Why I no longer wish to be associated with the BPS

Ex-member Kirsty Miller wrote with a letter; here, we explain what happened next.

On 25 August, we published a letter here from Dr Kirsty Miller, a psychologist based in Scotland [not, I must add, the Kirsty Miller who is Head of School at the University of Lincoln]. In it, Dr Miller described becoming "increasingly aware of the politicisation of the British Psychological Society, a shift that I feel is inappropriate for what is ultimately a governing body". She went on to discuss "a social justice agenda", "based on the notion that the way to address the historical suffering of certain groups is to give them preferential treatment in the here and now."

The decision to publish the letter was mine, made after consultation with the British Psychological Society's Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce and The Psychologist and Digest Editorial Advisory Committee. I explained the thinking behind that decision in the 'Editor's note' below, which I added not long after posting the letter online.

It was a mistake to not have provided some editorial framing to the piece at the time of publication. For that, I have apologised and I do so again. Since publication I have engaged with as many people as possible, by email / Twitter / phone, and I have been seeking to learn and understand.

The element of the feedback which troubled me most was that The Psychologist was providing a platform, the oxygen of publicity for racism and an author who, through her interactions on social media, was adding to the pain that Black and people of colour were already experiencing on a daily basis. Having observed these interactions on Twitter, and the author tweeting graphs of her personal website traffic with 'Nothing like a bit of outrage for your stats - thanks @psychmag', I have decided to delete Dr Miller's letter.

Again, this decision is taken by me personally, after consultation with the Taskforce, Committee and other Society members. Again, it is not an easy one: it does not sit comfortably with a 20-year career of seeking to provide a forum for communication, discussion and controversy. Dr Miller has not been censored or silenced; we published the letter, she had her say, and no doubt will continue to do so. But we cannot stand by and therefore become complicit in such behaviour. People's life experiences are not 'outrage' to be stoked. Freedom of speech cannot mean freedom of reach.

Just as I believed it was right to publish the letter, I now believe it is right to remove it. I have no doubt that some members of the Society and beyond will disagree with my course of action. As ever, I am available on [email protected] to listen and engage.

The comments posted by members in response to the original letter will remain towards the bottom of this page, and all Society members are welcome to log in and add theirs.

Dr Jon Sutton
Managing Editor

 

Editor’s note [the original]: As expected, this letter has sparked a significant reaction on Twitter. I therefore felt it worth adding a few notes of explanation.

Firstly, Dr Miller’s letter is not in response to our September edition [with its cover linked to this interview with Nasreen Fazal-Short, Chair of the Society's Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce]. Dr Miller and I have had exchanges regarding our content in the past, on Twitter and over email, and this was submitted before the September issue was produced.

Secondly, Dr Miller was until relatively recently a member of the Society. If that were not the case, I would have rejected the letter out of hand. As it is, I saw value in bringing these views out into the light, to emphasise that they are out there in our profession, on the edges of membership and, judging by my email inbox, within the membership too. They are not uncommon; Dr Miller is one of few willing to put her name to them.

I reject the argument that publishing the letter in any way provides the views with legitimacy. We are a stated forum for ‘discussion, communication and controversy’ among all members of the Society and beyond, and publication in no way represents endorsement of it. Readers are always encouraged to call out bigotry, and there is no responsibility on anyone to engage with debate over it. We were categorically not looking to encourage a 'debate' on the existence of racism. Racism has no place in civilised society, yet it is everywhere, and we must take a stand against it.

One reader suggested that this letter, and its publication, represents a step back. I agree. Perhaps that is one reason I was keen to publish: after our September issue outlined small steps in standing against racism, I think it’s worth showing a wide audience where that journey is starting from. As Nasreen Fazal-Short has suggested, this is going to involve challenging conversations, featuring a real range of voices, on inclusion and values more broadly.

Publishing was not an easy decision – the editorial team was split, and I sought advice from the Society’s Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce. Some members of the Taskforce advised me to publish, at this stage without response. That's not, as has been suggested on Twitter, a 'get out of jail free card'. The final decision is mine as Editor.

Since publishing, I have sought to engage with every tweet and email we have received. Nothing has appeared in print yet, and your feedback helps to inform our decision over whether to publish in the October edition. It pains me to see that some have found the publication of the letter traumatising, invalidating or discouraging. I know that I am in no position to fully understand that experience. We are trying to do the right thing, and considering all the reaction so far on balance, I remain confident that we have. 

In closing, I can only repeat my possibly naïve and increasingly folorn hope from the September editorial: that the Society can be the heat and light that draws us together. Twitter tends to reinforce heat over light, so anybody who wishes to continue the discussion with me is very welcome to do so via [email protected]

Dr Jon Sutton
Managing Editor   

Nasreen Fazal-Short, Chair of the British Psychological Society's Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce, responds following Twitter discussion: 

The British Psychological Society’s Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce were consulted on, and supported, the online publication of Dr Kirsty Miller’s letter. Alongside the Editor Dr Jon Sutton, and The Psychologist and Digest Editorial Advisory Committee, we have been reading the reactions on Twitter, engaging and learning. All of us, as Psychologists, need to be truly open to changing our minds by nurturing the capacity to keep thinking and reflecting. 

Members of the Taskforce and the editorial team do not share the views expressed in the letter. Many people in society, many of them Psychologists, do… and they are mostly hidden, rather than on display for others to comment on. We need to understand these ideas and where they come from if we are ever going to change humanity, to be less divisive and value everyone. Given the values we all hold in the taskforce, we cannot stop freedom to think and believe what you like. If we do, chaos has come to humanity.

We must truly embrace those we dislike and allow them to speak – even if it is hard to do so, we want them to stop and notice their impact on others. We know that our beliefs not being discussed openly can happen in many, many other contexts where Psychologists have power over vulnerable people in their care, and can damage people. There is no-one on Twitter, or The Psychologist, or the Taskforce, in those rooms to challenge these beliefs when they impact negatively on those most vulnerable in society. 

We understand that for many of our readers, this is not news to them; it is not an academic debate; it is not a learning opportunity. It is their lives; and there is significant trauma and emotional labour involved in reading and responding to such views. Airing them risks allowing racism the oxygen to breathe. But we cannot escape the reality that the profession, like society, is already on fire. Our job is massive, and only an open and collective response can douse the flames.

To those of you who form the next generation of Psychologists, who have reported being discouraged by this letter and the decision to publish it: We need you to be part of the discussion. To collectively think, debate and reflect. We know that humanity has the capacity to cause pain, by our beliefs, actions and even how we discuss these issues on social media. But remember that psychology has the power to do so much good for all humanity. Join in, keep talking to those who are different. We are all just scared humans, and we have so many more important things to do than fight each other. The Society can be the heat and light that draws us together in standing against racism, and in fighting for inclusion in its broadest sense.

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Comments

Largely agree; it's unfortunate to see the tone of recent communications from the BPS. It's possible this reflects the views of the majority of members, but personally I doubt this. 

I’m afraid I need to take a contrary position to Kirsty Miller, as her letter includes not only some inaccuracies, but also additional misunderstandings around ‘science’ and the remit of the BPS.

Given it is the better part of a decade the British Psychological Society (BPS) has been replaced as a ‘governing body’ by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), it is clear Dr Miller has not kept up with organisational shifts within psychology. The BPS is actually a registered charity, with the expressed remit of promoting ‘excellence and ethical practice in the science, education and application of the discipline.’ Given racism is clearly a harmful and unethical practice, it is apparent the BPS are only (and at last!) addressing what is part of both their remit – and their ethical responsibility.

If there is indeed a diversity of opinion about racism – and some members would prefer to either harbour or espouse racist views – then the BPS clearly has a responsibility to provide ethical leadership and guidance on this issue, given the damage, trauma and yes, murder, that racism fuels. (To represent the prolonged public killing of yet another black man as a ‘BLM furore’ comes across as dismissive of the value of black lives.) Value statements are an essential part of the BPS stated  guiding role – if psychology does not value human life and experience, what good is it?  And why has there been no protests about the ongoing various ethical guidance put out by the BPS, across a range of areas, such as research etc.,  – given this is clearly just another instance of continuing that recognised organisational practice?)

Secondly, as a clinical psychologist of over thirty years and CBT trained via the Beck Institute in America, I can state categorically it’s not raising social justice issues that promotes ‘mental illness’ – but it’s the avoidance of addressing these issues, which actually propagate and perpetuates racial trauma and mental ill-health. (And there is plenty of ‘hard’ evidence out there, see Dinesh Bhugra, Nimisha Patel, Suman Fernando's work, etc.)

As a white, male, senior lecturer on a couple of clinical psychology training courses over the past twenty years – okay, so I’m not a professor – I have seldom had difficulty contradicting or disagreeing with anyone, irrespective of their background. I attribute this largely to making sure I listen properly, first and second, that I check my (white male) assumptions for my own ‘blind’ spots – as well as seeing this as an opportunity to learn. It has become heated, in some cases, but the more you sit with it, the easier it gets, and the warmer (not scalding) the conversational ‘fire’ feels.  It helps to have a good colleague supporting you with this – I am indebted to my former colleague Nimisha Patel, for helping scaffold this over the past five years (I am recently ill-health retired). We have found that the more (and the earlier) these issues are addressed, the more cohesive the entire diverse  teaching cohort can eventually become.)

Finally, as for Dr. Miller’s assertion about  psychology abandoning ‘science’ I am mystified as to what view of science she is promulgating – there is indeed accruing evidence for all she cites and wishes to dismiss, but obviously there are also groups who have (unconscious, in some cases) vested interests in debunking these issues too. However, these are living and painful experiences for the majority of the world’s inhabitants and to dismiss their experiences out of hand, is a form of ontological erasure – yet another hidden, unacknowledged act of ‘scientific violence’ (colonial science was full of this – see Saini, 2019).

The ‘real’ nature of science is that it’s a messy human enterprise, done by people with often hidden assumptions that taint their findings; objectivity is impossible with human agents and actors  – yet science’s main strength is when it is open to conversing and learning from alternative findings (and viewpoints). That way it can start bridging competing theories and build towards some degree of ‘verisimilitude’ (as Popper called it, i.e. an approaching of ‘truth’, given our limited perceptual-cognitive architectures.) That is science – and the people who do ‘it’ - works best when it stays with the hard conversations and/or seemingly intransigent problems – and finally learns from the ‘othered,’/or disparate data – rather than leaving groups/data, and avoiding the hard work.

I  certainly think as psychologists we need to learn to listen more, especially to marginalised/silenced and minority (world-majority) voices, who have often not been given ready platforms – and to be willing to actually listen (and learn).

I for one am glad the BPS has finally decided to grasp this unpleasant nettle, which has no place in our profession. It has long been time to act. 

 Saini, A. (2019) Superior: The Return of Race Science. 4th Estate.

 Dr Nick Wood

Hi Nick. Thank you for expressing so articulately what so many of us feel. I was on the verge of leaving the BPS because of the chronic failure to address these issues. Now I will stay because I feel certain that the organisation has recognised and understands how vital this is to our integrity. Best wishes, Annie

I'm in agreeement with you Annie, and Nick.
This is absolutely what I wanted to see and read as a response - the position taken by Kirsty in the original letter is one borne of ontological mis-steps and misunderstanding - whether that is intentional or not is not for me to say, but in holding a position such as one that clings to empiricism (or what is read in that way)  there is a failure to understand the shortcomings of what that ontology perpetuates and how there is historical precident in using that form of research in a manner to maintain punitive imperial systems and attitudes to non-westerners - when these outcomes have been proven time and again to be demonstrably false and biased, or politically motivated.    

Dr. Wood, 

I just wanted to say thank you for expressing so clearly what I too feel with regards to this. 

 

I share these concerns and would appreciate a consultation of all members in regard to this. I would loathe to leave the BPS as I have been a member for 20 years. If the consultation of the membership finds that the majority of members agree with the current stance of the BPS then those that do not can decide how they wish to respond. Please can the BPS respond?

Just add, the BPS needs all opinions to inspire important debate. It would be a tragedy if members left due to disagreements such this. Debate is heathy and the opinions presented thus far are all interesting and thoughtful. A possible way foward would that members are asked to sign (or not) BPS statements in the future. I feel it is imperative that we encourage debate amongst our members and also maintain mechanisms by which members can voluntarily add support to postions. 

This article lacks the acknowledgment of how colonial ideas and influences have always underpinned the workings of this discipline. In fact, BPS commitment to social justice represents an attempt to tackle this systemic issue. The points raised in the above article only further illuminate how deeply entrenched the biases are for some within the profession.

As highlighted by Dr Nick Wood in his response, the BPS has a responsibility to acknowledge and to be accountable for action for change on this issue. Psychology is the study of human experience and behaviour. There is absolutely no way to understand these phenomena in a vacuum detached from the very real, significant and often life threatening social and political experiences of those humans. A fundamental skill that any psychologist needs is empathy. A lack of understanding of the impact that social inequalities have on disadvantaged individuals is therefore not in keeping with the profession. So yes, it is indeed very important that the BPS speak out and take a clear stand on issues of social justice.

Although I understand that publishing divergent views is important so we avoid living in silos, keep an awareness of alternate viewpoints, and of course demonstrate how far we still have to go to achieve social justice, it was initially very concerning to see this published without being addressed by the editorial team. I am pleased to see that the editor has now rectified this, explained their position in relation to the alarming viewpoints laid out in this article and clarified the decision making process around publication. I think it is also important that the editor has gone some way to acknowledging the harm that this letter may have caused. It is essential that we not ignore that the content of this letter may have been distressing and traumatic for some. We must think about balancing the need to highlight areas where work still needs to be done, whilst not elevating harmful voices.

We still have a lot of work to do.

Just by way of a 'PS' - as psychologists, we have a professional responsibility to the people we work with. A core ethical demand of our practice is to do no harm. Racism is overwhelmingly harmful and no psychologist can ever have the 'right' to abuse others - anti-racism is thus clearly non negotiable, and can never be up for debate, or a 'vote'. The BPS and HCPC have a responsibility to ensure this is eventually well embedded within the profession.