Liberation Psychology

When I first heard the term liberation theology (in opposition to a theol­ogy that fosters compliance with the status quo), I thought there should also be a liberation psychology—a psychology that doesn’t equate a lack of adjustment with mental illness, but instead promotes constructive rebel­lion against dehumanizing institutions, and which also provides strategies to build a genuinely democratic society.

It turned out that somebody else had thought of the same thing before I had. Ignacio Martin-Baró (1942–1989) was both a priest and a psychologist, and it is he who should be given credit for popularizing the term liberation psychology. Martin-Baró’s liberation theology, liberation psychology, and activism for the people of El Salvador cost him his life. In the middle of the night on November 16, 1989, Martin-Baró, together with five colleagues, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter, were forced out to a courtyard on the campus of Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas, where they were murdered by the US-trained troops of the Salvadoran government’s elite Atlacatl Battalion.

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 oppresses marginalized people.

The Politics of Mainstream Psychology

Martin-Baró believed that the prevailing mainstream psychology had become infatuated with methods and measurements and thus was ignor­ing unquantifiable realities necessary for liberation. Such unquantifiable but powerful human dimensions include commitment, solidarity, hope, and courage. He saw a mainstream psychology that either ignored or only paid lip service to social and economic conditions that shape people’s lives.

In Writings for a Liberation Psychology, a compilation of Martin-Baró’s essays, editors Adrianne Aron and Shawn Corne point out that libera­tion psychology is about looking at the world from the point of view of the dominated instead of the dominators. Martin-Baró drew heavily on the work of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator, who recognized a certain “psychology of oppres­sion” in which the downtrodden become fatalistic, believing they are powerless to alter their circumstances, thus becoming resigned to their situation.

The prevailing organizational psychology that Martin-Baró criticizes is one that promotes an alienation of working people by serving the needs of industry. In his essay “Toward a Liberation Psychology,” Martin-Baró points out:

What has happened to Latin American psychology is similar to North American psychology at the beginning of the twen­tieth century, when it ran so fast after scientific recognition and social status that it stumbled . . . In order to get social position and rank, it negotiated how it would contribute to the needs of the established power structure.

Prevailing psychological theories are not politically neutral. Martin-Baró astutely observed that many mainstream psychological schools of thought—be they psychoanalytic, 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 fairness, social justice, freedom, and autonomy as well as other motivations that would transform society.

Martin-Baró pointed out that when knowledge is limited to verifi­able facts and events, we “become blind to the most important meanings of human existence.” Great scientists recognize this, as a sign hanging in Albert Einstein’s office at Princeton stated: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Much of what makes us fully human and capable of overcom­ing injustices—including our courage and solidarity—cannot be reduced to simplistic, verifiable, objective variables.

In American society, mental health treatment is a significant force that can work either for or against genuine democracy. There are approaching eight hundred thousand social workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists working in the United States today (though not all provide mental health services), as well as many mental health counselors and paraprofession­als. The US Surgeon General reported in 1999 that 15 percent of adults and 21 percent of children and adolescents in the United States utilize mental health services each year, and it is likely that these percentages have increased.

Whether they realize it or not, mental health professionals who narrowly treat their clients in a way that encourages compliance with the status quo are acting politically. Similarly, validating a client’s challenging of these undemocratic hierarchical modes is also a political act. I believe that mental health professionals have an obligation to recognize the broader issues that form a context for their clients’ mental well-being, and to be honest with their clientele about which side of this issue they are on.

When Truths Do and Do Not Set People Free

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.” In contrast with Martin-Baró, US intellectual activists have a considerable degree of free speech, and it requires no great heroism for US citizens to acquire their books or hear them speak and to discover truths.

Truths do sometimes set people free, especially when people have a basis of strength to start with. And truths can be especially energizing when, as was the case with Martin-Baró, proclaiming them takes courage. Similarly, Tom Paine’s truths in Common Sense energized many colonials to take action against the British. Paine’s readers had not lost their self-respect, community, and sense of power. Paine’s audience also knew that Paine was risking his life to write and publish Common Sense. The power of truth to energize often lies in the risk that it takes to state it.

Generally in the United States, telling the truth about corporate-government tyranny and injustice requires little real risk, and so such truths provide little energy. It is not that there is no value in exposing more truths about the corporatocracy. However, many professional activ­ists and educators have become lazy, pursing only easy, risk-free truths that are not energizing.

I wish my declaring the truth of people’s personal abusive relation­ships or the truth of their systemic corporate-governmental abuse were enough to set them free. I wish that the people I know caught up in this state of helplessness could be spurred to action by lectures—that would be an easy fix. But more often, lectures are a turnoff. What these victims of abuse need is the strength to do something with the truth of their abuse—strength that comes from support, morale, healing, and self-respect, as well as practical strategies and tactics.

The oppression faced by the Salvadorans whom Martin-Baró worked with was different from the oppression we face in the United States today, yet oppression need not be physically brutalizing in order to damage the bonds of community and people’s sense of self-worth. We would do well to reject a mainstream psychology that tacitly fosters compliance to the status quo. In contrast, we need a liberation psychology that promotes constructive rebellion against dehumanizing institutions and, at the same time, aims at building a genuinely democratic society. In the United States, liberation psychology needs to focus on the specific ways Americans have been pacified and demoralized. And it must focus on how we can be made whole again, so as to regain strength to fight for ourselves and our communities.

Liberation Psychology in Practice

My form of practiced liberation psychology stems from my clinical expe­rience. It is decidedly in opposition to resentment-producing coercions; it is about helping individuals and families build respectful relationships.

I have counseled hundreds of young people and adults who had been previously labeled with oppositional defiant disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, substance abuse, depression, schizophrenia, and other psychiatric diagnoses. What strikes me is how many of these people are essentially anti-authoritarians. A major problem for these young anti-authoritarians is that most mental health professionals who had previ­ously diagnosed them have no familiarity with political ideologies that far better characterize these teenagers’ thinking and behaviors than does any mental disorder.

The word anarchism is routinely used by today’s mass media synony­mously with chaos, but for philosophers and political scientists, anarchism means people organizing themselves without authoritarian hierarchies. Practical anarchism is not a dogmatic system and actually does not oppose all authority. So, for example, practical anarchist parents will use their authority to grab their child who has begun to run out in traffic. However, practical anarchists strongly believe that all authorities have the burden of proof to justify control, and that most authorities in modern society cannot bear that burden and are thus illegitimate—and should be elimi­nated and replaced by noncoercive, freely participating relationships.

A minority of the anti-authoritarian kids I have worked with are aware of anarchism and identify themselves as anarchists, perhaps having T-shirts with a circle drawn around an A. However, even among those adolescents who know nothing of the political significance of the term anarchism, I cannot remember one who didn’t become excited to discover that there is an actual political ideology that encompasses their point of view. They immediately became more whole after they discovered that answering “yes” to the following questions does not mean that they suffer from a mental disorder but that they have a certain political philosophy:
• Do you hate coercion?
• Do you love freedom?
• Are you willing to risk punishments to gain freedom?
• Do you distrust large, impersonal, and distant authorities?
• Do you reject centralized authority and believe in participa­tory democracy?
• Do you hate powerful bigness of any kind?
• Do you hate laws and rules that benefit the people at the top and make life miserable for people at the bottom?
There are different varieties of anarchism and there are different varieties of disruptive people, and these varieties are worth examining. One group of freedom lovers hates money, inequality, and exploitation of any kind. They reject a capitalist economy and aim for a society based on cooperative, mutually owned enterprise. They are essen­tially leftist-anarchists—“anarcho-socialists,” “anarcho-syndicalists,” or “anarcho-communitarians.” If they discover what Noam Chomsky, Peter Kropotkin, and Emma Goldman have to say, they identify with them. They have a strong moral streak of egalitarianism and a desire for social and economic justice.

Another group of freedom lovers also hates the coercion of parents, schools, and the state but, unlike these left-anarchists, they view capitalist markets as ideal for organizing virtually all aspects of society, and they lack an egalitarian moral streak. A political ideology that they can connect with is called “anarcho-capitalism,” “libertarian anarchy,” or “market anar­chy,” and some become fans of Murray Rothbard or Ayn Rand.

Anti-authoritarians also can be distinguished by their views on violence as a way of achieving their goals. While many freedom lovers adhere to nonviolence, others consider violence an acceptable tool and will physi­cally or psychologically victimize others to get what they want. Historically, the question of violence has sharply divided anti-authoritarians in their battle to eliminate unjust and illegitimate authority.

If a nonviolent anarcho-communitarian is dragged by parents into my office for failing to take school seriously but is otherwise pleasant and industrious, I tell parents that I do not believe that there is anything essentially “disordered” with their child. This sometimes gets me fired, but not all that often. It is my experience that most parents may think that believing a society can function without coercion is naive but they agree that it’s not a mental illness, and they’re open to suggestions that will create greater harmony and joy within their family.

I work hard with parents to have them understand that their attempt to coerce their anti-authoritarian child not only has failed—that’s why they’re in my office—but will likely continue to fail. And increasingly, the pain of their failed coercion will be compounded by the pain of their child’s resentment, which will destroy their relationship with their child and create even more family pain. Many parents acknowledge that this resentment has already begun to happen. I ask them if they would try to coerce their homosexual child into being heterosexual or vice versa, and most say, “Of course not!” And so they begin to see that temperamen­tally anti-authoritarian children cannot be similarly coerced without great resentment.

I work very differently with those anti-authoritarian kids who care only about freedom for themselves and have no problem victimizing others to get their way. These kids usually are initially receptive to me, especially when they hear my viewpoint on traditional schools. However, tension eventually enters our relationship when they hear my views on other matters, especially on the “soul.”

I may, for example, tell them that while I believe that they have not lost their soul, eventually people do lose their souls to the extent that they lie to others and to themselves, or to the extent that they act in ways to get the best deal for themselves without caring about the impact on others. Often these kids will ask, “What happens if we lose our souls?” I tell them that in our current economy, it is quite possible to be financially successful without a soul; but they will never have a friend whom they really care about, and so eventually nobody will care about them because human beings eventually stop caring about those who don’t care about them, and so they will have a friendless, loveless life. Sometimes this has an impact, sometimes not. Just like political activism, therapy may have an immediate effect, have a delayed one, or not work at all.

Activists and therapists need to have humility, especially with regard to their affection and respect—or lack of thereof—for those they are working with. If an activist or a therapist lacks such affection and respect, those whom they are working with will sense it and will likely be unre­ceptive. Humility also means accepting that one is not capable of being helpful to everyone, and having faith that somebody else, perhaps at some other point of time, may well be helpful.

Liberation psychology, in short, is about helping create self-respect, respectful relationships, and empowerment, and it is about helping people reject the role of either victim or victimizer.

8 Responses

  1. Wade Rhein
    Wade Rhein May 1, 2011 at 9:34 am | | Reply

    Thank You Bruce,

    As a dual diagnosis Alcoholic/BiPolar person who reflects on my own life events, I can clearly see an anti-authoritarian thread. After reading your piece I would label myself as anarcho-socialist. I have beaten myself up for many years, impotently railing against what is to me the unfair structure of the US.
    Nothing I’ve ever read nor anyone I’ve spoken with has conveyed the powerfully simple observations that you have here. I’ve added your website to my Bookmarks list.

    Thanks again, Wade

  2. bruce
    bruce May 25, 2011 at 9:20 am | | Reply

    fellow bruce, my wife is a psychologist and we talk sometimes about what it means to “help” people when what afflicts them is an inability to feel normal in a toxic world. There is so much contradiction in the corporate controlled world about what it means to be “normal”, “successful” or “happy” when people who are these things seem deviant to us and people who are struggling to be these things are becoming self destructive. I feel disheartened when I see that part of what it means to “treat” someone means only helping them cope with the world they live in. I agree that we cannot assume that the status quo means neutrality. It is a political act to “help” people normalize to the current system.

  3. Sandy
    Sandy June 24, 2011 at 10:04 am | | Reply

    What about this? Liberation Pedagogy?

  4. Kris Hughes
    Kris Hughes August 12, 2011 at 11:01 am | | Reply

    Bruce –
    Thank you for this article! As a young person, I was lucky to be sufficiently “intellectual” to identify the truth that many of my “problems” were caused by my philosophical and political opinions rather than by something “wrong” with me. I was also lucky to have sufficiently liberal and aware parents, who didn’t add to the burden of crap I received at school, but who could only look on with a pained expression when I wouldn’t play the game.

    This was in the 60s and 70s, though, when even in a small town, it was easy to find like-minded friends. As an adult, I still hold the same views but find it increasingly difficult to relate to today’s society, particularly living in a rural area. For many years I managed to make a great success of my life without giving it, however, I seem to have lost my mojo recently. Nevertheless, when I see the young people around me floundering in a sea of fear, apathy and fundamentalism I wonder what I can do to help them, and maybe myself, too.

    Any ideas?

  5. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth August 27, 2011 at 8:20 pm | | Reply

    I love this entry. I am a sociologist and have been anti-authoritarian my entire life. I escaped into the academy. I am struggling, however, with one of my children. My first child is an active critical thinker, but generally has a conformist temperament. However, I have a 3 year old who is just like me. I find much of it delightful (although not so much when he won’t sleep), but it is already causing problems in school. I find myself second guessing all the parenting techniques I used with my daughter that were really based on mutual understanding and building a relationship, not dominating her. 1. He is not as verbal as she was, so it is harder to get him to understand how to ask for what he wants and negotiate for it. and 2. because he is biracial, I am afraid of the social consequences for him and wonder if I shouldn’t try harder to get him to conform to social norms. My daughter was considered odd and some teachers actively rejected her because she asked for what she wanted instead of just taking what she was offered. That was hard enough (painful) to watch and cope with. But my boy has already been kicked out of preschool for not sitting still and not doing things the right way (and I chose it because they said the kids could choose their activities, lol). He is in a much better place that is more flexible and willing to teach him ways to express himself that don’t hurt others and he can play cars all day long if that is what he wants, but I know public school is not going to afford him this flexibility. I would love it if you would right more about helping our budding anarchists navigate the oppressive world without ending up in jail or expelled. My politics is conflicting with my desire to protect him and I would love to read more on how to manage this fear and guide him. I think you are spot on focusing on relationships, but a good many of his relationships will be with teachers who do not see themselves as being in a relationship with him. 🙁

  6. Michele
    Michele June 22, 2012 at 1:35 pm | | Reply

    I very much wish to align with liberation psychology theory. However, I cannot see the value in democracy for liberation. Democracy has failed in the United States. Despite the best efforts and intentions, the will of the people is overwhelmingly unheard and lacks power. I tend to see egalitarian ideals as having more potential for liberation. Democracy can become a form of mob rule or, as in the case of the U.S., has now bred an elite ruling class. Our democratic society contributes to the highest prison population in the world and counter-intuitive economic practices which have left millions homeless and unemployed, smothered in debt.

  7. Olive
    Olive April 3, 2013 at 7:22 am | | Reply

    Dr. Levine,

    I am no psychologist, although sometimes I wish I knew more on the subject. I did, however, have the honour and privilege of taking a course with Father Martín Baró, and I can bear witness of how the experience of Liberation Theology has directed my life throughout the years.

    Interestingly enough, I now find myself getting educated in psychology because of necessity. My daughter was diagnosed, at the age of eight, with severe ADHD, ODD and elements of CD. She’s soon turning 12, so it’s taken us a third of her life to come to terms with her behaviour.

    I have been trying to understand my daughter’s behaviour in terms of genetics, epigenetics, psychology, neuroscience, and even statistics. For the longest time, I have felt that my daughter’s diagnosis was not accurate, and that there’s something else in her that makes her be the way she is. She’s not getting better, but I have found that Buddhist meditation and yoga helps her. I am not against medication, but my experience is that true change only works when there’s love, and that pills are useless in the absence of love.

    I practically fired our first psychiatrist because all what she wanted to do was to give my daughter pills without addressing her human needs. I fired the second psychiatrist because he wanted me to put her in an institution where she could be ‘taught’ proper behaviour. This psychiatrist was also trying to address my ‘inadequacies’ because my parental style was too permissive.

    I can’t deny that I may be too lenient of a parent… I cannot force my children to do as I say only because I say so. Change can only come from within, and I have spent an inordinate amount of time explaining to my children why we should be mindful when doing things because what we do affect others. This process can be quite tedious and somewhat frustrating, but I think it’s healthier in the long run.

    I will take the time to read your blog and articles from now on. I don’t live in the U.S., but I can see how democracy deteriorates when freedom is stripped of its true meaning. You need to be free not just in theory or on paper, and not just physically according to the law, but psychologically as well.

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