is that the APA no longer functions as an organization dedicated to science and good clinical practice. As a professional guild, perhaps it never did, but I believe it is now advancing causes that are actively harmful and I can no longer be a part of it.
I originally became engaged with the APA in a futile effort to “fix from within.” Much of this focused on the APA’s deeply misleading policy statements in my own area of research: violence in video games. The APA maintains a policy statement linking such games to aggression, despite over 200 scholars asking them to avoid making such statements, a reanalysis of the meta-study on which the policy was based finding it to be deeply flawed, and the APA’s own Society for Media and Technology asking them to retract it. Other policy statements related to research areas I’m familiar with such as spanking appear to be similarly flawed, overstating certainty of harmful effects.
In the clinical realm, the APA’s advice has similarly been questionable. A 2017 recommendation highlighted Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT; in which I am myself primarily trained) as treatment of choice for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It remains in effect despite several meta-analyses subsequently finding CBT has little benefit over other therapies. More controversial were practice guidelines for Men and Boys which drew deeply from feminist theories, dwelled on topics of patriarchy, intersectionality, and privilege, and arguably disparaged men and families from traditional backgrounds. This guideline is actively harmful to the degree it both misguides therapy in favor of an ideological worldview and likely discourages men and families from more traditional backgrounds from seeking therapy.
The ideological capture of the Men and Boys guideline in particular should have been a red flag of what was to follow: a complete capitulation to far-left ideology following the murder of George Floyd. That murder raised legitimate questions not only of criminal justice reform (of which I am a supporter) but also reignited simmering debates about race. Such conversations are understandably emotionally fraught and often ideological, with deep right-left divides on the topic. There’s a wide range of space between believing the US is still mired in Jim Crow and that it is a racial utopia, but it is often hard to guide conversation into that constructive middle ground, where nuanced and data-driven conversations can be difficult but productive. What we don’t need is our science organizations going all-in on one side of our polarized divide and stoking furor with hyperbolic statements. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the APA and other left-leaning organizations did.
In May 2020, the APA’s then-president (the position is largely honorary, rotating each year) Sandra L. Shullman, referred to the US experiencing a “racism pandemic.” The second word is basically a cliché obviously borrowing the buzzword from the Covid19 era which had just hit the US two months earlier. Shullman, speaking officially for the APA, went on to say, “The deaths of innocent black people targeted specifically because of their race — often by police officers — are both deeply shocking and shockingly routine. If you’re black in America — and especially if you are a black male – it’s not safe to go birding in Central Park, to meet friends at a Philadelphia Starbucks, to pick up trash in front of your own home in Colorado or to go shopping almost anywhere.”
These are terrifying words. They’re also at best debatable, arguably simply untrue. According to the Washington Post’s database of police shootings, shootings of unarmed Black citizens are rare. There were 18 in 2020, the year Shullman was writing, and only 4 as of the last week in 2021. The issue of policing and race is nuanced. As scholars such as John McWhorter and Wilfred Reilly (both Black for the record) have pointed out, more unarmed Whites than Blacks are killed by police every year (left out of much of this is how infrequently Asian citizens are shot compared to either Whites or Blacks). However, most news agencies ignore White victims of police violence, creating an availability heuristic, wherein the public assumes Black victims of police violence are exponentially more numerous than they are, while White victims are underestimated. The APA should be aware of the availability heuristic; after all it’s a psychological concept, yet their language contributes to it.
Proportionally, Black individuals are fatally shot by police more than Whites (though, again, Asians less than either), but proportionally Black individuals are also overrepresented in the perpetration of violent crime and in violence toward police. To clarify, I am convinced that the evidence suggests that class rather than race is actually the key variable we should be considering, whether we’re talking about perpetrators of crime, or victims of police brutality. Every victim of police brutality is one victim too many, whatever their ethnicity. But these are difficult, complex, and nuanced conversations to have, and we need steady hands to guide us.
Instead, the APA threw gasoline on the fire. The idea that Black citizens can’t go outside without being shot by police is statistically untrue, but also inflames racial tensions and, ironically, creates anxiety in minority communities. Unfortunately, homicides and other violent crimes have soared in US cities since May 2020, often hitting low-income neighborhoods and including the deaths of multiple children of color, something the APA has been, to my knowledge, conspicuously silent on. My concern is that their rhetoric in race, by delegitimizing policing and promoting false narratives about race and policing, has made the APA unintentionally complicit in this phenomenon.
The APA has continued to double-down. This year they released an apology for systemic racism, declared its mission to combat systemic racism in the US and a policy dedicated to combating health inequities which it sees as the product of racism. All of these are filled with leftist jargon and assumptions from progressive worldviews and short on clear evidence or even definitions. Put simply, these are statements of leftist ideology, not science nor even good clinical practice.
As apologies go in our current Twitter-infused culture, the APA’s apology was promptly rejected by the Association of Black Psychologists (ABP). The ABP saw the APA apology as not far enough, and performative. I disagree with the ABP worldview of the modern US, but I do agree with them that the APA’s apology was probably performative. It fits well with my experience with the APA’s miscommunication of science not to mention their legacy of changing their ethics code to allow psychologists to participate in harsh interrogations of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, something that only came to light 6 years ago. Several psychologists later sued the APA for, effectively, throwing them under the bus in the whole affair which I don’t find to be mutually exclusive. But this situation seems an example of the Twitter-verse apology treadmill wherein capitulation on one point simply drives anger-mongers to push the goalposts further along or simply chums the waters of outrage with more blood. “We demand your apology” almost inevitably shifts to “Your apology wasn’t good enough”.
More recently, the APA announced a list of “inclusive language”, adding to the language policing that has become common in left spaces from journalism to the American Medical Association. “Mentally ill” is replaced with the clunky “person living with a mental health condition” and “prostitute” with “person who engages in sex work.” We’ll no longer have the elderly or seniors (“older adults” or “persons 65 years and older.”) Just to make the “person with” format confusing, “person with deafness” is out (“deaf person”) as is “person with blindness” (“blind person”). Advocating color-blindness is out, as are Caucasians (“White” or “European” is preferred). We’re not to talk about birth sex or people being born a boy or girl (“assigned female/male at birth” is the language of choice now). There are no more poor people just “people whose incomes are below the federal poverty threshold”. We’re not to use words like “pipeline” (“triggering” to Native Americans give controversies over fuel oil pipelines on Native lands), “spirit animal” (use “animal I would most like to be” which isn’t really the same thing) instead, or “tribe”. “Violent” language like “killing it” or “take a stab at it” is to be avoided. A lot of this is obvious safetyism, which I worry that, by treating people like they’re made of spun glass and incentivizing outrage and offense, will contribute to escalating mental health crises. But, as others have pointed out, it’s also elitist as most people couldn’t hope to keep up with the ever-changing language rules of the academic elite.
In fairness, the APA is hardly unique in its ostensible capture by wokeness. The British Psychological Society, in a statement uncritically quoting controversial “anti-racism” figure Ibram Kendi and speaking of Covid19 said, “It arrived in a society beset with systemic racism, inequity and oppression of minority and marginalised groups…” In 2021, a UK government report by a commission consisting mainly of scholars of color concluded that the evidence for systemic racism in the UK was lacking. In response, the BPS doubled down saying “We are particularly concerned that the re-traumatising of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people through a denial of their lived experience, will have an adverse psychological impact.” Yet, lived experience (e.g., anecdote) both varies widely within groups and is generally a poor source of information. We should certainly listen to people’s views and experiences, and these can guide research, but they shouldn’t trump data.
The BPS has turned its accusations onto itself as well. BPS Chief Executive Sarb Bajwa mused, “Are we institutionally racist? I think my answer would be that, if it feels like we are, then we probably are.” These kinds of public confessions swept leftist institutions in 2020, often without any clarity of what these statements meant or evidence to support them. They took on something of a quasi-religious revival like furor. It’s worth nothing that such statements don’t merely speak to historical racism, which would be fair to acknowledge, but explicitly state that some of society’s most progressive institutions remain institutionally racist to the present day.
In August, 2020, the BPS publication The Psychologist, edited by Dr. Jon Sutton, published a letter by Dr. Kirsty Miller criticizing the BPS’ increased politicization and deviation from good scientific and clinical practice (the letter and exchange can be found on Dr. Miller’s website). The expected Twitter storm naturally ensued during which no one came out looking the better for it, but Dr. Sutton decided to retract Dr. Miller’s letter, a decision that certainly in my opinion is political censorship however it might otherwise be explained. The Psychologist subsequently published an issue that focused on systemic racism and presented only views in support of the concept. This is unfortunate, as I have always respected the Psychologist (and Dr. Sutton) particularly for its bravery in considering controversial topics and views. This is needed for any actual conversation on systemic racism. But like so many left institutions, rather than fostering a nuanced and complex conversation on a controversial topic, The Psychologist has eschewed this role in favor of promoting a single moralistic worldview and shaming those who disagree.
To be fair to the Psychologist, they did publish (to my knowledge) one subsequent critical letter by Dr. Lewis Mitchell who called for an evidence-based approach to these controversial questions. Dr. Sutton’s reply to Dr. Mitchell stated “…we have always been very open about our desire to see constructive, evidence-based, psychological conversation on these topics” but then pivoted to say “Of course we want scientific rigour. But at the same time, we are not seeking a debate over whether or not racism exists in our society. The evidence for that is all around us… And we will never invalidate personal experience by demanding ‘where’s your scientific evidence?’” This, of course, is a very strange argument to come from scientists and highlights the very anti-science nature of the current sociopolitical moment.
To be explicit, I worry that capitulation to the kind of wokeness that has permeated left-leaning institutions akin to a kind of virus actually tokenizes and harms historically marginalized communities, increases polarization and racial discord and obstructs data-driven progress on critical issues such as criminal justice reform and income inequality. What strikes me about all this is that these types of turmoil, whether in psychology, academia, journalism, even role-playing games are happening largely in elite, progressive spaces. Scholars such as Michael Lind and Batya Ungar-Sargon suggest that much of the current narrative on race (whether neoracist identitarianism from the left or the xenophobia of the right) is a proxy for class struggles, with elites in politics, business and academia using this narrative to divide working-class people of all ethnicities. One need only look at the APA’s decision, communicated via exchanges on a division leaders’ listserve, in June 2020, to eliminate approximately 50 lower-level staff positions, but without reducing executive-level pay. Interestingly, comparing their executive salaries from 2019 tax documents to draft 2020 tax documents provided to me by the APA treasurer, APA executives received significant raises in the same calendar year they let multiple lower-level employees go. For instance, APA CEO Arthur Evans made $821k in total compensation in 2020.
I’d argue the 2020 moment isn’t really about race or social justice, but about a defensive elite narrative projecting ostensible morality when, in reality, consolidating power. That our psychological institutions, as well as those elsewhere in academia, journalism, and business, have participated in this is a shame on our field.
This article was originally published in Quillette on 31st December 2021.
By Chris Ferguson, a licensed psychologist and psychology professor at Stetson University in Florida. He has conducted extensive research on media effects ranging from video game violence, to 13 Reasons Why to role-playing games. He lives in Orlando with his wife and son.