Psychologists are not immune to the forces of our time, especially polarizing influences. We are bombarded daily with “staked out” positions on multi-media outlets. But as experts in human behavior, we have resources: our scientific knowledge and attitudes, our organizational and clinical acumen, and our capacity to take a longer-term perspective. We can use them to reflect upon how these influences affect our everyday lives.
One area that needs more thought by all of us is the impact Internet communications have on our APA community.
The Internet Age brings us knowledge, fun, information, networking and instant communication. It has introduced new demands too, such as the expectation of instant responses to an always full mailbox. But it has also brought us outrage — a phenomenon that strains the fabric of our professional relationships in APA when controversy is endlessly looped online.
E-mail is, of course, a valuable part of our professional culture, but it is not the place to debate complex and sensitive issues, as John Freeman writes in “The Tyranny of E-Mail: the Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox” (Scribner, 2009). No. 1 on Matthew Moore's list of 50 Things that are Being Killed by the Internet is the art of polite disagreement.
We've seen a lot of negative e-mail discourse in recent years as APA has made decisions and released reports that have triggered controversy among our members. Although every APA action receives thought and care through the association's transparent governance and vetting procedures, several APA reports have been hotly contested. They include APA's report on abortion and mental health, which found no credible evidence that a single elective abortion of an unwanted pregnancy in and of itself causes mental health problems for adult women; APA's report on sexual orientation change efforts, which concluded there is insufficient evidence to support the use of psychological interventions to change sexual orientation; and APA's report on same-sex marriage and parenting, which found no research evidence to suggest these couples should be denied marriage rights or joint and second parent adoption rights.
We also saw heated disputes over APA's stance on the role of psychologists in interrogations, proposed changes to the APA model licensing act and the proposed seating of the four ethnic-minority psychological associations on the Council of Representatives.
Of course, not everyone will agree with what the majority has found, no matter how open and inclusive the process is. That is to be expected. The difference is that in the new age of outrage, criticism on these issues quickly escalated to unwarranted heights. In 24/7 instant communications, extreme voices dominate. Moderate voices are lost in the noise.
People do not object to change per se, but they do fight loss. In trying to make changes in a large umbrella organization like APA, with many constituencies, we must realize that if people perceive a loss in trying to do things differently, they will push back. Tensions about loss are often expressed via e-mail as outrage.
I see four elements converging online to strain the collegiality within APA: conscience (we psychologists often raise issues we care most passionately about — a good thing, generally); impulse (some respond quickly to messages that present only the sender's opinions, without having balanced information that might affect one's responses); the civility gap (some post rude and demeaning messages aimed at those with whom they disagree); and viral distortion (a small number perpetuate shocking misrepresentations about APA's actions, policies and procedures).
The effect on APA is damaging when members and the public believe the distortions. I think we can address the issues surrounding our communication and relationships successfully if enough of us care to do so. How? Not by creating more rules. Not by conjuring up a Patronus to shield us from the Dementors. Let's turn down the temperature on outrage. Our differences matter, but our common goals matter more.
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