The documentaryEnlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray, shown at film festivals last year and broadcast on CNN a couple of months ago, is now available from Netflix, where it is certain to reach a much wider audience than Svend Brinkmann’s Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, a new book from Polity. But they came to my attention within a few days of each other and now seem linked. Let’s start with the film.
James Arthur Ray was at one point regarded as a rising star in the world of self-transformation, giving lectures and workshops on how to escape emotional pain, reach your full potential and so forth. Self-transformation is a crowded field and a competitive market. The pool of potential customers is constantly replenished (the human condition disappoints a new batch daily) but so are the ranks of self-help authors, life coaches and other varieties of freelance sage. Until about 10 years ago Ray had only a middling success. Then he came to the attention of Oprah Winfrey and was asked to appear on her program to discuss the life-changing wisdom of a book and film called The Secret, which teaches the importance of thinking positive thoughts while also taking care to avoid thinking negative thoughts. I’m not clear if there is more to it than that, but it seems the universe is compelled to turn those thoughts into reality, somehow.
Ray seems to have had a telegenic and plausible manner and was invited back by Winfrey, at which point the universe started coming across for him in a big way. He filled auditoriums and wrote a book that reached the New York Times best-seller list. Clients were willing to pay thousands of dollars for Ray’s weeklong marathons of intensive paradigm shifting. One of the more demanding features of these retreats was a sweat lodge. Attendees packed themselves into a restricted, tentlike space for long periods, breathing steam until it felt like their lungs were on fire. Ray’s claim to be following a Native American spiritual practice ought to have been viewed with skepticism: shamans do not traditionally get paid per head.
The obvious potential for disaster was finally realized in late 2009, when three sweat-lodge participants died and 18 more ended up in the hospital. Ray was convicted of negligent homicide and spent two years in prison.
Enlighten Us tells this story while following Ray after his release from prison, as he seeks -- against very long odds -- to re-establish himself professionally. It may sound appalling that he even tries. But the documentarians are quite effective in letting him rationalize his effort to stage a comeback, trying to convert his prison experience into a teachable lesson in the power of positive thinking. The cringe factor comes in large part from the gradual revelation that Ray is not really malevolent, just incredibly obtuse -- shallow all the way down, the power of positive thoughts inuring him to any sense of guilt or responsibility for a needless loss of life. As far as James Arthur Ray is concerned, the three deaths were a learning experience, at least for him.
The sweat-lodge calamity must not have made the news in Denmark, where Svend Brinkmann is a professor of general psychology and qualitative methods at the University of Aalborg. Otherwise he surely would have mentioned it as a cautionary tale in Stand Firm, first published in Danish in 2014. James Arthur Ray embodies the very cultural trend that Brinkmann wants to resist:
The buzz all around us is about development, change, transformation, innovation, learning and other dynamic concepts that infuse the accelerating culture …. The upshot of this is that most of us are easy marks for all sorts of guidance, therapy, coaching, mindfulness, positive psychology and general self-development. In spheres like diet, health and exercise, a veritable religion has emerged that constantly churns out new edicts to follow and regimes to live by.
The mention of an “accelerating culture” driving the self-transformation craze comes from Brinkmann’s use of the social theory of Zygmunt Bauman, who died in England in January. I wrote about Bauman’s work in this column a while back and will forgo trying to boil it down any further now. Suffice to say that for Brinkmann, we are under pressure to be flexible, adaptable and affirmative toward the constantly changing and unpredictable demands that Bauman analyzed under the heading of “liquid modernity.”
You go with its flow, or else. “If you can’t stand the pace,” Brinkmann writes, “… the prescribed remedies are coaching, stress management, mindfulness and positive thinking.” And that’s just the short list: the coping technologies are just as subject to flux as anything else in liquid modernity. Brinkmann is not content to identify trends and complain about them, however, and recommends something even older than sweat lodges as well as considerably safer: the doctrines and practices of the Stoic philosophers.
Where positive visualization is preached nowadays (think of all the things you want to achieve!), the Stoics recommend negative visualization (what would happen if you lost what you have?). Where you are now encouraged to think in terms of constant opportunities, the Stoics recommend that you acknowledge and rejoice in your limitations. Where you are now expected to give free rein to your feelings at all times, the Stoics recommend that you learn self-discipline and sometimes suppress your feelings. Where death is now considered taboo, the Stoics recommend contemplating your own mortality on a daily basis, in order to nurture gratitude for the life you are living.
With tongue in cheek, he presents a seven-point plan for how to stop changing yourself and just get on with life. Despite the parodic gesture, Brinkmann is perfectly serious about trying systematically to undermine grandiose expectations regarding the self’s mutability, efficacy and entitlement. There is a dignity that comes with acknowledging limits; that is Brinkmann’s point in brief.
While reading Stand Firm, I thought of interviews with some of James Arthur Ray’s adherents in the documentary. They recalled how they discovered him while “ready to reach the next level in life” or to “go beyond everything that’s been holding me back.” They all seemed to have reached a fairly comfortable position in life (enough so to spend up to $10,000 in search of whatever wisdom they thought Ray had to teach) and it was hard to tell what they hoped to transform themselves into, exactly. Brinkmann’s book would seem to suggest they might not know that themselves, but some of them died, pointlessly, trying.
Professors at U of Wisconsin at Madison hope to find a way to revolutionize teaching, helping teachers find out exactly how their students learn and the best ways to teach subjects students may struggle with.
A few hours after last week's murder of a television reporter and her cameraman in Moneta, Va. -- broadcast live, as it was happening, on a local morning news program -- the killer released his own video. Evidently recorded with a digital camera carried at eye level, it puts the viewer in his place as he walks towards his victims. Once at point-blank range, the gun in his right hand enters the bottom of the screen, moving unsteadily for a few (very long) seconds, taking aim and firing.
The killer made sure this unsettling document went public via social media. Before long, someone had combined it with footage of the shooting as it had aired on television to create a synchronized split-screen record of the event, like a scene in a Brian De Palma movie. I've read about this mash-up but not seen it, and won't, and will refrain from speculating on why anyone considered it a potential worth realizing. (Watching the TV clip and the killer's point-of-view video on the day of the shootings left me feeling morally compromised enough, thank you very much.)
But the whole obscene spectacle echoes a number of points made by Franco Berardi in Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, published by Verso this spring -- a book I have considered discussing in this column for a couple of months now, while also wanting to avoid it for reasons that the author himself would clearly understand. “Crime, mass murders, suicide -- these are not subjects for a good-natured guy,” he writes. “I’m not a morbid person …. Nevertheless, at the end of summer 2012, I started writing this text almost in a state of rapture, half-consciously, dragged by a sort of excitement and curiosity, and primarily driven by the perception that here, in these dark subjects, there is something peculiar to the spirit of our time.”
The author, who also goes by the nickname Bifo, teaches the social history of communication at the Accademia di belle Arti in Milan and worked with Radio Alice, the now legendary pirate radio station that broadcast in Italy during the mid-1970s. (He gave an interesting interview about Radio Alice in 2010.)
The summer of 2012, when Berardi started writing the new book, was also when James Holmes opened fire on the audience of a late-night screening of a Batman film in Aurora, Colo., killing a dozen people and wounding many more. Holmes entered the theater wearing paramilitary gear (gloves, gas mask, helmet, etc.) and a number of survivors remarked that their first thought was that he was engaged in a publicity stunt or some kind of fan role play. One patron resorted to a cinematic reference to describe the scene after Holmes opened fire: “The guy looked like the Terminator. He didn’t say anything. He was just shooting and shooting and shooting.”
Berardi followed the news, struck by the idea that Holmes “wanted to eliminate the separation between the spectator and the movie; he wanted to be in the movie.” And in that regard Holmes belongs to a subset of the spree killers of recent years -- those who document themselves, leaving behind diaries, written or video, as well as detailed explanations for why they are doing what they do. They don't just kill people at random and then, usually, themselves. They prepare press kits first. (Holmes did not kill himself, but suicide by cop seems at least a very probable outcome of any such incident.)
Other cases Berardi writes about are Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine killers, and Seung-Hui Cho, who massacred 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007. But the phenomenon is not strictly American, and Berardi also discusses Pekka-Eric Auvinen, who killed eight people and himself at his high school in Finland, and Anders Breivik, who massacred 77 people in Norway.
The book might well have included Elliot Rodger, who recorded a smirking rant on video and circulated an interminable autobiographical statement called “My Twisted World” before killing six people and himself in Isla Vista, Calif., last year. And now we have Vester Flanagan, also known as Bryce Williams. His innovation went beyond merely explaining himself (he faxed a lengthy suicide note after the shooting), by giving the vast, anonymous Internet public his point of view on the crime, in as literal a sense as possible.
In calling his book Heroes, Berardi is both indulging an especially dark sense of irony and pointing out something at least as horrifying as the crimes. “Roaming in the blogosphere,” he says, “I read texts of young students who declare to be admirers of [Seung-Hui] Cho because they feel the same hatred for the bullying that they have endured for years.” From a little supplementary roaming, one learns that Cho expressed admiration for the two Columbine killers -- while Vester Flanagan paid his respects to all three in his suicide note.
Only parts of the written and video communications Cho sent to NBC News were made public at the time -- a decision that Berardi guesses was made “because they sounded too much like a frightening manifesto for the frail people of the precarious generation, a call to explosive suicide launched to all the lonely young nerds of the world.” Clearly the effort at containment did not work, and today no gatekeeper can prevent the killer’s statement from circulating in full and immediately.
But overt bullying of the traditional sort -- the harassment and torture, verbal and physical, of one’s peers -- forms only part of the experience of shared misery that Berardi considers. more pervasive are the strains of precarity (a labor market geared to temporary work, without benefits and even the minimal continuity of personnel that makes friendship or sociability possible) and of constantly being drawn into the digital vortex:
“The individual is a smiling, lonely monad who walks in the urban space in tender continuous interaction with the photos, the tweets, the games that emanate from a personal screen. The social relation is transformed into a cabled interconnection whose rules and procedures are hidden in the coded linguistics of the web.” (Think of the like button on Facebook as an example.)
The point here is not, of course, that YouTube and instant messaging have spawned robotic psycho killers programmed to avenge themselves on society by going on suicide missions. Berardi’s larger point is that most of the suffering involved never reaches the point of exploding into violence -- and when it does, the violence tends overwhelmingly to be self-inflicted. In a classic sociological study, Emil Durkheim characterized some forms of suicide as anomic, resulting from feeling disconnected from or unnecessary for social life. But anomie is the new normal. “According to the World Health Organization,” Berardi writes, “suicide is today the second cause of death among young people, after car accidents, which is often a disguised form of suicide.” He also cites a report from WHO that indicates a 60 percent increase in the suicide rate over the past 45 years.
The resentment, narcissism, scapegoat seeking and rage of those who use mass media and mass murder to remind the world that they exist are pathological. But they are also, in Berardi’s analysis, extreme forms of “a paralysis of empathic relations and an increasing fragility of the common ground of interpersonal understanding [that] are becoming common features in the psycho-scape of our time.”
An empirical-minded social scientist would probably dismiss all of this as so much impressionism and speculation. But it reverberated in my head after seeing Vester Flanagan’s video a week ago, and I’m all too certain that won’t be the last time.
Last week, an independent investigation of the American Psychological Association found that several of its leaders aided the U.S. Department of Defense’s controversial enhanced interrogation program by loosing constraints on military psychologists. It was another bombshell in the ongoing saga of the U.S. war on terror in which psychologists have long served as foot soldiers. Now, it appears, psychologists were among its instigators, too.
Leaders of the APA used the profession’s ethics policy to promote unethical activity, rather than to curb it. How? Between 2000 and 2008, APA leaders changed their ethics policy to match the unethical activities that some psychologists wanted to carry out -- and thus make potential torture appear ethical. “The evidence supports the conclusion that APA officials colluded with DoD officials to, at the least, adopt and maintain APA ethics policies that were not more restrictive than the guidelines that key DoD officials wanted,” the investigation found, “and that were as closely aligned as possible with DoD policies, guidelines, practices or preferences, as articulated to APA by these DoD officials.” Among the main culprits was the APA’s own ethics director.
Commentators claim that the organization is unique, and in some ways it is. The APA’s leaders had the uncommonly poor judgment and moral weakness to intentionally alter its ethics policy to aid their personal enlistment into the war on terror. Then they had the exceptional bad luck to get caught.
Yet the focus on a few moral monsters misses a massive, systemic quirk in how the APA -- and many other organizations -- creates its code of ethics. The elite professionals who are empowered to write and change an ethics policy have tremendous influence over its content. But ethics policies are anonymous because they have force only to the extent that they appear to represent the position of an entire organization, not a few powerful people. The process is designed to erase the mark of those heavy hands who write the rules for everyone.
The APA’s current scandal may be new, but its problems on this front are decades old. The APA passed its first comprehensive code of ethics in 1973 after seven years of work by six top U.S. psychologists who had been appointed by the APA’s leadership. I have examined the records of this committee’s work housed at the Library of Congress and recently published my findings in Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. The men were given an impossible task: to write a code that represented the ethical views of all psychologists and at the same time erase their own biases and interests. The effort was prompted by worries that if the organization neglected to regulate itself, the government would do it for them. “President Nixon is moving rapidly in this area,” one psychologist at the time put it. “Behavioral scientists must stay ahead of him or we will be in big trouble.” Among the troubles they were facing within the profession was how psychologists could continue to be employed and funded by the U.S. military and not appear to break the profession’s ethics policy -- precisely the contradiction that resulted in APA’s current imbroglio.
In an effort to appear democratic and transparent, the members of the 1973 ethics committee collected survey responses from thousands of psychologists and interviewed key stakeholders in the profession. Psychologists reported back with descriptions of activities that ranged from callous to criminal -- research with LSD, government-backed counterinsurgency efforts, neglect of informed consent. Still, the six psychologists had to boil down an ocean of responses into an ethics code that purported to fit with all psychologists’ needs and perspectives -- which included their own.
At the height of the Cold War, scores of psychologists painted a picture of a profession rife with secrecy and dodgy funding sources. They specifically told of military research that appeared to require an abdication of ethics. “These are seen as highly necessary studies,” one psychologist reported regarding research he did for the Defense Department. “Unless the research is highly realistic, it will not provoke psychological stress and hence will be useless.” In one study, the human subject was led to believe he was in an underwater chamber. “The subject sits in this chamber and performs specific tasks at an equipment console. If water rises inside the chamber one of the controls is supposed to exhaust it. At first the control operates. Later, however, if fails and the water gradually rises higher and higher around the subject’s body.” But the human subject was not really underwater and the psychologist was in control. “It is the practice to stop the experience at various points for different subjects, depending upon the amount of excitement they appear to show at different water levels.”
Studies like this were hotly disputed among psychologists at the time. Some felt that being deceived or hurt, especially by an authority figure like a psychologist, fundamentally damaged people. Humans are fragile, the line went, and can be psychologically scarred by psychologists themselves.
Yet the six members of the 1973 ethics committee were skeptical. The committee's leader, Stuart Cook, found the position implausible based on his own experience as a researcher and in his early training as a student. “When I was a subject I expected to be deceived; I knew that performance under stress was an issue,” he reflected. After talking with colleagues about the trade-offs of tighter ethics for psychologists, Stuart delivered the punch line: “We should cut down our obligation to fully inform."
Another ethics committee member, William McGuire, regarded the “fragile self” view as ludicrous in general and its main (female) proponents ridiculous in particular. McGuire had made a celebrated career studying persuasion -- largely funded by the U.S. government in light of its Cold War concerns about political indoctrination. McGuire is a good example of how the ethical views of the policy writers did not stray far from their own personal stakes in ethics policies. “My feeling is that the field must face up to the fact that there are a lot of moral costs in psychological research and that this can be done only by going through two steps,” McGuire told a colleague. “The first step is to admit, well, all right, there is something morally bothersome about many aspects of the research including leaning ever so slightly on people to get them to participate, or especially misleading them about the nature of the research even in minor ways, using their behavior or behavioral traces without their explicit consent, etc. But going through this first step frankly and admitting there are unpleasant aspects of the research does not mean that we cannot do it. On the contrary,” he continued, “it is necessary to go through the second step and decide whether the reasons for doing the research outweigh these reasons for not doing it.” This view fit tidily with support of military research using stress, deception, drugs and other contested methods.
In 1971, the committee published a draft of the ethics policy they had created to gauge APA members’ responses. When a few of the ethics committee members considered taking seriously the complaints from that large faction of psychologists who raised concerns about the laxity of the draft ethics code, McGuire threatened to quit. “It seems to me that there has been a change in mood in the committee in a somewhat conservative direction, which surprised me a little bit and made me worry lest I might have fallen out of tune with the other committee members,” he explained. “I do want to mention that the committee members had moved in a direction and distance that I had not quite anticipated so that perhaps I would be perceived as holding back progress or being an obstructionist.”
Instead, William McGuire, Stuart Cook and the four other psychologists stuck together and ushered in an ethics policy that corresponded to their own research needs and interests. The final version of the 1973 ethics code, for example, eased restrictions on psychologists’ use of deception that had appeared in earlier drafts. The final policy allowed researchers to lie -- for the sake of science -- despite the loudly announced disagreement from many psychologists that deception, stress and other forms of harm, however temporary, could do long-term damage to people and deserved to be controlled through the APA’s code of ethics.
In 1973, as in events leading to the APA’s current crisis, the organization’s ethics policy bore the marks of the handful of psychologists who were empowered to write the rules. Like anyone, they had their own political and scientific interests in the content of the ethics policy. But unlike others, and to a varying degree, they managed their own interests by changing the policy to suit their interests.
In recent weeks, critics have rightly and roundly condemned the current APA leaders who are at fault in the recent scandal. But it is misguided to think that the APA’s problem of professional ethics can be solved by throwing out a few exceptionally bad apples.
Next month, thousands of psychologists are meeting for the APA’s annual convention. They will have plenty to discuss. It is clear that some leaders behaved condemnably -- perhaps criminally -- and three have already been forced out. Yet continuing to castigate individuals alone misses the larger problem.
The APA’s current ethics mess is a problem inherent to its method of setting professional ethics policy and a problem that faces professional organizations more broadly. Professions’ codes of ethics are made to seem anonymous, dropped into the world by some higher moral authority. But ethics codes have authors. In the long term, the APA’s problems will not be solved by repeating the same process that empowers a select elite to write ethics policy, then removes their connection to it.
All ethics codes have authors who work to erase the appearance of their influence. Personal interests are inevitable, if not unmanageable, and it may be best for the APA -- and other professional groups -- to keep the link between an ethics policy and its authors. Take a new lesson from the Hippocratic oath by observing its name. The APA should make its ethics policies like most other papers that scientists write: give the code of ethics a byline.