Professor Peter Kinderman is Director of the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society
“On September 1st 1967, the Nobel Prize-winning civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech entitled “the role of the behavioural scientist in the civil rights movement” to the American Psychological Association.
With eloquence and passion, Martin Luther King championed the civil rights struggle … and spoke about how people like me could and should support the civil rights movement. This speech is particularly relevant today.
“Always be maladjusted”
Most powerfully, Martin Luther King said: “There are some things in our society, some things in our world, to which we … must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry.
“We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence. … There comes a time when one must take a stand that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular. But one must take it because it is right…”
If there were a Martin Luther King for 2013, he or she would call on us to speak out, to identify and to condemn those things that should be condemned. We should refuse to tolerate the unacceptable and to act accordingly.
That modern Martin Luther King would turn to academics and psychologists and call on us to analyze – using those particular skills and perspectives that we possess – the psychological and social mechanisms that sustain and maintain those unacceptable current realities, and similarly to use our particular skills in psychological science to research social and psychological mechanisms that could support positive change.
In 1967, Martin Luther King identified a number of key issues that should be the focus for behavioural scientists; urban riots, the Vietnam war, unemployment and civil disobedience.
It’s remarkable how well these issues have persisted over two generations. We have seen urban riots on the streets of major UK cities in the very recent past, we have military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali, we have mass unemployment and we have civil disobedience – today in the shape of the ‘Occupy’ movement.
We would add social and economic inequalities, the credit crisis, with its lethal impact on citizens’ well-being, and climate change. I would add humane care for people with disabilities and mental health problems. But Martin Luther King’s speech still resonates.
Today, we may have seen significant improvements in the political status of black people in America – we have a second-term black president in Barak Obama. But Martin Luther King’s words are still relevant.
Some of us may have offered some gentle words on the use of torture in the so-called ‘war on terror’, but many clinical psychologists may well still be silent, even colluding. As a psychologist, an academic and a human being I should speak out (even though it’s painful) when I observe injustice.
Many of us say and do little about the social circumstances that determine – more than any biological factors and more than any therapy – the well-being and mental health of our clients.
Social pressures that blame victims
Many of us – sadly – collude with the social pressures that blame victims, atomise people from their social contexts, medicalise and diagnose what are essentially social and psychological problems and focus on the benefits we can accrue ourselves or maximize for our western, white, male, middle-class friends.
I fear that the key social problems Martin Luther King described two generations ago have not been solved, and I fear that psychologists, in particular, have not really risen to his challenge. We should.
Psychologists uniquely study why people behave as they do. We are uniquely placed to help understand and address some of the most pressing problems facing humankind.
Similarly we have a unique perspective on why people might behave in more pro-social ways; offer leadership, act with optimism, possess resilience, etc – in essence, the stuff of positive psychology. And we should acknowledge and help others understand the social determinants of human behaviour – how people’s behaviour is (at least in large part) shaped by social factors.
“Psychology is action”
Albert Camus, the Nobel prize-winning intellectual and philosopher, was distinctive in that he actively resisted the Nazi occupation of France, editing “Combat”, the clandestine newspaper of the Resistance.
In his private notebook for May 1937, Camus wrote: “Psychology is action, not thinking about oneself”. So I vote with Camus and King. The point of psychology is to do something useful.”
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