Psychology and human rights: holding on to truth

October, 2020 / Author: Derek Indoe /

One would hope that all psychologists would appreciate the strengths of qualitative research or case studies that emphasise phenomenology. Perspectives which give insights into the subjective experience of others so that we do not confine the mentally ill to the categories contained in classification systems such as DSM5 and ICD 11 are central to our understanding of each other. And yet as a Skinnerian friend of mine said recently ‘we need hard core objective evidence to work on, not just fluffy reflection’. I did not agree with his view of what he called ‘fluffy reflection’ but I did and do agree that society especially politicians-, and psychologists need to give due weight to objective evidence. When recently attending a CPD webinar on qualitative research I was astonished to hear a psychology student say: ‘What is objective evidence?’ as if she had no idea what the words mean and their importance in evidence-based practice.  In 2016 the Oxford Dictionary named post-truth as the word which defined the passing year more than any other. It defined the term as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’ But the world has moved on since then, as seen globally in both political system changes, social interactions and communications. We have entered ‘the post-shame’ world in which there are ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’, COVID 19 is a ‘little flu’ or does not exist, bleach is the all-purpose remedy, protesters are either undermining state security or criminals causing destruction, while international law and treaties are there for breaking unilaterally. The term ‘post shame’ associated by many with ‘illiberal democracy’describes how the limits of the what can be said are shifting regarding both the frequency of lies and the violating of discourse conventions – as well as regarding repeated attacks on central democratic institutions (Wodak 2019). With such political leadership and modelling, how can one expect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to become a reality? All this happens while the Amazons go up in flames, with no hint that illegal loggers, land grabbers and illegal miners are funded by powerful interests and are killing both the indigenous people of the Amazons and destroying their fundamental rights as human beings. We all need to get a grasp of facts and question what we are hearing from our politicians and media. Psychology needs to dig into its philosophical roots and take a long hard look at its ontology – namely the structure of the nature of ‘reality’ and ‘being’ that exists as self-contained and independent of humankind. Psychology training needs to look not only at cognition but also the limits of our knowledge of human beings. In that process we will hopefully espouse a critical realism that distinguishes between the ‘real world’ and the ‘observable’ world. The ‘real’ cannot be observed, and exists independent of human perceptions, theories, and constructions. Hence the role of behaviourism not only during COVID-19, but in climate change, enhances the psychology of commitment, change, values, language, power and the media. Where would mental health be without acceptance, commitment and compassion and observable behaviour?  Education needs to take a more critical perspective of an attitude that a former editor of the Daily Mail summarised as ‘put the story out first and the facts afterwards.’ Psychology needs to up its game by revisiting the values that underpin the training and teaching of psychology. A final bizarre example of the confusion between objective fact and emotional reaction is to be seen in the reactions to the performance entitled Black Lives Matter by the dance troupe Diversity on the ITV show Britain’s Got Talent broadcast in September. (This show is one of the popular entertainment shows in the UK). The show received some 24,500 complaints about Diversity’s routine which included a white performer kneeling on Banjo’s neck, a reference to George Floyd’s death in police custody, and dancers dressed as riot police. It also featured themes about the coronavirus pandemic, poverty and capitalism. Its central message was a call for social cohesion and unity though the complaints were that it did not do so. An investigation by Ofcom revealed that just 4 per cent of the 24,500 complaints were made in the immediate aftermath of the programme being aired, suggesting these were people who were offended by the original broadcast after watching it live. The majority of complaints were filed over the following weeks, following repeated news stories about the original number of complaints.

Reference

Wodak, R. (2019) Entering the ‘post-shame era’: the rise of illiberal democracy, populism and neo-authoritarianism in Europe. Global Discourse, 9(1), 195-213

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