“To be a hero,” says Philip Zimbardo in his talk The Psychology of Evil, “you have to learn to be a deviant, because you’re always going against the conformity of the group.” That’s true, and I think Zimbardo would agree that the heroism required to battle for liberty and justice in the face of tyranny and injustice requires a special kind deviancy and nonconformity. Martin Luther King, Jr. called it “creative maladjustment,” for which a heavy dose of anti-authoritarianism is required.
Anti-authoritarians question all authority and challenge and resist illegitimate authority. Americans should be concerned how our institutions are crushing young anti-authoritarians and preventing the rise of heroes.
Zimbardo wants to promote the “heroic imagination” in our children through our educational system with hero courses that he is developing. I believe that our young anti-authoritarians — our potential heroes — have far less of a need for hero courses in their schools than a need for help in battling against the systemic, authoritarian aspects of their schools.
George Orwell concluded that nothing crushes anti-authoritarianism and heroism more than overwhelming fear. And sadly, our educational system has created overwhelming fear with its “no child left behind,” “race to the top,” and standardized testing tyranny. These policies create fear in both students and teachers who are forced to focus on the demands of test creators. This kind of fear-based schooling crushes curiosity, critical thinking, questioning authority, and challenging and resisting illegitimate authority.
Young people have also been frightened by repeatedly hearing that they will be “losers” if they don’t attend college; while at the same time college attendees are saddled with crushing student-loan debt that can keep them from bucking a system for fear of finding themselves in an even deeper financial hole.
We should also worry that our young deviants, nonconformists, anti-authoritarians, and potential heroes are increasingly being referred to mental health professionals for treatment, which often consists of medication. In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association added to their diagnostic bible (then the DSM-3) “oppositional defiant disorder” (ODD). The official symptoms of ODD include: “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules,” and “often argues with adults.” Many of history’s greatest heroes would today be diagnosed as youngsters with ODD and other so-called “disruptive disorders.”
Heavily tranquilizing antipsychotic drugs (e.g. Zyprexa and Risperdal) are now the highest grossing class of medication in the United States ($18 billion in 2011). A major reason for this, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2010, is that many children receiving antipsychotic drugs have nonpsychotic diagnoses such as ODD or some other disruptive disorder; this especially true of Medicaid-covered pediatric patients.
Ignacio Martin-Baró, a social psychologist in El Salvador and a champion of the oppressed, was ultimately assassinated by a U.S. trained Salvadoran death squad in 1989. One observation by Martin-Baró about U.S. psychology was that “in order to get social position and rank, it negotiated how it would contribute to the needs of the established power structure.”
Martin-Baró would not be surprised that for several years the American Psychological Association (APA) not only condoned but actually applauded psychologists’ assistance in interrogation/torture at Guantánamo and elsewhere. When it was discovered that psychologists were working with the U.S. military and the CIA to develop brutal interrogation methods, the APA assembled a task force in 2005 to examine the issue and concluded that psychologists were playing a “valuable and ethical role” in assisting the military. And in 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 the APA to overturn this policy. Philip Zimbardo is to be commended for being one of those psychologists who spoke out against this APA policy.
In every generation there will be authoritarians and anti-authoritarians. There will be power structures and authoritarian professionals who meet the needs of power structures to gain social position and rank. And there will be anti-authoritarians who refuse to meet the needs of power structures, and who often pay the price of marginalization for their resistance. Our young anti-authoritarians are now being systemically crushed by power structures and authoritarians, and we can all help them by battling the oppressive forces in their lives.
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. His Web site is www.brucelevine.net
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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.