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.