Modern psychology’s emphasis on identity politics and progressive worldviews above personalized treatment approaches helped drive Christopher Ferguson, professor of psychology at Stetson University, to recently resign his position at the American Psychological Association.
He had served on its Council of Representatives and as president of the organization’s Society for Media and Technology, but resigned from the organization in December.
In a telephone interview this month with The College Fix, he said the decision came after years of ill-advised APA policies that placed political correctness over patient care.
One recent example he cited was the APA statement released following the death of George Floyd. He said its language implied that “if you’re black, you can’t walk to the mailbox without getting shot, which is not true at all.”
“If you tell people they can’t go to the mailbox without getting shot, that’s traumatizing. That’s going to increase mental health problems in that population of individuals.”
“‘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’). … 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 given 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.”
Ferguson told The College Fix he was “embarrassed to be associated with this.”
“I felt like I couldn’t be part of supporting an organization that is making statements that I believe at this point are actually detrimental to in many cases the exact communities that the APA is ostensibly trying to support and help.”
There wasn’t necessarily one single incident or policy that tainted Ferguson’s view of the APA, but a pattern over the decades that became more prominent in recent years.
A while back, it was the violent video games and spanking debate. In both of these areas in which he has conducted research, Ferguson said he believes the APA “screwed up” by exaggerating alleged harms.
“Neither of those areas are do or die areas,” Ferguson said. “If the APA screws up video games, that’s not life or death. … Generally speaking, nobody’s going to die because their parent took their video game away.”
“The same thing with spanking,” Ferguson continued. “I’m not an advocate for spanking. … I’m just saying [parents] should be given impartial advice about what happens when they do [spank their children].”
More recently, Ferguson took issue with the APA’s 2018 clinical guidelines for the treatment of men and boys. Although Ferguson describes himself as being on the left and an “Obama progressive,” he added: “The guidelines were pretty disparaging towards traditional men.”
“I’m not anybody’s poster of a traditional man myself,” he said with self-deprecating good-humor. “But I thought, ‘Wow this is approaching sexism.’”
“It’s sexism from the opposite view of what we kind of think of sexism as being. But if you’re going to take out-of-work coal miners trying to support their family of five and don’t have any money and they don’t have health insurance and you’re going to talk to them about their male privilege and patriarchy, this is not what they need. This is going to hurt them.”
Furthermore, Ferguson said, “It’s going to discourage some of these guys from seeking therapy because they’re going to pretty correctly assume that therapists are not aligned with them and their problems.”
Prior to his resignation, Ferguson tried to curb what he saw as misguided policies and stances driven more by politics and ideology than healthcare.
He met with the heads of the organization’s science directorate and public policy directorate.
“I was wildly unsuccessful,” Ferguson admitted with a chuckle.
The consequences of these kinds of guidelines and statements, though, are no laughing matter, he said.
“In terms of the clinical stuff, particularly with the men and boys statement, you’re going to end up with garbage therapy,” he said.
“It seems like we are basically … encouraging budding clinicians now to endorse a particular ideological worldview and build therapy around that particular worldview,” he said. “That’s actually going to make it really difficult to foster connections … with a lot of potential patients who don’t adhere to those worldviews.”
“… To put it kind of bluntly, the men and boys statement was really embracing a feminist approach, a radical feminist approach to therapy.”
Such an approach might benefit some, Ferguson said, but not everyone.
“Therapy is being developed … to coddle the egos of people who’ve developed these worldviews rather than to actually help the patients,” Ferguson said. “The mission has become convincing everyone to become more or less progressive rather than actually fixing their problems with their families, with their stress, with their work.”
That’s the opposite of how he was trained decades ago. He was taught to be very politically neutral and not allow personal politics to become involved in the therapeutic setting.
“We’re telling people to do all the things we used to tell them not to do in therapy: catastrophize, generalize, personalize,” he said. “These are all things that are associated with worse mental health, and now we’re actually telling them to do it.”
At least partially, Ferguson attributes the decline of his field to a mob mentality that’s developed among adherents to progressive worldviews that hyper-focus on identity politics.
“When people convince themselves they’re on the morally righteous path, then they’re ability to engage in critical thinking tends to decline,” he said.
In his own experiences, Ferguson said, no one has gone as far as to try to cancel him, but he has had some unpleasant interactions with colleagues, including some in positions of power within his field. He has received vague threats that he could “get in trouble” for publicly criticizing the APA. He has been investigated for violating APA civility guidelines.
Though nothing came of the investigations, Ferguson admitted they are “still not pleasant.”
“Even if it’s just for a couple days that you’re being ‘investigated’ or whatever…For most people I would think that would be incredibly punishing…It would definitely reduce their motivation to speak out of turn in the future.”
And this is what Ferguson believes is happening.
“I think a lot of people [in psychology] do have a sense that something’s wrong, but they’re afraid to speak out because they don’t want to be on the ‘wrong side of history’ and they don’t want the criticisms, the threats to their career,” he said.
His wish is for his field to correct course, but he said he doesn’t know if it will happen.
“We need some adults in the room and unfortunately we don’t have very many,” he said. “We have a few, but they’re easily drowned out.”
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