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Why an Assassinated Psychologist – Ignored by US Psychologists – Is Being Honored

Mural at the Cooperativa Martín-Baró featuring Padre Ignacio Martín-Baró. (Photo: Amber / Flickr)

In November 2014, people around the world who decry oppression will commemorate the 25th anniversary of liberation psychologist Ignacio Martin-Baró’s assassination in El Salvador by a “counter-insurgency unit” created at the US Army’s School of the Americas.

On November 16, 1989, in El Salvador, liberation psychologist Ignacio Martin-Baró, together with five colleagues, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter, were forced into a courtyard on the campus of Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas, where they were then murdered by the Salvadoran government’s elite Atlacatl Battalion, a “counter-insurgency unit” created at the US Army’s School of the Americas in 1980. The massacre is detailed in the Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador.

This year, 25 years after Martin-Baró’s assassination, the Liberation Psychology Network, the Latin American journal Teoría y Crítica de la Psicología, and peace and justice activists around the world will commemorate Martin-Baró, whose integrity, courage and activism for the people of El Salvador cost him his life. Embarrassingly, the vast majority of US psychologists and psychiatrists know nothing about Martin-Baró and liberation psychology. Outside of Pacifica Graduate Institute, I’m not aware of any US graduate program with an announced focus on liberation psychology.

The US corporatocracy uses mental health professionals to manipulate and medicate people to adjust and thereby maintain the status quo – thus, the need for liberation psychology.

Noam Chomsky, longtime critic of both the US government and US psychology, has tried to inform the world about the life and work of Martin-Baró. Chomsky, in praising a collection of his essays, Writings for a Liberation Psychology, said that Martin-Baró had a “rare combination of intelligence and heroism to the challenge his work sets forth ‘to construct a new person in a new society.’ His life and achievement are a true inspiration.”

Why would the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and other mainstream mental health institutions keep US psychologists, psychiatrists and the general public ignorant of the life and work of Martin-Baró?

As a Jesuit priest, Martin-Baró embraced liberation theology in opposition to a theology that oppressed the poor, and as a social psychologist, he believed that imported North American psychology also oppressed the majority of people. Martin-Baró concluded that mainstream psychology either ignored or only paid lip service to social and economic conditions that shape people’s lives.

Ruling elites and power structures – from monarchies to military dictatorships to the US corporatocracy – have routinely used “professionals” to control the population from rebelling against injustices so as to maintain the status quo. While power structures routinely rely on police and armies to subdue populations, they have also used clergy – thus, the need for liberation theology. And today, the US corporatocracy uses mental health professionals to manipulate and medicate people to adjust and thereby maintain the status quo – thus, the need for liberation psychology.

In order to control other nations – be they in Latin America, Native America or elsewhere – the US corporatocracy has provided power and prestige for both individuals and institutions that meet its needs. Martin-Baró observed the following about North American psychology: “In order to get social position and rank, it negotiated how it would contribute to the needs of the established power structure.”

The actions by US psychologists and psychiatrists that contribute to the needs of the power structure for social position and rank have gotten even more blatant since Martin-Baró’s death.

Liberation psychology – which Martin-Baró helped popularize – challenges adjustment to an unjust societal status quo and energizes oppressed people to resist injustices.

Shortly after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the American Psychological Association (APA) made high-level efforts to nurture relationships with the US Department of Defense (DOD), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other government agencies. As Truthout reported earlier this year, the APA aimed “to position psychology and behavioral scientists as key players in US counterterrorism and counterintelligence activities.”

For several years the APA not only condoned, but actually applauded psychologists’ assistance in interrogation or torture in Guantánamo and elsewhere. When it was discovered that psychologists were working with the US military and the CIA to develop brutal interrogation methods, an APA task force in 2005 concluded that psychologists were playing a “valuable and ethical role” in assisting the military; in 2007, an APA Council of Representatives retained this policy. It took until 2008 for APA members to vote for prohibiting consultations in interrogations (reported by Project Censored in 2010).

US psychologists and psychiatrists have also met the needs of the power structure by subverting resistance of US soldiers in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the Vietnam War, the GI antiwar movement – in which soldiers refused to cooperate with the US military – was one of the decisive factors in ending US military involvement in Vietnam (see Sir! No Sir!). However, today, psychologists and psychiatrists’ “treatments” of soldiers with behavioral manipulations and psychiatric drugs make such a resistance by soldiers more difficult.

One of the most famous psychologists in the United States, Martin Seligman, a former president of the APA, has consulted with the US Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program (as I reported in AlterNet in 2010). Seligman achieved not only “social position and rank” for himself, but several million dollars for his University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, which quoted Seligman saying, “We’re after creating an indomitable military.” In one role play utilized in this Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program reported by The New York Times, a sergeant is asked to take his exhausted men on one more difficult mission, and the sergeant is initially angry, saying that “It’s not fair.” But in the role play, he’s “rehabilitated” to reframe the order as a compliment.

Even more powerful than positive-psychology manipulations in subverting resistance by soldiers to the US military-industrial complex is the use of psychiatric drugs. According to the Navy Times in 2010, one in six US armed service members were taking at least one psychiatric drug, with many of these medicated soldiers in combat zones.

Oppression need not be physically brutalizing in order to subvert resistance.

Beyond these obvious ways in which psychologists and psychiatrists meet the needs of the corporatocracy, there are insidious ways in which the majority of mental health professionals maintain the status quo. This includes pathologizing and medicating anti-authoritarianism and noncompliance, which I described in “Why Anti-Authoritarians are Diagnosed as Mentally Ill” in Mad in America in 2012. Many individuals diagnosed with mental disorders are essentially anti-authoritarians, and a potentially large army of anti-authoritarian activists is being kept off democracy battlefields by mental health professionals who have pathologized and depoliticized their pain.

In contrast to mainstream psychology, liberation psychology – which Martin-Baró helped popularize – challenges adjustment to an unjust societal status quo and energizes oppressed people to resist injustices. Liberation psychology attempts to help subjugated and demoralized people regain the energy necessary to recover the power that they have handed over to illegitimate authorities (see Get Up, Stand Up).

Martin-Baró knew that the practice of psychology and psychiatry is not politically neutral. Psychologists and psychiatrists, whether they realize it or not, who narrowly treat their patients in a way that encourages compliance with the status quo are acting politically. Whether they are drug prescribers, behavior-modification advocates or even some “alternative” proponents, there is a commonality among mainstream mental health professionals; though their competing programs may vary, they are often similar in that they instruct people on how to adjust to any and all systems.

Martin-Baró also knew that theories in psychology and psychiatry are not politically neutral. Mainstream 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 social justice, freedom and autonomy, as well as other motivations that would transform society. Martin-Baró knew that there are political consequences to mainstream psychology’s restriction of its research to quantifiable variables. He pointed out that when knowledge is limited to only quantifiable facts and events, we “become blind to the most important meanings of human existence.” Human dimensions such as commitment, solidarity, hope and courage cannot be simplistically quantified, but are what enable human beings to overcome injustice.

Martin-Baró, tragically prescient, once quipped to a North American colleague, “In your country, it’s publish or perish. In ours, it’s publish and perish.” The oppression faced by the Salvadorans during Martin-Baró’s lifetime was quite different from the oppression faced in the United States today. Yet oppression need not be physically brutalizing in order to subvert resistance. And so, the life and work of Martin-Baró is relevant not just for South Americans and Central Americans but for North Americans and oppressed people around the world.

Born November 7, 1942, and murdered November 16, 1989, Ignacio Martin-Baró was gunned down shortly after his 47th birthday. In November 2014, liberation psychologists and others around the world who decry oppression will commemorate the 25th anniversary of Martin-Baró’s assassination and will celebrate his 72nd birthday.

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